How do you do what you do, every day?

I received this letter from a young woman who’s at the beginning of what I’m certain will be a big life in advertising. With her permission, I’m replying here.


Dear Stefanie,

What does a female need to do to have her name remembered in this business by the males she works with every day?

I thought it was something like “work really really hard,” “do really really good work that continues to make the wall and the pitches and the CCO’s desk.”

I read that it was to “lean in,” or “keep your hand up.”

I figured maybe “work the weekends,” “go in early / stay late” couldn’t hurt. And that “volunteer to work on this” would only yield positive results.

I even thought maybe the most basic, “introduce yourself” and “say hello in passing” might be totally valid ways. Seems sensible?

How is one expected to be motivated to keep doing the good work when if she does, a male writer is “accidentally” given the credit?

Or when she’s told, “He keeps forgetting you’re on this pitch. It’s weird. But I remind him and he thinks it’s really cool you want to help” ? Help? No, I want to win.

Who do you look to when there are literally no females in higher creative positions in your place of employment?

How do you do it? I’m sincerely asking. Is the answer simply “more”? More time, more work, more handshakes?

It makes me feel really sad. And sick. And then I wonder if my name was only remembered in the first place because I really liked to bake cookies in college. And that makes me sadder.

Sad Mad Woman

Dear Sad Mad Woman,

I have been obsessively thinking about your letter and how to answer you. In no small part because it could have been written by a 22-year-old me, just staring to make her way in the world and almost wholly unprepared.

You say it makes you sad. It used to make me furious. Probably sad is better, because you won’t ever find yourself having to live down a reputation for being “inappropriately angry,” “scary,” “dramatic,” and “overly emotional.”  You also won’t have the humbling experience of realizing it’s all true, and learning a new way to be.

I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll also tell you that I learned what I know from Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Tina Fey, Marie Forleo, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Kestin & Nancy Vonk, Rebecca Solnit, and Naomi Dunford. So I did learn from the best.

This chart.

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Things you can’t control include: how other people behave, how other people treat you, what other people think of you, the weather, the past, who you are related to, your sexual preference, and everything you don’t acknowledge. Also, the laws of physics and the fact that the cat will immediately kick litter all over the floor immediately after you vacuum. Because cats are assholes.

Things you can control: your behavior and how you respond to the behavior of other people. It may not sound like a lot, but includes everything from who you spend time with to how you develop and use your talent to whether you make it a habit of flossing every night.

You can’t control who remembers your name or who takes credit for your work. Only how you respond to it.

Youth is prized. Immaturity isn’t.

I once read that there is no such thing as a neutral woman. Every choice we make — long hair or short, makeup or bare face, long nails or short, manicure and pedicure or natural, skirt or pants, length and kind of skirt, bra or no bra, and on and on — every one of these choices telegraphs something. I’m feeling it pretty acutely myself lately, and often stand in front of my closet, asking myself, “What do 46-year-old grown-up ladies wear?” I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve decided it’s not the plaid dress I’ve had since 1998.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/241175950/vintage-1980s1990s-jodi-kristopher?ref=market

Vintage. Like me.

I guess what I’m saying is, take inventory. Are you dressing and styling yourself to look like someone who ought to be taken seriously? How do the people in your office present themselves? Do you mesh with the vibe? Do you look like someone they’d happily put in front of clients? I’m not saying you need to wear a nice pantsuit (unless a nice pantsuit is your thing) or be anything other than unique yourself, but you do need to ask what story you’re telling about yourself with your choice of clothes, hair and makeup. Who do you look like? I know I probably sound like a traitor to post-feminism, but you know what? If you show up at the meeting in a dress that looks like a shirt and you forgot your pants, they STILL may not remember your name but you can be certain they will remember your fanny.

Don’t lean in so far you fall over.

Look, it’s not worth it to work harder and harder and longer and longer and lean in and raise your hand and then suddenly wake up one day to realize you’re 40 and your asshole cat is dead and you haven’t taken a vacation in 11 years. It’s just not.

