Magazine / 5 Conventional Career Tips Women Should Avoid

5 Conventional Career Tips Women Should Avoid

Book Bites Career Women

Bonnie Hammer has spent much of her life as a working woman; she has been everything from an assistant, the star of a kids’ TV show, greenlighting top TV series like Suits, Battlestar Galactica, and Mr. Robot, to the Vice Chair of NBCUniversal. Most of the career advice she heard over the years about what and how women should be at work was BS. She wrote this book to set the record straight for female professionals everywhere and all the coworkers around them.

Below, Bonnie shares six key insights from her new book, 15 Lies Women Are Told at Work: …And the Truth We Need to Succeed. Listen to the audio version—read by Bonnie herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Don’t follow your dreams—follow the opportunities.

When it comes to careers, “follow your dreams” can be nightmare advice. For starters, we usually discover our dreams long before we enter the workplace: through praise from parents, career day at school, a teenage hobby, or a favorite college course. Chances are, we have little idea what a career in that dream industry or field looks like—or whether we’d like doing it.

Just like we can’t be what we can’t see, we can’t dream what we don’t know. Our dreams have an infinite number of blind spots, made up of every industry we haven’t yet worked in, every company we haven’t yet encountered, and every job we haven’t tried doing ourselves—not to mention all the industries, companies, and jobs that don’t yet exist. The possibilities and blind spots are truly endless.

There’s nothing wrong with loving something so much we want to make a living from it. But if we’re addicted to our dreams, we risk sleepwalking through life and hitting snooze on a host of bigger, better opportunities that might come our way. Once we’re willing to ditch the dream, we have the opportunity to follow opportunities.

That’s what I did at the start of my career. In the first few years after college, I pursued my passion for photography, working jobs in dark rooms, photo studios, photo editing, and photojournalism. Then, in a twist of fate, I landed an internship during grad school at the local PBS affiliate in Boston, taking pictures of the cast of a new kids’ TV show. In a second twist, when three production assistants got fired in a single day, I was offered a full-time job.

At the time, I knew almost nothing about the industry and had never considered entering it. But there was something in the air that intrigued me. Plus, I needed a job. I weighed my options: the dream that hadn’t really gotten me anywhere versus the opportunity that might take me God-knows-where. I said yes to the offer and said goodbye to a career in photography.

Five decades later, the camera is still my best friend; it’s just not my boss. Like me, the happiest and most fulfilled people I know aren’t working their “dream jobs”—we’re working jobs we never could have dreamed of at the start of our careers. Life’s most exciting and least expected adventures are found when we refuse to let what we’ve previously imagined limit us.

2. Don’t just know your worth—work on your worth.

In a world where too many of us undervalue, undersell, and underestimate ourselves, “know your worth” can feel like the perfect antidote. But when we’re young and inexperienced, most of us are worthless at our job. I’m talking about professional worth, not the personal worth we’re all born with. It’s easy to confuse the two. But conflating our value on the job with our value off of it is like sticking our hand out the window in New York and thinking it’ll tell us the temperature in New Delhi.

Unfortunately, too many entry-level and early-career employees seemed to have missed this memo. So, they show up and grunt at being given grunt work, convinced they deserve better pay, fewer hours, and more exciting assignments right from the start. At work, though, our worth isn’t intrinsic. Instead, it’s earned; we become worthy by proving ourselves—by showing up early, staying late if needed, saying yes to every opportunity, finding stretch assignments to expand our skillset and scope, and staying positive through it all.

“At work, though, our worth isn’t intrinsic.”

That’s how I succeeded in my first real TV job. As the most junior person on the team, I was tasked with following an untrained dog (who probably earned more than me) around the set of a kids’ show, picking up his poop. My responsibility was literally shit. With two academic degrees, it was hard not to feel like the work was beneath me. But I also felt extremely lucky to have broken into the TV industry at all. So, I acted like a college student gunning toward an honors degree in pet-sitting, and I treated each doggie bag I filled like an extra credit opportunity. I plastered a smile on my face, picked up the crap, and paid my dues. When an associate producer position opened, I was promoted. After all, I’d already proven I could take one (and tackle number two) for the team.

Putting in the work on the job is how we prove our worth. It takes time, effort, consistency, and a great attitude. But eventually, you’ll find that it’s all worth it.

3. It’s nice to have friends in high places, but it’s better to have a foil who challenges you.

We might not know who legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was if not for Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman—tough opponents who pushed him to greatness. And I, Bonnie Hammer, probably wouldn’t have written this book or had my career without my challengers.

There’s a misconception that the best mentors are essentially friends in high places at work: powerful, well-connected allies who root for us at every step and help us move up the ranks. Those mentors do exist; they’re what I call supportive mentors. But at work, there’s no elevator to success; if we want to get to the top, we need to climb. The mentors who teach us how are not cheerleaders. They’re more like drill sergeants or what I call challenging mentors. These mentors put the tough in tough love. They give us feedback that’s often hard to hear. They critique and oppose us like sparring partners. And they constantly push us because they know what we’re capable of, even when we don’t.

At every stage of my career and life, I’ve had challenging mentors. Growing up, my older brother played this role. His mantra still rings in my head: “When things get tough, just get tougher.” Then there was the toughest mentor of my career, my boss while running the SciFi channel, who was so demanding and antagonizing that I painted his name on the six-foot punching bag I used for my weekend kickboxing class.

