One of the great "aha" moments in my career occurred the day I threw Jennifer Aniston on the ground.
Well, I didn’t actually throw her down. Rather, I tossed her recent Cosmo cover on the carpet along with the previous year and a half’s worth of issues. I’d just taken over as editor in chief of the magazine and I wanted to study the covers my predecessor had done, along with the sales figures for each.
And here’s the cool revelation that followed: If I considered just the covers with models rather than actresses, blonds sold better than brunettes (Jen, by the way, was pure newsstand gold). I used this information to my advantage, booking models like James King and Rebecca Romijn for my first covers, and before long I was averaging sales of over 2 million copies a month, double what my nearest competitor was selling.
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Every career has "aha" moments. Though my discovery about blonds vs. brunettes probably won’t do you any good, here are few more of mine—decade by decade—that might be worthwhile for you in your own career.
In My Twenties: After a couple of years as an editorial assistant at Glamour magazine, I was finally promoted to staff writer. Most of my assignments, though, were for a section called the Do Anything Better Guide and were sad little items like “How to Get Rid of a Pimple by Saturday Night” (whatever you do, don’t pick!). I lobbied to be given a feature assignment, but I was bluntly told I didn’t have enough reporting experience yet.
I hated being boxed out of doing bigger pieces. So without an actual assignment, I wrote an essay about the joys and pains of being single in New York City. The magazine rarely ran essays but that seemed like my only shot at doing a full-length article.
About an hour after I left the piece on the editor in chief’s desk, she walked down to the features department and asked a colleague if she knew who had written it. I’d been so nervous I'd neglected to put my freaking name on it! When I volunteered it was mine, the editor told me she loved what I’d done and was crashing it into the next issue. After it published, we were flooded with letters from other single girls who said they related to how I checked under my bed when I arrived home at night to make sure there was no one under there. Soon after, I was writing regular essays for the magazine and had my own column.
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My Big Takeaway: Never simply do what they tell you to do. Go beyond that, take on extra projects, solve problems, fill a hole, do something your gut tells you other people are secretly clamoring for. (Hint: It also helped that I took the ask-forgiveness-not-permission tack.)
In My Thirties: During my midthirties I was up for my first editor-in-chief job and I really, really wanted it—not only for the sake of my career but also to have more control in my life as a working mom. At the end of the final interview (with three top executives), someone inquired if I had any further questions. Partly out of desperation to land the job, I leaned forward and told the group, “I don’t have any additional questions, but I want to let you know how much I love the magazine and that I’d do an absolutely killer job for you.”
After I landed the position, the publisher told me, “We loved that you asked for the business that day.”
My Big Takeaway: Always ask. For the business. For more money than they’re offering. For opportunities. For the promotion. Don’t tell yourself, “They know I want it so I shouldn’t have to ask.” The only sure way to guarantee you’ll get something is to ask for it.
In My Forties: I had just snagged my first really big magazine job at the now defunct McCall’s. Incredibly naïve at the time about celebrities, I told my entertainment editor, “Let’s get Demi Moore for the cover.” I’d seen "Ghost" and found her breathtakingly gorgeous.
But Demi had about as much interest in doing McCall’s as she had in buying a pleather handbag. So working with my photo editor, I located a great paparazzi shot of her and used that for a cover. I wasn’t sure how it would sell but it was utterly captivating.
"When you’re new in a job, make one big splash as soon as you possibly can."
Well unbeknownst to me, the now pregnant Demi had shot a cover in the nude for Vanity Fair and it ended up coming out the month before mine. It was a huge hit, and I ended up riding the tailwind: My issue sold double what my predecessor’s had the year before.
The two top guys in my company went nuts. I laughed when one of them told me, “Awesome. And that coverline 'Big Beautiful Breasts' probably helped too.” He’d been so dazzled by the sales, he didn’t realize the line was actually “Healthy Beautiful Breasts.”
My Big Takeaway: When you’re new in a job, make one big splash as soon as you possibly can. Not lots of splashes right away, just one, because you need to do some homework still. I didn’t set out to make a big splash—I was just going for a great cover—but once sales were in, I could see the full halo effect of my choice. They were thrilled they hired me and I bought myself plenty of time.
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In My Fifties: By this point in my career, I’d starting writing books, in part because it had always been a secret fantasy of mine, but also because I wanted to cover my butt with a plan B in case I was ever canned. After a publisher made me a nice offer for a nonfiction book, I was told that one of my advocates at the house was a woman I’d chatted with at a luncheon the year before.
My Big Takeaway: Networking isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. OK, that’s a stretch, but as I look back at everything I got, so much of it was based on networking. Don’t just network when you’re looking for a job. Do it all the time. Ask questions. Listen more than you talk. Follow up. Act on what you learn.
Extra "Aha" Moment: That plan B I mentioned? It turns out it was brilliant on my part. After I decided to leave magazine publishing, I had another career waiting. So if you don’t have a plan B yet, start thinking of one.
So those are just a few of my favorite "aha" moments. Watch for your own now. Realize that they don’t always occur in the thick of things and that you may need to give thoughts time to bubble up. The key is not to flinch at what your brain is trying to whisper to you. Pay attention—and then run with it.
Kate White's most recent career book, "I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion, and Create the Career You Deserve," is just out in paperback. Visit her website, katewhite.com, to learn more about it, as well as the thrillers and mysteries she writes.