(Note: When I first published this article on LinkedIn, it was read by approximately 9,000 people and liked over 650 times and one of the authors of the books I recommend contacted me to thank me for her inclusion on the list. It is my most read piece of writing ever. I can’t tell you why. But it was fun while it was happening.)
I’m not generally someone who recommends self-help books. In fact, in the past I have been guilty of pouring scorn on many of them, perhaps because the ones I’ve picked up and started reading have been particularly vague (what exactly is self-actualisation?) and therefore particularly unhelpful to someone like me who prefers the literal to the lateral.
Finding a self-help book that is actually going to help you is a deeply personal thing. You have to be at a particular point in your life to benefit from specific self-help books. And you have to be going through a similar crisis to the one being described by the author. And you have to be able to put into practice what they are telling you to do. They’re long odds.
But as I was sitting in my study recently, the three books I am about to recommend kept jumping out at me despite being on three different shelves on three different bookcases. I’ve read, and in some cases reread, all three of these books in the past five years and the longer I looked at them in conjunction, the clearer it became. These three books had important things to say to women of a certain age.
Only two of them actually qualify as self-help books. The other is a beautifully written and yet deeply disturbing work of fiction. And in recommending them, I am not suggesting they will solve anything. What they will do, I hope, is begin a journey towards realisation for women in their thirties about what it is they really want and how things might have to change in order to accomplish them.
They fall into three categories – I’ve christened them misinformation, motivation and motherhood.
This will probably sound familiar to a lot of women in their thirties and older. (If you’re a woman in your twenties, you might recognise it or you might have to wait until you’re in your thirties to recognise that it is happening to you right now.) But I spent most of my twenties and a lot of my early thirties doing everything that was expected of me (both personally and professionally), doing it well, doing it politely and nevertheless being treated poorly by people in charge. And when I say in charge, I mean people who had power over me because of professional or personal positions or because I simply allowed them to have power over me.
Because I was, and mostly still am, a nice girl.
According to Lois P Frankel PhD and Carol M Frohlinger JD, “If you often feel invisible, taken advantage of, treated less than respectfully, or at a loss for how to get the things you most want in life – join the club. The nice girls club, that is.”
In their book Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It, which is one of a few in the Nice Girls… series (others include Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich), they assert, “As women, we’re bombarded throughout our lives with messages that try to convince us that being ‘nice’ is more important than getting the things we want. Even if no one has ever said this to you explicitly, we’re guessing you’ve most likely absorbed the message that putting your needs first will land you on the ‘bitch list’.”
Nobody wants to be thought of as a bitch. But the disappointing truth is that being a nice girl is something that many, many other people will abuse. Which kind of leaves us between a rock and hard place.
What nice girls need – all women, in fact – is a little bit of power. Not power that is given but power that is taken. And the willingness to exercise that power more than just every once in a while. This doesn’t mean switching a nice girl persona for one that abuses other nice people. It’s about recognising that you can be a nice person and stand up for yourself at the same time.
Sometimes it’s about learning to say yes. Sometimes it’s about learning to say no. And sometimes it’s about learning to prioritise yourself above others – because certainly no one else is going to. It’s all about how you say yes, how you say no and how you prioritise yourself.
It’s hard. There are 99 tactics outlined in Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It and I haven’t even come close to implementing them all. I probably haven’t even tackled ten per cent. After all, change is a long process. But a few that I’ve found useful have included “Avoid perfectionism”, “You can rock with boat without capsizing it” and “Walk away when it’s time”.
I’m not where I want to be yet. But I’m no longer working in a career that I never wanted to have in the first place. When I’m asked for my professional input, I charge an appropriate fee for it. And when I assert my authority in my specialist fields (writing and editing), I no longer feel like a child wearing my parent’s shoes.
I highly recommend this book, even to those who don’t think they are in the nice girls club. I guarantee most women who read it will come away from it wondering what they might have done differently if they had not been subjected to this misinformation campaign, had they known these things ten years ago, and how things can change for the better now that they do.
