Dazzling on the dance floor, a whiz at writing, Wanita Niehaus is an innovator in the marketing and communications field, and now also in her own life. An accomplished journalist and cable professional working for Scripps Networks Interactive for many years, Wanita started her own consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area, and is enjoying following her life’s true passions towards fulfillment.
Oana Harrison: Do you feel that you are successful?
Wanita Niehaus: Yes, in many ways I do. I’m successful at being human but I want to be an extraordinary human. That doesn’t mean being rich or leaving a legacy but having awareness, compassion, and living life as life as fully as possible. In that sense, I feel very successful.
OH: Tell me about your path in life so far.
WN: I grew up in rural Indiana, in a town of 69 people. My chores included milking goats, and planting and harvesting the garden. It was very much an outdoors and country childhood. People read the newspaper, since most didn’t have a TV. We had three TV stations until I was 17, so I did grow up with television. One day we took a trip to the local newspaper and that’s when I discovered that there was a job where you could get paid to meet people, ask them questions, and then write. What’s better than meeting new people every day, and meeting more new people the next day? So, some time around age 7, I chose my career: I wanted to become a journalist and I started down that path. I went to the university for journalism and got my first job at a newspaper in Washington, D.C. I spent the rest of my life figuring out who and where I wanted to be. That led me to Washington, D.C., where I met my house mates, and experienced night-shift work. Work eventually brought me to Knoxville, where I joined the marketing team at Scripps, I found new friends, I joined a salsa dance team, and I volunteered at the opera. In 2013, I made my way back to D.C., and two years ago, I started my own full-service brand management company.
OH: And D.C. is also where you found your big love?
WN: Yes. So, that’s another one of those life lessons that came to me in the last few years. When I was working a lot and I was focused on my career, meeting a lot of people, and collecting experiences, one of the things I wasn’t doing was investing into a partner relationship. I spent most of my time traveling and doing things with lots of people, racking up frequent flyer miles. In 2013, while I was in Washington, D.C., my company was downsizing. I was told was that if I wanted to continue to have career success, I would have to move back to Knoxville. At that time, I was beginning to really appreciate my life in D.C., my friends, and recognizing how much richer I wanted my personal relationships to be. I realized that I was using work as a barrier. Traveling for work was getting in the way of seeing my niece, committing to birthday parties, and so on. I took the gamble that maybe I didn’t need to continue working in that job and I found something else to do. During the last couple of years, I have been my on my own, doing consulting, which gave me the opportunity to spend time with my family. In that space, I was able to meet a man who is amazing and we recently got engaged. And I’m pretty sure that there was no space for him before that, when I was living for my career.
OH: How did you meet your fiancé?
WN: The funny thing is that, up until a couple of years ago, there was no space in his life for a relationship due to his career either. So the timing was right. We happened to meet each other when we were both focusing on relationships that made us happy. Eduardo and I met while we were both volunteering at the D.C. Bachata Congress. He was volunteering helping with the administration part of things, while I was laying dance floor. I overheard him volunteer to write a press release for a salsa event that was happening the next day. I asked him if he knew how to do that. He said: “no, I think I’ll Google it.” So I said “maybe I should help you.” We sat down, he gave me all the information, I made a list of all the local TV people. I told him to call them and I told him what to say. Meanwhile, I wrote the press release and made an announcement on Twitter. He followed directions really well, we worked together for two hours and put together a press conference for the next day. Then I didn’t see him for a while. We had a post mortem on the conference and he was so appreciative; he told everyone how I had saved his skin and that I should have never been laying floor. He was so cute and so grateful, such sweet qualities. We worked together on some of the issues from the post mortem and after a month and half it was apparent that there was something more there. We thought about how our relationship would affect the organizations where we worked and the people around us – and we didn’t care!
We started dating and after a few months we started training for a marathon. He’s the type of person that shows up and does it. Like with the press release – “I can figure this out.” I said: “no, we really need to train for this,” so we trained for 20 weeks and that’s where we really bonded. I can honestly say that six years ago I was not in that spot. My fiance ran 15 half marathons and one marathon last year; I ran 7 half marathons and one full one last year. It’s not something I could have done if I were still defining my success only as my career.
OH: When you’re thinking of success, what are you thinking about?
WN: Freedom to choose what to do with my time. That’s a measure of success that I didn’t think about when I was younger but came to really appreciate as my focus shifted towards meaningful relationships. As an independent consultant, I’ve had some hungry months – and I haven’t been hungry since I was in my twenties…. I wasn’t super financially successful right off the bat but I still felt very successful because I could choose what I was doing. Buying a fancy bag didn’t matter as much as choosing how to spend my time in the middle of the week. Success to me means freedom, feeling free to design my life: if I need to spend some time with a friend in the hospital, I can take my time and I am there wholeheartedly, instead of saying “I’m sorry but I have to be somewhere else” or thinking that I have a conference call in ten minutes. Being able to be fully present, that’s a marker of success that I’m super-pleased to have found; and it is a part of my quest of being superhuman.
