When I was in high school and first considering potential careers, my mother advised, “learn to type, and you will always have a job.” She wasn’t wrong.
In 1990, I was 28, a college drop-out with a patchwork job history that included receptionist at an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center, Avon lady, newspaper copy assistant, department store executive secretary, tour boat marketing specialist, and maternity store manager.
But, with a typing speed of 90 words per minute and an aptitude for the new word processing software, I was hired as an Administrative Assistant at a high-tech manufacturing company where I would go on to spend most of my working life.
I didn’t seek the position as anything more than a secure, well-paying job, and I never imagined it would evolve into a 20+ year marketing career.
Becoming a marketer
A few years in, my boss took me out for the traditional (and awkward) Administrative Assistant’s Day lunch. Over pizza and salad, he thought we should talk about my future and asked what I wanted to do.
At this point in my adult life (I was barely 30 years old), I hadn’t seriously considered what my career might look like – or even that I might have one. I was living paycheck to paycheck, with two small children and a marriage beginning to collapse.
I’m sure I said something snarky like, “well, I’m not going to make copies and travel reservations for the rest of my life.” My boss shot me a look, unimpressed, and likely disappointed, that I wasn’t taking the prompt – or my potential – seriously.
I stayed with that company for 18 years, rising from administrative assistant to marketing specialist to marketing communications manager, as the company grew through the .com boom and shrank through the .com bust.
I learned about branding, messaging and strategy, problem-solving, and program management. I also learned how to speak up for myself and my team, when to lean in, when to pull back, and how to manage up.
I used the free tuition benefit to finish my bachelor’s degree and earn a master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications. Although I hadn’t been able to articulate my goal early on, soon I had built a career in marketing.
When the Internet economy tanked in the early 2000s, and we went through more than a dozen rounds of lay-offs – the most memorable beginning early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and suspended quickly as the news broke – I learned to be a more steady and thoughtful leader and that people were what mattered most of all.
An acquisition in 2005 significantly shifted the culture of the company that had raised me into a marketing professional. When generous buy-out packages were offered, I was eager to add my name to the list.
But how does one begin a new chapter when you are who you are, because of where you are, and who you are surrounded by?
I was easily convinced to stay, but neither the company nor I benefitted from my growing ambivalence.
A few years later, a friend and former co-worker encouraged me to apply for a position at his company, another technology business with great benefits and an inspiring vision and culture. Knowing I had a place to land, the support of a friend, and the skills to succeed, I took a leap of faith and started my new job.
One thing was for sure; I was in a different league. Where I had led a global, but small, team that handled all the marketing, events, PR, and employee communications, I was now one of hundreds, if not thousands, of marketing professionals, each owning specific functions and industries.
Pushed once again, my strategic and creative muscles became stronger and more flexible. Working with a diverse set of co-workers, clients, and consultants challenged me to be both more assertive and more collaborative.
You can’t be ambivalent about what you want.
The company was notorious for its frequent reorganizations. In the ten years I was there, my manager changed 11 times.
I had developed a canned response to the ‘what do you want to do?’ question that I repeated with every new manager. “I want to grow, to learn, create good work, and to have some fun along the way,” I’d chirp.
Ho-hum. Not especially ambitious, but I had no desire to be at this point. I had built some financial security, my kids were all grown up, and I was single. I was ready to do something, but since I wasn’t sure what, this job would do just fine.
Mid-way through my tenure, I worked for a woman who challenged my lack of ambition. She said to me, “you can’t be ambivalent about what you want.”
Here was the yang to the yin of my mother’s advice. Mom had said to learn a valuable skill and go where it leads you. Now I was being advised to set my own course. She wasn’t wrong either.
I recently listened to the audio version of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and bookmarked this clip. “I hated being a lawyer – I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”
Two things struck me. First, the certainty of that declaration — even though she wasn’t at all sure what she did want, she was not the least ambivalent about what she did not want. Secondly, you can be “plenty good” at something and still not be fulfilled by it.
I am plenty good at marketing, and I am suited to the work, but after 25 years or so of corporate work life, I too felt empty.
Mrs. Obama summed up the feelings I harbored in the last few years. To hear them from the most admired woman in the world affirmed for me that the question of ‘what do you want to do?’ is universal — it is the struggle of becoming.
I didn’t come to this realization until just recently, months after I left that job. I was not ambivalent. What I wanted was not to be working in a corporate environment.
What I wanted was to explore all the other possibilities, to grown, to learn, to create good work, and to have some fun along the way.
- A new chapter isn’t the end of who you were, it is the continuation of your story.
- Ambivalence isn’t indecisiveness, it’s a sign that it’s time to move on.
- Becoming is not the endgame, it’s a lifelong process.