What I Know About Work Now That I'm In My 60s

Portrait of a senior woman in front of a laptop computer
Portrait of a senior woman in front of a laptop computer

I'm a working girl, always have been. What you call me may have morphed into "career woman" or "working mom" somewhere along the way, but at heart, I'm still just a plain-old practical working girl. I took my first job at age 14, working part-time at the cosmetics counter at Rubin Bros. Drugstore in Newark, N.J. The cosmetics department was run by Clare -- a bleached blonde with hair teased to the size of Texas. Clare taught all the high schoolers who worked for her two important lessons: "If they come in for Maybelline, you will never talk them into L'Oreal, so don't waste time trying." And "For heaven's sake, go to college so you don't have to peddle cosmetics your whole damn life." I got it and went to college. After graduating, I got a reporting job at a community newspaper -- 40 years and a share of a Pulitzer Prize later, I'm on staff at The Huffington Post and still thanking Clare. And along the way, I picked up a few lessons of my own:

1. Love what you do or you won't do it well.
I taught junior high school English for six long painful weeks. It was long enough for me to know how important teachers are to civilization as we know it -- and to know that I'm one pretty awful teacher. I love to write. I love to find things out. I love to talk to strangers and convince them to share their secrets with me. I'm good at what I do because I love what I do.

2. Put your family first.
You know that old cliche about how no one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at work? It turns out to be true. Put your family first. As a child of the 1960s, I went into journalism to make a difference in the world. Turns out the greatest difference I've ever made or could ever make was raising my kids to be decent human beings.

3. Balance between work and home is never really achieved, so don't make yourself nuts trying.
Try as you may -- and you will -- there is just no one-size-fits-all solution to the struggle of juggling a job and a family life. There are days your job needs you more than your family and there are days when the family's needs ring a louder gong in your gut. About the only certainty is that you if you let it, the constant conflict will give you an ulcer or a nervous breakdown. You can't please all the people all the time.

4. Sometimes, you just have to navigate around the assholes.
Not every boss will be someone you admire. Not every boss will be nice, understanding, supportive of you and your career. Not every boss will be as smart as you, let alone someone you can learn from. None of it matters. All that matters is that you know how to navigate around them. It's a skill you should have picked up in kindergarten when Billy wouldn't share his crayons and then told the teacher it was your fault. What did you do then? You swallowed hard and then went home and told Mom about the injustice that befell you, right? So swallow hard and go out for drinks with your co-workers. Crappy bosses either self-destruct or get promoted but eventually you will be rid of them. They are a blip, just a blip, in your life. Don't empower them to be anything more.

5. Nothing lasts forever.
My last boss at the Los Angeles Times had this written on a little pink stick-em note on her computer. Whenever a higher-up swung by her office with a new ridiculous demand, she would pat the note. She is someone who has survived multiple newspaper owners, multiple editors, multiple permutations of her job. I never had the heart to tell her, but "nothing lasts forever" is actually a two-way street. The good situations can evaporate just as quickly as the bad ones. Still, it's comforting wisdom for the bad days.

6. Go boldly into that dark night.
We miss a lot of opportunities out of fear of change, when complacency is probably the bigger devil. I practice a kind of tough love when it comes to job dissatisfaction. If something is wrong, I say "quit your whining and fix it." I once had a job that I seriously hated. I would cry driving in to the office and cry coming home. I finally just up and quit. I was 39, fresh out of a relationship and had no one to answer to but my mortgage lender. I rented out my house in New Jersey and spent a year volunteering in the Israeli Army. All I can say is that being able to write "knows how to fire an Uzi" on my resume probably opened more job doors than any story I ever wrote. Show some spunk!

7. What you do for a living is just part of who you are.
Someone once asked me to define myself, and I immediately said "writer and mom." Truth is, I'm way more than the sum of my parts. I'm a best friend, a loving wife, an advocate for those who need me to be, and much much more. Being able to immerse yourself in your work is a wonderful feeling, but it can't be everything.

8. As Clare said, if they come in for Maybelline, you won't talk them into L'Oreal.
Stop fighting uphill battles. We all need victories in our lives -- successes that make us feel valid and worthwhile. They just don't all have to come with a struggle. Figuring out what your customers -- your bosses -- want and delivering it makes for more victories.