Anne Menke

Big Little Life: A Candid Conversation With Former Seventeen Editor Ann Shoket

The author of ‘The Big Life,’ a new guidebook for millennial women, talks work-life balance, meaningless milestones, and what success actually means

The first time I interviewed Ann Shoket, I was a summer intern at Seventeen. The magazine was working on its “Dream Bigger” issue, where four girls had been selected to interview their career idols, from Tyra Banks to Lisa Ling. As an aspiring editor-in-chief, I was ecstatic when I learned that I’d not only be interviewing Shoket, queen of teen magazines, but I’d also be doing a photo shoot with her and taking over her editor’s letter, where I wrote about growing up with a magazine obsession and my dream to oversee one.

On the big day of the photo shoot, I got my hair and makeup done. We listened to Prince in Shoket’s office and she handed me a pair of Louboutins, which I slipped onto my feet. She then instructed me to sit in her chair and put my red-soled heels up on her desk. Click, went the camera.

This, I had thought months later when I returned to college, standing in a CVS while flipping through the glossy pages, is what “making it” looks like. It was a glass office decorated with magazine covers, tricky-to-pronounce designer shoes, and your name printed at the top of a masthead.

Fast-forward approximately seven years. My (on-sale) Steve Madden boot is well into the industry door, but I’m still working on “getting there” ... wherever “there” is. The truth is, I’m not exactly sure what the pinnacle of “success” looks like, but I know it has shifted. It has become more complicated. Like many ambitious young women, I have always put career first. I worked hard, studied the game, and pushed myself ever harder until I saw results. The lingering question is, once you start seeing those results, then what? What about the rest?

It’s a question I’m not alone in asking, and it’s one Shoket attempts to navigate in her new book for millennial women, The Big Life. Starting in February 2015, Shoket began hosting candid “Badass Babes” dinners, fueled by fancy frozen pizza and rosé, at her New York City apartment. The former editor-in-chief of seven years spoke to her guests about their ambitions and fears, and how they’re redefining what success really means in 2017.

I chatted with Shoket over the phone about work-life balance (spoiler: It’s dumb), why you shouldn’t freak out if you haven’t hit personal milestones according to your fantasy timeline, and the importance of realizing that not everyone wants to help you succeed — but you’ll do it anyway.

Anne Menke

MTV News: Why did you decide to write a guidebook for millennial women?

Ann Shoket: The book is a continuation of the conversation I was having with young women at Seventeen. This is a generation where we grew up together. These are the women who read Seventeen when I was the editor. We talked about all of the deep, complicated emotions around becoming the person that you want to be, and now that you’re in your twenties and thirties, the stakes are even higher, and frankly, the road ahead is even more confusing. It’s confusing in that your dreams are both closer and further away.

I could see that there was a very significant change in millennial women when I was at Seventeen — that they'd become laser-focused on career, success, and ambition shortly after the recession. Rather than see their horizons get smaller with no jobs and devastating financial aid for college, they got mobilized. I got messages from women asking, “How do I get started?” So now that we’re not at the starting line anymore — it’s a generation of women who are redesigning what work looks like and what success looks like — the big question is, when career and ambition are at the center of your life, how do you put together the rest of the pieces of your life? That’s where The Big Life comes in.

You titled your book The Big Life — what exactly does that mean?

Shoket: The Big Life comes from the women I interviewed for the book — the women who came to my table for Badass Babes dinners. They would say to me, “Look, I don’t necessarily know what it is I want to do or how I’m going to make my mark, but I just know that I want to do something big.” So that’s where it came from. But the thing was, to be clear, it wasn’t this old-fashioned idea of “having it all.” It’s not a big, glittering corner office with your feet propped on the desk. Young women aren’t even really convinced that they want to be at the top. The big life is building a life on your own terms that’s meaningful to you — to do work that feels like a passion, that feels like you’re making your mark on the world and having an impact. To have a relationship that feels like a partnership and to be able to make your work and your life feel seamless.

