BOOK REVIEW: Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing!

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When I began my big career transition out of academia and into my post-academic life, I read a zillion books. Just like when I was pregnant (the first time), and when I was training for a marathon, and when I began parenting toddlers, my motto was: every project requires a textbook. For my career-change project, I checked books out of the library that covered finding the work that works for you, mid-life career transitions, re-entering the workforce, etc. I believe strongly in the power of a good story to motivate people and know that it is easier for me to keep my eye on the prize (a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery, an 8-minute mile, or a job to keep me motivated and inspired) when I know there are others who have been there and done that.

Now that I’m a coach, my motivational reading habits have transitioned with me. I read books on marketing and selling and finances–because a woman has got to pay her bills–and books on career development and on personal growth. As with my earlier reading to motivate me to seek a new, fulfilling profession, some of these personal growth books leave me gnashing my teeth and muttering swear words. Trite tales of “pursuing your passion” or opening the freaking CUPCAKE SHOPPE of their dreams by privileged women who were giving up crazy lucrative careers in industry to have a bit of mid-life down-time drove me absolutely batty. Similarly, books like Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements leave me cold: yes, personal integrity and a positive outlook is a good way to start any project, but magical thinking is unlikely to get you anywhere on its own.

I can’t think of a book more different in tone from cupcake-shoppe-four-agreements-fuzzy-balanced life than Maja Jovanovic’s Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing! …and Other Career Mistakes Women Make. I purchased this book after seeing her keynote talk at McMaster’s Leadership Summit for Women this past fall. I was witnessing a need among my clients and others I spoke with on clear language and advice for women around negotiating salary, benefits, flex time, etc. Professor Maja, as she is known, includes a chapter on negotiating in her book and I wanted to support another female entrepreneur.

Stop Apologizing! primarily targets the readership that accompanied Jovanovic through her career and her writing of the book: students and the recently graduated. Many of her examples and illustrations speak to young women who are looking for their first job or to get ahead in their first career. I suspect that some of the language in her book also tacitly acknowledges some of the entitlement that faculty frequently experience when discussing either marks or plans for the future with their students. In short, she tells them: you can ALWAYS do more; you aren’t working to your fullest potential. If you are not EXCEPTIONAL, you are mediocre. And mediocrity, in Professor Maja’s book, is the dirtiest of all words.

Her ALL IN and no holds barred attitude about getting ahead in your career and building the life you want could be a pretty necessary kick in the seat of the pants for young people (or old people!) who are sitting around waiting for their ship to come in. She asks her readers to examine how much time they spend wasting on media each day, how much time they spend apologizing for taking up space, having an opinion, wanting more for themselves, etc. This is excellent advice.

Where her advice and tone grated, however, was in statements like:

The problem isn’t the economy. The problem is you. I know it sounds harsh. But when you evaluate everything you’ve done so far, and compare it to everything you could have or should have done, you’ll see there is a huge gap.

Harsh, indeed. In academia, the problem is most definitely NOT you. It is them, almost always. And, even if we take the bizarre business of academia out of her equation, her take-no-prisoners attitude about making opportunity happen for you through sheer effort put into it is not the only way to have a fulfilled life. Getting up at 5am so that you can be ahead of the competition is not the way I want to live. She states quite clearly: “Forget[] about “balance” for now. You can’t be worried about leading a balanced life when you haven’t done anything great yet. Start working on being great. That’s your priority, not achieving balance.” Perhaps I can escape censure if I insist that I’ve put in my trench time and am now, in my middle years, eager to attain some sort of work-life balance that doesn’t leave me irritable and crabby and home and tense and in pain at work??

Professor Maja does have advice that works for graduate students, academics, and entrepreneurs, though, and this is what I’m taking away. Her end-of-day list of questions for advancing your career/projects/priorities is great:
-Was my day meaningful?
-Was I productive, or merely busy?
-What did I learn?
-What did I create?
-What did I accomplish today?
-Did I move my career/project/priority forward today?

I’m thinking of putting these in my journal as a way to remind myself to stay on target with my own goals.

She also has solid advice on having a 30-second, 1-minute, and 2-minute speech on who you are and what you do, so that you can promote yourself and your accomplishments at the drop of a hat. I think this is a crucial skill for scholars and researchers and you can have two or more versions of this speech for two or more audiences (for your academic audience and your post-academic audience, for example).

Stop Apologizing! also includes the advice I give to graduate students who are looking at a dismal job market in their field and thinking of how to position themselves in post-academic work. Jovanovic tells job seekers to think less about the actual job (and its snazzy title or its cool benefits) than what you will learn while in that job that will take you to the next level so that you can continue to build a career that excites you. If you haven’t learned anything new in your job in a year, it is probably time to find a new job. Here, she clearly espouses the growth mentality of career development: keep challenging yourself!

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