It’s Sunday night, the last day of February, since 2010 is a leap year since 2010 is NOT a leap year (my friend Krys brought this error to my attention, saying, “You really were losing it in the end.”). Tomorrow is March 1st, and the first day of my last week at the job I’ve had since October 2005.

I started this job with a massive sense of gratitude and excitement; the job I had before was pretty awful and not related to my personal interests at all. I’d only taken it because my unemployment (from previous job with company that went bankrupt) ran out. So, in October 2005, I was thrilled – ridiculously thrilled – to be starting a job, in marketing, with a publishing house. Working on travel books! And craft books! Yay! Personal interests all over the place! But after four years, I’ve gotten to that point where I’m comfortable… and after comfort comes complacency. The space between comfort and complacency is a dangerous place to be, especially when you’re still relatively young (I’m 31). The time has come to move on, and I am doing so. It’s not easy, but it’s the right move, a good move and a smart move (my supremely supportive manager agreed on that point).

For the last 4+ years, I’ve enjoyed my job tremendously. I’ve enjoyed all the people I’ve worked with and have learned a lot from all of them in one way or another. I’ve gotten something positive and/or useful from even the more stressful and less enjoyable times–whether that’s been an understanding of frustratingly complex systems, troubleshooting technological barriers, or just crazy deadlines. I’ve also enjoyed almost everything that I’ve made a part of my job. It’s a (bad) habit of mine: if I can do something, I do it. I don’t ask whether I should or not; I just do because I am capable of doing it. In smaller doses, I think they call this “being a self-starter.” In large doses, it’s called, “overachievers making themselves INSANE.” I’ve also received immensely valuable career advice from the people I’ve worked with–sometimes through observing how they tick/operate and sometimes through direct conversation about issues we face, especially as female professionals (because there are some issues that men just don’t face – beyond the question of nude tights in the summer or appropriate nail polish shades for the office).

There are differences.

One conversation (from whence the title of this post is derived) came about while I was preparing for a presentation. I was invited to speak about social media during a seminar-type session where I’d be presenting alongside two people at a director level–and here I was, a lowly associate marketing manager! What was I doing there? While creating some Powerpoint slides to combine with those provided by my presentation partner, a director of ebiz stuffity stuff (not an official title), I started to freak out a bit; his slides had graphs with spokes and nodes and flowcharts and social media connectivity metrics… and I was feeling out of my depth.

Before a full-fledged freak-out ensued, I phoned up the woman (an associate director) who had invited me to present at this session and asked her whether I was on the right track with the slides I was preparing; slides that were more hands-on, case study based and which provided more down-and-dirty information for people who might not have used social media at ALL in their business lives.

She assured me that this was the right way to go, and that it would be a good balance for the high-level biz speak my partner would be presenting, and that I would do extremely well. I sighed a sigh of relief, thanked her, and told her I was feeling less nervous about it, and then made a joke about bringing cupcakes to the session in case my presentation tanked. The next sentence out of her mouth was spoken with much more passion than I would ever have expected for a sentence containing the word “cupcake.”

“Eva, do NOT be the girl who brings the cupcakes.”

Thus began a conversation that made a lot of things click inside my head for the first time in my professional life. The gist of it was this: as women, we are conditioned to be nice (we know this) and that it’s something we all struggle with, but that we have to reserve our nice, nurturing natures for our personal lives and friends. In the workplace, being seen as “nice” devalues us as professionals (even if we don’t think it seriously does); it devalues our work and our professional standing. Sure, you might be the most brilliant marketer/financier/programmer/lawyer ever, but that will be completely overshadowed by your desire to be thought of as “nice.”

Bringing cupcakes to a meeting is an act of self-sabotage!!!

The Cupcake Parable

(That last line was for comedic effect). Of course, this is a parable and your ‘cupcake’ could be a mannerism or habit that you think is “nice”, or a way of dressing or speaking or dealing with co-workers. She told me that her rule of thumb when deciding how to proceed in a professional environment was this: if she couldn’t see the VP (a man) doing it, she didn’t do it. This applied to seemingly innocuous details such as whether or not to use exclamation points in email, ever (don’t!), overuse of words that modify/soften meaning (“I was just checking…”) in written and spoken communication (stop it) whether to be the person who brings treats to a meeting (nope) and how to handle decision-making (don’t apologize or second-guess yourself).

After I hung up the phone, I felt at least a foot taller. I was struck by the fact that this woman, someone I admire both professionally and personally, contends with the very same issues that I contend with (at my junior level) — juggling a desire to be personable and nice with a desire to succeed and be taken seriously as a professional — and that these issues influence her decisions on something as seemingly trivial as how to sign her email.

I sat on the train, analyzing, thinking, and feeling strangely empowered. “If at her level,” I thought to myself, “she’s still mindful of these little things and is struggling with the nice girl thing, I’m in pretty good company. It’s not a sign that I’m ill-prepared for bigger and better things. It just means I have to be mindful of these things, too.” I’m young-ish, and I look much younger than I am. My Polish genes have given me big cheeks that pretty much guarantee I’ll be considered “cute” forever. I sometimes come across as “nice” even when I’m being a bitch. I have to be mindful of these things.

That night, I decided I’d start putting these techniques to work – no exclamation points, no apologies or acts of contrition, cutting down on extraneous “thanks!”, etc. Small changes, but every time I caught myself falling into one of those habits, I would remember why it was important to keep at it and focus on the work at hand. This could be an entire business self-help book if I went into all the different things I caught in my day-to-day activity, how I strayed or didn’t hold as firm as I’d have liked, blah blah blah. I learned that lesson, though, and that will travel with me to my new job and to whatever comes after it… and I will employ these lessons. Even if they didn’t directly cause my upward mobility, they gave me a huge boost of confidence and that definitely gave me the cojones to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have considered six months ago.

Lessons learned in the last four years:

  • Just because I can do something doesn’t mean that I should.
  • Being highly valued should not be confused with being a bargain. This is a corollary to the first lesson. If you become known as the person who knows/does everything, you diminish yourself; your memorable trait is doing everything and anything (a type of office promiscuity). Don’t give it away.
  • Don’t be the girl who brings the cupcakes. We covered this. At length.

Leave a Reply