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I finally earned my dream job in the C-suite, but my relationships suffered

Jennifer Romolini   

I finally earned my dream job in the C-suite, but my relationships suffered
  • Jennifer Romolini is the author of "Weird in a World That's Not" and is the host of the podcast Everything Is Fine.
  • Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, Fast Company, Vogue, and many others.

In the 2010s, Silicon Valley loves a "disrupter," but I quickly discover what this translates to in real life is literally just interrupting, raising your hand in the middle of Mitch's overworked PowerPoint and blurting out, "Wait, why are we doing [terrible/expensive idea]? Who's this initiative actually for?"

It's the Tom Hanks in "Big" tactic — so simple, it could be executed by a kid — and I begin to implement it as often as I can. It earns me a reputation as a shit-starter and a maverick, which translates well in these white-collar rooms of mostly white-collared men, particularly because it's unexpected from a "creative type" and, more important, a girl.

The part of the company I run is the "lifestyle" section, a resourced-starved, understaffed afterthought of the "News" division, the unloved stepsister of better-funded and more-well-respected categories like Finance and Sports, which are run by men. I oversee a team of highly capable female writers and editors who cover fashion, beauty, fitness, recipes, parenting, pets, and PG-13-rated sex for an audience that's less edgy-cool coastal elite than it is down-home cozy, a USA Today for the digital age, all low-budget cooking and cleaning hacks and detailed reporting on Kate Middleton's lipstick shade.

I'm good at my job, but it comes at a cost

It's a site I wouldn't necessarily read myself, but I understand the assignment. Unlike my last job, where I often struggled to find the right tone, my editorial vision for the tech company's lifestyle site is confident and clear. Having grown up working class in a house where People magazine was the primary news source, I'm near-preternaturally skilled at a job that entails getting inside the minds of mainstream audiences and knowing what makes them tick and — most important — click.

In addition to meetings and managing the day-to-day operations of our site, I'm in charge of an open-blogging, user-generated-content (UGC) platform, a project of which my bosses are especially proud. They boast about its utility in board meetings, rave to advertisers about how it bolsters "community" and "engagement," how it's all happy Midwestern moms sharing their happy-mom tips. It is not. Even with our team's nonstop screening and moderation efforts, it's less populated by wholesome homemaking tricks than by racism, homophobia, and many, many, many sneaky user-generated dick pics.

The work never stops coming. I put in 60-hour weeks. There's always a fire to extinguish, an ego to soothe, an errant dong to delete. In these early months, I relish most any work challenge. The productivity gives me purpose, clearly orders and arranges my days. I show up overprepared to every meeting. I carefully map out editorial goals. I fight for more resources for my team, mostly in vain.

I frequently field unsolicited feedback from top-tier male executives, which is often a nuisance, if not a total waste of my time. One afternoon, a senior male executive calls me "hot pants" in the office kitchen, a comment on the red trousers I wore earlier that week.

Another morning, an SVP pulls me aside to talk about the number of mothers I've hired: Is your ENTIRE staff pregnant? The same day a high-up guy from marketing suggests that what the site I run really needs is more "nip-slips." I smile politely and ignore them. I tap into a well of competitiveness, a Sun Tzu-level of discipline I didn't know I had.

Killing it at work means other parts of my life suffer

In every strategic, interpersonal way I initially failed at Lucky, I triumph in corporate life. The secret to my success is always-on mania, though at this time, you'd probably characterize it as "passion" for what I do. If I'm not at my desk, I'm on my BlackBerry.

When I'm out, I regularly interrupt friends' stories and life updates to hold up an index finger — Just one second, I really need to address this — and tap out emails, disregarding any damage I've caused to conversational flow. I never slow down long enough to consider how little I'm giving to my friendships, how uncomfortable it must be to sit with someone so checked out.

Staying on top of my work is my top priority; doing so makes me feel responsible and important, a sensation I relish. I'm no longer the messy unreliable fuckup I felt like in my 20s, I think, but a sturdier person; respectable, established, moored.

I'm not only a distracted friend. Outside childcare duties, I'm barely present at home. After the baby's bath and bedtime routines, when Alex and I finally sit down to eat takeout, I often spend the meal refreshing my inbox rather than asking about his day. Later, I pull out my laptop and check traffic numbers while we're supposed to be watching "Game of Thrones." Instead of reaching for him in bed, I lie awake with my back turned, proactively identifying and solving problems at the office in my head. Priding myself on my diligence, how little escapes my gaze.

In a capitalist society, onerous work is often as satisfying as it is depleting. We've been conditioned from a young age to find pleasure in accomplishment's rigors and strains. It feels natural to view my overwork as noble, to settle into that foundational groove of the brain. In these first high-achieving months, I revel in the rush of my own competence, but the accompanying stress means it's at the expense of the health of my central nervous system.

Threats to my job real and imagined keep my amygdala firing throughout my days. Goals at the company I work for remain in flux; it's hard to predict which way to march. I survive multiple rounds of layoffs and I'm assured my department is not a future target, but my position never feels quite safe. The job provides my family's healthcare and our livelihood. By definition, I'm dependent on it. Keeping me motivated to work harder, to do as much as I can with less, is an institutional feature not a bug.

Excerpted from Ambition Monster: A Memoir by Jennifer Romolini. Copyright 2024 Jennifer Romolini. Published by Atria Books.


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