Interview: Polina Marinova and her secret to success - outwork everyone else

"To be great, you need to work hard. To be respected, you need to be trustworthy. To be happy, you need to take control of you." - Polina Marinova

I don’t think you all realize how nerve-wracking it is for me to give a profile of one of the best profilers (Polina Marinova) in the media industry. I’m not a journalist or reporter, but I’ll give it my best shot today. My hope is that this profile of an insightful, successful woman - who continues to break glass ceilings - resonates with you, the reader. And perchance this article presents itself to you at a moment you crave a glimmer of hope, allow her story to provide you a light at the end of the tunnel.

We’ll cover the following:

  1. Introduction

  2. Interview with Polina - 8 key questions

  3. Call to Action


Introduction

We all move through life, searching for meaning. Some search for the meaning of life, while others search for our meaning in life. However, as with all great trips, our individual journey for meaning eventually veers off-course and recalculates a more liberating path towards our unique destinations.

In the past few years, my search for meaning took an early exit off the highway of prototypical monetary ambition and onto a scenic, deserted backroad - the Liberty Route. Coined in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin, the new journey focuses on my achievement of positive liberty (i.e. self-determination; freedom from irrational fears/beliefs; finding your creative renaissance) and negative liberty (i.e. freedom from external obstacles or constraints, such as from debt or that corporate job you are reliant on to make a living; etc). We’ll cover these concepts more in-depth in a future article.

It’s a messy road. And it requires plenty of tears, honesty with yourself, and a recalibration of who you are, with who you want to be, and with who society needs you to be. For example, during my self-exploration, I have realized that I filter the world through inexplicable, intuitive decision-making. Unfortunately, like some kind of defense attorney, I tend to rationalize this intuition by labeling it under various wrappers of mental frameworks, behavioral psychology, or some other more readily-accepted justification. But, in reality, a part of my positive liberty journey was to realize that my childhood struggles through abject poverty and dysfunctional family, social and educational environments, helped form who I am today: a holistic conceptualizer, driven by an ethos of empathic capacity to feel deeply and help society.

So, imagine my delight when I was granted the invaluable opportunity to interview Polina Marinova, founder and author of The Profile - a popular newsletter featuring long-form stories of successful people and companies.

Polina’s personal story is what most of us imagine the American Dream to be. As a Bulgarian immigrant to the United States, she held resilient through language barriers and social isolation, and managed to earn a prestigious journalistic career (at a young age) working for the likes of CNN, USA Today, and Fortune Magazine.

A brief biography of Polina:

  • In 2000, her parents won a Green Card lottery and moved to Atlanta (she was 8 years old).

  • Polina had to learn English by reading children’s books and through the helping hand of a 4th grade teacher (shoutout to Ms. Jackson) who saw her potential.

  • She attended North Springs High School, where she began to follow in the footsteps of her parents, who were both chemical engineers, by studying biochemistry and organic chemistry. TL;DR: She hated it.

  • It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that she entered her creative renaissance, discovering her love for research and journalism. She earned her way up to become the Editor-in-Chief of the renowned, The Red & Black Newspaper, at the University of Georgia.

  • After college, she became Community Manager at USA Today, then a Producer at CNN, reporting on feature articles on fitness, dating and working from home.

  • After CNN, she was Social Media Editor at OZY, before a 5-year stint as Editor at Fortune Magazine, covering entrepreneurship and venture capital.

  • In 2017, she sought to tie her identity to her own name, and launched The Profile, a weekly email newsletter curating the best in-depth company and human profiles on the internet.

Polina is driven by freedom of speech and giving people a voice - whether it’s the stories of the successful people she covers, or her Profile readers (of whom, she consistently requests their feedback).

Now it’s time to hear from her voice. Enjoy the interview.


Interview

  1. Obi: “You write often about the need for originality and how you truly achieved freedom once you stopped worshipping at the altar of conformity and conventional wisdom. I can’t think of a more original story than a female, Bulgarian immigrant to the United States, who started her journey with zero knowledge of the English language and ended as a transcendent writer, editor, and entrepreneur. Oh, and by the way, breaking glass ceilings all along the way. Can you talk about the trials and tribulations you have experienced in your life and the successful strategies you employed to overcome them?”

Polina: “Moving to the United States definitely wasn’t easy, but it was the one experience that has taught me so much about the power of resilience. In Bulgaria, I loved reading books. When we moved here, it killed me that I had to suddenly work to read a single sentence. I knew I had to work twice as hard as my classmates to do my homework and get good grades, but it taught me that anything is possible as long as you want it badly enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that we’re not entitled to anything in this life. To be great, you need to work hard. To be respected, you need to be trustworthy. To be happy, you need to take control of your mindset.”

  1. Obi: “There are many root causes to critical issues affecting society today. One of them are these misplaced ideologies of strength, such as polygamy, misogyny, mansplaining, and more. As we know, these things lead to fatherless children, gender wage gaps, and other societal sores. What are your thoughts regarding this mindset, particularly as it relates to gender inequities in the world of business?”

Polina: “I think our society is evolving to understand that “strength” encompasses so much more than physical strength. To me, strength means having emotional resilience and being able to get back up after falling multiple times. Misogyny and mansplaining are for people who feel incredibly insecure in their identities so they feel the need to put other people down. That’s not strength. That’s actually a form of incredible weakness.

