THE BLOG

What I Know About Work In My 40s

01/10/2013 01:42 pm 13:42:34 | Updated Mar 12, 2013

I love to work, though I've never had a talent for making a ton of money at it. Of course, if money were my objective there were probably better choices than becoming a writer and a filmmaker. The trouble is, I grew up with a father who believed that money equaled worth. So, you know, that nags at a girl. 40-something is an interesting mid-point to reflect on what I've learned and what's of value to me in my work, since wealth, by itself, isn't it.

I've been at work for twenty-ish years and I can reasonably expect at least another productive twenty years ahead of me (though I'm hoping for many more). How do I want to spend it? What do I want to leave behind? And, if I could help someone younger, what might I tell them?

1. It's never too late to decide what you want to be when you grow up.
I've seen a lot of friends make major career transitions recently. While they may never experience the perks of seniority that their peers might, they've made a choice to live fulfilled lives.

My friend Jason determined that he wanted to make a difference in the world while still supporting his family, and a law degree was the best way for him to do that. He had been a crappy college student and was worried that he wouldn't be able to get into a good graduate program. He applied himself to the process with the humility and clarity of a grown-up, got into a top twenty school, and graduated near the head of his class.

He wouldn't have had the fortitude at twenty-two. And it wouldn't have had as much meaning for him.

In a totally different way, my grandfather also became what he wanted to be much later in life. When he came back from WWII, Paw-Paw worked as a machinist at Hughes Tools while nights and weekends, he dedicated himself to his hobby. By the time he retired, he was making a decent income as a wood-craftsman. He didn't have the resources to quit his day job but he kept doing what he loved and was able to spend the last part of his life in his workshop, making beautiful things and making money.

2. Parties are overrated.
Don't get me wrong. I love parties. But the idea that you have to go to a party or you might miss an important networking opportunity is crap. Relationships are deeply meaningful but inauthentic schmoozing, for the sake of it, adds up to nothing.

Instead, make friends. If parties come naturally you to you, great. If not, find other ways to connect with people.

3. Don't be defined by what you're good at.
As we were driving to my daughter's award ceremony for chorus in the spring, I gently prepared her for the strong possibility that she wouldn't be receiving special recognition. (This is an old-school institution that acknowledges some kids over others. Gasp.).

And then, spontaneously, I regressed to my less evolved self, and asked "Aren't you mad that you're not getting an award?" And my seven-year-old patiently smiled upon my childishness and said, gently, "No Mommy. That's not why I do it. I do it because I love it. I do it because it's my passion. I don't do it for award."

Yowza.

When I was younger, it felt dangerous to not be good at stuff. Po Bronson showed how praising kids for intelligence undermines their efforts. We've been very careful to praise our daughter for hard work rather than native ability. But I had no idea it was really sinking in.

What would I have been, if I had committed myself to what I loved rather than what I did well? A UN translator. A meteorologist. An ice skater.

Here's the thing. There were things at which I was so-so. Acting, for example. I mean, it's so subjective, but in the drama department at the University of North Carolina there were definitely better actors. But then there were definitely worse actors too. And then, weirdly, some of those "bad" actors became paid actors. Like, in movies. And television. With fans.

It seems that they kept going and got better. Or lucky. Or, shockingly, talent doesn't matter all that much. Hard work and tenacity win the day.

4. When people refer to women as having "big personalities," they mean she's either fat, funny or decisive.
I recently had the opportunity to work with male and female television directors in succession. I had heard that the female director was a "big personality." This is one of those insidious things said about women to undermine their leadership. Since she was neither fat nor stand-up comedy funny, "decisive" was clearly the culprit. Here's the thing, she was no more a "big personality" than the man I had worked with the day before. In fact, they have really similar work styles - smart, efficient, direct, experienced, knowledgeable, and a lot of fun.

I left her set feeling very strongly that all women should do everything they can to be big personalities.

5. Squeaky Wheel Theory
We're all super busy. And we deal with people who even busier than we are. So, if you need something from someone, ask.

Ask politely. Ask appropriately. But ask. Again. And again. Don't take offense if you don't get an answer. My sister always reminds me that they don't need something from me; I need something from them. So gently pester until you get what you need. Or until you've asked three times. After that, move on.

