Episode 56: All the right moves

February 9, 2015

"We can constantly reinvent ourselves if that's what we choose to do. I know I felt pressure to make all the right moves in my twenties, but I've learned I'm most fulfilled when I listen to my inner voice." - Dawn Edmiston

"I do feel like many women feel that their path is more flexible: 'Well, maybe I'll work for a while and then I'll stop.' I don't know that many men feel that's possible for them." - Meg Jay

 22 minutes.

Dawn Edmiston

This is the second of two shows on women in their twenties. Last time we heard from two young women talking about communication problems, confidence, and the competition they're up against. This time two women in their forties look back at the twenties from their perspective. 

First we hear from Broad Experience listener and professor of marketing Dawn Edmiston. She says you don't need to have your whole life and career sorted out by the time you're 30.

Meg Jay

Meg Jay isn't so sure. She wrote her book, The Defining Decade, because she had so many young clients who didn't want to focus on work or relationships in their twenties. She argues now's the time to do that, or you'll struggle later. She has plenty of tips for young women who feel work life is getting on top of them, and some fascinating insights into how the twenty-something brain works. And we finish by talking about men, and how few of them feel they have the same choices when it comes to career/life balance.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, the second of two shows about women in their twenties – a decade when not everything goes well.

 “We should be looking at failure as OK, this did not work, I need to try something different. Not this did not work, and I’m a failure.”

And do men in their twenties pick certain careers because they have to?

“Men are expected to be successful, they’re expected to support a family and to do it all in terms of work. And for women it still, I think, feels like a choice.”

Stay tuned.

Last week we heard from two young women: one on the cusp of a career and the other several years into hers. They talked about communication problems they had at work, fear of not doing well, lack of confidence…and how much competition they’re up against. This time I wanted to talk to two women whose twenties – like mine – are in the past.

Dawn Edmiston is a Broad Experience listener and a professor of marketing at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

She spends a lot of time around people in their early twenties, and she firmly believes you don’t have to have your whole life sorted out by the time you’re 30.

“And typically the first thing that I tell students in their twenties is that there is not simply one right path to success. There tends to be pressure from their parents or their peers to follow the right path, when there are actually a multitude of paths and a multitude of opportunities for each of us. And one of the wonderful things about being in your twenties is that if you think that you’ve made a wrong move in your professional or your personal life, you still have plenty of time to make a different move and take a different path.”

I tend to agree with that, although my next guest has a different take. But Dawn says we live in an era where we have a lot of options…

“We can constantly reinvent ourselves if that’s what we choose to do. I know that I felt pressure to make all of the right moves when I was in my 20s, but as I’ve grown older I’ve learned that I’m happiest and most fulfilled when I listen to and trust my inner voice.”

She started her twenties by moving to Guam with her husband – they got married at 21, and he was in the military. Then it was back to the US to go to business school and on to a career in marketing and consulting. Dawn says during her twenties she got quite frustrated that this career she’d envisaged wasn’t going entirely to plan. She wanted to make a difference at work and felt she wasn’t. She often didn’t know if she was doing ‘the right thing’, whatever that was, at the office. Looking back, though, she wishes she hadn’t worried so much.

“It’s not as though you are given a handbook as to this is how you will climb the corporate ladder.  And I think so often we’re looking for those steps, that guide…”

But they’re not usually there…so she says you have to trust yourself, which she didn’t back then.

“I worked in many situations in my twenties where I was in relatively independent positions, so I had supervisors but they were not individuals who even saw me on a daily basis. And that was really difficult at times, it was difficult to understand if I was moving in the right direction. And there were times where perhaps I should have asked for greater feedback. There were times where perhaps I should have been more confident in knowing that what I’m doing is what I was hired to do and what I was empowered to do.  And I think too often in my 20s I was thinking about how my career might unfold in my 30s or 40s.”

She was looking ahead and asking herself what she should be doing now to make herself as shiny as possible later. In her thirties she fell into a one-year teaching job. That led to something else, and she’s now been a professor for ten years. She says it’s been the most rewarding decade of her life. But she couldn’t be doing what she is now without the experiences she had when she was younger… including the bad ones.

