In her new book Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way in Life, in Love, and at Work, Nell Merlino—creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day—tells women how to ramp up their careers and lives. "Whether you're standing in a bathroom line or unemployment line, how do you step out of that line? If you focus on what you're good at and what's important to you, you'll probably do it faster," says Merlino. Here are seven of her top tips:
Evaluate your current situation. "We all have moments in our lives when we know there's something else we want to be doing, or someplace else we want to be," says Merlino. The trick is to pay attention. Feeling frustration or anger can be a catalyst for making a change. "A lot of movements have come about because people have complained," Merlino adds.
In her own life, Merlino recalls finishing work on the Dukakis campaign and feeling depressed. "What got me out of it was really trying to imagine what kind of situation I would rather be in," she says. It's the same kind of imagining that 5th grade girls use to dream about the future home they'll have with the boy they have a crush on, says Merlino. To get started, ask yourself: "What would I actually like to be doing every day?" And it's not usually spending the day at the beach. "We want to be productive and have meaning in our lives," she adds. And life is too short to waste time on something you don't enjoy.
Figure out what you're good at. "Forget the jobs you've had, forget structure—what do you think you're best at?" asks Merlino. Women don't spend enough time assessing their strengths, she adds, even though they often spend plenty of time focusing on flaws. After spending some time thinking about it, ask friends and colleagues for their perspective, too.
Get help from others. Count Me In, an organization founded by Merlino that supports women entrepreneurs, uses coaches to help aspiring business owners. "Having somebody that keeps you accountable once you start to get in touch with what you're really great at is helpful," says Merlino. Websites such as www.findyourcoach.com can help people search for coaches. The idea is similar to the concept of shows such as ABC's Supernanny, where parents get tips on raising their kids.
Don't wait for success to happen. Women often make the mistake of thinking "somebody else is going to recognize their brilliance and either promote them, or set them up in business," says Merlino. But she says women need to "step out of line" instead of waiting to be recognized—the concept behind her title. Unless women pursue their strengths on their own, then other people will dictate their lives, Merlino adds. The problem, she says, is that we see shows like Fox's American Idol or hear about Lana Turner being picked out of a crowd and we think we can just wait to be discovered, too. And once you know what you're want, you'll find doors open more easily, says Merlino. "I'm always surprised by how much people want to help when you're clear about it," she says.
Focus on your own goals—it's not selfish. Merlino compares one's career pursuits to putting an oxygen mask on oneself before turning to the nearby child. "You've got to know what you're doing before you lead others," she says. Merlino's pursuit of her own strengths, for example, led her to create Take Our Daughters to Work Day and to work on the Week Without Violence campaign—efforts that thousands of others have since benefited from.
Pay attention to your ideas. The central concept for Stepping Out of Line came when Merlino stopped by a public restroom area and found the women's line much longer than the men's. It got her thinking: "There's the illusion that everything has changed, that men and women are equal... But change is very uneven. There are some things we continue to need to work on." Even at the White House, she says, all the portraits of women, with the exception of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are near the ladies' room. Ideas can come while you're on the subway, at a dinner party, or in the shower—so Merlino recommends keeping a notepad or electronic device handy.