How To Build Your Big Life
By Ann Shoket
When I was 16, I told my punk rock friend Jen that I wanted to move to New York City and be a writer. We were eating Cool Ranch Doritos in her bedroom and shredding the knees of our jeans. She looked at me through her pink bangs and said:
I didn’t know what dubious meant…But I knew it wasn’t good.
And after I looked it up, I was really hurt.
I didn’t talk to Jen about my dream again, but I never stopped wanting it. I wanted the cache of being a writer. I wanted the adventure of Manhattan. I wanted to be smart and savvy and in the know. I imagined what it would be like to read poetry and drink cappuccinos in the village, to rub elbows with big-time authors and editors. I wanted to do great work, talk to amazing people, make-out with rockstars. And see my name in print. That’s how I would know I’d arrived.
For you, your 16-year-old dream isn’t a distant memory, it’s front and center, just beyond your fingertips. You’ve spent the last four years polishing it to a high-shine. It’s your North Star. At this moment in your life, you’re pure potential. You haven’t made any mistakes you can’t undo. You’re not bound to one city or one job. Anything is possible. Savor this moment. Because you will spend your entire life trying to get back here. To feel the power of your own possibility.
I’ve interviewed some of the most influential people in the world: Martha Stewart, Madeline Albright, Arianna Huffington, Taylor Swift who was just a newbie with a Myspace page and lots black eyeliner when she came to my office. And they all remember exactly what they wanted to be at 16.
Why? It’s the first time you pick your head up and start to look for your place in the world.
So how did I get my 16-year old dream?
My first job was definitely NOT a dream job. I was an assistant at The American Lawyer Magazine. My big accomplishment, aside from not being fired, was that I learned to be a killer reporter. I loved asking nosy questions. During the day I had this intensely boring job, but at night, I had a sexy side hustle. I launched a cool downtown online magazine. Yeah, yeah, every J-school grad has a website now, right? Well this was 1996 and almost everyone was still on dial up!
Next I landed a job at a teen news magazine, then went to launch CosmoGirl. This was the first time I got excited about that moment in your life when you’re becoming who you’re meant to be.
It was 13 years in the publishing industry before I landed the Big Job: Editor in Chief of Seventeen magazine. I was living my 16 year old dream — and it was better than I imagined! I mean, it was part of my job to throw a party for Beyonce….I’d never even thrown a dinner party! I had an office in a glittering skyscraper with a stunning view of Manhattan. And a closet full of amazing shoes.
It was everything you think it was. And I did that job for 7, almost 8 years. I loved it and it was an honor to be at such a legendary magazine
But when your dream job is a corporate job, it is susceptible to corporate restructuring. And so when the mag was reorganized 2014 and that job ended, I was ok with it. I had done that job. But that was not the end of my big dream. Because you never stop becoming the Badass Babe you are meant to be.
But let’s get back to your dreams.
You’re not 16 anymore. Now, the stakes are suddenly higher and the road ahead is more treacherous than ever. The problem isn’t that you can’t have The Big Life, but because what you want is different than any other generation, there’s no clear cut path…AND THAT’S THE HARD PART.
This is the truth: You are the revolution.
Your generation is laser focused on career and ambition and success in an unprecedented way.
You couldn’t care less about climbing the ladder or leaning in — you’re like “you lean into me!”
You want: Freedom. Experiences. Access. The ability to work how you want, when you want.
You want more than a job. You want your life to be full in every way: Career, relationships, family. But when ambition is at the center of your life — as it is for you — that makes you look at those things differently. You want a career that is also a passion and a relationship that feels like a partnership.
So what IS the Big Life?
IT’S NOT: The life your boss, your mom, or other women ahead of you wanted. You don’t want what they had. You don’t want to sit still and wait to get promoted, up up up in a straight line. You don’t care about a closet full of expensive shoes. You’d trade them for a Macbook Air any day. That’s a sign of freedom for you. Proof that you’re so important, you can work anywhere.