My favourite career self-help book is Thirty-Something & Over It by Kasey Edwards. The title resonated with me when I saw it on my lunch break because it was exactly how I was feeling at the time. I had a job but it didn’t fulfil me; in fact, a lot of the time it frustrated me to tears. I was constantly asking myself, “Is this all there is?”
In her book, Kasey asserts that in order to be satisfied with your work, whatever your work is, you need to find your metaphorical baby. For some that might be an actual baby, but for the rest of us it’s the thing that gives meaning to our working lives. For Kasey, and obviously for me, that thing is writing. After rising to the top of her field as a management consultant, Kasey is now the author of several books and a frequent contributor to the Daily Life website. You can check out her blog here.
When I finished the book the first time I read it, I did have a moment of, “How convenient for Kasey that the cure to her problem was to write a book.” There are a lot of people who have written books and wish it could be their solution to the question of, “What can I do for the rest of my life that will make me happy?”
But upon second and third and fourth readings, Kasey reveals so much more. She is intelligent. She is witty. She can write (so many people who want to write forget this is a required skill for a writing career). She has a large network of people she can call on for information, favours, guidance and moral support. And she has courage.
Why is all this important? Because there isn’t just one answer to questions of workplace self-help. Altering your career path (and therefore your life) requires a multifaceted approach. You can’t just decide what you want the end result to be. You have to discover the steps you need to take in order to get there and figure out if you can take them and then figure out how. And often that’s a lot harder than realising what your metaphorical baby is.
A job you don’t care about can be a soul destroyer. When you’re in your twenties and early thirties, you often take on roles that instead of being steps to where you want to go are actually steps away from it. But at the time you think it’s all good experience and eventually it will lead somewhere you want to go. Unless you’re a very lucky person, where it eventually leads is to a lack of motivation, of even wanting to get up in the mornings at all.
If you’re at this stage in your career, having this realisation is the first step to getting your motivation back.
So with a little bit of power and upon discovering (or rediscovering) your motivation, we come to the question that confronts many women in their thirties: motherhood.
By the time we hit our thirties, many women have already had children. For those who haven’t, the longer we leave it, the more it seems to become a question rather than a certainty. Regardless of whether we are mothers yet or not, often our thirties are the time when we begin thinking about if it’s what we really want or what we thought it would be.
Which is why the third book on this list is not a self-help book but Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
If you haven’t heard about it or read it or if you’ve only seen the movie, you might think it’s just the latest in a long line of books and movies and the all too frequent real-life reports in relation to students who shoot up schools. Which in one sense it is. But more importantly, it’s an exploration of motherhood.
Because although when we idealise the experience when we think about having children, the ideal is often not the way it turns out. Now obviously Eva’s experience in We Need to Talk About Kevin is at one very extreme end of the motherhood spectrum. But we don’t need to go anywhere near that far to contemplate if motherhood is really what we want.
What is your child has a disability and will require parental care for the rest of their life? What if your child becomes a drug addict? What if your children prevent you from realising your career goals? What if your children prevent you from realising your life goals, whatever they might be? What if you end up resenting them?
Alternatively, what if not having children ends up being the one regret in your life? What if you end up resenting your career? Or worse, what if you end up resenting your partner or yourself?
It’s almost astonishing how little thought most women give to motherhood beyond simply wanting or not wanting children. Reading We Need to Talk About Kevin really prompted me to think about motherhood and my personal choice in much greater detail than I ever had before.
Obviously, I’m making assumptions about women in their thirties and the places they have reached in their family and career aspirations. Maybe you’re a woman in your thirties and nothing in this article has resonated with you. If that’s true, congratulations. You’re no doubt a lot smarter, a lot stronger and a lot more self-aware than me.
Or perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about but you’ve read three entirely different books to help you get to this point. I’d love to know what they are to see if they can help me and anyone reading this article any further on this journey.
*First published on LinkedIn 14 September 2015