We’re past this old idea that you go into some airless closet of work and you grind it out for eight hours a day and you’re set free on the other side and suddenly your life begins. That’s not how it works. Your work and your life are incredibly important pieces of who you are. The Big Life is about building a life on your own terms that works for you.

As part of your research for The Big Life, you created a community of young women called Badass Babes, who candidly talk about issues like relationships, sex, and the challenges of climbing the career ladder. What did you learn from your conversations with them and what surprised you the most?

Shoket: I had a series of dinners at my apartment with six or eight people around my dining room table at a time. I’ve done close to two or three dozen dinners by now and I always ask the same question: If I could solve any problem for you, what would it be? So hundreds of women had been at my house for dinner, and you would think that there would be hundreds of answers. But there were really only five things that came up again and again: How do I find a career that is also my passion? How do I get respect from my bosses? How do I find a partner that honors my ambition? Will I have to take my foot off the gas of my career when I decide to have a family? Will all this struggle be worth it? Those are the questions that the book answers.

But I have to be honest that what I learned from the young women at my table is applicable to my life now. I am well past my twenties, and the things that young women are going through — this idea of feeling lost and confused and overwhelmed, yet wanting your sisterhood, wanting your community around you to help you achieve and succeed — those are things that my friends need and want in their lives. This idea that everyone wants to feel like they’re working with their passion, and we all want to feel like we’re relevant and moving ahead and excited. That there’s possibility. We want to get back to this feeling of possibility.

What I’ve learned from millennial women is that transparency, which very often feels like “TMI,” but particularly this idea of salary transparency, will get us closer to equal pay. The idea of wanting freedom from the office — you work when you want, where you want, how you want. That’s going to make this work-life balance conversation easier for everybody, although I think work-life balance is a sham. I don’t think balance is something we should strive for. You want to feel like your work and your life are intertwined seamlessly — that they’re not in competition with each other.

That segues perfectly into my next question. Over the past few years, that phrase “work-life balance” has become such a buzzword, but as you just said and as you write in your book: “Work-life balance is a sham. It doesn’t exist. And I don’t think it should.” What do you mean by this?

Shoket: It’s this idea of balance that creates this anxiety, like you’re out of balance and everything is a disaster and you have to struggle to get back into place. That’s not how it works. That’s not how your life and your work should work. They’re not in competition with each other. They should not be balanced. You need to have a life and you need to work to feel like living — like actual living. But you also need to have a scenario that supports you. Maybe you’re great at getting up at 6 a.m. and you work from 6 to 9, and then you want to go to spin [class] — and you’re happy to stay late at the office. You want to work from home or wherever you are. That idea of freedom is really important.

It’s interesting, because a lot of people think work-life balance is only for when you have children. But I actually think that young women who don’t have children will pave the way for women who do have children to have a better work-life scenario because they’re going to demand freedom from the office. They want flexible schedules. And it goes the same way — women with children want flexible schedules [too]. They say, I’ll work early, I’ll work late, I need to get home to relieve my nanny, but I’ll be back online and answering emails at 9 o'clock. Everybody gets to have a more flexible situation. And that’s really important. That's a realization that helps us all move forward.

In your book you talk about the importance of your “squad,” or the group of people who share your ambition and drive to succeed. You also noted that you didn’t find your squad until later in life. How did not having that impact the early stages of your career?

