NAW Interview With Jessica Bacal

Jessica Bacal

Jessica Bacal is the Director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College, an independent women’s college in Massachusetts with students from every state and from 60 countries around the world. Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong (Plume) emerged from her experiences with students, and from her own steep learning curve as I transitioned into higher education. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two children. Visit her here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, Mistakes I Made At Work. How did you get the idea for it? Did you carry out any research for the book?

In writing workshops, they always say, “Write the book that you want to read,” and I had wanted to hear advice from women who have been in the trenches. I wanted a book that would feel, when I picked it up, like a group of really excellent mentors were speaking to me directly about their own careers, including missteps and failures.

I wanted these mentors in part because my own career change had been bumpy. I’d been an elementary school teacher in New York City, and a writer, but when my husband and I moved to Massachusetts I got a job at Smith College. I made a lot of mistakes, but my boss and other mentors always gave me second (and third) chances.

In the meantime, here I was, working with female undergrads at one of the largest women’s colleges in the US, with students from every state and from 60 countries around the world. These young women talked about an unspoken pressure they felt, a sense that they needed to do everything right. Some young women told me that they didn’t raise their hands in class because they knew that what they were about to say would be less articulate than what someone else had just said. Others talked about avoiding meetings with their professors unless they had very specific questions.

As I struggled along in my own new job and spoke with these students about the pressures of perfectionism on campus, I also had the chance to attend Women’s Leadership events and conferences.  I started to observe powerful women being asked the question, “Can you talk about a mistakes you’ve made at work, and what you learned from it?” And I saw them unable, when put on the spot, to answer that question in a satisfying way. One woman in government spoke about having chosen the wrong major in college. Others jumped quickly to the advice that “it’s so important to learn from our mistakes,” without telling real stories based on their own experiences.

I began to think: Young women need these stories.  I need these stories!  And the stories weren’t out there.  So I decided to approach influential women to gather them.


NAW- Without giving away spoilers of course, can you tell us what was the most common mistake that everybody committed?

The mistake stories are grouped into four categories: Learning to take charge of your own narrative; learning to ask; learning to say no; learning resilience. So while there wasn’t a most common mistake, these themes definitely ran through the contributors’ tales.

NAW- There’s no denying that women face more challenges than men (one can count the number of women as CEO’s of MNC’s) but how do women deal with them?

Sometimes people think my book is saying that I think women make MORE mistakes than men (I don’t think that’s what you’re asking here). Of course, that’s not what I think. But I do believe it can be hard for women to talk about mistakes because we’re raised to present flawlessness – in every way – to the outside world. And because women face more challenges at work than men do, it kind of makes sense for women to want to keep mistakes to themselves. The problem is, no one succeeds or becomes a leaders without making and learning from mistakes, and I think we have to model that process for each other.

NAW- Do women have a different approach to work, leadership and management than men?

There’s a great book published by Harvard Business School Press, called Through the Labyrinth. It’s authors reviewed tons of research on men, women and leadership and they explain that there’s not much difference between men and women in the traits most relevant to leadership: extraversion, openness to experience and conscientiousness. But they did find that women tend to be more emotionally intelligent and empathetic, and I was impressed by contributors who revealed their deep thoughtfulness about interacting with colleagues. For example, Rinku Sen, who runs the non-profit Race Forward, explained her approach to receiving criticism at work, which includes attunement to her own sometimes defensive thoughts. Dr. Danielle Ofri told me that she makes sure to tell supervisees who make mistakes that the error is in the action, not in the person.

NAW- How did you decide the interview list? Did you choose through professions, region, race or what was the criterion?

I tried to have a culturally diverse group of contributors, and I wanted women from a variety of fields. I work at Smith College, so I was lucky enough to have six alumnae contribute. But basically, I asked many people and had to deal with a lot of them saying no. The people who agreed to talk publicly at mistakes are people who believed in the value of the project.

NAW- What can readers expect to take away from your book?

My hope is that if you read the book, you’ll feel the way I did as I conducted the interviews. I had a chance to pull aside the curtain, so to speak, to glimpse the uncertainty that even very impressive, successful people feel as they navigate their careers. When contributors told me stories in which they described feeling anxious or demoralized, I wanted to say, “Really??!! But you’re so amazing!”  It started to sink in that nobody is perfect or feels like she has it together all the time. I gradually became less likely to dwell on mistakes that I made: Instead I’d force myself to consider what I’d learned, attempt to fix what I could, and then let it go. Also, I began to accept that – like the women I interviewed – I have strengths and weaknesses. I’m not perfect.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

What it feels like I do when I’m not writing is loading and emptying the dishwasher. (I have two small kids.)  But I also work full-time as director of Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work & Life, which teaches leadership and life skills, emphasizing reflection and the integration of learning in and outside of the classroom. This means that I create and lead learning experiences for students  – these often emphasize reflection, conversation and writing. I also collaborate with Smith colleagues and with people outside of Smith to develop programs.

NAW- What are you working on next?

I would like to write another book, but am just beginning to sort through some ideas.  I got good responses when I wrote a little more personally about my experiences – on blogs after the book was published. Maybe the next project will include more of that.

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