One day, at my first big PR job, a director came sniffing around the junior staff cube farm.
“Who’d like to volunteer for an extra project?” she asked, scanning the lot of us.
A few people around me slowly raised their hands. I knew how much I worked, how much they all worked. I kept my hand down.
“Not me,” I said, sniffing, and catching our director’s eye. Is she crazy? I wondered.
It is not an exaggeration to say we — Assistant Account Executives, the lowest rung on that particular corporate ladder, right above interns — worked upward of 60 hours a week, every week, and for pay that, when I did the math, equated to far less than minimum wage. We did not have more time to give. As far as I was concerned, to ask more was absurd. Mean, even.
It was a test and I knew it.
To be fair, many of the people I worked with came from a fair amount of wealth. Their parents rented them fancy hotel rooms when they moved to Seattle so they could comfortably spend weeks looking for the perfect apartment.
They carried designer bags, went out each weekend, and paid for daily office parking. It’s safe to say they probably didn’t get their mattresses for free off of Craigslist or walk to the drugstore each month to buy their booklets of bus tickets like I did.
The director pointed to two of the volunteers next to me with their hands in the air, thanked them, told them to look for a short meeting to be added to their calendar shortly, and motioned for me to walk with her.
In a small breakout room, she told me what it took to succeed in our industry. She told me to never say no in front of the group again.
That may have been the year I got a yellow light on the “behavior” portion of my annual review. The behavior portion of our annual review used a stoplight system: Green is compliant, yellow needs improvement, and red is grounds for termination. It made me feel like a teenage horse they were trying to break.
In a lot of ways, I was.
I am an almost unnaturally hard worker. I am self-motivated, and always open to putting in what it takes to get the job done. I wanted to pay my dues, but not at the expense of … everything. Work could not — would not — consume me. Not entirely, at least.
During that time, I worked through illnesses, turnover, zero work-from-home options, and even my dad’s death. I was two hours late to my first date with my now husband because I was waiting on feedback on an email I had to send to a client before I was allowed to leave my desk.
When I met with HR to ask how bereavement worked — dealing with the impending reality of a dead parent — they said, “You get three days for bereavement,” and that was that.
I thanked them and walked back to my cubicle.
All of my corporate jobs were some version of that. Either the people were great and the work was understimulating or the benefits were good but the politics were painful. I never found where I belonged.
So, I created where I belong.
It was at my first cubicle that I wrote down where I wanted to take my career. I spent four years at that company, gritting my teeth during every review (and sometimes crying during them), wondering why they had so much control over my life.
People sometimes ask me what the difference is between working for a company and working on behalf of clients in my consultancy, and I tell them about the shift in power dynamics. A client can ask me to take on more and I can say no.
I don’t get a yellow light because of it — and even if they want to give me one (they wouldn’t because we are partners and we respect each other with clear expectations outlined upfront), I’m the boss of myself at that review, and the subjective behavioral spotlight isn’t a system I use.
I cut out in the middle of the day for workout classes, lunches, and to volunteer at my kids’ school. Now, I am usually on time for dates with my husband.
I am the best and worst boss I’ve ever had. I’ve taken unhealthy behaviors and expectations from my corporate jobs that I’ve had to pause, question, and undo. I work myself really hard, but I also take better care of my mind and my body. It’s a work in progress — on my time, and on my terms.
On paper, it’s not much. In execution? It’s everything.
— By Whitney Popa
Whitney Popa is a writer and communications consultant in Edmonds and Emilie Given is a virtual assistant agency owner in Lynnwood. They write this column together to share work-from-home ideas. They love where they live and are grateful the virtual world allows them to achieve more work/life harmony. They also co-host a weekly podcast where they share their entrepreneurship journeys while learning about those of others. You can learn more about Emilie here and more about Whitney here.