Last August I was at a landfill site in So Paulo, Brazil. It had been a dump where people sorted through garbage looking for valuable items so they could put food on their tables.
Through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, that dump was transformed into a recycling center. Items are sorted and recycled by the same people—only now they’re employed.
I talked with them, and many said they feel they have meaning in their lives because they’re helping save the planet by recycling these materials. They are helping the whole planet. Their stories were inspirational to me.
As I reflected on that experience, I’ve thought about inspiration and how important it’s been for me to receive in my life.
When you look up inspiration in the dictionary, it says to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence. That’s an academic description, and it doesn’t do justice to what we know, from the scriptures, inspiration really means.
Doctrine and Covenants 11:13 reads, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy.”
Inspiration causes us to think or do something we wouldn’t otherwise do, and being inspired is different from receiving inspiration.
We can be so much more than we ever imagined if we allow ourselves to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord. He wants us to be successful, and He gives us inspiration that causes us to do things we wouldn’t have imagined for ourselves.
I’d like to share some lessons from my life when inspiration has led me down a path different than I ever imagined.
I was raised in Salt Lake City, the second of six kids, in an LDS family. I had a happy, easy childhood. I didn’t really make any big plans for the future because I didn’t think about the future.
I can remember a summer night around 2 a.m. My sister and I set off the smoke alarm frying donuts because, well, we felt like donuts. My mom came in, and rather than yelling, she joined us, and we had a lovely donut-making party in the middle of the night. Growing up in that creative, unstructured environment gave me a high tolerance for ambiguity. I’ve found I don’t need a ton of structure in my life.
It took me a while to come to that conclusion. I’m supposed to have a plan, right? I found I didn’t need that structure. What I needed was a support network.
Lesson One: Surround yourself with people who encourage you.
My husband and I first met working for an airline while we were students at the University of Utah. We dated for two years because I had a drive to finish college. I told him, “I love you, but you’re not going to mess up my ability to graduate.”
We got married the day after he graduated, but I still had six months to go. He worked full-time until I finished, and then I worked full-time while he attended grad school.
When he had earned his MPA from the University of Utah, he said, “Okay, now it’s your turn.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that in his mind, that was the fair thing. I did all that work for him to attend school, and now he wanted to do the same for me.
So I came to BYU, went to my first MBA class, and was very intimidated. Because I wasn’t a business undergrad, I had never taken a business course before. I thought I was the stupidest person there.
I’ll never forget coming home that first week and telling my husband I was totally in over my head. I didn’t know if I could be successful. But that night I committed that every single day I would know I’d done everything I could do. “And then if it doesn’t work out for me,” I thought, “I will know I’ve tried my hardest and won’t have any regrets.”
Lesson Two: You might be surprised what you can accomplish when you do your best.
The first semester I thought I was flunking out. At the end of the semester, I called to get my grades: six As and one A-. I actually thought they were wrong—it seemed like there was no way I could have done that well. But it was true!
I’d never pushed myself like that before. If I would have believed what I was telling myself at the beginning of the semester, I might not have stuck with it. I gained so much confidence from that experience. I knew if I worked hard I could accomplish things I didn’t even know were possible.
When it came time to figure out what I wanted to do going forward, I didn’t have a master plan. Marketing seemed interesting, and PepsiCo was a great company that hired one marketing student every year. I decided I was going to get that job.
One of the other students—and I’m sure he didn’t mean it personally—asked how I could consider taking a job away from a man who needed one?
He and many others thought I was just getting an MBA for fun, entertaining myself until I was going to do what I was supposed to do. That affected me. I thought, “I’m going to show them I deserve this job and that I deserve to work.”
My husband was very supportive. When I landed the PepsiCo job, he followed me to Pizza Hut headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. And two years later, when Pizza Hut operations moved to Dallas, he quit his job again to support me.
There were a lot of struggles early on because people were telling us how things were supposed to be. When you had kids, you were supposed to stay at home. You were not supposed to send your kids to day care.
Then I had an epiphany. As my husband and I were taking a walk with our two little girls, I realized that when I went in for my temple recommend interview, they didn’t ask me if I worked or sent my kids to day care. That gave me permission to do things a little differently.
