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.

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