Most Powerful Women

How to make an old career new again

April 23, 2013: 12:50 PM ET
Bonnie Hammer

Bonnie Hammer

NBC Universal's Bonnie Hammer has been doing what she does—building cable TV networks—for 26 years, which is long enough to know that at a point, the slog of a career can ease and work can turn energizing again. Hammer, who built SyFy and USA Network and recently moved up to chairman of NBCU's (CMCSA) entire cable entertainment group, talked about this notion of belated reward on Monday, when she accepted a 2013 Matrix Award. After the lunchtime gala honoring top women in media and communications, I emailed Hammer, No. 33 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list, and asked her if she would let me publish an edited portion of her speech. She was happy to share. After riffing on career beginnings (marked by excitement and "a desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves") and mid-life ("agendas creep in...stakes get higher...the universal pressures of family and finance"), she went on to explain the ideal evolution...

If you're lucky…REALLY lucky…something else interesting happens. To describe it, I'm actually going to use a football analogy.

Since my husband played football in college (with the broken down joints to prove it) and my son's a die-hard Jets fan, I've got a multi-generational perspective on a subject obsessively discussed around my house.

So I've heard...

That when quarterbacks are in the prime of their careers and they talk about why they become better as they get older, they say it's because the speed of play seems to slow down in their mind's eye and they're able to focus only on what's important.

Knowing WHEN to change a play.

Knowing WHO should get the ball.

They also develop an intuitive sense of when a BIG defensive lineman is about to flatten them.

Most impressively, they are able to do this quickly and decisively. I'm told that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two of the oldest quarterbacks still playing (if you can call 37 old), get rid of the ball a half second faster than their peers.

I know I will never be able to throw a perfect spiral, nor thankfully, will I ever be called on to do so.

But I can relate to the idea that over time, you develop an intuitive, big-picture sense of what's happening on the field.

You know what play to call...

You know when to keep running...

And you know when to get rid of the ball...

Before you get sacked.

It's all about tuning out the noise…

Tuning out ALL the stuff that simply doesn't move the game forward.

The doubt...

the personal agendas...

the often deafening fear of judgment…

And the need to please.

So that you can ultimately get to that place of quiet, of calm, where you can focus on what really matters.

I've found that once you're able to do that, something else resurfaces --

The enthusiasm…

the passion…

the excitement for the business…

and the pure, untarnished joy you felt as a rookie.

I know that T.S. Eliot didn't have quarterbacks or TV executives in mind when he wrote the following lines. But they capture the point perfectly:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started...  

And know the place for the very first time. 

Now, for someone who's been on the field as long as I have, it's great to feel like a rookie again.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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