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J&J’s Denice Torres: ‘Your past does not define you’

Thursday, October 1, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Johnson & Johnson's Denice Torres shared her personal story of pursuing happiness.

The keys to happiness at work and home are living life as your authentic self, practicing kindness and maintaining an attitude of gratitude, Denice Torres, co-chair of Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, told a sold-out crowd of 1,200 industry leaders at the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 1, in Dallas.

Torres, who also serves as president of Johnson & Johnson's, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, shared her personal story of seeking happiness as a multicultural gay woman, high-powered executive and mother of special needs child. Her experiences growing up in Gary, Indiana, once known as "the murder capital of the U.S.”; being educated in a Catholic school that didn’t prepare her for the rigors of high school; and working summers as a janitor in a steel mill offered life lessons that helped her create a meaningful, fulfilling life, she said.

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"All of these experiences taught me a few things,” Torres said. "One, was ‘run like hell.’ I had two motivators to run: Where could I possible go — how far and what could I do — and fear — what if I didn’t [try to go as far as I could]? We all have those two emotions in us. "One week we’re like, ‘I should get promoted. It’s ridiculous I’m not getting promoted. The next week, we’re thinking, ‘I hope I’m not fired.’

"I’ve also realized your past does not contain you, control you or define you. It can, however, ignite you beyond measure.”

Torres began her career as a lawyer. Unhappy working in a law firm, she earned her MBA and started another career in business at a large company — and still felt she didn’t fit in. "I struggled with the sadness of how do I connect? Why can’t I find a place where I can use my gifts? Why do I feel alone and isolated?”

Coming out to her family helped free Torres to be her authentic self. "I was trying to be [someone else], trying to fit in the norm through dress, the words we use, how we show up. We’re told if you can wear a suit and makeup and dance on one leg and spin a plate, you can make it to the top — but how many things can we change ourselves? We all want to celebrate ourselves, but that starts with self-acceptance.”

Torres offered this advice for women and men grappling with career decisions: "A lot of times you need to go through rough patches to get to the other side,” she said. "Don’t give up too soon. But don’t confuse that with settling! Settling will rob you of so many of your super powers. Because when we settle for long periods of time, we stop believing in ourselves and being on fire and then we’re just existing.”

All careers have ups and downs, she said. "During the highs don’t get so excited — enjoy what you have — but with humility. Humbleness is one of the best jackets you can put on. We’re all special. Kindness and giving back and making a difference — those things stand out.”

During the low times, remember, the situation won’t last forever. "It’s just for today,” she said. "Tomorrow can be different. And the more highs and lows you go through, the stronger you become.”

When her daughter was born at 30 weeks with a hearing impairment and cerebral palsy, she learned an extended life lesson. "When faced with adversity, you can go down a few different paths,” she said. "You may think, ‘This sucks’ and ‘Why me? This is bull and I’m the most unlucky person in the world.’ Or you can be numb and try to fill the hole with other things, like drinking. Another road is ‘I’m pretty damn lucky.’ That is a conscious choice. I just feel gratitude that my daughter is alive.

"We don’t choose many of life’s events, we choose how we react to them. Choose gratitude.”

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