By Jennifer Palmieri
Aug 20, 2018 @ 9:00 am
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Courtesy Everett Collection

There was a time when I would have bristled at the suggestion that I was a woman living in a man’s world. In my mind, it was self-defeating for women to think that way. I understood that it could be a struggle to achieve all that men do, but I didn’t see the point in complaining about it. It wasn’t as if there were an alternative universe in which we could choose to live.

Besides, I thought I was doing pretty well. I had been the White House communications director for President Obama and the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. True, I got those jobs later in my career than my male peers did, but I was grateful to get them nonetheless.

Then, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, I woke up in a new reality. I felt as if I were tumbling into a black hole of terrifying and suffocating silence. It took me a while to adjust. But then it became clear: It’s not that I don’t want to play by the traditional rules for women to succeed in the workplace or that I have adjusted to the double standards. I just don’t want to be in the man’s world anymore. I am over it.

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My first job out of college was working for then Congressman Leon Panetta on Capitol Hill. Like any good guest in a foreign land, I closely observed the local customs. I learned that I could get ahead if I was willing to work hard and settle for less opportunity than men got. I quickly made myself indispensable. You could always count on me to stay late, cover all the bases, and take on the tasks that weren’t in my job description. I’d do them because “someone had to.”

I made choices in my career that others would not have been willing to make. This included lateral moves so I could eventually get the job I wanted and working for members of the opposite sex who were much younger than me. When I was 36, I joined John Edwards’s 2004 presidential campaign as the press secretary, and my boss was a 28-year-old male communications director. When I was 45, I went to the Obama White House to become the deputy White House communications director and again worked for a male communications director nearly a decade my junior.

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I found the Obama White House a supportive place for women. At the end of each meeting, President Obama would ask anyone who had not already spoken what they thought. He would gain new and different insight from the women in particular. One day in a meeting with just women, he prodded all of us to be more vocal. “Speak up,” he said. “I need to hear from you.” It was then that I realized that if I didn’t speak up, I wasn’t just holding myself back — I wasn’t doing my job.

Even with the president’s encouragement, I clung to my tendency to overwork. It had become key to my success and a point of pride. My female colleagues in the Obama White House would often admonish me for staying unreasonably late. “A man wouldn’t do that,” they would say. Correct. That’s why I did it. I knew I might not rise as high or as fast in my career as men did, but my consolation was knowing that I did a better job.

In 2015 I joined Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was something worse than a lateral move. It was a self-imposed demotion. I didn’t do it with the hopes of eventually getting a better job; I went because I knew the 2016 election would be difficult, and I thought my decades-long experience in politics made me well suited for the challenge of getting the first woman elected president. I was certain that everything had prepared me for this moment.

When it was clear that we had lost, I had to accept that my faith in politics was misplaced. There are no rules in politics.

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But I am happy to have found that faith now in myself. Instead of working in the office of another politician, I am making my own world, and I love it. I wrote a book of advice for women looking to lead. That is something I never thought I would do.

I was able to use the book tour as a way to honor my sister, Dana, who died last year. I brought my family out on the road, and we crisscrossed the country rekindling old friendships. I listen to the universe now, and when it sends unusual opportunities my way, I follow up on them. I am open to whims. And I have a lot more fun.

I’ve learned that the success that comes with titles and money holds little value to me. All I need to feel fulfilled is to put my best effort into something that matters. I am continually trying to inspire others, bridge divides, and advocate on behalf of those who suffer injustice, including issues involving immigration. I am an adviser for the Emerson Collective, an organization founded by businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs that engages in social, environmental, and educational initiatives. That’s what success looks like to me in my world.

I don’t have any regrets, and I am grateful for the skills I have honed. Since I had to work hard to fit in, I am very astute. I never lived my life expecting everything to go my way, so I can manage disappointments well. I had to be satisfied with achieving less than many of the men around me, allowing me to appreciate the value of the personal satisfaction that comes from doing the very best job I can do, regardless of what others think.

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I see now that manipulating the power dynamic was within my ability all along. All you have to do to change your world is change the way you react to it. It is revolutionary. These days I stand differently. Taller. More assured. A confident and sometimes mischievous expression shows on my face. I would recommend keeping an eye on me. There is no telling what I will do next.

Palmieri’s book, Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, is available on Amazon.

For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.

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