When I was at Fortune, I was lucky to attend The Most Powerful Women Summit. Hundreds of powerful female CEOs, startup founders, and executives convene to discuss everything from leadership to political issues to sparking change in business. I'm convinced it's the best conference out there.

Personally, I've always admired Sara Blakely because she built Spanx into an empire, and she did her own way — with no business background, no connections, and no outside funding. With role models like this, I'm optimistic that more women will go into business and build massive companies.”

  1. Obi: “One of my favorite frameworks for execution: ‘Be so good that they can't ignore you.’ As a Black man in corporate America and entrepreneurship, I’m almost required to follow this framework as gospel. What are some of the strategies and tactics you utilized to land your first role at Fortune, and then elevate your profile (no pun intended) with minimal experience?”

Polina: “Just outwork everyone else. That’s always been my motto. In so many areas of life, I’m aware that I might not be the smartest, most talented, or the one with the most experience. But what I do know is that I likely have a higher capacity for work than anyone in the room. At Fortune, I interviewed CEOs, founders, and high-power investors. I used to get intimidated until I realized that I’m in control of how my work turns out. So even though I wasn’t a reporter with decades of experience, I was able to rely on the fact that I would do my research, put in the work, and ask smart questions on behalf of my reader.

The truth is that doing anything in life requires dedication, commitment, and relentless persistence. People often ask me, “Aren’t you afraid someone can just replicate The Profile?” And the answer is no because I know how many hours I put into making it great week after week, and I just don’t believe that can be replicated.”

  1. Obi: “At Fortune, you wrote thousands of articles and had a unique crash-course in the world of venture capital and entrepreneurship. What legacy do you feel you left behind with your former colleagues and millions of faithful readers?”

Polina: “I hope the legacy I left behind is one of consistency. I hope my coworkers and the readers who read my work knew they could trust me to be reliable. For two years, I sent a morning newsletter every day, and I followed through on my promises to meet deadlines. I’ve learned that the only way you can earn people’s trust is by consistently keeping your word and delivering on what you’ve promised.”

  1. Obi: “Do you have any specific, practical advice that can help guide the next Polina who may be reading this? What mentors and professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways?”

Polina: “I’m not associated with any professional organizations mainly because I wholeheartedly believe the best way to learn is to seek out individual people whose paths you admire. A great exercise is to ask yourself: “Who’s the person living my dream life?” Identify that person, research their early life, and figure out how they got to where they are today. We’re really bad at predicting our future happiness, so I’d recommend reaching out and asking them pointed questions to determine whether this is really a path you want to follow.”

  1. Obi: “Have you heard of the framework acronym “F.O.R.M” (Family, occupation, recreation, motivation)? It’s supposed to be a great way to balance one’s focus in a world full of distractions. With your busy schedule, how do you balance your F.O.R.M?”

Polina: “My occupation is my motivation, so those two are baked into the essence of why I get up every morning. For recreation, I take at least 30 minutes to exercise every day — whether it’s running, yoga, or going on a walk. It allows for a nice break in the middle of my day to get away from technology and clear my head. And finally, family is incredibly important to me. We have a finite time on this Earth, and so do the people who are most important to us. I call my parents every day, and FaceTime with my family in Bulgaria every Saturday. No matter how busy you are, if you carve out little pockets of time for the things that are important to you, you’ll get it done.

I’ve always believed that if you’re so busy that you can’t make time for the essentials like family and exercise, then it means you’re just bad at managing your time.”

  1. Obi: “Let’s talk legacy. Apologies for the dark analogy, but imagine you are standing in a graveyard looking at your own tombstone. What epitaph would you like to see written on it? Begin with “Here lies…”

Polina: “Here lies someone who made the world just a little bit brighter.” I say “brighter” because sometimes bringing light into someone’s day can make it so much better. We often take life very seriously, and things can feel so heavy at times. But I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a smile. In the darkest moments, surrounding yourself with people who can lighten the mood can be life-changing.”

  1. Obi: “Final question - what’s next in your career? Television? Podcast? Government office?”

Polina: “I don’t plan for the future anymore. Every time I do, things pan out quite differently. A lot of people had grand plans for 2020, and then coronavirus happened. All I know is that I’m going to continue to work on The Profile and learn from the readers who make up this amazing community.

... But hey, if the United States wants to change the law so that a foreign-born citizen can run for President, I might consider it :).”

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Call to Action

Polina’s answers to my questions had a noticeable theme - she is singularly focused on the now. From her interview we can extract some useful lessons that can be applied to our daily lives:

  1. Live in the moment and focus on working hard today.

  2. To achieve greatness or reach your full potentials, always reach for the brightest colored crayons in the box. Don’t minimize your worth or what you’re capable of.

  3. Want to be great? Outwork everyone else. If your capacity for work is greater than everyone else in the room, you will eventually succeed.

  4. Be consistent, and always of the highest quality. If you produce the highest quality of whatever it is you do, you will shine brightest and succeed.

  5. Managing your time requires balancing many aspects of your life, including family and exercise. Don’t neglect this.

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