It’s been 11 years since I left the ivy-covered halls of my alma mater. Okay. I went to Minnesota State University, Mankato. There was no ivy. But it has been just over 11 years. That part is true. I entered into the world of advertising/marketing/communications with a lot of expectations and very little in the way of a clue. As I start the second quarter of my career, it seemed like a natural time to reflect on how those expectations stacked up against reality.
Expectation: My Career Would Be a Steady Climb to the Top
I worked hard in high school and college. It paid off with solid grades, class rankings and objective successes throughout my academic career. I thought my actual career would be much the same. That I would land the dream entry-level job at a big-deal corporation, find a boss who would be a lifelong mentor, and work my way through a series of promotions until I was a vice president of important things by the age of 30.
Reality: The Top Is a Moving Target
The dream entry-level job didn’t exist. Entry level isn’t a dream. It’s dues you have to pay. I also found that a big-deal corporation wasn’t right for me. What I thought would be a straight shot to the top was a series of ups and downs. Two steps forward, three steps back and then four steps forward again. And that top I was headed toward? It looked far different than what I thought. I wanted flexibility, room to create, independence, and to remain a practicing writer throughout my career. Things that never would have been possible if I landed that VP of important things title.
Expectation: We’ve Moved Beyond Mad Men
The summer I graduated college was the summer Mad Men premiered. Which meant everyone thought my gig at a 14-person agency in Mankato, Minnesota, was exactly like Peggy’s gig at a midtown Manhattan agency in the 1960s. I always joked that both the alcoholism and the sexism had vanished with the decades. I didn’t think I’d have to fight any harder to succeed or to be respected in my industry just because I was a woman.
Reality: We’ve Evolved Beyond Mad Men, but Not as Much as I Thought
Obviously things have progressed beyond what they were in the Golden Years of Advertising, but not nearly as much as they should have. I’ve still worked at places where I was pushed into secretarial duties because “women aren’t creative.” I endured inappropriate comments, uninvited hugs, stares that lingered too long for comfort and flat-out groping. And I watched it happen to others as well. Fortunately, this world beyond the backwards Mad Men generation is becoming more of a reality each and every day. Bad behavior that was overlooked when I first started is now cause for dismissal and people are speaking up. There’s quite a ways to go, but at least we’re marching forward.
Expectation: 30 Would Be the End of Doubt
I swore when I turned 30, I would have it all figured out. I would have so much experience under my belt, there was no way anyone could question my expertise. I would walk into every room with confidence. Sell my ideas with unwavering poise. Gracefully negotiate raises based on my undeniable merit. I would know exactly who I was personally and professionally and all the doubts I had in my early career would completely melt away.
Reality: To Grow is to Doubt
Turns out being in a position where I never doubted myself was boring. It meant I wasn’t growing. That I wasn’t challenging myself. In order for me to progress as a copywriter, as a strategist and as a human, I had to put myself in positions where I was uncertain. Of course, some of this uncertainty is unfounded, and I’m still working on that. But knowing it’s okay to not be confident 100 percent of the time, leaves room for the mistakes I need in order to grow.
Expectation: My Career Would Be My Creative Outlet
Because my career involves writing and big ideas, I thought for sure it would equate to creative fulfillment. I would develop campaigns that were as entertaining as they were impactful. I’d push concepts to new heights. I’d change the world with award-winning ad after award-winning ad. Each word I wrote would be filled with meaning that stretched beyond features and benefits to impact the lives of those who read it (this one might be hyperbolic).
Reality: My Career is a Career
My career has had its creative moments, but it’s also just a career. Some days are more meaningful than others. And some campaigns are just campaigns. I’ve had to find outlets outside my advertising jobs to truly express myself creatively. Writing for hire has never been quite as fulfilling as my own personal projects. No matter how unpublishable my short stories have been or how unfinished my novel remains.
It’s only been 11 years and I’ve got another 33 or so to go before I can leave it all behind to travel the world and finish that novel. But the biggest thing I’ve learned at this juncture in my career is that very little unfolds as we expect it. We have to be open to change and ready to adapt. The unexpected tends to be better than my plans anyway.
/written by Eliza Green