You need to go home. You need to read and knit and do whatever else it is you want to do. You need a way to recharge your battery and meet people who are not people in your office. You need to have a life. And yes, the hours in our industry are notoriously brutal. But the trick is, only work that hard when it matters. On a pitch? Work until you drop, sure. A launch, a deadline…all good reasons to put in the hours. But on a regular basis, showing up and staying late just for the sake of being there isn’t worth it.

As for volunteering to work on projects — do your own time. Unless you bring something vital to the table that no one else can bring, like the pitch is for a knitting business and you’re the only knitter in your office (Do you even knit? I seem to think so.) Otherwise, let the assigned team do the job they were assigned to do, and YOU go home. Or better yet, to dance class or whiskey tasting club or to dinner with a skier you met at the farmer’s market over the weekend. You need to live a whole life.

That said, in some situations it is good to be generous and ask if you can help. Not in a way that seems like you are hovering or trying to edge in on anyone’s territory, but if someone looks like they’re drowning or the pitch team is being run ragged, go ahead and ask if you can lend a hand.

http://www.marymaxim.com/free-chunky-blanket-crochet-pattern.html

I wish I could knit, then maybe I’d stop spending all the money on fancy Pottery Barn throws.

Don’t apologize.

Unless you are wrong, of course. Then apologize quickly, humbly, and with sincerity. I’m talking about things like “Sorry but, I had an idea?” “Sorry but, I think maybe I disagree with you?” “Sorry, I know how busy you are, but could you review this copy?”

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, stop. As one of mentors advised me, “Just be normal” and say what you mean: “I have an idea…” “I disagree with you and here’s why…” “Please look over this copy and let me know what you think by the morning…”

You do not have to apologize for showing up and doing your job well. You don’t have to apologize for your thoughts, your talent, or your opinions. You have nothing to be sorry for.

Don’t bake.

I am going to assume you no longer bake things and bring them to the office. But if you do, stop today. You can bake for your friends, your family, your boy/girlfriend, me, and your children, should you decide to have some. Do not bake for your workplace. You are not anyone’s mother, girlfriend, daughter or roommate at work. You don’t want them to remember you by your cookies.

Don’t sit on the floor.

Do you do this? There are no chairs left in the room so you sit on the floor? Stop it. Sit at the table or if there are no seats left, stand close by — not at the edges of the room and not in the corner.

http://www.johnnylovesjune.com/collections/canvas/products/corner-where-nobody-puts-baby

“Stop interrupting me.” “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

Internalize this powerful advice from Soraya Chemaly: http://www.alternet.org/words-every-woman-should-know

“We’ve met before…”

This comes in handy when someone doesn’t remember you. Do NOT let anyone get away with pretending they don’t know who you are. Remind them, with good humor, that you’ve met, and where, and when. Do this every time they forget you.

Believe people when they show you who they are.

That male copywriter who “accidentally” got credit for your idea and didn’t correct the mistake? He’s a thief. Remember that for all your future interactions with him. He will take credit for your work, he will not pull you into the meeting or support you. Let that inform all your future interactions with him. I don’t mean you should be rude or hostile to him, or gossip about him. But don’t give him anything — no favors, no ideas, no help, no support. And protect your work against him.

Keep your cool.

If you need to cry, go somewhere private. If you feel yourself getting flustered or losing your temper, excuse yourself. When this happens to me, I sometimes pretend my phone is ringing and I have to take a call, and I put a worried look on my face, apologize for the interruption, and leave the room to collect myself.

Find an ally. Or many.

There may not be any senior women creatives in your agency, and that’s awful. But there is the 3% conference, AWNY, and all these women. Go to conferences. Reach out via email. Build a network.

And after all of this, there will still be some people who don’t remember your name, don’t acknowledge your contributions, and forget you are on their pitch. Time is not the answer, working harder is not the answer. Boundaries, respecting yourself, doing amazing work, taking credit for what’s yours (and being generous with credit to anyone who collaborated or helped you), refusing to be forgotten, reminding them that they DO know you, that you’re NOT sorry, and you are NOT going anywhere, this is where you start.

