As far as career anxieties go, having to “pivot” ranks somewhere between toxic bosses who leave you crying in the bathroom and sabotaging coworkers who always find passive-aggressive new ways to undermine you.
The fear looms so large that it’s paralyzing. In this stress dream, total career irrelevance (followed by abject poverty) is lurking out there, waiting to suck all your perfectly-laid plans into its quicksand, and you are helpless to avoid the trap.
And the anxiety is equal-opportunity. Young, hungry, ambitious women just starting out tell me with panic in their voices that they fear they’re already on the wrong path and they can’t figure out a way to their dreams. Mid-career women with big titles, salaries and networks often admit after a couple glasses of wine at networking events that their work isn’t that satisfying after all. And senior women, who should be at the top of their game, confide to me in private that they are terrified they’ll be edged out by someone younger and they won’t be able to get another job. Ever.
We all know that you should leave a job that leaves you unhappy, unappreciated or unrewarded. Change is good. But the idea of “pivoting” sounds like you’re happily traipsing down a well-worn path and suddenly you need to take a hard right turn into the terrifying unknown. As if you have to leave everything you’ve worked so hard for behind in order to get back on track.
When I was in my mid-twenties, just getting some ground under my feet at work, my father gave me a copy of Who Moved My Cheese? I’m sure you know this cautionary tale of two “Littlepeople” named Hem and Haw who get too comfortable in one way of doing things and are too inflexible to find new cheese when it’s all gone. Can you imagine how little that resonated with a 25 year-old junior editor who could only afford a 350-square-foot apartment with one sink? I was desperate to find that comfortable place in my career (and to stop brushing my teeth in the kitchen). My cheese was barely sprinklings of parmesan.
But my dad was a career entrepreneur, who took more twists and turns in his business than I can recount here. He loved to make a deal — that was the thread that connected all his projects. It didn’t really matter what the deal was, he wanted to see the opportunity, broker it, and then tell the story (again and again) with great gusto.
I know he meant well by giving me this book, hoping I’d find as much adventure in looking for new cheese as he did. But instead I found it depressing: Goal-oriented work with no joy in the doing, an endless maze with no logical flow from one turn to the next and panic as motivation.
That is not the career I signed up for. And it’s probably not what you’re after either.
I’m often asked how I “pivoted” from magazine editor to author/speaker/ entrepreneur. I know I’m meant to have a clear three-step plan that anyone can follow. But I don’t. And I just don’t think there is one. The truth is, I never meant to be editor-in-chief of a magazine. I never thought I’d write a book or start a community of ambitious women.
In college, I thought I’d write novels about the inner lives of cool, rule-breaking women, until I realized I had real bills to pay and there was no stable income in being a young novelist. And so I took a magazine journalism class. I started out as a reporter at a trade magazine for lawyers. Then when the first dot-com boom happened in the 90s, I thought I’d move to Silicon Valley and work for a digital company. But instead I launched my own digital side-hustle and took a paying gig at a teen magazine writing about amazing young women who were starting not-for-profits, saving the environment and escaping Y2K cults (really.) That experience led me to be part of the launch team of CosmoGIRL Magazine, where I got to build a brand from scratch and cater to a new audience of smart, game-changing young women. Eight years later, that job helped me land the role of editor-in-chief of Seventeen, where I had the honor of stoking the dreams of an entire generation of young women. I was in my flow. I felt like all the lights were green, my hair was blowing in the wind and I was living my most badass babe potential.
And yet, as the magazine business crumbled, that job ended. In an excruciatingly polite conversation in a cushy office on the 44th floor of Hearst Tower, I was told my contract wasn’t being renewed. But that wasn’t the end of the line. And frankly, that wasn’t the end of my flow. I instantly knew I wanted to continue the conversation with the generation of young women who grew up with me into the next phase of their lives. My book, The Big Life, was forged from that moment of change. And over pizza dinners and many bottles of wine, I created a nationwide community of women who are young, hungry and ambitious and want more out of life.
It didn’t feel like a pivot. It felt like an evolution. Everything I’d done before led me to that moment. And everything I’m doing now will lead me to the next. I believe that.
The thread that connects all of my projects is a mission to have conversations with women about the things that matter. I just kept looking for new opportunities and new territory where I could make my mark — that’s my cheese.
You are not the sum of the things you do. What matters is why you do it.
When young women tell me that they feel stuck in their careers, I ask them this question: “When you were 16 years old, what did you imagine your life would be like now?” Which is not to say that you should actually be living your 16-year-old dream (or there would be a lot of women still chasing hopes of being Britney Spears backup dancers.) But when you’re 16, it’s the first time in your life you can pick up your head and see your possibility in the world. You are pure potential. You’re not tied to one place or one person or one idea of who you’re meant to be. The seeds of your Big Life are planted in that dream. That’s the expansive, excited feeling that I want you to take into every evolution in your career and your life.
I’ve said it before, but I want to say it again.
You have a choice: To be the architect of change, or to let change happen to you. Take the reins.
Ann Shoket is the author of The Big Life and is the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen.