Author, Speaker, and Content Strategist Wendy Sachs On Being "Fearless and Free," Her Career Path, and Feminism
As author, speaker, and content and media strategist Wendy Sachs describes on her site, her career path has been an adventurous one.
"From the corridors of Capitol hill to an Alabama maximum security prison to the wilderness of Utah survival school," Sachs has mastered the "hustle," had her books recommended by Oprah Winfrey, and perfectly mastered the job pivot.
MAKERS was lucky enough to speak to Sachs on her new book Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Relaunch Their Careers, the journey she took as a working mother, and what feminism means to her.
Read her exclusive interview below.
Q. Tell us about your latest book, Fearless and Free.
A. The origin of Fearless and Free came from my own experience of losing my job — I was working as a full-time freelancer at Grey advertising - a 100-year-old global ad agency made famous in Mad Men. As a freelancer, I had the surprisingly big and lofty title of "Director of Content" for their emerging "content" studio. But after six months, Grey realized they couldn't afford my position and let me go. I panicked. I was over 40 and interviewing at all of the bright and shiny media startups in New York City believing that I needed to get into one of these hot, digital companies because traditional journalism and media — my industries — were dying. I have what I always thought was an interesting and somewhat impressive background — Emmy-award winning TV producer (Dateline NBC, CNN, FOX), Capitol Hill press secretary, editor in chief of Care.com, PR executive — and yet here I was trying to sell myself to one bearded Millennial after bearded Millennial (yes, they were always dudes) who didn't know what to make of my diverse background. I wasn't fitting perfectly into their boxes. So after one particularly depressing interview, where the hiring manager scoffed at my Capitol Hill background, I realized that I needed to hone my story and rebrand myself. I needed to pivot.
I turned to Silicon Valley — our cultural crush — to find the successful lessons coming out of the start-up world that could be applied to women. I was particularly enamored with the Valley’s "failure fetish." I knew failure well! I had always had side hustles – a documentary film project and a reality TV pilot that didn't go anywhere — so I could totally get behind embracing failure. Then I looked for other themes coming from the start-up world and framed Fearless and Free around them. I write about engineering serendipity, growing confidence - and presenting with confidence, — no more “sorrys” and shrinker words like "just" and "actually." I also write about the power of female networks, amplifying each other's voices, branding ourselves, owning our narratives, iterating our skill sets, failing fast and getting comfortable in the uncomfortable. My overarching idea is that with the digital disruption of so many industries today and everything moving at the speed of social — we must all think of ourselves as entrepreneurs, even if we're not running our own businesses. We can’t be paralyzed by fear, overthink our next moves and get stuck. Instead, we must take action.
Q. Was there a time where you were fearful as a working woman/mother?
A. Absolutely! The book was birthed out of fear. Fear of becoming irrelevant. Fear of aging out by 45 years old. Fear of being too expensive and too experienced to hire. My skill set doesn't have the value in the marketplace that it once did. Today, content, news and entertainment can all be produced so cheaply that it’s hard to command the salaries that many experienced writers and producers once could.
The fear in motherhood and being a working mom is a different type of fear. When my kids were toddlers I wrote a book called How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms — I wrote the book because I was trying to figure out how to have a big career and be present for my kids. I lived in a state of angst. But I then realized that it’s all fluid and everything is constantly changing – your job – the needs of your kids. Take a deep breath and you will figure it out. For me, it wasn’t about balance – there isn't any – but it was about giving up the guilt and cutting myself some slack. Now that my kids are older — middle school and high school I hear the clock ticking loudly — not my biological one, but the one that counts down the days until they leave for college. I am incredibly aware of the time I have with them and intentionally make choices to be with them as much as I can. I still don't like to miss soccer games or tennis matches or school events. I want to be engaged – more than ever.
Q. Can you share a time in your career when you had to pivot and re-launch yourself in another direction?
A. After I had my first child I wrote How She Really Does It. As a first-time author I didn't realize that so much of the press and marketing was going to fall on me. I hustled hard - got myself on the TODAY show and GMA and landed other high-profile media. I was my own publicity machine. So while I had at first imagined that I would go back into television after my kids were born, the reality was that hopping on planes for breaking news as I was doing at "Dateline" just wasn't conducive with having young kids. Instead, I pivoted into PR and got a job at DKC — an awesome agency in New York. Many journalists can feel squeamish about making that pivot to PR but I was comfortable with it. I understood good storytelling and now I was on the other side of it.