Always,

Stefanie

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Don’t Wear Shoes That Hurt

Today is my 46th birthday. It’s a surprising number, in its nearly smack-in-the-middle relation to the lifetime between 0 and 100, and its largeness (46? Seriously? That many?) although I’m not sure what age I think I ought to be. For years I mostly felt 19, and then later, for an even longer period, I thought of myself as 36ish. But this year I feel acutely, undeniably 46, which is a cocktail of responsibility, worry, joy, regret, and a slightly world-weary version of my inveterate optimism, along with knees that hurt when it’s cold and hair that needs to be dyed every three weeks lest I start to look like Jessica Tandy in her later years.

It’s hitting me, I guess is what I’m saying, that 46 is a number by which you are expected to have learned some things. I love reading the wisdom lists people write about age, 29 Things Every Woman Should Know By 29, 30 Things I Learned in My 30s, 50 is the New Black, Do Whatever the Hell You Want, You’re 80. My favorite is What You Learn in Your 40s by Pamela Druckerman.

These advice pieces always seem like jewel boxes, the sort your grandmother keeps tucked nearly out of sight up on her tall dresser. And sometimes, when you visit, she’ll take it down and show you her treasures – the circle pin from her high school dance, the engagement ring your grandpa gave her when they were young and poor, later replaced by the ring she wears now, the big diamond she never takes off but promises to leave for you one day, the necklaces and bracelets. They are a look into the author’s lives, the lessons they’ve learned the hard way, what they’ve saved and polished.

My accumulated knowledge, such as it is, is less a treasure box and more of a well-worn backpack. One that fell off a truck and rolled into a river and dried in the sunshine, got ripped against rocks, frozen in the snow, thawed in a meadow. And it’s filled with treasures, but they are things like abandoned bird’s nests and stones flecked with mica, single earrings and journals with flowers pressed between their ink-smeared pages.

But I think one of the privileges of 46 is getting to tell what you know, and so here are the things I carry:

Not everything turns out for the best. You are going to make some awful choices, there will be times when you don’t get what you want, you are going to say the wrong thing and miss opportunities, and you are going to have regrets. It’s weirdly comforting to know that it’s all right to feel terrible about some things. But you do have to find a way to live with your sorrows, a way to be in your life that isn’t ruled by the pain of what was and what could have been. You need to find a way to let it stay in the past. And if you can learn something and not make the same mistakes again, you’ll be all the better for it.

Stop being such a goddamned narcissist. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and all the things that ever happened to you, that will ever happen to you, sublime and horrible, have happened and will happen to more people than you can imagine. That’s why we recognize ourselves in books we can’t put down, songs we sing out loud in our cars, and movies we watch and re-watch. Most of our experiences are universal, unless you’re an astronaut going on the first mission to Mars or something, and even then you’ve got people sharing that experience, and I bet your feelings setting out for Mars are deeply similar to those of every explorer who set out to chart unknown seas and territories. It may feel a little disappointing at first, to realize you’re not as unique as you thought, but it’s much less lonely.

Be generous. By now, with luck, you’ve achieved some success and have a little money. So when you hear from a nervous 20-something on LinkedIn who wants to buy you coffee and ask how you got to where you are in your career, take them to breakfast and tell them. When you see a new mom in Starbucks fumbling for her wallet and trying to soothe the baby, offer to help. Put down your phone and let your 9-year-old tell you about the dog she saw. Ask questions – was the dog brown? Did it have long legs? Thank your partner for putting the toilet paper in the bathroom, instead of complaining that they didn’t put it on the roll. When the mom who works 80 hours a week comes to a PTO meeting, introduce yourself and sit with her, and don’t tell her how it’s SO NICE to FINALLY see her since she NEVER comes to anything at the school. If you have the sort of relationship with your parents where calling them won’t cause you tremendous pain, then call your parents.

Sometimes it matters what people think of you. The trick here is knowing when to care and when not to. The ex-husband who snuck your collection of Kinks vinyl into his suitcase and told you he hated your haircut on his way out the door? Who gives a damn what he thinks. The boss who writes your performance review at work? You want him to think you’re knocking it out of the park. Learn to tell the difference.

There are cool kids. You may be one of them. No, really, right now someone somewhere probably thinks you are so cool they hardly know how to talk to you. Because who the cool kids are is relative, and believing someone is cool has everything to do with our own wishes and insecurities and very little to do with some empirical definition of coolness. This is why you should pursue you own big passions and nerdy niche interests and not worry about it, because that thing you always thought made you weird is precisely the thing that makes you wonderful.

