Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Growing up, I idealized women in the workplace. I wanted to be them. They were unique, strong, and doing something uncommon. Jill Eikenberry, Susan Day, Heather Locklear and Ally McBeal were badasses: I loved their “I can do anything” attitudes paired with their amazing skirt suits. I wanted what they had.
When I graduated from college, I moved to LA and got a few marketing jobs at small companies. Then in 2002, I got my big break: a job at 20th Century Fox. I was thrilled and ready to go. It all started so well ...
In my first week, I realized I was out of my element. Most of my co-workers had an MBA from Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton. They had all gone to private school. Many of them knew each other. I was the “nice girl” from the south, a French major from the University of Georgia who knew no one. I knew that I would have to work much harder and learn quickly to fit in and move up. I did just that. I got lucky enough to find a mentor, who helped me (even in my cringe-worthiest moments). He made work fun by giving me special projects, teaching and pushing me. I loved work, it was my driver. I got promoted. I learned the business, how to impress leadership and how to manage people. Things were good.
It went on like this for years.
But then I became REALLY self aware, almost overly emotionally intelligent. I’d go home daily and think about what I could have done better that day, analyzing myself endlessly over small stuff. I used this as a mechanism for improvement, not realizing that I was training my brain to pick out the worst all day, every day. I continued this practice for over 20 years. Then, something that once worked as a motivator started to chip at my confidence, beat me down. It made me tie my self worth to my job performance. I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself until recently.
I went from Fox to Warner Bros. to AT&T and then to Coca Cola. I copied my formula for success at each company -- and it worked. I got to more senior levels and started making more money, became a target for politics and company cost savings. Simultaneously, I got married and had children. I started to struggle with how to execute my formula and also be a good mom and wife. It was impossible. The result for me was exhaustion and burnout.
I decided that big companies weren’t for me. I left Coca Cola and followed a colleague to a smaller company. I was asked to start the marketing department, hire all new agencies and teams from the ground up. It was mine to own. Sounded fun! I thought it would be a better fit, allowing me some freedom to be a mom. Neither was true. It wasn’t fun and I had less freedom. My boss texted me at all hours, got upset when I didn’t respond immediately, and manipulated me. That was new to me, manipulation. I’d seen it before - but it had not happened to me. I ended up getting sick, losing hair and kind of messing up both my mental and physical health.
After two years that felt like 10, I left. I moved to an agency and did the whole thing over again with a small tweak: I worked from home. I started realizing that there was freedom even when working. I was probably twice as productive at home as I was in an office setting (where I had people in and out of my office from 9-6 each day). I started to realize that my formula, what I thought needed to happen in order to be successful, could be different. I did this for three years and then a massive buyout and layoff took place: all senior leadership was let go, myself included. I was broken and lost a lot of confidence. I knew I didn’t want to go back to a big company, nor another fledgling ad agency, so I ripped off the bandaid and started consulting. I always kinda wanted to do it but didn’t think it could work. Alone. On my own.
Best decision I’ve made in years!
Now I realize something: I don’t need to beat myself up and agonize to be good. I don’t need to play by other people’s rules. I don’t need to wear those awful Heather Locklear skirt suits and lame kitten heels. I just need to do what I should have known to do all along: produce good work. It’s the work that matters. When I got too senior and stopped doing actual work, pet projects and things I cared about, I lost my spark. My edge is not working 70 hours managing gobs of people while fitting in to some stupid mold. My work is my super power.
Should it have taken me 20 years to learn this lesson? I don’t know, but it did.
My advice: don’t let it take that long for you!
Don’t give too much of yourself to some company who doesn’t care about you.
Remember what makes YOU happy, what makes YOU tick.
Don’t let people drain you or distract you from your work.
Be so unapologetic about your passion, even if it means less money and fame. You will be happier and that is truly most important.