“We should be looking at failure as “this did not work, I need to try something different”, not “this did not work, and I am a failure.” That’s a lesson that I wished I would I have had greater confidence in my 20s. I did well in my 20s, but I struggled."

She was the first woman in her family to go to college so she put a lot of pressure on herself to be successful in the traditional sense. Recently she actually set up a women in business group at her university, because so many young women were coming to her with career queries – and she wanted them to have the confidence to make their own decisions…

“Because in many instances they felt that they needed to follow traditional paths. They feel that they need to be consultants or accountants and again if you’re made to do that, I want you do to do that. But more often then not, students are arriving in my office as seniors telling me that the reason they chose to do that was because it was their parents or their peers were influencing them, so they had great pressure to be a success. But I do not equate stability with success.”

But it’s easy to do that when you’re starting out – and especially when you’re American and you may have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay off.

Dawn says more women than men voice concerns about what to do next…

“I think very often the men are potentially going to potentially grin and bear it while the women are having more difficulties with reconciling what they want to do with what they should do.”

And we’re going to talk more about men and the pressure they feel to just get on with it a bit later in the show.

So, I asked Dawn, what advice would she give to women in their twenties now?

“Again, that there is not one path, that you do not have to know all the answers. And your single greatest asset is your work ethic. You’re not expected to know how to do everything from day one to be a success. As a professor, I can teach you management and marketing skills but I cannot teach how to have a professional work ethic, which will ultimately determine your success. And the other challenge that I think women in particular have is that networking is not a negative word. In my 20s, I was under the impression that if I did well in college my efforts would simply be recognized and I would be offered a great job after graduation, and that simply did not happen. So being an introvert by nature, it was difficult for me to reach out to others. However, once I stopped dreading it and started seeing it as an opportunity to meet new people and ask questions about their lives it became a very rewarding experience for me.”

Dawn Edmiston. And as some of you know we tackled the hell of networking in a past show. 

My second guest is Meg Jay. You heard her on the last podcast talking about twenty-somethings’ communication skills. Meg works with young adults every day in her psychology practice, and she’s also written a book called The Defining Decade – Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of them Now. She sees a lot of clients who don’t feel the need to focus in their twenties because, well, 30 is the new 20, right? Meg says it’s not. And that you do yourself a big favor if you start building a career and a meaningful relationship before you’re 30.

Those of her clients who have started a career, though – they worry. A lot.  

“It’s interesting, when I was writing The Defining Decade I maybe had 80% kind of roughed in and I sent it to a publicity assistant at my publisher, 12, that’s the name of my publisher. And I sent it to a publicity assistant there, and most of the chapters were about finding jobs, getting jobs and she said Meg if you don’t mind my saying it seems like the work piece you’re focusing on you’re talking about finding jobs but you’re not talking about how hard it is once you actually get the job. And I thought oh my gosh, how did I leave that out? Because I’d probably talked to five clients about that that day. The level of anxiety that young workers feel, and especially young women feel, when they go into the workplace, a lot of them are just overwhelmed with anxiety that they’re going to make a mistake, that their boss is going to yell at them, that their boss is going to fire them for every little thing. You would be stunned by how many hours a week I spend talking to young women workers about that. Very competent, capable smart people who really feel overwhelmed by the idea that they’re going to get something wrong and that’s going to be the end.”

At this point I told her about April Laissle, who featured in the last show – and about how worried she is that when she does land her first job out of college she won’t excel as she always has till now, and this is a major concern for her. Also what she said about having low confidence – this is something I think is a big problem for women in particular. And Meg says yes, she sees it a lot…

“…and some of that is the anxiety of the young worker but I don’t have my confidence yet because the competence isn’t there yet which is often because just the hours aren’t there yet in terms of how many hundreds of hours it takes to be like hey I’ve got this and if I make a mistake it’s not the end of the world. And then the flip side of that is not every boss was meant to be a mentor and I think that’s a big shock for young workers too because they’re used to being around teachers who, you know, I’m sure not everyone’s had good teachers, but the point of teaching is to bring them along and to nurture and to mentor and then you get into the workplace and a lot of bosses feel like, hey, we’re here to make a company successful, I’m not here to teach you or to nurture you, and right or wrong that’s just the way it is.”

