On becoming ‘Self-employed’

Dear 2007 Jean,

It’s 2015, and last week LinkedIn sent you a reminder that it’s the eight-year anniversary of your career at ‘Self-employed’. But you know that it is actually a reminder that it’s the eight-year anniversary of the time that your boss told you to find a new job, after she shouted at you that you were crazy and you looked at her and said, in a very calm voice, ‘I don’t think it’s fair for you to speak to me that way.’

You’re 25 years old, you’ve been in this, your first job, for less than two years, and you’ve left the office to sit on a wall by the Thames outside Somerset House and cry big gulping sobs. You feel like you might as well give up on working altogether. You feel like a failure.

Good news: you’re not a failure, or at least you don’t think of yourself that way anymore. But there are some things that I wish you’d known on that terrible day back in 2007. For you, it’s too late, but maybe another sobbing 25-year-old will come across this letter, and it won’t be too late for her.

  1. A job with a good manager in a field you’re less interested in is worth 1000x a job with a bad one in a field that you love.

Several people in the industry told you not to take this job because the boss was so difficult. ‘I can handle anyone,’ you thought, ‘I have a lot of pluck.’ I applaud your self-confidence! But it’s gone now, and it’s going to take you a while to rebuild it, because you’ve wasted two years trying to please someone who couldn’t be pleased, and who had no interest in helping you build your career.

2. Being a woman does not qualify you to be a personal assistant.

Sure, they told you being an assistant was a way in: the first rung on the ladder. Look around you. How many men are working as assistants? How many men are working as bosses? Typing other people’s emails and fetching other people’s lunches are not talents that women are born with, but anyone who walked in to this office could be forgiven for making that mistake. Let’s be honest, Jean: you’re quite bad at it. Some people are great personal assistants, and love doing it. You’re not one of them. Find a position that’s actually matched to your skill set, not to an anachronistic view of what women should do to kick off their careers.

(Also: when you went to that senior colleague for advice and he remarked, ‘maybe it would have been better if you were a boy’? That was not good advice.)

3. Your career will not be ruined.

People will tell you that things can ruin your career. This is not because you’re doing things that will ruin your career. It’s because you’re making choices that are not the choices that they would make. Some of the things you’re going to do in the next eight years would seem completely illogical to you right now. But they’re great things to do!

4. Don’t be patient.

It took you about a month of transcribing dictaphone tapes to realize that this job was not for you. But you believed that you had to pay your dues. You stuck around. You became very fast at typing. If you’re in a job where you’re not learning new things, find a new one. Successful people are not people who wait. They’re people who find new opportunities when they need them.

(And if someone decides not to hire you for a job because they reckon you haven’t been in a role for long enough, you don’t want to work for them.)

5. There are many ways for you to succeed.

One of the reasons you feel like a failure today is that you set yourself rigid goals: X job in Y industry. It didn’t work out. I don’t blame you: until you got this job you existed only in academia, where the goals were prescribed, clear, and achievable. But you are going to learn to be flexible. Eight years from now, your goals will have shifted: to be happy, to be interested, to feel real enthusiasm about going to work in the morning, to admire the people who you work with, and learn from them. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s going to be good.



P.S. It’s not all a loss: several of those dear people who sit next to you in the typing pool and make tea with you and hand you Kleenex when you cry are going to become your lifelong friends. You will always be grateful for that.

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