Q. How would you describe your personal journey in the workplace?
A. This is going to make me sound ancient, but I feel like I’ve seen profound generational shifts in the workplace. I think today women feel more empowered at work probably because Millennial women are bringing a sense of what they deserve to the workplace. Some call it entitlement; I think of it as empowerment. We are demanding more.
I haven’t always felt so empowered. At one job, my boss told me to keep my head down — and while she didn’t find me personally abrasive, she told me that other people did. I was horrified. No one wants to be seen as a bitch at work and basically that's what she was saying to me. My directness rubbed people the wrong way. When I moved to another job, I dialed back my assertiveness and started adopting the "sorry" approach, dropping it into conversation. I was using it as a social lubricant, to make what I said softer, silkier. It worked like a charm. No one thought I was too forward because I wasn’t. But what I soon realized was that my "sorry" approach was a power suck and I stopped saying "sorry."
Q. Who is your mentor, and how did you discover him/her?
A. I haven’t had one single mentor in the workplace, but I’ve accumulated some strong cheerleaders along the way, and I've intentionally stayed in touch with some key people. I realized early on that my network was my professional currency and tried to nurture it as best I could. One boss has even hired me three times. I think the pressure to find a mentor is stressful and it doesn't happen for everyone. But we all can create networks for ourselves of people at all levels and across industries, above us, our peers and those who have less experience. I do believe we will all be working for our assistants one day. So be good to those who work for you and always show respect to everyone.
Q. If you could give just one piece of advice to working women, what would it be?
A. Get comfortable in the uncomfortable — that's where you can grow your confidence, take risks and noodle with opportunities. Women tend to be more risk averse than men. We want to be 100 percent perfect and always get it right. But that mindset can create inertia. You can get stuck and be afraid to try something new. But there’s nothing like a little discomfort to motivate and test you. It's easy to grow complacent and uninspired when you’re comfortable. I’m a big believer in pushing your boundaries and getting close to the edge of the cliff. It's amazing what happens when you look over the edge and aren't afraid of falling. The fastest way to build confidence is to take risks.
Q. Is there a myth about working women that you believe needs to be addressed? If so, what is it?
A. I think it’s about women's ambition. We see so many studies and stories in the media about what pushes women out of the workforce. There are reports questioning whether women truly want the corner office and others that try to explain why it is that women want to fly under the radar and not reach for the promotion after having kids. All of this sets up the narrative that women are less ambitious than men and I strongly disagree with that. I think our priorities and time commitments can shift when we have babies and young children and that the workplace needs to shift as well. The American workplace is simply not set up for women and mothers to succeed.
Q. Have your children had an impact on your career? If so, in what way?
A. Absolutely. How I've worked, where I’ve worked and the kind of work that I do is definitely influenced by my children. I've floated in and out of the workforce depending on my kids’ needs particularly when they were young and my son required a lot of my time. I became a writer and a PR and media strategist because that gave me more flexibility and control over my schedule. I’ve worked for companies and but have also consulted and worked on my own because it made more sense for my family and my own sanity.
Q. Because it’s MAKERS, we have to ask: How do you define feminism?
A. Feminism to me is true social and economic equality between men and women. There is this new wave of feminism that has recently become trendy and chic — with t-shirts and girl squads and pop cultural icons like Beyoncé and Lena Dunham leading the fight. But beyond being fashionable and a true economic imperative, feminism is also a state of mind. It's a feeling of female empowerment that I try to instill not only in my 13-year-old daughter but in my teenage son as well. One of my proudest accomplishments as a mom, will be feeling that I raised two feminists in my daughter and son.
Q. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
A. Without question!
Q. And just for fun, if your life had a soundtrack, what would be the theme song?
A. I have a few. My anthem these days, while I'm in total Fearless and Free book hustle mode – is Hamilton's "Non-stop." I'm not trying to save the Republic but the line: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? has pretty much defined my past year. My aspirational song is Beyoncé’s “Girls Run the World” – we’re not there yet – but hopefully one day that song will be on my life’s soundtrack. But the overall theme song — and this is a little cheesy — is One Republic’s “I Lived.” The song makes me smile and it epitomizes trying to live a life that’s fearless and bold and totally badass. And that’s how I would want to be remembered.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wendy Sachs