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What kind of life do you want to live?

What excites you and why?

What values are most important to you?

What are you really good at?

What are you willing to give up?

These were the tough questions I faced recently in a conference room with 26 other women in St. Petersburg, Fla. LaSharah Bunting, director of journalism at the Knight Foundation, asked them as part of an insightful keynote on learning to invest in yourself. It was a painful exercise. “Running a dachshund sanctuary” or “watching Game of Thrones” didn’t seem to be what she was looking for. But as I would learn over the course of the week, drilling deep down to find the answers gave me a refreshing perspective on my current job and future career path.

I’m Melissa Stasiuk, deputy head of programming at The Globe and Mail, and I recently had the privilege of attending the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, a program aimed at strengthening leadership skills of female journalists.

If contemplating the meaning of our lives (on the first day, no less) wasn’t terrifying enough, we also received feedback from colleagues back home on what kind of leaders they think we are through a survey sent to them ahead of time.

As Harvard Law lecturer Sheila Heen points out in this piece, receiving feedback is a skill. We all want to learn and grow, but we also strive to be accepted and respected, hence our conflicted relationship with hearing what other people think of us. That certainly explained my fears as I was handed the 25 (!) pages of comments, but I came to see the feedback as a gift. It turned into an invaluable tool, helping me pick out patterns and spot my strengths and opportunities to improve. Some of the answers to those tricky questions started coming into focus.

Megan Greenwell, editor-in-chief of Deadspin and part of the 2017 Poynter leadership cohort, found her career discernment journey so transformational that she came back this year to share her techniques. She told us to list the times we felt most triumphant at work, the moments we felt most frustrated and the skills we find most valuable. She took us through a calendar audit to see whether the tasks we think we should spend our time on line up with the reality (spoiler alert: not so much). The haze around the answers to those challenging questions lifted some more.

I’ve often heard the advice “fake it till you make it!” – and dished it out a few times myself – but as Swati Sharma, deputy editor of The Atlantic, stressed during her presentation at Poynter, it’s equally important to “be your own best friend.” I agree that self-compassion is an under-appreciated and seldom practised skill. Some argue that self-compassion beats self-confidence altogether. This New York Times piece, by Kristin Wong, highlights the work of author Eric Barker. “Unlike overconfidence, which attempts to hide self-doubt and other pessimistic shortcomings, self-compassion accepts them,“ Wong writes. “Self-compassion includes the benefits of confidence without the downside of delusion.” Amen.

By the end of the week, and after a few after-class margaritas with my new cohort, the answers to my tough questions became clear. This intense period of self-reflection reminded me why I was hired for my job in the first place and that, yeah, my voice deserves to be heard. It gave me a framework for figuring out whether I’m challenging myself enough, where I might want to go next and the steps to take to get there.

I now block off one hour a week for “managing me” time, a chance to check in with myself and course correct as needed. It feels like an indulgence in my busy schedule, but it’s a commitment I am trying to honour. The best part about my time at Poynter are the connections I made with an incredibly talented and ambitious group of women from Canada, the U.S., Poland and South Africa. We keep in touch on Slack and Facebook, updating each other on our progress, offering support and holding each other accountable.

We spend too much time at work, and with the people there, not to make it as meaningful as possible. The next time you find yourself thinking about the next job title you want, try asking yourself those hard questions instead. You may find that an amazing-sounding opportunity isn’t actually what you need. Or that it’s exactly right. Seek feedback from your colleagues (you may want to check if they subscribe to Kim Scott’s Radical Candor method first), or offer feedback to others (beware of unconscious gender bias). Build out a support network by forming your own personal board of directors. And if you are a woman working in media, apply to Poynter’s next leadership academy and join the growing contingent of women heading back to newsrooms and changing them for the better.

What else we’re reading

While we were at Poynter, one of the participants got the heartbreaking news that a friend had killed himself. The following week saw the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. As The Globe’s André Picard raised in a recent column, celebrity suicides thrust talk about mental illness and self-harm into the open, which is a mixed blessing. While the media coverage and resulting conversations help reduce the stigma around suicide, how we report on it – the language that we use – is crucial. I found myself conflicted reading the various reports on Spade and Bourdain. While I agree that euphemisms have no place in stories about suicide, and it’s natural to seek to understand how it came to this, I wondered how many of the details around their deaths we really needed to read. Most importantly, their deaths and Picard’s column were like a cold glass of water to the face: a reminder to wake up, pay attention to friends, family and colleagues, and reach out with a simple, “Are you okay?”

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