In the moment, these challenging mentors rarely made me feel good. They questioned everything I did. But over time, they all made me better and were monumental in the success of my professional journey. That’s why my number one piece of career advice is to find a mentor you can hate. A foil, not a friend. A challenger, not a supporter. If you don’t know how to spot one in the wild, use this trick: Look for the truth-tellers. That’s what sets this kind of mentor apart. They won’t lie to protect us from whatever reality we have to face. They tell us the truth because they know it will help us in the long run. When we’re wrong, they make sure we know and don’t let up until we get it right.

4. Do sweat the small stuff.

If someone doesn’t sweat the small stuff in life, they’re probably still doing small stuff with life. Harsh words, but it’s true. Especially when it comes to careers. Forget what our culture preaches. In practice, we don’t respect people who focus only on the big picture and blow off the rest. Those who end up leading, succeeding, and inspiring us are the people who pay attention to even the minor details and understand the big impact even the littlest gestures can have. Like sending a thank you note after an interview, proofreading a document multiple times before sharing it, learning the names of support staff others might ignore, arriving five minutes early to a meeting and noticing someone couldn’t make it, and offering to share your notes or fill them in.

“Who we are in the grand scheme of things is determined by nothing more than the little things we do.”

In my industry, entertainment, the small stuff is everything. Think about your favorite show: A well-placed prop can make a scene. A perfectly timed joke can make an episode. Nuances in an actor’s facial expressions can make a performance. A carefully chosen costume can make a character. A meticulously crafted set can make a world. That’s why writers obsess over every word of dialogue, directors spend hours visualizing a single scene, and actors rehearse their lines dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

For good and bad, the words “it’s no big deal” aren’t in my vocabulary. Focusing on the nitty gritty comes naturally to me. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s not too hard to learn. Sweating the small stuff really matters—on the job and off. Just like attentiveness, consideration, and care can make or break a career, they can make or break a friendship, a marriage, or even a membership to your favorite gym.

The small stuff makes a big difference. It is the big stuff. Who we are in the grand scheme of things is determined by nothing more than the little things we do. They all add up.

5. Talk is not cheap, it’s the most valuable currency we have.

Words carry weight—which is why political campaigns are won and lost over debates, movies succeed or flop based on buzz, and “we need to talk” are the four scariest words in any relationship.

Still, we underestimate just how much our words matter. Otherwise, we’d treat what we say (and how we say it) with a lot more care, consideration, and concern. While we know not to flat-out lie, to some extent, we’re all guilty of occasional exaggerations and empty rhetoric. But inaccuracies add up, and eventually, they cost us our integrity. If our word becomes worthless, we can’t be trusted. That’s why, in business, as in life, our word is everything.

What’s more, words can also get us (almost) anything. They really are our most valuable currency. They can get us raises, promotions, access to unreachable individuals and opportunities, a new seat after a canceled flight, and even dinner reservations at fully booked restaurants. But way too often, people are afraid to ask. Or, when they do, they end up blowing the opportunity.

That’s why, even as adults, we should follow that timeless toddler dictum: If you want something, use your words. And we have to use them right: being respectful but direct, phrasing requests skillfully (rather than trying to box someone in), and using kindness and confidence, not arrogance and entitlement in our delivery. It isn’t the end of the world if we don’t get the answer we want. In my rulebook, yes always means yes. Take it and stop talking. No, on the other hand, often simply means not now, not here, not me. Take it as a challenge, not as a dead end, to do the homework that gets you to yes.

“That’s why, in business, as in life, our word is everything.”

Of course, using words isn’t always serious business. Sometimes, a well-placed joke is just the thing to break the ice, bridge a divide, make a point, or win over an audience. Far from unprofessional, research suggests using humor at work makes us seem more competent and confident. The key is to joke at our own expense, not at others. But even the best joke falls flat if we fail to read the room, which is where listening comes in. Pay attention, make eye contact, and ask thoughtful follow-up questions. Let the other person talk. Listen before leaping into action.

If our words are our most valuable currency, then how we spend them really matters. Words echo long after we leave a room. They tell whomever we’re talking to about our personality, priorities, and potential. There’s a boundless upside to wielding words well and a high price when we don’t.

6. The only time you can “have it all” is in hindsight.

Can women have it all? I usually answer that question by saying, “The only place a woman can have everything is on a bagel!” But at the risk of joining feminism’s favorite debate, my answer is no. In fact, I’d argue that most people have done a terrible job of even defining what it means to have it all.

Ironically, the term “having it all” was popularized by the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine, who famously never wanted kids and never had them. Instead, she preached a gospel of—in her own words—love, success, sex, and money. To her, “having it all” was a way of rebelling against traditional expectations for women.

But today, “having it all” has become something far worse: a new set of heightened expectations and expanded norms: that women do everything. This one phrase is now shorthand for successfully balancing the demands of career, motherhood, and partnership. Anyone who’s tried to do that has probably also failed—even those who seem to have achieved the holy trinity of great marriage, great kids, and great job.

I’m one of them. On the outside, it probably looks like I have it all, so I’m often asked how I manage to get it done. But at the office, I always feel like I’m cheating on my family. At home or on vacation, I feel like I’m cheating on my colleagues. Even now, as an empty nester, I often feel like I’m cheating on my dogs. My balancing act is just that: an act. I had to make plenty of sacrifices along the way—in my personal and professional lives—to get where I am today.

The only time women can “have it all” is in hindsight. In the moment, what we actually have are choices. This is true of men, too. The difference is that society doesn’t put the same pressure on them to defy reality.

That might feel limiting, but it’s actually freeing. As soon as we realize it’s impossible to have it all, we can take agency over our lives. Remember that everyone’s “all” is different. Be free to prioritize what you’ve chosen to be important. Once you decide your all, I’d like to help you get there with my portable mentorship in 15 Lies.

To listen to the audio version read by author Bonnie Hammer, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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