OH: Right now, what do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your life?
WN: Learning how to be a fiancée. We recently took a relationship course and came to the realization that we both have a lot of experience at being single. We are good singles! – we are very successful singles. And we would love to be really successful partners. We are at the beginning of our journey to a successful partnership. One day, I hope we would be able to teach a course on designing partnerships. That’s an area that’s fun to be in and there’s a lot of small wins. It’s exciting. If I think about “adulting,” when I first moved to Washington and started paying rent, taking the metro – every day was a small win in “adulting.” I got a little better at being an adult every day, a little more successful at being responsible. I feel the same way now, as an engaged woman. Every day I’m making progress.
OH: Sounds like you might need a blog about that!
WN: Maybe. We actually had a salon on Valentine’s Day at our house. We invited all of our single friends and we wanted to celebrate singlehood. Eduardo and I have been single a long time and we wanted to talk about what’s going on with relationships and share our story. Neither of us had been in a relationship successfully before. If we get it right, we definitely want to help other people to get it right too.
OH: What is the most important contributor to your success?
WN: I would say my willingness to learn and, more recently, my willingness to be wrong. When I was younger, I had the desire to be right at all cost but I came to realize that that level of righteousness didn’t support my real goal which was to be connected to other people and to make a difference. If I can let go of being right all the time, I can be a better listener, I can be a more empathetic, a more compassionate, and a less judgmental human being.
The first thing I applied to anything where I’ve been successful is curiosity and the willingness to learn – and, more recently, willingness to let go.
OH: That’s a tough one lesson to learn….
WN: Yeah, practice, practice, practice!
It’s funny that letting go is not an easy thing. And it’s all kinds of letting go: of the ego, of how things are supposed to be, of some notion I had when I was younger of how the world was supposed to be. It’s been a very interesting journey.
OH: What are some lessons you’d like to share with others, something you wish you had known earlier?
WN: I could make the assumption that with most people there was a 50-50 chance of getting a “yes” when asking them for help or directions, or whatever. However, I discovered that the world was more supportive of positive actions than I previously thought. Had I known that before, I would have asked for help sooner. When I was younger, I wanted to do things on my own, to prove that I could do it all by myself but somewhere I realized that I could get more done when I collaborated with others. So the sooner you say “I want to do x, y, z but I don’t know how,” people will start coming out of the woodwork to help you. Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that getting out of my own head, saying what I want and what I need help with produces far better results than just trying for the “look I did this all by myself!” I used to think that the world valued someone accomplishing things on their own but what the world really values is that the job is done.
OH: What hurdles have you overcome on your journey to success?
WN: Myself for one – I’m pretty sure that I’m the one that gets in my own way most of the time. Probably another lesson I share with other people is to take mentors and advice early and always with gratitude, even if you don’t follow all the advice. I wouldn’t have gotten very far without showing interest, taking a mentor, and following up with them. I had some people in my life for 15 years. I might have gone to class one time with them and I kept in touch. I thought: “here is a person who knows more than me,” so I’ll graciously listened. Once I developed that habit, life got so much easier. In the past, I really thought I would get fired if I didn’t do all the work all the time all by myself. And I learned that that was myth most of the time.
Another big hurdle I overcame: I had an assumption that people didn’t want me to succeed and didn’t want to help me because I was young, because I was a woman, because I was from Indiana, because whatever…. Once you are inside a supportive group, things are different; you see that they want you to succeed and you want them to succeed. How nice that is! Once I adopted that philosophy, I got over that hurdle. I didn’t just assume that just because someone was an older white male that they didn’t want me to succeed. Once I decided that that person wasn’t the enemy to my success, then I started to get allies out of that. I even got support to start dating. When I was at Scripps and working too much, I told my boss I wasn’t dating because I couldn’t handle it with my busy schedule. She said, “O.K., then let me help you.” So then I only had myself to get out of the way…. I ended up going on 42 first dates in 2011 and 2 second dates, where I met a lot of wonderful guys, plus I got to really check what I was saying that I wanted against what I actually really wanted. I got the message really clear that I had the support not only of my friends but of my boss. They all wanted to help me meet somebody – I met cousins, and the guy from church who liked to swing dance. It was funny.
So, learning to accept help from others and learning to get out of my own way were the two main hurdles I had to overcome.
OH: What’s next for you, now that you are in the sweet spot?
WN: I have this wonderful amazing partner and we are in creative mode. At one time last year, we worked together and designed something which was a lot of fun. I could see where we could continue our collaboration, and give it more structure. I can see a good future in that collaboration.
OH: I’m curious to see where that takes you!
WN: Meanwhile, I’m still figuring out what else I want to do. When I was little, I really thought I was a poet; writing and teaching others how to do it gives me joy and I want to explore that further, perhaps in a new format…. Or maybe I’ll become a stock broker, who knows?
OH: That might be a bit stressful…
WN: Yeah, but at this point in my life, I’m up for learning something new and I’m definitely up for being in a great relationship.
Follow Wanita on Twitter: @wanitaniehaus.