Alumni Profiles

How to Reinvent Your Life

Carol Van Den Hende

Carol Van Den Hende is no stranger to reinvention.

After earning an engineering degree from Rutgers, Van Den Hende entered a career in digital technologies. Then she earned her MBA to pivot to brand marketing. Now, she’s leading digital transformation governance for Mars, Incorporated. Along the way, she has moved to China (and back) with her husband and their twins. She’s taken on volunteer roles as a climate reality leader and a board member for a school for kids with autism. At the same time, she’s built a second career as a public speaker and award-winning author whose focus is on resilience, hope and, yes, reinvention.

Van Den Hende’s most recent novel is Goodbye, Orchid, and it speaks—not coincidentally—to the power of human adaptability. The book was inspired by Van Den Hende’s own life.

“The origin story… comes from a place of needing to adapt,” she says. “One of my twins was going through a really hard time, and my husband and I were so focused on trying to figure out how to help him. In what felt like a very dark moment for me, I turned to writing as a place of solace.”

As the words flowed from her fingertips, Van Den Hende found herself inspired by news stories about combat-wounded veterans. “These are soldiers who have been trained physically and mentally to go off to war really strong. And then when they’re combat-wounded, they fall so far. What inspired me was the strength and resilience that they demonstrate to get back to ‘good,’” Van Den Hende says. “It gave me this hope that we can ‘get back to good’ even if we’re in a dark place.”

While the characters in Goodbye, Orchid aren’t wounded veterans, they do face life-altering circumstances that challenge them to adapt. Just like so many of us do in our daily lives.

For those looking to make a move, big or small, Van Den Hende says it’s important not to put “artificial barriers” on how you’re thinking about your potential. “Reinvention is about being willing to explore other parts of yourself—things that you might feel passionate about and things that you can pursue,” she says.

Here are seven of Van Den Hende’s tried-and-true strategies for embracing change:

Start by staying open to change.

“[Always] be open to opportunities,” Van Den Hende advises. “And when they come to you, be open to listening and thinking about whether they could be a good fit. The big changes [in my life] have been quite organic opportunities, and my willingness to be open to them and then going for it is what led them to be successful.”

Recognize that choices are not life sentences.
“I think it can feel so daunting—this idea that ‘I have to pick a path,’” Van Den Hende says. “Sometimes I speak to high school students, and they feel like this decision they make—what major they pick, what college they go to—is going to dictate the rest of their lives. And that’s not the case. A choice is not a life sentence. It’s a choice that will lead to interesting things, which can lead to other interesting things.”

Clarify your “why.”

“Why do you do what you do, beyond the obvious profit or functional purposes? [That] question helps crystallize a lot [of things for me],” Van Den Hende says. “And that clarity absolutely helps drive my work at my company and outside of my company. We all have finite time. This question helps me decide where to apply that finite time in a way that I think is most impactful—that can result in positive societal impact, that can be consistent with my values.”

Consider future regrets.

Another question that has helped Van Den Hende navigate big decisions is this: What would I regret more? “That [question] helped me see the long gain: Would I regret either trying something that seemed hard—and maybe failing—or would I regret more taking the safe route and never knowing what I might be capable of? I’m so happy I took what seemed like risks at the time—which have really been rewards.”

Maintain a strong support network.

“Have the appropriate network around you,” Van Den Hende advises, “so you can find and rely upon the people who are going to make a difference, who are going to be trusted advisors, who have had experience in this path to provide perspective and to provide wisdom and mentorship.”

Also look for how you can be that support to others. “We gain so much wisdom as each decade passes,” Van Den Hende says. “The amount that we’re able to share and give back grows, and it’s not even linear; at this point it feels exponential [for me]. I think there’s more and more we can give back and more and more to look forward to.”

Believe in your ability to grow.

“I have a lot of faith in humanity, and I think everyone has so much potential and capability—and we should believe in that in ourselves,” Van Den Hende says. “We need to be our own advocates and believe that we can have the capability to do new things, to learn new things.”

She adds that she didn’t always feel that way. “I think that if you’d asked my 21-year-old self, ‘Could I do all these things [in my life and career]?’ I would’ve probably not believed it. But in fact, many skills are quite learnable,” Van Den Hende says. “People can seek out all types of information and all types of mentors. There’s just an incredible wealth of resources now.”

Consciously cultivate optimism.

“Even when things are hard, I’m always thinking about what can make them better,” Van Den Hende says. “It’s not a Pollyanna-ish optimism. It’s not like [I’m] not seeing any of the ills in the world. But I’ve always had a very strong sense of agency to move toward things. And I’m much more motivated by that than moving away from things—like avoiding things or being afraid of things. I think it’s much more powerful to say, ‘Well, this is a possible future, and why don’t we try to build toward that possible future?’ I think we all have that power to use our good toward making the world a better place.”