IT’S NOT: Having it all. The idea just feels dated. Not real. And not necessarily something we actually want. Have you ever met someone who “has it all” and is supremely happy about it? No, me either. There are tradeoffs, and big wins, and compromises, too. And you shouldn’t have to do a thing because someone else tells you that’s the way things SHOULD be. BIG JOB, HOT HUSBAND, ADORING FAMILY. . .TICK TICK TICK. It’s one size fits all…and it doesn’t necessarily fit you. It’s all pressure, no possibility.
IT’S NOT: Just for alpha girls. In the magazine biz, we use to talk about “leadership” which was code for the girls at the front of the class with their hands in the air or the girl bosses with a massive list of contacts. This revolution is for YOU. Even if you sat all the way in the back of the class — even if you skipped class, even if you don’t have your own startup and even if you’ve never even heard of a Series A.
THE BIG LIFE IS: Building a life on your own terms. You want a career and a life full of twists and turns and adventure. Where you’ve got side hustles and task forces and reach assignments and passion projects. There is no one linear path and you’re not even sure you want to be “at the top” but what you’re looking for is meaning above all else.
Which means you’ll follow what makes you happy. Maybe you’ll move around: First a corporate job, then your own biz, then a total career pivot, then board chair of a not for profit. Maybe you’ll get promoted up, up, up in a straight line. Maybe you’ll have a string of hot lovers dotted across the country. Maybe your college boyfriend will be the right one for you after all.
I didn’t meet the man who would become my husband until I was 35. I was single for a long long time and I had every bad date. They weren’t all bad. Some of them were fine. Fun. But they didn’t connect with me and I didn’t want to settle for meh. I was almost convinced it wouldn’t happen. Until I was at a bar on the Lower East Side with some girlfriends I leaned over to talk to the hot Australian dude sitting next to me and we just clicked.
This is not my Big Life humble brag. I’m telling this story to silence the voice in your head that says it has to be just one way. The one that shuts you off to possibilities for all the different ways your life could go that you never expected.
Forget about the things you SHOULD do or the way you think things should go. This is your opportunity to create a life that works on your own terms.
You are the pioneer — you’re Lewis and Clark discovering new territory with no map. You’ve got an ice pick in one hand and a lasso in the other and you’re climbing mountains and forging rivers to stake your claim in new territory.
And by the way, this doesn’t just affect your generation. It affects mine, it affects everyone’s. When you want freedom from face-time at the office it paves the way for an easier work/life conversation for everyone. When you insist on transparency — especially salary transparency, we’re closer to equal pay.
Look, I know it’s easy to think that I’m something special because I’m here telling you about my Big Life, but fact is I’m a girl who grew up in the suburbs in Littleton, Colorado and Yardley, Pennsylvania. I was just a girl who worked at the mall in high school and drank beer in the woods with the punk rock kids. But I did work really hard. I took chances and I paid attention to how the world works. That’s what it takes.
But if you really are this revolutionary, this game-changer, rockstar pioneer…why do you feel so small and overwhelmed.
You’re being held back by TWO things:
1. You’re ready; the world isn’t. It just hasn’t caught up yet. My mission is to help you recognize your power — and to make the world recognize it too. Because it really doesn’t. Not yet, anyway. The older generations may see you as “entitled.”
Entitled? ABSOLUTELY! You deserve it all. But your bosses and their bosses see you as a huge management hassle. They want you to sit still. Pipe down. Wait. UGH. The Worst. I can promise this moment is coming: You’re nine months into your shiny new job and you’ve not only mastered the basics, you’re acing every assignment and collecting gold stars right and left. So you stride in to ask for a raise, a promotion, a title change…And then, let down: you’re told it’s not in the budget, it’s not in the strategic plan. Sit still. Pipe down. Wait. And I’m sorry to say, you should. You have to learn the rules before you can start breaking them. And your nine months on the job is just a blip in the career of your boss. But don’t sit still forever. There’s real power in the asking — you’re signaling that you want more. You see a different path. And if this company won’t give it to you, someone else will.
2. And the other reason you’re frustrated and stuck? You might not want to hear this OR believe it, but…YOU are also holding yourself back.
