At 23, the stars aligned for my career. I was midway through a master's degree at The London School of Economics and Political Science and had been hired as a part-time reporter for an investment website based in the city's Camden neighborhood. I liked the small team I worked with, got a glowing one month review and my boss asked if I was interested in staying with the company after graduation. It felt like I was on track towards the career goal I'd held since high school--to work as a journalist for an established publication--and for that first month, I was.
But balancing graduate studies with work was challenging. The essays and exams that would determine my degree were all due within a six week span, and the weight of that work was new to me. To compartmentalize, I checked my real self at my office door. I came in to work, greeted my colleagues, listened more than contributed in each morning meeting and kept close to my desk. The small team I worked with often seemed too busy to answer questions, so rather than pitching story ideas that might get turned down or ask for more projects, I stayed back in third gear.
After four months, my boss called me into his office to discuss my future with the company. The meeting was going well until he told me that despite the great work I produced, the team had held a meeting and decided that, in terms of my staying, "We don't think it's the right fit."
I must have looked as confused as I felt. "You're ambitious, intelligent and will be very successful," my boss said. "But you haven't made enough of an effort to join the team, and in a small company that means everything. You didn't speak up enough in morning meetings, and you lost the enthusiasm you displayed in your interview. That won't work long term," he said, "and if I could give you one piece of advice moving forward, it would be to let your guard down."
I spent days in a fog, not believing that performing well at my job wasn't enough to keep it. But the hardest part was that deep down, I knew my boss was right. They knew when they hired me that I had no experience in finance reporting, yet they took a chance on me after a great interview. In editorial meetings I usually contributed last, after I had heard everyone else's suggestions and tried to absorb them. I did it to show that I was a listener who could work independently, but also to hide my fears of inadequacy, lest I reveal someone my colleagues didn't like. But they had liked the person who walked into the interview, and, rightfully so, they didn't respect me when I withheld that person from them.
One of Sheryl's strongest points of advice is, "Don't leave before you leave." While most often applied to balancing work and motherhood, that advice is essential for women at all stages of our careers. Because we work so hard for success, we don't like to think that we sabotage ourselves sometimes. But it's a reality that each of us must own and change when necessary. In trying to earn a full time job, I "leaned back" in order to not show too much of myself or my perceived lack of expertise. I learned the hard way that purposefully leaning back isn't the way to achieve your goals.