Hard-earned career advice

A few months back, I was asked my my graduate school mentor, Red Burns, to speak to her class of first year students at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. I gave a talk about what it's like to lead design for a brand and community like YouTube, and all of the challenges and opportunities that go along with it. And then I closed with some unsolicited career advice that I thought might be worth sharing more widely. Here it is....

Take smart risks
Sometimes people who don’t understand the arc of my career say, “Wow, you are so lucky to be where you are.” Yes, and.....no. What defines every major change in my career, and in my life, has been taking smart risks. Let’s face it: many things that are worth doing in life are very risky and don’t really make sense at the time: falling in love, having babies, attending Burning Man (which I haven’t done, for the record). But in hindsight, you see that when you develop a taste for smart risk, you open yourself up to many more possibilities and significant growth than if you always play it safe. In my life, that’s meant getting a fellowship that allowed me to live abroad by myself; attending ITP (NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program), a weird sounding graduate program, well before the commercial web made it a no-brainer for the rest of the world to engage in Internet projects; leaving a lucrative freelance business in NYC to join Tripod, a then tiny unknown start up, for a tiny salary because I knew I’d learn more (said start up ended up getting acquired by Lycos); staying home with my kids for 4 years when the industry when through a downturn and work was no longer fun; uprooting and moving my family across the country to join the big leagues in the Bay Area.

Some of these decisions took my financially conservative parents’ breath away. But the fact is I’ve done so much better personally and professionally because of these risks, and I’ve earned my successes by taking them. This issue is particularly relevant for women, as we are socialized to be more risk averse than our male counter-parts. Forbes Magazine reported that a study showed men apply for jobs when they are on average 60% qualified for a job, while women on average wait until they are nearly 100% qualified. The men apparently figure they will learn the rest on the job, and they are right. Ladies, we need to puff up our chests, drink a Red Bull, and remind ourselves that if we feel a bit in over our heads, we are probably on the right track. Which leads me to my next piece of advice....

Women help other women
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.” Amen. Women in roles of influence often get to where they are in part because someone along the way took interest in them and encouraged them to do more, be more. And that someone for me has often been another women: Jan Chambers, my scenic design professor at Boston College, who pushed me to take on projects that were just out of my grasp and in the process helped me grow and develop my taste for risk; Red Burns, the founder of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU where I earned my Masters Degree, who showed me that women leaders can be fearless and maternal; Marissa Mayer, head of UX at Google and my close colleague during my time running Google Consumer UX, who created numerous opportunities for me to expand my influence in the design world outside of Google. If you haven’t been helped by women in your organization, find some that you admire and ask. And if you have help to give, then reach out to the young, promising women in your world and give them a hand. You owe it to the future.

Don’t be an ass
Too often, I hear people posit that you have to be a jerk to do great work, especially in the creative professions. I'm sorry, but I just don’t buy it. I know, it’s all too easy to call up the Steve Jobs example. For the record, I never met him, and 99.9% of other people never have either, but his reputation is not that of a person who is easy or pleasant to work with. But here’s the key point: Steve jobs was a genius AND he was a jerk; he wasn’t a genius BECAUSE he was a jerk. And let’s be real; hardly any of us are Steve Jobs. For the rest of us mortals, getting along with people and being a fun, engaging collaborator are critical components to getting great things done. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be hard on yourself and others at times, and that you shouldn’t have high standards and develop a culture of critique. But I don’t believe that has to be coupled with being an ass. My goal as a leader and a colleague is to be straightforward, authentic, optimistic, empowering, and relentless in the pursuit of great design. And I can do that while being kind and fun, and you can, too.