You may not even realize you’re doing it.
But what I learned from hundreds of women like you is thatyou’re clinging to old, outdated ideas, too! Like, you still think 30 is this deadline, you need the job and the partner and the baby plan in place before your 30th birthday.
But trust me, nothing catastrophic will happen.
I also hear a lot about anxiety from young women. Worry that there won’t be room in your life for children and ambition.
I was 40 when we had our son and almost 42 when our daughter was born. Again, not the way I thought it might be when I was 16, but it’s a great twist in my Big Life. My kids haven’t made it harder to be ambitious — they make it harder to sleep…but my ambition is still there. And frankly it’s clearer than ever. It’s true, I have less time for the bs…but that has made me more purposeful, more direct about what matters in my work.
Stop holding on to outdated ideas that are holding you back from being your most awesome self. The longer you cling to them, the longer you’ll be stuck.
So yeah, the world, and you, have some catching up and letting go to do. But what can you do now to get the Big Life? I’ll tell you.
One. Lose the five-year plan. Just kept your eyes open for opportunities to try something new. Be fearless, try everything, don’t plan too much.
Embrace the mess. A big life is a messy life. If you want to move up, move ahead you have to say yes to everything. Networking groups, cocktail parties, meet-ups. Raise your hand at work and volunteer for new projects. Be the woman who everyone sees as dynamic, hardworking and dedicated.
And yes, when you say yes to everything, your life is a mess — you’re drinking four cups of coffee a day, eating ramen for dinner for the third night in a row, kicking aside piles of laundry, and leaning over your computer again at 9pm to hit a deadline for your side project. Groceries don’t get bought, workouts fall by the wayside, friends get flaked on……but you know what I say about Work/Life balance. It’s a sham. It doesn’t exist and I don’t think it should. When you are young and hungry and ambitious, you have to see that mess as the mojo that’s making your life bigger, and harness it to keep you moving forward.
Build your squad.
The most important thing I’ve learned from young women like you is that relationships are everything.
It used to be that networking was two hours in a room with a stack of business cards in one hand and a lukewarm chardonnay in the other. Swapping those cards for other people whom you’d never talk to again. That’s not for you. Instead, you’re generation is choosing to team up with warm, engaged groups of people not for one-offs, but regular meet-ups and brunches where everyone is trading tips and tricks and devoted to helping each other succeed.
And finally pay attention to the itch.
You know that feeling when you’re dating a guy and he’s perfectly…fine. But you find yourself wishing he were hotter, smarter, stronger, softer, less into meditation, nicer to waitresses…whatever…and you’re sure there’s something better out there. That’s the Itch…and whether you get it in your relationship or your job, it’s a signal that you are ready to move on. You’ve learned everything you can, you’ve checked that box.
The Itch is not a bad thing — it’s a great thing. It’s the thing that keeps you moving forward, keeps you questioning the status quo.
That itch, that unquenchable urge, to be more, do more, experience more! To seek out better, more challenging, more rewarding opportunities! It never goes away. Because while it means you’ll be less likely than any preceding generation to be contented or to stay in one place or to be happy at one job, it also means you may also find it harder to…be contented or stay in one place or be happy at one job.
You are revolutionaries, whether you realize it or not. Which is great. But it can also be exhausting. Because it requires energy and focus and forward momentum.
I can’t promise The Itch will always be so easily scratched. But I can guarantee that this energy you have is what will create the very change you crave. And that you are not just affecting your own life or circumstance; you’re changing it for all of us.
And for that I feel excited for you, I’m also, in many ways, grateful. It’s a message for all of us to stay young and hungry and ambitious and open to all the twists and turns and adventures ahead. And never stop becoming the badass babe you are meant to be.
You’re blazing the trail and and the rest of us are lucky to have you leading the way.
Ann Shoket is the author of The Big Life: Embrace the Mess, Work Your Side Hustle, Find a Monumental Relationship, and Become the Badass Babe You Were Meant to Be. She is the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen and an advocate in the lives of millennial women.