We Plan, God Laughs

Life- and work lessons from Marissa Mayer.

“I’m half Finnish. My mom is all Finnish,” said Marissa Mayer from the Women in Technology Forum main stage in Helsinki, her mother and cousins among the audience.

As a young girl Mayer had a plan. She’d go to Stanford. She’d study biology and chemistry, enter medical school and become a pediatric neurosurgeon. She’d live in Boston or Chicago. But almost none of it happened, she said. “Life happened and opportunity came knocking.”

Mayer says her philosophy changed by meeting a postdoctoral researcher at science camp named Zoon. Zoon gave them brain teasers and riddles. She was fascinated by Zoon. And she never forgot how someone at camp described Zoon’s strengths: It’s not what Zoon knows, it’s how Zoon thinks. The phrase stuck with her.

Fascinated by Zoon’s world, she decided to follow her passion. She gave up medicine and studied symbolic systems – how people reason, learn, and express themselves. It lead her to computer science, and the realization of an important life skill: Knowing when and how to change your plans. And that you can.

On the stage of Women in Tech, she shared some other advice with participants:

  • Follow your passion, not your plan.
  • Choose one of the good choices and make it great. (There are lots of good choices. Rarely are you confronted with a right and a wrong choice. She learned this after receiving 14 job offers after graduating Stanford. She chose Google because she felt that’s where the smartest people worked.)
  • Surround yourself with smart people. They challenge you to think.
  • Do something you aren’t ready to do. (Like moving to Zurich to do research when you don’t speak the language. Like joining a company with a name like a punchline. Like taking a job as CEO when you’re only 37 years old.)
  • Focus, focus, focus.
  • Innovation is a muscle. (If you exercise it, it gets stronger.)
  • Passion is a gender-neutralizing force. (“I’m not comfortable focusing on gender. Too much focus hurts women. I’m a geek in tech, not a woman in tech.”)
  • Design thinking applies to everything. (Everything at Yahoo had to be redesigned. They took 50 apps to seven to push past the one-billion-user mark.)
  • Know when to change your plan.


Text: Scott Diel
Picture: Salla Merikukka / Merikukkanen
Owner of the photos: Technology Industries of Finland