You're never too young to succeed—just ask Michaela DePrince, one of the world's best-known ballerinas.
Growing up in war-torn Sierra Leone, DePrince was first drawn to ballet when a magazine clipping blew against the gate of her orphanage, in 1999.
"That's what drew me to ballet," the 23-year-old recalled in a recent interview from her home in Amsterdam, where she is a soloist for the Dutch National Ballet. "It gave me something to look forward to in the orphanage."
Soon, DePrince was adopted by an American family, moved to the United States and enrolled in ballet classes. When she was 17, DePrince won a highly coveted spot with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, becoming the youngest dancer at the company. And one year later, she joined the Dutch National Ballet. Most recently, it was announced DePrince's memoir, "Taking Flight," will be adapted into a major motion picture.
Clearly, DePrince has accomplished more than many people do over decades-long careers. But DePrince remains humble, and doesn't take her position for granted. She continues to find room for improvement, and uses her powerful, global platform to help others– all while remaining true to herself.
In a recent interview with JPMorgan Chase, DePrince talked about how being authentic can lead to a longer, happier career, her biggest accomplishment, and the one thing she's saving up for.
Here's an excerpt, condensed and edited for clarity:
Q:| How do you stay motivated to put 100 percent into every rehearsal and performance?
DePrince: I try to learn from other dancers and companies—it can be a complete shocker when you find a different way to do something you've struggled with. I'm also inspired by meeting incredible people and having a positive mindset. A lot of dancers quit the craft because of the negativity it puts on people. Ballet—and life—is hard enough, so you might as well try to be as happy as possible and enjoy it.
Q:| What's your biggest accomplishment in your career so far?
DePrince: Understanding that I can't change who I am.
If you're too focused on having the perfect body, you'll go crazy. There are people who want to change my look or body, but I realized this is who I am, and I want to be happy. A couple years ago, I got really thin and the response was very positive that I lost so much weight. But I had no energy and I wasn't happy with myself.
I've been doing it "Michaela's Way" for the past two or three years, and while that may upset some people, it's important to take care of myself and how I feel.
Q:| So what is "Michaela's Way?"
DePrince: As a woman of color, I no longer wear pink tights and slippers, as most dancers have historically done. I'm fortunate to have a director who supports me wearing brown tights and slippers. I am in my own skin, and I don't have to try to feel like I'm someone else on stage.
"I am in my own skin and don't I don't have to try to feel like I'm someone else on stage."
Q:| Do you have advice for how young women can live an authentic life?
DePrince: Focus on living in the moment. It's great to have a goal, but then you're not living and seeing the incredible beauty that's around you and can inspire you. But it's really seeing the power of now, and being at peace with yourself. We all have flaws, but accept those flaws because they really do make you unique.
Q:| Your upbringing in Sierra Leone really speaks to your resilience. What advice do you have for young professionals who are trying to overcome adversity?
DePrince: Not giving up on your dreams because one day they'll come true. One day, you will look back and think, "What made me think I wasn't good enough?" If someone else believes in you, then you should also believe in yourself. When you believe in yourself and, again, surround yourself with a supportive team, you can accomplish anything your heart desires.
Q:| You're already mastering the world of dance. What's next for you?
DePrince: I want to open up a school in Sierra Leone after I retire. That's what I'm saving for right now. At first, I wanted it to just be a ballet school, but there are more things about the arts that are very beautiful. It always upsets me when people take money away from the arts, because the arts is what keeps people inspired and motivated and eager to learn more. The arts really saved me.
My family is very artistic and it's how we bond. I would love for my sister to come and teach music—she's an incredible musician. My younger sister, Bernice, is a beautiful artist. I would love for her to come and teach children how to draw.
Q:| That's great, how are you saving up for your big goal?
DePrince: I try to keep everything in my savings. If I'm going to the grocery store, I know exactly how much I want to spend, so then I put that amount into my checking. I don't want to leave a lot of money there because if I start going shopping, then I won't have money for food. I always try to be safe about money in case there's an emergency.