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The Globe and Mail

Have you ever made a career mistake? I’m the person who got an internship in university and earnestly told my boss, “You don’t have to pay me for this – I’m just happy to be learning and getting experience.” (He insisted on paying me what he paid the other intern and told me to never say that to an employer again.) I’m the target audience for articles like this one, about how women don’t ask for raises. I’m also the person to whom a manager has apologized after passing me over for a promotion. If I had pushed for it and advocated for myself instead, it looks like he would have handed it to me.

Yes, I’ve made my share of career blunders. So imagine my surprise when I was offered a job that I felt totally unqualified for, working with people I had never worked closely with before, to help build a product that was in its infancy – and I took it.

That was almost a year and a half ago, and I haven’t looked back since taking the new position in the Globe’s digital and data science department. My previous jobs had been editorial roles within the newsroom, so I’ve entered an entirely new world of skills and knowledge, and I love it. I last studied a couple of decades ago – and now, I am studying all the time so that I can have meaningful conversations with my colleagues. It’s exhausting and exhilarating, and a nice change of pace.

I will admit to being puzzled when the data science team first offered me the job. Did I have the skills to do this well? I’ve mentored several young women and repeatedly urged them to take bold, ambitious steps, be it travelling abroad to seize opportunities or applying for positions that would help them pepper their resumes with success stories and highly coveted skills. Was I so hesitant simply because I didn’t want to risk taking a financial hit if things didn’t work out or because I knew I had earned a lot of goodwill in my old job that I couldn’t carry over to the new one – or was I really doubting my own ability?

It reminded me of that now legendary Hewlett Packard study on how women don’t apply for jobs unless they have 100 per cent of the qualifications specified, whereas men will apply with just 60 per cent. Was I talking myself out of what could be a great career move?

I confided in a good friend in the newsroom. She took me aside and told me that I should seize the opportunity, to go in and negotiate with supreme confidence, “like a mediocre white man.” I looked at her, stunned. She said, “Go in there. Tell them what you want. And then shut your mouth. Don’t try to justify or explain it. Just say it and be quiet, as if you are entitled to it. Let them be uncomfortable. Let them break the silence.”

Good god. Was she joking? What if I ended up blowing it? This seems like a good moment to point out that I am the biggest people-pleaser you will ever meet – and extremely risk-averse. I mean, I had my savings in money-market funds when I was in my 20s! But who among us hasn’t looked back after a couple of decades and realized how far we’ve come by examining the mistakes we’ve made?

I squirmed, and I did as she said. The interviewers knew what my skills were and seemed to think my demands were fair. In fact, since then, much of the credit for my relatively smooth transition has to go to the team that hired me, repeatedly encouraged me to learn and then pushed me further by sending me out to talk to prospective clients all over the world.

I was lucky to avoid work-related travel when my kids were little, and apprehensive about starting it even now that they are teenagers. I spend days and nights worrying about who will pick up which pieces when I am away (in a way that I know my husband never did when he was travelling for work – perhaps he’s just less bothered by details, or maybe women just make decisions differently and I’m thinking of all the stuff he won’t consider when making decisions). To my delight, our boys have risen to the occasion, cooking, cleaning and taking on additional responsibilities when I am away. Of course, I can only do this because my spouse is incredibly supportive as well as an excellent role model for them.

So, to all you other risk-averse people out there who hesitate to make a big career move: Think it through, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to make it worth your while. Change is challenging, but if you take a deep breath and embrace it, you might just find that growing and stretching feel good once your stomach has settled.

What we’re reading/watching/listening to:

I am enjoying a book called Soccermatics by David Sumpter. It promised to connect soccer with math – but he also introduces basic mathematical modelling for all sorts of other fascinating topics, like crowd control, ant behaviour, fans doing the wave in a stadium, teen romances and the spread of disease and provides an intriguing glimpse into British football culture.

I like math and I don’t mind soccer, but the real reason I borrowed this book was to connect more closely with my soccer-mad 14-year-old (and, ideally, to show him the relevance of math). Last night, he curled up next to me on the couch, pencil and paper in hand, and spent 45 minutes explaining different team formations and plays to me, declaring that this was his favourite part of soccer. When was the last time your teenager chose to spend the better part of an hour talking to you with enthusiasm and joy? I’m going to read this book very slowly and hope for many encores.

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