Shoket: I didn’t know who to ask for advice. I didn’t know who was on my side. I did have a couple people who were like these interesting, bright and shiny characters in my life. One of the early stories — there’s a woman named Laurel Touby, who founded Mediabistro. It started out as just a couple of people having drinks on the Lower East Side — a bunch of freelancers and editors getting together. Laurel and I knew each other and were friendly and would run into each other at the coffee shop because we lived in the same neighborhood. One day I said to her, “You should put those networking groups online.” I said, “I can help you.” I had my own website as a side hustle. And it sounds so funny to say that it was 1996 [laughs], it was just the beginning [of the internet]. So I helped her put her group online and, fast-forward, she sold it for millions of dollars and we have saved each other’s lives [by helping each other]. She introduced me to the role at CosmoGIRL! when Hearst was putting together a new teen magazine and I joined the launch team for that. We just had coffee together a couple of weeks ago. And I wasn’t [originally] helping her because I was thinking, “Well, she might be really helpful to me some day.” I was helping her because I was interested in her, because I thought what she was doing was cool. So Laurel is somebody who's been in my squad. There are other women who I can turn to if I need instruction, if I need a wingwoman, if I need some industry advice. I sort of over the years cobbled together the chicks who are in my squad.

But starting out, I didn’t know anybody. I haven’t told this story before — but when I was at The American Lawyer, it was my first job out of college, which was not my dream job. I was a fact checker and I moved up the ranks. I eventually moved up to be a reporter, but I was hungry for something else. I was hungry to move out of trade magazines, out of business reporting. I got introduced to an editor at a major women’s magazine and she made time to get on the phone with me, and I said to her, “I’m doing really well, but I want to move up and move on.” And she said, “Well, do you have any friends who work at magazines?” I was so stung. I was like, “No … otherwise I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get on the phone with you.” And that was the sum of her advice: Get some friends that work at other magazines. She did not make connections for me. She did not make introductions. That’s the only advice I remember from that conversation, and it made a real point to me that not everybody wants to help. Not everyone’s on board with you, and [it's so] important to find the people who are.

It took me a long time to find those people. I think it’s easier now. I’m so interested and surprised and rewarded by seeing how young women are bonding together to help each other — and it doesn’t even have to be the people who are actually in your office because there’s so many groups of colleagues. There’s Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and actual human beings that you can get together with. You’ve got Levo, Her Campus, The Muse, and The Lady Project. There’s a million networking groups that you can be a part of, and I think that’s been one of the most amazing things I have learned from the women around my table, how supportive they are of each other.

When I first interviewed you, I was in college. Now, in my late twenties, I feel like I’m in a totally different headspace in terms of both my professional and personal life, in that I’m very aware of time and how desires like a long-term partner and kids are going to factor into it. What would you say to young women who are fixated on the idea of certain milestones happening at certain times in their lives?

Shoket: I didn’t meet the man who would become my husband until I was 34, and we didn’t get married until I was 39. My first kid came when I was 40 and my second when I was 42. And that is not at all how I thought my big life would roll out. I’ll tell you this other story that I don’t tell very often, which is that I almost didn’t throw my hat in the ring to become editor-in-chief of Seventeen. I was single when I was up for the job, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have time to date or go to events where you would randomly happen upon some nice, lovely person who sparked your interest. But the more surprising part is that a lot of people agree with me and said those fears. They said, “Oh yeah, [you] really will be busy,” and “Men really are intimidated by ambitious, successful women.” Thank god my best girlfriend said to me, “Look, if dating really isn’t working for you right now, you should just go for the job.” I think that I had something to prove to myself — that I could achieve something like that on my own. And I also think that you need time when you’re young and hungry and ambitious to make decisions about your future on your own. Because once you find that partner, you have to start making decisions together about where in the country you will live, about how the work in your life will go together, how you’ll spend money, how you’ll spend time. It was important for me in my journey to make those decisions for myself, and that made me much more confident to be able to meet the man who became my husband.

But I felt every single one of those late-night panics that I would never fall in love or never have a family, never get any of the things I wanted. And I started to make alternative plans. Well, maybe it’s OK if I never find a partner. Maybe it’s OK if I’m never able to have children. I’ll figure out something else somewhere down the line. Could I fill my life up with a lot of casual relationships that weren’t fully committed? There are certainly other people in your life that love and support you. Is that enough? I asked myself all of those questions at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling.

