I have two radically opposite professional fantasies.
One features me donning quirky horn-rimmed glasses (note: I don’t need glasses) hunched over a 15-inch MacBook drinking some trendy earl grey tea in an Instagram coffee shop, writing for a living and wearing oversized flannel Oxfords in my free time.
The other fantasy stars an inexplicably taller (Katie, you’re not going to grow; accept your 5’1” fate) version of me storming down a marble hallway in an A-line dress holding an important-looking stack of papers in leather-bound folios, stilettos clicking angrily, muttering something into a Blackberry that hasn’t existed since 2013.
Basically, fantasy #1 features a hipster iteration of me who's somehow employed yet works in coffee shops and owns too many cable-knit sweaters. Fantasy #2 is reminiscent of the character Delia on Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce, who's a partner at a law firm.
I guess the first fantasy is more realistic, as it's unlikely I'll become a partner at a law firm on account of the fact that I don't have a law degree and have no current plans to obtain one.
Sometimes I think these polar opposite hypotheticals are indicative of nothing more than my frenetic fashion taste. But if I'm being honest, I think it's more largely representative of the fact that—for someone who generally prides herself on having her shit together—my ambition feels a little directionless sometimes.
Does anyone else ever feel like they have all this motivated energy but are unsure how to focus it on one exploit?
Having a lot of drive is great if you know where to invest it. But if your ambition is bipolar—the aspirational equivalent of deciding between a pair of cuffed skinny jeans and a blazer—it can become anxiety-inducing.
I listen to so many podcasts about branding, blogging, influencer marketing, and startups, that I get super inspired to nurture my creative side (thank God my actual day job IS, in fact, advertising writing and not something numbers-based like accounting).
But, as my unfounded partner-at-a-law-firm-but-probably-just-wants-to-own-more-pencil-skirts fantasy reveals, there's also something super appealing about being a corporate #BossLady.
And honestly, like most of us, I'm still trying to figure out how to make both a reality.
I absolutely don't have it all figured out, but here are a few things I've learned recently that will apply to all areas of your professional life—whether you work for a big company and love it (or hate it), are starting your own business (or thinking about it), or just want to feel a little more inspired in your day-to-day work.
1. Be a simplifier, and when you get the ball, deliver.
This is fantastic advice I learned from our Senior Director of Loyalty Products & Partnerships at our Annual Marketing Meeting. It's so tempting to get mired in the nitty gritty details of a problem in business, especially at large corporations where role clarity can be fuzzy or change can happen slowly.
You will always be valued if you're a simplifier: if you're someone who can zone out of the problem, look at it from above, and then surgically hone back in. My favorite phrase in meetings that start getting heated is, "Are we overcomplicating this?" Most times, everybody sighs sharply and agrees that, yes, we are.
Moreover, offer solutions (simple ones, if possible). Don't overcomplicate things. I always catch myself at work identifying an issue we're having and being tempted to share it immediately, but it's always better if you can present any given issue with a few potential solves. After all, being able to identify a problem is only helpful if you can offer some means of fixing it.
Simplification is also a valuable skill set to hone when you're trying to do your OWN thing, too.
Corporate America calls it 'agility,' but really, it just means making each decision with the most current circumstances in mind and not adhering blindly to a plan because that's what you set out to do months ago. Things change. Flexibility and simplicity go hand in hand.
As the coauthors of REWORK say, "Planning is guessing."
2. Create things you'd actually use or find compelling.
This can be applied in several areas of work—from developing your own product, starting a blog, or—I don't know—copywriting for Southwest Airlines.
Personally, something that works for me when I'm concepting is imagining what would compel me to make the purchase plunge. What psychological or cultural factors can we tap? What's relevant? After all, if the biggest Southwest fan girl south of the Mason-Dixon isn't moved to purchase based on the creative, nobody will be.
I also think this is huge in presentations. Curate your decks, emails, and other pieces of correspondence (blogs if you're a blogger, social posts if you work in social media marketing, etc.) in a way that would actually capture YOUR attention. There are a lot of boring presentations in corporate America—yours shouldn't be one. The importance of a narrative logic flow cannot be overstated; anticipate what questions someone might have as you move through the information and answer them as you go.
I always try to inject a little personality and sass into all my work because (a) my employer doesn't frown on it, (b) it makes things more interesting and typically garners more attention than bland content, and (c) selfishly, it makes it more fun for me. Win, win, win.
From a product development side (no matter what your product may be), making something you'd actually use helps for two reasons: if you'd use it, you can develop it intimately and with firsthand feedback, AND you won't waste your time on something that will be rendered useless if it flops. At least you'll have an awesome tool at your disposal.
3. Be patient with yourself, but remember to always add value.
The patience part refers to the not-knowing-what-the-hell-you-actually-want fantasy above—because frankly, at this age, the whole 'world is your oyster' thing is only partly true. If you've already graduated college and entered the workforce, it's probably too late to, I don't know, become a neurosurgeon.
In other words, you've already narrowed your potential for some professions. But the good news is, most things don't require 12 years of school, so don't sell yourself short, kids!
Transferrable skills are huge, so be patient with figuring out what it is you're striving for. The key, however, is to be patient without coasting. Allowing yourself patience and grace to figure shit out isn't an excuse to do nothing in the meantime. Most times, the 'figuring out' comes in the doing.
In other words: keep hustling, even if sometimes it feels fruitless or misguided. Add value regardless of your situation, and you'll derive value in return.
If you have a regular job, don't leave a meeting without adding some value to the conversation or taking away an action item. Add value to your team. My goal is to be so valuable to our team's functioning that—if I were to disappear one day—things would feel tangibly different. (Sidebar—that's a good tip for interns, too. If you want to turn your 'ship into a full-time role, make yourself indispensable.)
If you're a blogger, create content that leaves the reader with something other than a photo of what you wore to church that day. Add some value to their life. The Skinny Confidential Podcast is a great example of influencing that adds value.
If you're a student, stay laser-focused on the objective of learning for learning's sake—keeping in mind that the learning itself adds value to your life. When I was in college, this was the sole perspective that kept me motivated in a sustainable way. Looking at my classes as opportunities to enhance my own knowledge of a subject or the world made it much easier to pay attention, take solid notes, and enjoy the experience.
And there you have it! Now you can figure out your whole life in three simple steps.
Just kidding. I truly wish it were that easy.
But hopefully you feel even marginally more enlightened or inspired to tackle your Tuesday with a little more vigor than before.
Although tempted to name this something cliché like #GIRLBOSS, this section features all my obsessive-compulsive productivity hacks & candid conversations about career development.