6. You might be able to have it all but you need to define "all" carefully.
Anne-Marie Slaughter caused an uproar for her article in The Atlantic about the challenges women face pursuing careers and families. But she's on to something. If you want children and you have a demanding job, it's tough. If you want kids, a big career, a clean house, friends, time to read, regular exercise, healthy dinners, a decent marriage... you're going to have to let some stuff go. And, the first thing to go might well be your serenity.

I would love for American work culture to start looking more like Lily Tomlin's utopian office in the final scene of 9-to-5. And maybe when those in power - women and men - demand a work environment that supports more family time that might become a reality. Until then, we all have to make choices.

Following my own advice, I'm transitioning to work that requires longer hours and more travel. My husband is officially The World's Best Dad ™, but on the days when I leave before my daughter is up and come back after she's in bed, I feel like crap.

My family deeply matters to me. So does my work. And occasionally that leaves me with some incredibly painful choices. Now, I know I'm likely to draw the predictable "Mommy Wars" fire here, but for me there isn't an easy answer. Losing ground in my work doesn't feel like an option. Neither does losing touch with my kid. My imperfect solution is to double down on family life when I can. Along with that, I've made peace with a messy house. I rarely cook. I have no idea what clothes are in style. But I know who the loudest boy in my daughter's class is, and I watch basketball with my husband.

7. Invest in Good Shoes.
Johnny Carson asked Bette Davis her advice for young starlets in Hollywood. She answered, in her lacquered mid-Atlantic accent, "Take Fountain instead of Sunset." That may seem like a droll dismissal of the question but to anyone who lives in Los Angeles, this is truly sage advice.

Similarly, shoes may seem like a frivolous concern when it comes to work but, trust me, they matter. Wearing heels when everyone else is in running shoes makes you feel like you're playing dress up. Wearing running shoes when everyone else is in heels renders you less credible. And blisters suck. Figure out what people who do what you do wear. Figure out why they wear them. And then invest in a version that makes you feel good.

Along with that, don't look like a prom date yanking up her strapless. I'm not arguing for conformity here, but thinking about your clothes rather than your job is a true waste of energy. If you're not someone for whom style is a bible, experiment a little but then settle on clothes that work for you. And buy that incredibly effective clothing tape to keep things in place. I love that stuff.

8. There's a thin line between limiting yourself and accepting your limitations.
This is a tough one. The entirety of Outward Bound is dedicated to pushing people beyond their self-defined limits. Of course, a trip to the ER with a kidney stone will do the same. We hate sucking at things, so we decide we're not athletic or adventurous eaters or fill-in-the-blank. But there are brave souls who decide to run marathons in spite of never having run a mile, and they do it. They push beyond their perceived limitations and prove themselves far more capable than they once imagined.

Sometimes life will force you to expand. I (stupidly) faint when I see blood. But when my husband was gushing blood on the kitchen floor, I was able to call 911, calm my terrified toddler and put pressure on the wound. My friend Valerie was a writer until her sister got sick, and she founded a non-profit that became a catalyst for stem cell research. Emergencies happen. You become bigger. Life demands that of you.

On the other hand, sometimes you just have to accept who you are rather than staying mad at yourself for not being a different person. A friend of mine loves filmmaking but doesn't function well with the crazy hours of production, so she became an editor.

There's no benefit to keeping your life small out of fear. But trying to be someone you're not can only lead to heartache.

9. Doing stuff to help the world is cool.
Occasionally, I'm able to make a documentary about something that really matters. Like fighting an orphan disease such as A.L.S. Or drawing attention to the issue of mass incarceration. Or helping a theater company that works with kids who stutter.

Being of service to people feels better than being of service to your bank account. Some people are able to make a living doing this kind of work. The rest of us can use our skills and our time to make a difference where we can.

Look, I'm no fool, making money is a requirement. You have to find a way to sustain yourself and, if you can, find some financial freedom. But the much bigger question is not the work you did or how wealthy and important you became. The bigger question will always be... did you ease someone's burden?

10. Kindness, Integrity, Honesty, Hard Work and Humility Still Count
Actually, I don't really know if they do. But, really, all things being equal, why not be a decent person. It can't hurt.