Why Marketing Exec Bozoma Saint John Wants You to Be More Selfish in Every Aspect Of Your Life

Marketing executive Bozoma Saint John never saw herself as the type to air her personal troubles out at the office. Then she got the call that her husband Peter Saint John was dying.

In that moment back in 2013, as her mother-in-law instructed her to come to the hospital, she wasn't aware of the specifics—namely, that doctors had told her partner of more than a decade his cancer was terminal—just that he'd received some news. "I didn't know what in the hell she was going to say," Bozoma shared in her exclusive interview with E! News, "but I knew it wasn't going to be good."

In a daze, PepsiCo's then-head of music and entertainment marketing walked into a colleague's office. "Under normal circumstances," the mom of 13-year-old Lael continued, she would never. "You feel like you're oversharing, because TMI. But it just felt like there was no option. I really hit the bottom."

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Thankfully, her coworker offered a necessary lift.

"He was empathetic. He was nurturing. And he was kind and encouraging," said Bozoma, sharing that since that day she's vowed to live her life out loud, being honest about everything from very intense personal struggles to the fact that, no, she cannot make a 9 p.m. meeting with associates in Hong Kong "because I've got to actually be present for my kid."

Bozoma Saint John
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It's just one of the lessons the businesswoman is offering in her new book, The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, detailing the wisdom she took away from a series of losses: A college boyfriend to suicide, daughter Eve shortly after her premature birth and then her husband, who valiantly battled an aggressive form of lymphoma. (As you might imagine, she's not a fan of wasting one single second of the life provided to her.)

Of course, the entrepreneur who's held lofty positions at Apple, Uber and Endeavor before serving as chief marketing officer at Netflix has a few tidbits of career wisdom as well. (Spoiler: Being selfish isn't a negative character trait.)

In honor of International Women's Day, she scripted answers to all of our burning questions—both personal and business.

On being open about your hardships

"I can't tell you how many times I've been on a Zoom call and somebody's apologizing for their crying kid or they got sick and they're like, 'I'm so sorry, I'm sick.' It's so taboo to talk about the things that are happening to us personally in the professional space."

"And it is a trauma to our mental health, to our stability to continue on this road of perfection as if nothing ever happens to people. Or as if we're supposed to leave the things that are happening at the door. As if that's possible. Why do we ask people to do that?"

"I have applied a lot of things I learned in the book to my life and one of those is being very, very open with my colleagues, with my bosses about things that were happening that would impact the work. I'm a better leader because I have great empathy. I didn't become a widow and a single mom and someone who's lost somebody they loved to suicide and not be empathetic. For me, there's a real need and a real opportunity for all of us, especially as leaders, to show up more vulnerable, more human, so that other people can do that too."

On her top piece of business advice

"Be selfish. They tell you that you shouldn't be. They're lying. Be completely selfish about your ambition, about your drive, about what is going to grow you. And don't wait."

"You think that you owe it to somebody. Because the way that our society is set up, it makes you feel like if you are bold, you're arrogant. If you have a strong voice, you're aggressive. If you have a strong opinion, ooh, don't let the B word stick out. And so they counsel us to be humble, put your head down, do the work, somebody will recognize you. Where is that person? You keep getting passed over. Nobody is recognizing you with your head down, not saying anything."

"The loyalty is to yourself, not to any other person and not to a company. For anyone who's coming, when they tell you that you have to wait your turn, tell them you're gonna jump to the front of line and don't stop."

Black Women Who Inspire Us Daily, Bozoma Saint John
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On what she's learned from experiencing so much loss

"The biggest lesson is just not to waste time in anything. Sometimes when you talk about death it can feel so morbid, it can feel sad and it can feel scary. But I actually see it as very inspiring to think about how I'm living my life with the idea that this could come to an end. The quote that I use at the beginning of my book by Diane Ackerman is one that articulates it best for me. You don't want to get to the end of your life and just have lived the length of it. You want to live the width of it."

"All of our working out and drinking water and eating salads and all of that, we just want to add years to our lives. But who cares about the length of your life if you haven't lived the width of it? If you haven't lived fully?"

Bozoma Saint John
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On how grief has changed her perspective

"The problem with grief is that it just makes you look backwards all the time. And what I have discovered is that you're not actually grieving what you've lost in the past. You're actually grieving what was supposed to come in the future."

"When my husband died and I was grieving for my daughter's loss of her dad, I didn't grieve for the four years that they spent together. I was grieving her at 16, missing her dad. I was grieving her on her wedding day. I was grieving for her on graduation day."

"We're often able to look at that stuff and say, I wish I could go back and do those things again. It's like, no, actually, you wish you could do them now, you wish you could do them tomorrow. That's what we're grieving."

"And so when I look at it that way, I'm like then we do have some power to change what the future looks like. If I want to love again, if I want to be married again, if I want to go down that path, I have the power to do that. So my grief is that, yes, I lost my husband, and I won't have him in the future. But it doesn't mean that I have to be without love."

On knowing when it's time to leave a job

"If you don't feel like it's growing you and it's purposeful for you, then you've got to get out of it. When people ask, like, 'Why did you leave that job?' And, 'Don't you think you should spend more time at a place?' I'm like, 'No, no, of course not.' If I'm done growing there, I need to move. If I'm not appreciated there, I need to go. Why waste my time? I want a wide life, full of really amazing experiences."

"Why are we so comfortable in our unhappiness? For you to try and pursue the thing that's going to make you happy is not a risk. I want us to feel more passionate about life. And the way that you know that it's time to move, is when you start to feel that ickiness, that feeling that says, 'In six months, I'm going to start looking for something else.' As soon as you have that thought, you need to move right then. Or if you have the Sunday night scaries? Oh, Lord, don't let Monday come and you're still sitting there doing the thing."

Bozoma Saint John

On living boldly

"There has never been a job I've left that mentors or friends and family have applauded. They've always counseled me that I should be careful. That I should be more modest, more concerned with my reputation. And I don't know that they counsel men like that."

"That guy? He's a risk taker. He's a leader. He's out in front. You try to do that as a woman, and people are like, 'Oh, girl, don't you think you should take it easy?' Or, 'You don't want to get there and then find that you've made a mistake.'"

"Even when I moved to a job that didn't work out—I would say that my experience at Uber feels like that to me. But at the end, it still was a great thing for me, it put me on the map in tech. But nobody said, 'Oh, yeah, you should leave Apple and go to that disaster of a company, Uber.' Nobody said that. If I had been a man, they'd be like, 'Oh, he's a risk-taker. Bold. Adventurer.'"

Bozoma Saint John, Lael

On the lesson she hopes to leave her daughter

"I want her to be the main character in her own story. I want her to, of course, live her life urgently. But that requires that she's at the center of her life. So I want her to see me doing that, be unapologetic, in the way I live. So that she can see that it's possible. That when she is valued, she remains. When she's not, she gets out."

"At the end of my book, I talk about the Japanese art form Kintsugi which is when a pottery or plate breaks. It's putting it back together with gold or silver or some other precious metal. So it doesn't look like it did before exactly, because you can see all the cracks in it. But the cracks are gold. So it's a new piece of art."

"And so I want my daughter to see me for the beauty of my brokenness, for the things that have happened to me, but that I am a new person. I'm not the same old person I was. I'm not the mom to her that I was before her dad died. But I am a new being and even more beautiful. And that she can be too."