The Shriver Report – “Get Out of Your Own Way” – and Other Hard-Learned Lessons

Special Edition

“Get Out of Your Own Way” – and Other Hard-Learned Lessons

Allison control room 2

I’ve worked in television news for (gasp) fifteen years, and have outlasted the bulk of my journalism school compatriots.  This is a sink or swim business, and most people tend to get out of the water after just a few years. So how did I survive and even thrive? I did it the hard way – by trial and lots of error.  Here, you’ll find the list of things I wish I’d known as a young woman embarking on my career.  Some of these lessons came easily, some were hard-fought.  All helped mold me into the newswoman and leader I am today.

Make your passion your purpose.  I realized pretty quickly I hated reporting, but loved producing.  So I took a major left turn and followed the work I enjoyed.  Network producers make far less money than reporters, but I believed if I did what I loved, I’d find a way to make money at it.  Back when I was making $26,000 a year, this was a dismal prospect.  But everyone starts somewhere.  I was a big fan of the Indigo Girls in college and a line from the song “Ghost” always stood out to me: “The Mississippi’s mighty but it starts in Minnesota at a place where you can step across in five steps down.”  Even the Mighty Mississippi starts as a creek.  Just keep going.  The money will come.

Be Open To Surprises.  As I mentioned, I hated reporting.  I hated it so much that as college was winding down I decided television news wasn’t for me and I applied to law school.  I figured I’d cut my losses and try something else.  I had a professor who told me I should try producing.  I told her she was crazy.  I didn’t go to school 2,000 miles from home to be a producer.  I wanted to be a reporter, it didn’t work out, and that was that.  I was obstinate and obtuse.  Finally, this professor told me if I wanted to graduate I had to take another class and it was either advanced reporting or producing.  Pick your evil.  I hated reporting so much I took producing by default.  And I fell in love with it.  Which leads me to my third tip…

Get Out of Your Own Way.  Don’t be so set on an idea that you give up when it doesn’t go exactly as you planned.  Because nothing in life will go as planned.  Ever.  And if I’d given up I’d be a lawyer today.  Yikes.

Be Prepared To Work Hard (and Work Hard To Be Prepared).  Luck does play a part in anyone’s success.  But just a part.  Perspiration plays a bigger part.  And for women, it’s harder.  You will be asked to take the notes at meetings because you are the only woman in the room, even though you’re also the most senior person there.  Your boss will forget to invite you to happy hours even though he remembers to invite the rest of your (all male) team. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked if I’m the secretary.  The higher you climb, the worse it gets. Most of the time it isn’t maliciously motivated.  It’s not even conscious.  But it’s the reality you have to live with.  You will have to work harder.  And that means you can’t waste any opportunity.  So be prepared.  There’s a quote I love: “When opportunity knocks, don’t be in the backyard looking for four leaf clovers.” I’ve gotten a lot of jobs because I was ready to jump when I got the call.  Be ready.

Be The Squeaky Wheel.  Women are notoriously bad at this.  But the fact of the matter is, you get what you ask for.  So ask.

The Opinion of One is Not the Opinion of All.  I had a recruiter tell me once that I was “too hard on the furniture.”  As I sat in her office, fighting back tears, I thought, would she be telling me I’m too tough if I were a man? And then I wondered, what if it’s true?  What if everyone I work with hates me?  Fast forward a couple months to our company’s holiday party.  My mother was in town and I took her as my date.  All night long my colleagues came up to my mom to tell her how much they loved working with me.  And as we were in the cab going home, my mom said to me with surprise, “Wow, your coworkers really like you!”  She knew what the recruiter had told me and so she assumed I must be reviled at work.  And I had an aha moment as we were speeding up 3rd Avenue.  Just because one person has one opinion, doesn’t mean everyone shares it.  Don’t let one opinion break you.

Being Tough Is Not a Bad Thing (Unless It’s the Only Thing).  After that experience with the recruiter, I learned to embrace my toughness.  You don’t get ahead in television news by being a wallflower.  And you don’t become a leader in your profession by standing on the sidelines and letting everyone walk all over you.  There is nothing wrong with being tough, as long as you couple it with other qualities.  Be tough and kind.  Be tough and fair.  Be tough and compassionate.  But by all means be tough.

Be Gracious.  Be Grateful.  When you finally get to that point where you’re making money and you’re at the top of your game, don’t become a jerk.  There is never a reason to be a jerk.  Be gracious to your colleagues and be grateful for what you have.  As Mark Twain said, “Always do right.  It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Be Better.  This is the big one.  We, as women, have a responsibility to help the women who come behind us.  It’s not enough to get to the top of your profession. You have to help other women get to the top, too.  If you want to see more women in the conference room, bring them with you.  If you want the professional environment to change, help get women in positions where they can change it.  I have a really good friend who suffered terrible discrimination at work during her pregnancy.  Her boss told her she was “big as a barn” in front of the entire office, and when she made suggestions during meetings he told her entire team, “Don’t listen to her, those are just the baby hormones talking.” She called me distraught, wondering what she should do.  I talked to her about going to HR and even about seeking legal advice.  But I also told her to keep working hard, get promoted, and when she has her boss’s job, fire him.  We have to do better than the people who came before us.  We have to be better.  And we have to change the culture from the top.  Which means we have to get to the top.  So get to work.  You have a lot to do!



In the News:

Allison Girvin is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Allison Girvin is executive producer of The Huffington Post’s groundbreaking new online network HuffPost Live, a 12-hour broadcast that is disrupting traditional media by eliminating the wall between newsreader and news consumer, and inviting the community to engage in conversations about what is happening in our world.
Also from Allison Girvin: