Be like Betty White: How a likeable demeanor can translate into a lifelong career

The gig economy has not only changed the way many of us work day-to-day, it has also turned the notion of any sort of long-term corporate career on its ear. These days, a six-month project might seem long-term to some, while it might have been deemed a training period in decades past.

Yet some people are able to navigate workplace changes and constantly reinvent themselves to stay relevant in every job market.

Consider the trailblazing Betty Marion White Ludden, AKA Betty White, who according to Guinness World Records, has the longest television career of any female entertainer. With about 75 years as a performer and producer under her belt, White was also the first woman to produce a sitcom and named honorary Mayor of Hollywood way back in 1955. White’s iconic and Emmy Award-winning roles included Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973–77), Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls (1985–92) and Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland (2010-15). Now 95, the Emmy-award winning White was also the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live (in 2010 when she was 88). She once said “Retirement is not in my vocabulary. They aren’t going to get rid of me that way.”

So, what makes Betty White so beloved by people across all ages and life stages and what can we learn from her incredible career trajectory?

It’s okay to be likeable

Being nice in the workplace is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, so people — especially women or younger workers – might try to toughen up their personas or approach, to mixed results.

There’s a huge difference between being nice and being a pushover, and Betty White exemplifies the perfect balance between remaining sweet while sharp as a tack.

The key to remaining likeable without losing your edge, according to Carey Pinkowski, CEO of Chicago Event Management, is to “respect the humanity of everyone with whom you do business. From CEO to coordinator, we are all the same at our core.”

Pinowski says he builds being nice into his outlook despite managing some of the most competitive events in the nation.

“I’ve managed to be a nice person while leading the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and navigating the cutthroat global sports world for more than 25 years.”

Pinkowski says he’s learned to do this by witnessing “the messy and beautiful resilience, perseverance and competitiveness delivered by 40,000 runners who take on 26.2 miles.”

Age is relative

With so many career guides aimed at millennials, and those over 40 sometimes made to feel out of touch in the workplace, it can be easy to lose hope sometimes of having an extensive or robust career.

According to my quick calculations, White started her role as Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland when she was 88 years old- a full 23 years past the average retirement age in America. Meanwhile, at age 91, Queen Elizabeth is still the ruling monarch in the U.K. and at 84, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remains a force to be reckoned with. It’s nice to know that even in a youth-obsessed culture, you don’t have to assume that your age is the only thing that defines your professional viability.

Choose Optimism

Some people use snark as their weapon of choice. Others, like White, seem to always convey a sense of optimism. Despite her incredible life and career trajectory, White seems to always convey a sense of optimism and excitement about what comes next.

Cant’t connect to your rose-colored glasses? Consider adopting the belief that no matter how awful things seem in the moment, there’s only one direction for them to go: up.

“There’s always room for a situation to improve.  When I meet somebody and it doesn’t go well, I come away from the situation feeling optimistic – it can only get better,” said Pinowski.

I recently spoke with an 88-year-old woman who told me a bit of her fascinating history, which included being orphaned when still a toddler; being imprisoned as a political prisoner when she was only 20; and becoming a widow and single mother to three young children before she was 40.

The T-shirt she wore during our conversation was emblazoned with the message “Don’t live in the past. The best is still ahead of you.”

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon

I’m sure you’ve heard that expression way too many times, but in the quest for the next raise or title upgrade, some people stop paying attention to the things that build character and set the foundation for a career — and fall victim to bouncing from one job to the next.

The entire world has changed around her, yet White has managed to adapt to the times while staying true to the formulas that brought her the most success. Sure, she had some bombs along the way (The failed Golden-Girls spinoff show, Golden Palace, comes to mind), but those don’t define her. It’s her long-term success and consistency that stand out.

It’s not about you

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2010, White was asked the most important thing she’s learned in her life.

Her response? “Professionalism.”

“It’s not about you, it’s about everyone. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Come to the set prepared and don’t act like you know more than anyone else or you’re more important than anyone else in the production.” Which is true for any work environment, no matter your title or pay-grade.

Do what you love

In that same interview, White gushed about her extensive philanthropic work.

“Well, you know, I have to keep acting so that I can afford to keep doing my charity work!” said White, who’s been involved with the Los Angeles Zoo and the the Morris Animal Foundation for more than 4 decades. “I’m actually the luckiest old broad alive. Half my life is working in a profession I love and the other half is working with animals. I couldn’t ask for more.”