I believe in career advice. I’ve gotten lots of it, given lots of it, read and watched and heard all kinds of counsel for women trying to make a mark in their professions. But I’ve also seen women break as many commandments as they’ve followed, which suggests that, as InStyle might put it, advice is only as good as it feels when you try it on.
Just because some piece of professional wisdom is chic doesn’t mean it will suit you. When I entered the workforce, tagging along behind a squadron of female pioneers in male-dominated industries, we wore boxy jackets and blouses with ties and heinous shoulder pads, as though that would somehow camouflage us as we infiltrated these precincts. That was often just embarrassing, since most of us were terrible at mimicking male behavior—it was like tap dancing in ice skates.
Each generation of working women since then has gathered its gospels: We’ve been told to lean in, reach out, plot a course but follow your heart, speak up but listen, focus as you multitask. Some advice works only if most people ignore it: “Never have lunch with someone junior to you.” Some contradicts itself: “Aim high, but be realistic.”
At this year’s Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in London, business leaders from dozens of countries shared sharp insights into management culture. But I’m guessing that the women attending will not forget the Swedish cabinet minister who recalled taking office as the mother of 4-month-old twins and being greeted by the king while having breast milk leak through her shirt. Awkward? Sure. But motivating too since she recognized that many other women face the same challenges and she was now in the fortunate position to help them.
When I started out long ago at Time, I was desperate to be viewed as tough-minded and quick-witted by the journalists I admired. I was brought on as a part-time fact checker in an era when few women were hired as writers or editors—though I did have one senior writer invite me to discreetly take over for him while he went out for a long, boozy dinner so that I could see how my writing would be edited if I were a man. A year or so later, I was transferred from the international and business sections to the Modern Living pages, which I feared meant a career spent monitoring trends in ice cream flavors and golf attire. “I hate the Living section,” I whimpered to my wise adviser Otto, convinced this was the end of my short tenure as a Serious Person.
Plus, the Living section was run by the one terrifying female editor, who had a reputation for ending careers before they even began. Everything I had heard told me I was now set up to fail. Otto just smiled at me as I vented. “This is the best thing that could have happened to you,” he said. He was right. The Dragon Lady turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever worked for—fierce, wise, demanding, and protective, with impeccable taste and an eagerness to conspire on how we could address some hard subjects. Which is why one of the first big Living stories I wrote was about the right to die. In the years since, I’ve had many occasions to reject devious stereotypes about female executives, having learned the most from the bosses I was warned most about.
When I became editor in chief four years ago, I got all kinds of fresh advice about leadership. Take credit for success rather than talk about how great your team is. Leadership is a performance art, authenticity is overrated, fake it till you make it. I suspect this means don’t let anyone else accumulate too much power, except I’m certain that progress depends on sharing authority and unleashing talent at every level, which often requires just getting out of the way.
Most women have gotten the message that you should never cry in front of colleagues, which I’ve done more than once. I used to cringe when my work was described as “emotional,” but I gave up trying to change that. For one thing, we find ourselves caught up in a news cycle driven more by emotion—anger, alienation, anxiety—than by antiseptic analysis. And given what news organizations are asking of journalists—the long hours, the relentless pace, in some cases the physical risks—there is no avoiding the personal connections that arise. I’ve come to see vulnerability and a certain amount of emotional exposure as assets rather than risks.
VIDEO: Jessica Alba's Best Career Advice
Maybe it is hard to advise people on how to achieve success when we don’t agree on what it is. Fame, wealth, power. Purpose, balance, peace. If all of us create our own visions of fulfillment, then it follows we will need to outfit ourselves accordingly, make the time, find the allies, learn the skills, avoid the distractions. I can’t imagine there’s any one-size-fits-all theory to “making it,” other than the one we fashion from our instincts and accidents. As Oscar Wilde put it, the only thing to do with good advice is pass it on: “It is never of any use to oneself.”
For more stories like this, pick up InStyle's September issue available on newsstands and for digital download on Aug. 11.