How to avoid being someone’s “assistant” for the rest of your career and finally do your own thing.
I was in my early twenties, working at a large, impressive company with hundreds of employees.
I certainly didn’t have my “dream job” but I had a perfectly decent job with health care benefits, which was more than most of my friends could say. I felt lucky to be employed. That was enough.
One week, I got invited to attend a special lunch meeting and quickly tapped “Yes.”
“How fun!” I thought to myself, envisioning a lively discussion and (hopefully) a free sandwich or salad.
I arrived at the meeting and my enthusiasm quickly cooled into dread.
I noticed that every single person in the room was an “assistant” of some kind. (My job title included the word “assistant,” too, so I was definitely part of the crew.) Everyone looked tired. Nobody looked happy. Fluorescent lights sizzled above. One thing was clear: there would be no free sandwich.
The meeting began and — I kid you not — the people inside the room devoted twenty minutes to discussing the plight of never having enough staples and paper clips. Were people stealing them? What could be done about this? Who was to blame?
I shriveled into my seat, feeling like I was part of some horrific office-culture mock-umentary film or reality show, unwilling to participate, sad that I was missing out on my only real “break” in the day.
In that moment, I realized…
Yeah. I think I’m ready to stop being an “assistant.”
Oh God, no… if I remain in this kind of position, THIS could be my future.
That was the moment where I decided that I needed to take action, right away, to redirect the course of my career.
If you’re an assistant, and you’re over it, and you want to step into something new — a new career, a new professional identity, or even reinventing yourself as a freelancer, full time artist, or entrepreneur — this is my advice for you:
– Fiercely carve out time for your own projects, even if you have a full time job.
If you want to be a professional writer one day, you must carve out time to write, hone your skills, and build up a body of work. Ditto if you want to be an artist. Ditto if you want to teach martial arts. Ditto for everything. Whatever you long to do for your “real” career, one day, start doing it now. Even if you’re very busy and have very little time. Find a way.
(Everyone: read Die Empty by Todd Henry if you’re really struggling with this. It’s the best book I’ve ever read on the topic of “finding time to do work that matters.” Writers and aspiring writers: I made this for you.)
– Don’t hide in the closet. Let people know what you’re up to.
I remember a guy from IT who sent an email around saying, “Hey everyone! My band has a gig tonight. Come by!”
Nothing about this guy screamed “musician” to me and I was totally surprised by this invitation. I went to the gig. HE WAS INCREDIBLE. Truly, a prodigious talent. I thought about him differently from that moment onward. Everyone did. With one email and one performance, he re-branded himself within the company.
Nobody can help you, support you, promote you, or help open doors for you if they have no clue what you’re up to.
– Stop referring to yourself as an “assistant” (even if that’s your current gig).
Words are like magnets. Whatever you call yourself, that’s what you’ll magnetize back into your life. What you say is what you get.
If you refer to yourself as an “assistant,” then that is the “box” that people will put you in, even if you have plenty of other remarkable abilities.
So if people ask about your current job, don’t say, “I’m an administrative assistant at a media company.” Just say, “I work at a media company. But I’m resigning on [date] to pursue my passion which is ______.”
Or if you recently quit your job, say, “I worked for a big tech company. I stepped down from my position last year to launch my own business which is ______.” and leave your previous job title out of it, unless they press you for more details.
Obviously, don’t lie about your background, credentials or previous work experience. But whenever possible, shine the spotlight on where you’re going, not where you’ve been.
– Set an end date. Leave.
I remember how exhilarating it felt to circle a date on the calendar and then declare to myself — and later, my boss — That’s my last day. Thanks for the opportunities. I’m leaving.
Setting a firm date for your departure can be equal parts thrilling and terrifying, but one thing is for sure: it will light a fire under your ass.
With a firm date on the calendar, you’ll discover inner reserves of creativity, resourcefulness, hustle and grit you never knew you had.
You will be compelled to take action to set up the next chapter of your career. You won’t procrastinate any longer. You will make things happen.
– “Helping” is great. “Helping” (while ignoring your true calling) is not.
There’s nothing “wrong” with being someone’s assistant. In some ways, every single career in the world requires you to “assist” others in some capacity — so we’re all “assistants” in our own way. We’re all “helpers.”
The issue is when “assisting others” means that you are perpetually avoiding the creative projects or pursuits that you really long to do. Or when “assisting others” means you are investing all of your time and energy helping other people to build their empires and share their stories, while ignoring your own. Or when “assisting others” means you are keeping your heart tight and your life small. That’s not good.
Avoid a future riddled with resentment by laying the groundwork for the next chapter of your life and career, now.
Even if you need to hang onto your assistant gig awhile longer, just to pay the bills, that’s fine. You can still find small ways to move forward and roll into what’s next.
One, two or five years from now, when nobody is asking you “Who moved my paperclips?!” or “Could you sort these sugar packets and separate white from brown?” you will be really glad that you re-directed your career, starting today.
If you’re ready for a career change and feel like you need help to make it happen, I recommend acquainting yourself with Michelle, Ellen, Susan, and Suzanne. All of these women have tons of career-change expertise. I know them personally and admire their work. Read their blogs. Consider hiring one of them to coach you, if it suits you. Or find at least one friend or family member who can help you. Change is never “easy” but it’s a hell of a lot easier with at least one cheerleader on your team. You got this!