Lesson Three: Don’t get too specific—there might be something bigger waiting for you.
After five years at Pizza Hut, I transferred to Frito-Lay. My dream was to get into brand management, but I went through the restaurant division to get there.
Before I changed positions, I had to sit down with the CEO and tell him why I was quitting, which was a very intimidating experience. I told him I wanted to do five years in a restaurant and then move to consumer-packaged goods to give me a good foundation.
After listening to me, he said, “You’re overthinking your career. Career management is like waiting at a train station. A train stops and you decide whether to get on or not. If you don’t get on, you wait for the next train.”
I thought he was being a little cavalier, but he had a lot more experience than I did at the time. He got me thinking, though.
At the time, I honestly had exceeded my expectations for my life. I decided I needed to open myself up for inspiration of what I should be doing and not stick with my own agenda. And that was the last time I had a plan, frankly.
In order to get that first job in brand management, someone had to take a chance on me. I didn’t have that type of experience and was nervous about how well I would perform. I remember I’d just been promoted to director when I got an email from an employee who was asking a question. Wanting to make sure I was following protocol, I wrote a long email asking my boss what he would like me to do.
Luckily, before I hit send, I stopped and thought, “That’s what he hired me for. In fact, I can make all these decisions.”
Lesson Four: You don’t need to get permission for as much as you think you do.
Fortunately, that realization became a hallmark of my career. In fact, I launched Tostitos Scoops! when I was nine months pregnant—my son loves that he’s the same age as Tostitos Scoops!
We shot an ad with a bunch of basketball players—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Dominique Wilkins—and they were uncomfortable watching this enormous pregnant woman sitting there with her feet up. But I didn’t need permission to shoot that ad. It was my product, and I was going to be there.
I actually got promoted to vice president while I was on maternity leave. That just doesn’t happen, right? But it can. I learned it’s all about delivering the results—even if you get things done a little differently than they expect.
The first day back from maternity leave with my third child, I had to go out of town for a week. While I was gone, my husband slipped a disc in his back. He needed surgery and had to spend time at home recovering.
One day during that period, I came home from work and he said, “I want to stay home with the kids.” That was something I could never ask him to do, but it seemed natural for us.
He’s been a stay-at-home dad now for eleven years, and he loves it—most of his friends wish they could get the same gig.
Sometimes I get the Primary president running over when they teach the Proclamation on the Family lesson, saying, “Your child raised his hand, and I don’t think he understands.” And I say, “Oh, he understands.”
Lesson Five: The Lord will guide you.
Truthfully, I don’t know what I’m being prepared for now, but I know that is why I’ve been given these opportunities.
At work, I sit near an amazing woman. She has worked in high levels of government and has traveled the world rubbing shoulders with influential people.
One evening she called me out of the blue looking for help: she and her husband weren’t happy with their nanny.
“This is someone who is influencing our children,” she said. “We decided we want somebody like you, Andrea. Can you find us a Mormon girl to be our nanny?”
The fact that this woman, whose world is enormous, wants an LDS girl to nurture her children is proof of the influence we can have when the Lord is leading us.
My advice to you as you’re making big decisions is to be open to inspiration about what you need to do and where the Lord wants you to serve.
Doctrine and Covenants 78:18 reads: “Ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours.”
Inspiration is there to help you get through challenges, make big decisions, and deal with feelings of discouragement—like those I felt the entire first semester of grad school.
We need to be prepared to follow the inspiration the Lord gives us. In return, He promises that doing so will give us true happiness and joy in our hearts. He has a plan for each of us. And if we’re in the right place to receive inspiration and are willing to make the sacrifices, we can do what He asks.
Article written by Andrea Thomas
Illustrations by Tim Zeltner
About The author
Andrea Thomas is senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart. She previously served as vice president of global chocolate for Hershey Foods Corp., vice president of retail marketing and promotions for Frito-Lay, and director of new-product marketing with Pizza Hut. In 2006 BusinessWeek named her one of the Top 25 Global Champions of Innovation. Andrea earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah and her MBA from BYU. She lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, with her husband and three children. Her kids are active in sports, so you will often find her taking pictures at softball, baseball, or football tournaments and at cheerleading competitions.