There are a lot of folks offering unsolicited advice to young women about how to get ahead. Over the years, I’ve tried it all and wasted a lot of time and energy in the process. For this reason, I’m compelled to expose cliché career guidance by sharing my messy journey and the missteps I made along the way. Here are four hackneyed career tips that caused me more harm than good:
There’s no denying that women are constantly under pressure to look good, even at the office. A quick Google search serves up a deluge of suggestions. Dress your age; go easy on makeup; don’t be too sexy; don’t over-accessorize; get regular manicures. The list goes on and on. In addition to the pressure of being a woman, there’s the stress of looking like a creative.
I was once told that designers should establish a signature look. Embarrassingly, I made moodboards; edited my closet; debated whether my style was minimal chic or classically modern. Did this effort get me a raise, promotion, bonus, new client? Absolutely not. It did, however, fuel my insecurities and distract me from what really matters—my work.
Oh I’ve heard this one a million times, from my dear mother and father, from well-meaning friends, from guidance counselors, from recruiters, from anyone with the ability to utter syllables. It’s so ingrained in my conscience that even after the worst job experience of my life—I smiled, bit my tongue, and thanked my boss for the “incredible opportunity.”
For years I followed this rule without question, until one memorable interview when a male creative director said to me, “Our clients are very masculine. I worry that you’re too feminine for the job.” At that moment (maybe from shock, or possibly from pure rage), I stood up mid-interview, collected my things, and walked out the door. Bridge proudly burned.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a creative studio that doesn’t have this ubiquitous Anthony Burrill letterpress poster plastered to its wall. And I must admit, I generally agree with its message—being a cool, decent human goes a long way. But I know from experience that this attitude at work can plant you deep in a world of creative mediocrity and self-loathing.
When I got my start, I considered myself lucky to have a paying job at reputable agency. I kept my head down and said "yes" to everything. At performance review time, I was lauded with compliments like “a team player” and “great attitude.” But while I was busy being nice and digging into the projects no one else wanted, my male counterparts were working on the sexy stuff—and, more importantly, getting exposure to agency leadership and clients. On the outside I played nice, but inside I was bored, frustrated and seethingly resentful.
I was trained—perhaps brainwashed—to believe that all briefs, however mundane, have the potential for inventive creative solutions. So when I was drafted to work on a behemoth and lackluster retainer account, I stayed positive and doubled-down on tenacity. The client barked orders, brutally criticized our work, and demanded attention at all hours. But I stuck to my guns, convinced that I could win them over with great creative.If the client asked for two concepts, I gave them ten. And every time they said no, I pushed harder.
I never won them over, but I managed to work my team and myself to exhaustion. I still believe in fighting the good fight, but I’ve learned to pick my battles. Learning to accept “no” has saved me time, energy, and my sanity.
So the only career advice I leave you with is this—relax and be yourself. But if I were you, I’d ignore it.
Meg Beckum is a creative director at Sullivan, an independent brand engagement firm. She’s a bona fide southern belle with a passion for college football, an appetite for peach pie, and a knack for storytelling. Equal parts writer and designer, she helps clients build authentic brand narratives that fuse purpose, personality, and product. While corporate brand development is her focus, Meg is most proud of her work with organizations empowering women and girls—including the Girl Scouts of the USA, Planned Parenthood, The National WIC Association and Women Moving Millions. Connect with Meg on LinkedIn and Twitter.