Two years ago I found myself fired from a non-profit finance job I loved. I had poured everything I had into that job for five years while also juggling motherhood, all the while knowing I couldn’t do both well with the demands my career placed on me.
After a period of soul searching and challenges, I can now say that I am in a better place. I’m a business owner and entrepreneur as a work-from-home mom, and I build my work around the ever-changing needs of my family. Given the distance I now have from that rough time, I can honestly say that being fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Of course, at the time, the actual process of facing the mistakes for what they were—both real and imagined—and being able to move on after the huge blow, not only to my ego but also to future prospects, is not easy. It takes time for those wounds to heal.
This is what struck me as I listened to a panel discussion in New York City earlier this month on Mistakes I Made At Work, a new book edited by Jessica Bacal. In it, Bacal, who is the director of the Smith College Wurtele Center for Work and Life, shares the stories of twenty-five successful professional women—and the failures that got them to where they are.
Six of the book’s contributors spoke on the panel—including the highly regarded Joanna Barsh, director emeritus of McKinsey—talking about their mistakes twenty years prior with a raw openness that is impressive. They really care about what happened, had felt the guilt and shame of it, and were never going to be the same people because of it.
Hearing these ladies candidly recount their mistakes to the audience—the real, unedited, gritty truth about ways in which they had messed up—showcased the book as the powerful contribution that it is, especially in the wake of our growing cultural conversation about modern woman’s challenges to find balance in work and life.
We certainly seem to be having a moment to talk about how we deal with failure. There are articles like Julie Zeilinger’s much-talked-about Forbes piece “Why Millennial Women Do Not Want to Lead” on what it’s like to grow up as a perfection-obsessed millennial woman. And then there’s Arianna Huffington’s well-received Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, presenting another viewpoint about what can happen at the pinnacles of professional success for women.
In the conversations following Sheryl Sandberg’s monumental Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, questions have remained among myself and my peers. What happens when leaning in leads to a stumble?” Or “What about when I lean in and find myself miserable and completely at a loss as to what career step to take next?” This is where Mistakes I Made At Work offers real answers, collecting the stories of mistakes and lessons learned by powerful women into four thoughtful categories: “1) Learning to take charge of your own narrative, 2) learning to ask, 3) learning to say no, and 4) learning resilience.”
Each woman will naturally find one category resonates with her more than the others, which is what makes Mistakes I Made at Work offers so personally useful, unlike other books that risk offering one-size-fits-all solutions. One story that resonated with me, for instance, was that of Anna Holmes learning to say no. Holmes’ wildly successful Jezebel.com led her to leave because she had no balance in her life and couldn’t get the distance she needed from it.
Another story that spoke to me was titled, “Learning to Take Charge of Our Own Narratives,” which I think might be better labeled as “Learning Authenticity.” Here, Laurel Toby of Mediabistro.com shares how she realized her best self existed outside of traditional corporate structures, leading her to start her own company.
Perhaps the writer with the most public failure was Reshma Saujani, who ran for public office in 2009 and earned only 19 percent of the vote. For Saujani, her lessons learned meant clarifying her authentic message and acknowledging what she truly brings to the table, a discovery that led her to start a successful non-profit. She advises young people to “Fail fast, fail hard, and fail often,” insisting that the more they do, the bigger their dreams and vision are.
While the twenty-five female authors are diverse in industry, age, background, and voice, they share in a common theme. Each embraced their challenges and moved through failures toward new landscapes of self-awareness and resilience, acquiring new skillsets, communication tools, and more along the way.
All this makes Mistakes I Made At Work remarkably refreshing to read, especially in our culture that can set unrealistic expectations of what it takes to be successful women, leaving many feeling that any sign of failing is fatal and that we must tackle and achieve any goal offered our way. Problems start when this happens at the expense of keeping sight on our true passions and interests, ultimately driving us to a different measure of success (or, as Huffington calls it, “the third metric,” or the dark side of high levels of fame and work as a business woman).
It’s no surprise then to see Huffington’s words grace the book’s cover: “Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success”—words made all the more convincing by the fact that all the book’s contributors are now incredibly successful in their widely diverse careers. It’s about lessons learned and about getting up again after falling; it’s about how the mistakes and failures shape them into the women they are and are becoming.
But, let’s be real; how can this be true? So many of us—myself included—know that mistakes are looked down on by most bosses. We’ve even perhaps experienced being called in for a review with heart beating loudly, knowing that, even if we’ve performed at a high level 90 percent of the time, the things we’re not doing right are often all we’re evaluated by. And for every one of those who failed and got up to go higher, isn’t there another who failed and was never heard from again?
The answers to this are possibly the most important contributions of the book, looking more closely at how mistakes are handled as well as the notions of guilt and shame. This is the apex of the many layers of cultural and societal expectations that women feel to please, be liked, and be appropriate in all situations—even situations that are arguably toxic. Being able to acknowledge that serious problems occurred (in the case of physician Danielle Ofri, any mistakes were a matter of life or death!) and that, even if I made the mistake, I am not the mistake—this is what empowered these women to ultimately move forward.
Mistakes I Made At Work will be of huge value to young women today who are working to find authentic passion, skills, and life goals amid layers of self-doubt, expectations, and high ideals. As the latest contribution to our cultural conversation on work-life balance, I am hopeful stories like these will shift the conversation about talented working women and add a layer of realism, authenticity, and joy.
Photo by Taylor McCutchan