Don’t be a jerk about music. You don’t have to love One Direction or care about Ellie Goulding. You can dismiss Ed Sheeran and Walk the Moon. Go ahead and roll your eyes at Meghan Trainor and Andy Grammer. Just shut up about it, because when you complain about music you sound pretentious, rigid, and boring. Stop it. And seriously, if you can’t dance to Uptown Funk, you hate life.

There are still surprises in store. After the tumult of your 20s and the striving of your 30s, your 40s can feel sort of settled. There’s the furniture and the rugs and the cups in the cabinets, and the books on the shelves and the photos on the walls, you’ve got a partner or you don’t, you’ve had children or not, the cat you had in your 20s died years ago, and you think, “Huh, so this is what happened. This is how it all turned out.” And then you find out they’re reviving The X-Files and even Skinner is coming back and you remember there is still time to fulfill your potential, for all the mistakes and missteps and stupid things you said, the choices you made and didn’t make, the regrets and the hurting knees and the compromises, for all of the things you lost and didn’t try for you can still be surprised by something so purely fantastic you never would have imagined it could happen. The world can still surprise you. You can still surprise yourself.

You don’t have to clean before your friends come over, but… Your friends really don’t care what your house looks like, but it’s still nice to clean the toilet before they come over. It’s a gesture of goodwill and civility. No need to make yourself crazy, just give it a wipe with a paper towel.

The cat will always kick litter on the floor the moment you put away the vacuum. I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Somehow the cat just knows.

Do that thing. Several years ago a manhole exploded on the street where I was working, and we were evacuated through the fire stairs and told to run downtown. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever lived through, because there was every reason to believe the horrific boom and smoke-filled sky was another terrorist attack on New York City. And as I was running from 40th street to 14th street in sandals that cut my feet bloody, I thought, “I’m so glad I just paid my life insurance bill. Damn it, I wish I’d written that book.” The dream that presents itself as an imperative when you believe you’re outrunning death? You should do that. Start today.

Never masturbate with a Clarisonic. Trust me on this one.

Don’t wear shoes that hurt. It’s not worth it. For years I tried to find a pair of heels I could wear and still feel like myself. It turns out that I am happiest in a pair of loafers, which accommodate my habit of walking while daydreaming and exude the kind of bookish sexiness I have been cultivating since I was 14. You still have places to go. You’ll walk there on your own two feet. Dress accordingly.

The Life That Will Be Your Life Forever

I received the below email from a reader on New Year’s Eve. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

I’m 37 and single and not a mother. I was engaged for a while and have been in a series of relationships for the last 12 or so years. I recently realized I want to have a family, but I’m mystified as to how I could possibly ever believe love lasts and being a parent is something I wouldn’t screw up. I really loved your piece on FaceTime and your daughter. I have babysat for children in the midst of young romance and have been so moved by their ability to open their hearts so wide without fear (well fear of being embarrassed I guess). I suppose this isn’t a question you can really answer, but it felt right to send it out into the Internet ether: How do you settle into a life that will be your life forever? How do you know what man will be a good father to your as yet non-existent children? How did you know?

Anyway, quite personal I know, no one answer fits all, but I am so new to wanting actually wanting a family, that I would gladly accept any thoughts you have.

Anne

Dear Anne,

There’s a story I tell about the day I found out I was pregnant. It’s a funny story, about how I took a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon, where I was working at the time, and how I was utterly floored to find myself knocked up by accident at the age of 35, a newlywed, and days away from quitting a lucrative full-time job I despised to start a career as a “permalance” writer. You can go read it, if you want to, and then come back here. Or not, that’s all right. What you need to know is that I took all the elements of that day, the day I found out I was unexpectedly, ambivalently pregnant, and turned it into a sweet story with a happy ending.

It’s not a lie, that story I tell, but it’s not complete.

I’m going to tell you the part I always leave out, because it goes to the heart of what you’re asking, or at least some of what you’re asking. I’ve never written about this before, and I’ve told only a few people about it. But these questions of yours demand courage, in the asking and in the answering.