The truth is, you just don’t know how the pieces are going to come together, but there’s also not a lot you can do about it. You have to let go of this idea of the way things should go, especially if you’re comparing yourself to the way that your mother did it, or your sister or friends, because their lives and their circumstances are different than yours. Their possibilities and their opportunities are different than yours. You’re making bad decisions when you make them based on the way you think things should go or the way you’re told they should go. Those feelings are real and they’re hard to deal with. It’s hard to be patient — it’s the worst thing in the world. But it would be worse to make a decision out of fear that isn’t right for you.

When it comes to today’s online-dating culture, I think women are also afraid to admit out loud that they’re looking for something long-term. They’re scared of coming across as too eager or too intense, so they kind of censor themselves in terms of speaking up about what they really want.

Shoket: I do think you have to work as hard to bring the right relationship into your life as you do the right job. Just like you know, you can’t get your dream job by nonstop pounding away sending résumés and trying to add everyone on LinkedIn that works at that company. It’s the same thing with dating. It’s not a numbers game. The work that you have to do to get a job that’s perfect for you is a long game. You have to position yourself. You have to meet the right people. You have to understand what you bring to the table. You have to know your strengths. You have to learn what you like and what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. And you have to do all of those same things when it comes to finding a partner. And sometimes, just like in finding a job, it’s about crafting the nuances of the situation that’s in front of you rather than tossing aside this one’s not right for me, this one’s not right for me, this one’s not right for me. Sometimes it’s about saying, “Hmm, there’s something interesting here. Let me see if I can make this work.” And that’s the same thing with relationships.

Women tell me they’re exhausted from dating so much — “swipes” are like a job. And that’s not the fun part of the job. Your swipes are the drudgery, the equivalent of having to file paperwork. You need to get to the part where you are the strategic planner.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about success?

Shoket: That there’s a moment when you “make it.” That’s a huge mistake to make — to think that there’s some day where you will turn around and feel like you’ve arrived. I think that even when you’re having great success, if you worked hard to get there, you’re still working hard to maintain that success, to grow — you never stop trying to move ahead. Even when you’re at the height of your success, you might not feel it. You might still be feeling the sting of all the stress it took to get there, or there’ll be things that are going to still be draining your energy and problems to solve. You feel like you can’t own your success and feel good about everything until you’ve tied everything up in a bow. But that’s not the way it works. Success is this huge mess.

And it’s not like success is only just for a few chosen, anointed people. We used to have this old idea in magazines about leadership, and we would craft all of these special programs for the girls in the front of the class with their hands in the air. You can’t be successful unless you’re “selected” or you’re seen as a leader. And we have to get rid of that idea — we have to stop seeing success as only for a chosen few. This moment, this revolution that I have seen is all about every woman feeling entitled to live her life on her own terms and to redefine what success means to her.

In what ways did you change from your twenties to your forties? In what ways have you stayed the same?

Shoket: I’m in such a similar moment now as I was in my mid-twenties. In my twenties I had a job, a side hustle, and a team of people who believed in my idea and were trying to help me make it work. When I had my side hustle in my twenties, it was a website called tagmag.com, which actually got written up in the New York Times. My 25-year-old side hustle got written up in the New York Times [laughs]. You can Google it.

That’s amazing.

Shoket: It was called “Golden NYC” at the time and we changed it to Tag mag. I had my editorial meetings over “dinners” at my apartment, and instead of pizza, back then I did broke-girl chili. I would do a giant pot of one can of red beans, one can of white beans, and one black beans, a can of salsa, and mix [laughs]. And that’s how I compensated my editors and my writers back then.

In so many ways, the things that I learned in my twenties about building community and keeping people motivated and rallying together around an idea are so much the same place that I am here, building the big life.

I will tell you, though: I am nicer now than I was in my twenties. That was actually an important lesson: that life is long and we’re all gonna be in this business together. There are no divas and you don’t have to be right. You have a lot to learn. In my twenties, I don’t think I knew how much I had to learn, and now, I’m well aware of how much I still have to learn.