There’s a great example of this in her book. It’s in a chapter called ‘Calm Yourself’ and it was one of my favorites in the whole book. In it Meg describes a client, a young woman she calls Danielle. She was working her first job in broadcast TV in New York for a big, famous (male) news anchor. She made rookie mistakes – including misspelling the name of a former president in a headline – and he regularly bawled her out. Other higher-ups would also tell her in no uncertain terms when she screwed up. She was a bag of nerves every day. Going into the office felt like entering enemy territory. She spent every lunch hour outside on the phone to her mum…

“And that happens a lot, you know, they’ve done some cool studies about how just even the sound of your mothers voice can lower your blood pressure and your skin conductants level so the sound of our mothers voices, if we have good relationships with our mothers, can make us feel better. So she was using a coping strategy that had worked for her in college but I felt like in the workplace even though it was helping her get through the day, day in and day out it wasn’t making her feel anymore like a grownup or like she belonged there. So we really worked with on can she tell herself, she knows what her mother is going to say, she’s called her 100 times, so can she walk around the block and tell herself those things? Because I think calling her mom on her lunch break was kind of making her feel like a kid still in the closet, of like, people don’t really know I don’t belong here. It wasn’t really making her feel like yeah, I belong here, some days are hard but I can make it through on my own.”

And that advice actually worked. Meg told Danielle that part of learning is screwing up. And that you need thousands of hours of practice to make perfect – something Danielle found hard to hear at first. But gradually she tried Meg’s advice. She steeled herself to return to work after lunch without relying on her mother or friends to get her through those swinging doors. She started to build resilience. And when she got a review from the boss – it was actually good. He commended her work ethic among other things. To Danielle, all the mistakes she’d made were catastrophic…but to him, they were part of being young and new. She blew those mistakes into vast proportions – and there may be good reason for that.

AM-T: “Something really interesting I read that I didn’t know at all was, um, in the book you write, ‘20-something brains react more strongly to negative information than do the brains of older adults.”

“They do. Um, I mean they’re in an explosive period of growth so we used to think that the brain was mostly developed by about age five and that’s because it got about as big as it was going to get by age five, but what we know now is that size isn’t everything, and that another huge explosive period of growth happens in your twenties and that’s where it’s all about connections. So even though your brain isn’t getting bigger it’s becoming more densely connected, so your brain is just really hungry for new information, at the same time it doesn’t have a lot of experience dealing with uncertainty, so it’s looking around trying to learn from what’s happening and it’s very sensitive to what goes wrong because when something upsets us our brain says oh, I need to pay special attention to that and learn from my mistakes, and so the way it feels for a lot of 20-somethings is that your 20s are just a huge minefield and you’re sort of stumbling through and mines go off and they’re upsetting and your brain pays special attention to that and then you try not to make those mistakes again. But I think that’s what it feels like new jobs, new relationships, new apartments, new landlords, new cities, new everything. It just feels like a big minefield.”

Now at this point I wanted to ask her about something gender-related, if not work-related. In her TED talk about the twenties – it’s been viewed about 7 million times – she talks about how you’re not fertile forever and how many young women – like the client she discusses in the talk – think they can stroll through their twenties with less than ideal partners because they’ll have plenty of time to find someone more substantial later – but how they may be missing their chance to find the right person.

AM-T: “I find – and you do talk about men and women in your book, which I’m very grateful for…but so often I find these discussions focus on women finding a mate. I don’t know if you remember this from the news but I guess it was last year, there was this brouhaha when this mother of two Princeton males…this aggravates me, I mean how do you feel about that?”

