Lessons from a Life at Work

The career advice we’d most like to give our daughters so they don’t make the same mistakes we did.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Lessons #1 – #3

I’m not a mother, but I am a cool aunt. At least that’s what my three nieces have told me since they became teenagers. Right now I’m coaching 23-year-old Amy in her burgeoning advertising career, counseling 18-year-old Kelley on her first internship, and preparing Meghan, 14, to take on the universe.

A few months ago, I asked MORE readers to send me the career advice they have given their daughters, and Mother’s Day seems the right time to share it. We came of age in the "you can do and be anything" era and learned the hard way what it means to try to have it all. Now we work alongside thirty-something colleagues who eye our overstretched lives with a mix of respect and horror. Enter…our daughters. What lessons can we share with them to steer them safely around our potholes and toward their dreams?

#1. Get the Basics Right

The most succinct advice came from Debra Stork, a reader who sent me her rules for maintaining sanity as a working mother of three daughters.

  1. Don’t settle.
  2. The floor isn’t that dirty. Put more rugs down.
  3. Yes, macaroni and cheese is a meal.
  4. Listen more.
  5. A good suit is worth everything.
  6. Wear low-heeled shoes.
  7. Never wear a short skirt or a low-cut blouse.
  8. Never underestimate your skills.
  9. Never let your children think your career is more important than they are.
  10. Make sure your daughters know that being on welfare so you can stay home with them is not a career choice.
  11. Don’t brag about how smart you are. Show them.
  12. Be kind to everyone, no matter how low on the totem pole they are.

Perhaps a man’s guide to success would be more focused on professional tactics. But MORE readers threaded care for self and others seamlessly through the hardcore career talk.

#2. Know When to Take Your Eyes Off the Prize

When I met June Witterschein Cohen nearly 30 years ago, we were both newlyweds and career neophytes doing late-night laundry in the basement of our apartment building. Cohen was a lawyer for the City of New York, a job she held for nearly 10 years before giving birth to her first child.

Cohen, now 52, headed back to work full-time when Joanna was 5 months old. "I had a stimulating job advising mayoral agencies and working on litigation, and I still felt I had lots of time to enjoy Joanna," says Cohen, who today lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. But her life changed when her twin sons were born and her mother was diagnosed with cancer. "I left my job to manage three kids and take Mom to chemo," she says. "I lost my professional life, but I’ll always be grateful for that time together."

As the kids grew, Cohen began teaching part-time, and three years ago, she came full circle, running professional development for the city department she left. Her advice to Joanna, now 18: "Balancing work and life takes tradeoffs. Setbacks can actually be assets. The most important thing to remember is to lean on and love those who love you. Your happiness is more likely to come from them — and with that strength, you will find success in your work."

#3. Be Ready to Change Course

Maureen McNellis Gibson, 59, of Uhlerstown, Pennsylvania, is a principal with a stellar track record at Haven Capital Management, an investment advisory firm. But when advising her 12-year-old daughter, Maggie, Gibson warns about staying too long at the dance.

"Don’t be a quitter — even if you have the worst job in the world, you’ll learn something from it. But if, after a reasonable period, you realize it’s the wrong job for you, move on," Gibson says.

She knows whereof she speaks. Early in her career, her naturally conscientious style translated into long hours and more loyalty than her employers appreciated. She stuck it out at two companies because she was needed. Finally, she got up the nerve to resign, using her savings to take the summer off and travel. Her newfound confidence led to a better job that began her 20-year rise in financial services.

"What I would like to teach Maggie is that she’ll be pulled in many directions as she grows," Gibson says. "A decision that’s right one day might be wrong the next. I hope I can help her develop integrity so that when she looks into her soul and asks, ‘Is this where I want to be?’ she’ll have the strength to answer honestly and the guts to move on. I want her to take her dreams seriously — and, above all, have fun."

Lessons #4 – #7

#4: Don’t Work for a Jerk

Our daughters’ generation may think sexual harassment is a thing of the past (it’s illegal now, right?), but one anonymous reader knows it isn’t.

She wrote to me that in the late 1990s, as her responsibilities doubled, she suggested to her boss that she be elevated to supervise some planned new hires. He suggested they discuss it over lunch, where "he told me to dump my husband and get a sugar daddy like himself so I wouldn’t have to be concerned with ambition," she wrote. "Then, when we got back to the office, he told a colleague we’d been at a hotel. Behind closed doors, I told him he was out of line. He agreed and said we should forget this ever happened. I did — or tried to. He didn’t."

After receiving a mixed performance review, she realized that her future at the company was iffy at best. But she stayed on for what she describes as a year of pure hell. "I was working too many hours to look for another job, and I was constantly on the defensive," she wrote. Finally she was given another bad review and asked to sign it or resign. She chose the latter. Her experience points up the need to be careful in the process of filing a complaint and to be prepared with an escape hatch.

Now a successful writer, she has this advice for her daughter: "Sexual bullying and discrimination are facts of life. To succeed in business, you have to work in a supportive environment. If you’re afraid of being jobless, I promise you can move back home."

#5: Stand Up for Yourself

When Laura Levine graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989, she launched a corporate career at a time when women were often undervalued. Her primary message to her 9-year-old daughter, Abby: Toot your own horn. "Don’t sit back and expect to be recognized just because you do good work," says Levine, now 41 and living in Larchmont, New York. "Women often feel that they will come across as too aggressive if they highlight their contributions. Make sure you get credit for your work, because the men surely will."

Recently divorced after nearly 10 years of marriage, Levine would also counsel her daughter to retain her independence no matter what. "Make sure you’re always able to support yourself," she says. "Start saving and investing from day one."

#6. Follow Your Passion

Janet McGrotha, 51, of Jonesboro, Georgia, hopes that her 21-year-old daughter, Dana, will find her passion early, even if it comes with risks. "For years, I was prisoner to a paycheck," she says. "I brought home a good salary to provide for my children but found the work unsatisfying." Now retired from a career in telecommunications, McGrotha wonders whether she’d do it all again. "I know I would put my own needs aside to meet the needs of my family," she says, "but I would plan differently so I could also do what I loved." Dana is an English major who loves to write — not exactly a surefire income generator. "I still say she should go for it," McGrotha says, "even if it means writing that bestselling novel in her off hours!"

#7. And My Two Cents to Amy, Kelley, and Meghan

If I had it to do all over again, I’d do it all over again — but with less performance anxiety. I’ve learned that trying to get an A at work every day makes for sleepless nights, and you need to be rested to pursue your passion. I’d stop saying I’m sorry all the time to defuse problems. I’d shut down the doubting voice that kept me from speaking my heart. I’d start taking chances sooner and asking for forgiveness later. And I’d enjoy being a woman at work. (I wish I hadn’t worn bow ties, suits, and sensible pumps in my cute 20s.) What else would I say to my nieces?

Take your responsibility seriously, but not yourself. Nurture your friendships. Trust your first impressions. Look in the mirror each night and ask whether you’ve done the best you could. If the answer is no, you’ve got tomorrow to fix it. If it’s yes, try to leave work at the office and rest your beautiful head for a well-deserved night’s sleep, ideally in the arms of someone who loves you just the way you are.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:18

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