3 ways successful people navigate changes in life, from Melinda French Gates: Learn ‘the value of embracing uncertainty'

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The only constant in life is change — even for a billionaire like Melinda French Gates.

"I think a lot lately about transitions," French Gates, 59, said during a commencement speech at Stanford University on Sunday. "You don't get to be my age without navigating all kinds of transitions. Some you embraced and some you never expected. Some you hoped for, and some you fought as hard as you could."

Some of those changes were beginnings, she said: starting her career at Microsoft, falling in love, having children, building a portfolio as a philanthropist. Others were more jarring, like losing one of her best friends to cancer, ending her marriage or stepping down from her role as co-chair for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which she ran for years with her ex-husband Bill Gates.

For anyone who's currently facing changes in their life and career — or wanting to get ahead of future curveballs — French Gates shared three "lessons" about how highly successful people navigate uncertainty.

Practice 'radical open-heartedness'

Embrace moments of change — whether they're exciting, frustrating or tragic — with an open heart, French Gates advised.

"During a transition, we step out of our familiar surroundings into a big, wide open space where everything is new," French Gates said. "There are two ways to encounter these spaces. You can keep your head down and focus on finding the shortest distance possible from one familiar thing to the next. Or, you can find the courage to linger in that liminal space and see what it has to tell you."

Many people prefer to keep their head down and power through the uncertainty, French Gates noted — including herself, when she was younger. "I had a list of goals I wanted to accomplish, and as soon as I checked one off the list, I raced across the clearing to the last one. It was a lot easier that way," she said. "But as I got older, I learned the value of embracing uncertainty."

If you struggle with adapting to change, try reframing your thinking, clinical psychologist Kevin Antshel told CNBC Make It in 2020: Instead of saying, "Starting this new job is so scary," tell yourself, "I can't wait to learn and grow in this new role."

"That, to me, is practicing open-heartedness," French Gates said.

Find your 'small wave'

French Gates recounted a short story from spirituality author Ram Dass: There were once two waves in the ocean, one big and one small. Noticing the other waves crashing on the shore, the big wave got worried, warning the smaller one that the end was near.

The small wave reassured the big one, saying, "You're not [done for]... You aren't a wave. You are water."

The story resonated with French Gates: Frequently, she didn't know how she'd overcome her battles, but she had a loved one beside her to encourage her.

"In the early days of my career, that person was a colleague named Charlotte. From the moment I got to Microsoft, I absolutely loved the work we were doing, but as time went on, I realized I didn't love the culture," she said. "It was brash and aggressive, and that wasn't me."

"Eventually, I reached a point when I thought maybe I could leave the company. And like the big wave, I thought things were coming to an end for me," French Gates continued. "But Charlotte helped me see things differently. She was a little older and had a little bit more experience, and she'd already figured out how to navigate the culture there without losing her own identity."

Gates' advice to young professionals: Cultivate your relationships. Find someone trustworthy and knowledgeable to be your "small wave," and do your part in encouraging others.

'Build a web of deserved trust'

French Gates' final piece of advice came from the late Charlie Munger, who served for many years as vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

"Charlie famously said that the highest form which civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Totally reliable people, correctly trusting each other," she said. "What a thing to aspire to."

"As a society, we aren't always set up to feel responsibility for the person who's next to us or the person who's on the other side of a divide or a debate," French Gates added. "But we need each other. No matter who you are, there will be moments in your journey when you need to be carried or when someone else will need you to carry them."

French Gates urged Stanford's recent graduates to create "strong and reciprocal" bonds with other people, even if they disagree on issues big or small.

"You are graduating into a broken world, but it is community that rebuilds things," she said. "Together is how you'll make the broken things whole again."

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