“It aggravates me as well. I mean I should say I have a PhD in clinical psychology and it gender studies from Berkley so I've thought about these things a few times before so -- that is really is why, I never even considered writing a book just for 20-something women because I knew that's only half the conversation, at least when it comes to relationship and when i knew that when it comes to career, 20 something men are stressed about their careers too, so I really wanted to be able to do something that anybody felt like, "This is for me, she's talking to me". It’s interesting, she say comment, you have the whole gamut but you had one piece that stood out to me, a young woman who heard my TED talk and said "why is she pointing the finger at women" ,and the next commenter is a man saying "I thought she was talking to me", so I think, it is sort of this cultural assumption that all these conversations are for and toward and about women and part of that is because you have all the women's magazines where that's what they're talking about, and you've got helpful podcasts, and you've got books that are targeting toward women and I do think we are and should be talking to the men too and that they want someone to talk to them - now who's the best person to do that - it's probably not me, as a 40-something female, but I tried open up the conversation as much as I could - from my perspective and what I could, and so many 20-something men were receptive to it than I could have imagined. So what I'm saying is somebody, the door is wide open, and I wish more people would walk through it and say, we're going to include men in these conversations. I was at a 20-something event this weekend and it was half men, half women they were both engaging me equally - one thing I heard from the women was that, yeah, "I want to get serious about my relationship but it takes two to tango and I'm out here on the dance floor by myself" and just not really knowing, ‘How do I find men who are ready to think seriously about their personal lives too?’”

And maybe some of that is the old contention that men don’t want to commit because it’s more fun to play the field, and being with one person is boring – but maybe something else contributes to this…something men have had to think about forever…

“You know, we were talking about how women were so stressed and anxious about work, and they are - but I do think it still feels like a choice for women. They feel like, "You know, if I really hated this, I don't have to do this." This feels like going the extra mile. Kind of, having it all or being great at everything, but there's always that sense that I could go on a completely different path, and I could prioritize being a partner and/or a mother or I could open a little shop and people would think that’s great -- I don't think you find as many men who feel like that's true for them.”

You know Anne-Marie Slaughter, she of the famous Atlantic article on why women still can’t have it all – I heard her talk about this on a panel last year. She said her two sons basically get one message from society: earn well, whereas women get all sorts of different messages, they really do have more choices. I asked Meg does she have male clients who feel stressed out by the idea of being the main breadwinner?

“I have 20-something guys who feel like it’s stressful, I have 20-something guys who feel like, I don't want all that responsibility, just like for decades we’ve had 20-something women who say at the end of the day I don't want to be the sole or main breadwinner in my family, that's been okay for 20-something women to say always and still now. It’s still really not okay for a 20 something male to say, "At the end of the day, I don't want all this on my shoulders, I would rather my partner carry a bigger load.” I mean of course it’s becoming more permissive and more okay to say hey, people are different, but I do think men feel so much more pressure that they do have to get out there and succeed and be able to carry a family.

"I mean I think you see more delaying sometimes with men because they feel like that’s what they’re getting into, and once they get in it they can't get out of it -- where I do feel that women feel like their path is more flexible, of ‘well maybe I’ll work a while and then I’ll stop, then I’ll focus on family, then I'll get back in the workplace,  and I can just sort of weave and out as it suits me.’ I don't think as many men feel like that’s possible for them.”

This is obviously a much bigger conversation and maybe society is just about ready to have it. If you’re a guy who thinks about this stuff please go ahead and post a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com, or on the show’s Facebook page. I do intend to put together another man-only show later this year.

Thanks so much to Meg Jay and Dawn Edmiston for taking part in this show.

This episode of the podcast has been supported by MailChimp. Thanks to them for giving me some support, and please go and check out their site for all your email marketing needs.

And finally, I’m planning a show where I talk to couples where the woman is the sole breadwinner and the man stays at home. If you’re part of such a couple and you’d both be willing to talk to me on tape please get in touch. Also if you’re one half of a female couple where one of you stays home with kids and the other works, I’d like to talk to you too.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.  

Thanks as usual to April Laissle for her help with the show.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.