I went home from work the day I found out I was pregnant and told my husband, Jonathan. He was surprised, but joyful in his gentlemanly, muted way. That night we discussed logistics (Oh God, our apartment is so small and we have no doors!!!) and finances (Oh God, we have no money!!!) and if I could still quit my job (Oh God, it’s a huge pay cut and I’ll lose my paid maternity leave but if I don’t quit it will surely ruin my life but how can I possibly?!?). Sometime after midnight we fell into bed exhausted and giddy, having decided that babies are small and surely we could fit one into our Brownstone floor-through apartment, and it was inaccurate to say we had “no money” because we were managing, and would continue to manage, and that I would quit my job, no question about it. We’d figure it out.

At six the next morning, I woke Jonathan from a sound sleep, so overwrought I was nearly dry heaving. I’d been up for two hours by then, sobbing in the bathroom (the only room in the entire apartment with a door). I told him I wanted a divorce. I was going to have an abortion, and I wanted him to move out, right now, today, and I wanted a divorce. Because this baby was going to turn him into a father, and fathers leave. That is simply what they do. It was unbearable, to think of this man I loved turning into a father— unknowable, frightening, ultimately gone. And anyway, who was I to believe I was the kind of person who got this life? This love, this husband, this baby? I was the girl who got left, everybody left, I was made for loss, but not this time. This time I was the girl who was leaving.

He let me go on like this until my throat was so raw I couldn’t talk anymore, and then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them. If I wanted an abortion, he said, then he would take me for one. And if I wanted a divorce, he said, he’d give me one. And if I truly couldn’t bear to have him in the apartment, then he’d just sit outside on the stoop. You know that quote, he asked, the one from Winnie the Pooh? “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Well if you live to be a hundred, he said, I promise I will live to be a hundred plus one day, because I am going to be the man who never leaves you.

You asked, Anne, how I knew. This is how. I showed him my most ugly, vicious, terrified secret self, and in return he showed me exquisite compassion and promised me the thing I could never bring myself to ask for. He promised to love me, in all my broken sorrow. He promised to stay.

For the longest time, I wondered how he managed it. How he was able to comfort me exactly the way I needed, cracking open the door to possibility just enough for me to walk through. I’ve come to realize part of it is who he is, his goodness and decency, his fearlessness. But also, I let him. He was the first man I was willing to be completely honest with. No fronting, no performing, no trying to be interesting by pretending to be what I thought he wanted. The irony of all this is that, when we first met, I thought he was so out of my league I didn’t even bother trying to be anything but what I was, and it was me in all my messy realness he fell in love with. Go figure.

I wonder, Anne, what is the promise you can’t bear to ask for? And where do you keep it hidden, this visceral, essential need you have? It’s worth investigating, I think. And once you’ve thought about it, can you be courageous enough to show someone, to let them see you in your raw, most vulnerable wanting and answer you with kindness? Can you show up and say, I don’t know how to believe, but I want to. I want to believe in a love that lasts, I want to believe I can have kids I won’t screw up. I want to make a family somehow, but I don’t know where to begin. Here is why it’s so hard for me to trust in that. Here is why it’s so hard for me to ask. Will you stand with me and let me show you how I am when I’m at my worst? Can you see how my worst is also my best?

I think you can. I think you’re that courageous.

That’s how you start. You find out what your plus one day is — the secret ache you hide, the thing you suspect no one could ever possibly give you — and you ask for it. You keep asking until someone opens his arms and says yes. And then you believe him.

I know how overwhelming it sounds, how scary, but it gets easier, the more you do it. And you do have to keep doing it. Because even when you find that lasting love, even when you have the kids and you’re almost certain you’re not screwing it up, there is no such thing as a life you live forever. You were engaged and then you weren’t and then there were relationships and then there weren’t, there were friends and jobs and places you lived and here you are. For years I was scared and then I was alone and then I was in love and then I had a baby and now I am a wife for more than 10 years and have a child who can FaceTime. And soon I will have a teenager and then she will be gone and Jonathan and I may finally take the honeymoon we never managed and we all roll along, the years unfurling like an endless road while we keep telling the truth about who we are now and the secret thing we still need, in the face of change and heartbreak and joy.

Always,

Stefanie