We spend the first 20 years of our lives being asked what we want to be when we grow up. Then we spend the next 20 finding out for ourselves.
And though that can be exciting, it’s not easy. The first part of our lives is, with few exceptions, a step-by-step, guided path: Elementary school. High school. College. But after that, the roadmap stops. While you might have dreams and ideas of what you want to achieve in your career, the path getting there isn’t easily paved. And it’s different for everyone.
That’s why we’re bringing you this series: Over the next few months, 40:20 Vision will feature successful 40-something women sharing their stories on how they found their career path, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. While everyone’s career path is ultimately different, we also know there’s a lot we can learn from the journeys of those who’ve been there.
Sarah Gormley, Communications & Marketing Executive
Education: BA, DePauw University; MBA, University of Chicago Booth School of Business
First Job: Public Relations Account Executive
Favorite Job: VP, Corporate Communications for IMAX
Background: Many women say their path was just luck. And sure, sometimes it is. But more often than not, when I hear their stories, I see not luck—but vision. Successful women know their strengths—and their weaknesses. They see opportunities—and snag them. And they pivot their plans when they’re no longer challenged.
Sarah Gormley is just that kind of person. She always knew that she was both left-brained and right-brained—and she used it to her advantage. Though she was a literature major, she found herself at home with the finance majors at University of Chicago business school, where she was accepted into a special program as a junior. Since then, she’s parlayed her strengths and education into a path that’s ultimately landed her in senior marketing and communication roles at global public relations firms, major media companies, and IMAX.
Here’s how she got started on her path, and what she’s learned along the way.
Did you know what you wanted to do when you graduated from college?
No idea! I moved to Chicago with this idea in my head that I’d show up and Oprah would say, "I heard there’s this super smart, cute girl in town and she’s got to work for me." Shockingly, that didn’t happen.
What was your first real job?
I’d done an internship at an advertising agency, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I realized that people at ad agencies are either right-brained people or left-brained, and of course, I thought I was both.
A classmate knew I enjoyed the creativity of advertising but also had business strategy smarts, so she introduced me to somebody at Edelman Public Relations. I wasn't sure it was perfect, but I knew I had to just get a job to gain some experience and confidence. So I started there.
What did you learn from your first job?
I hated the idea of "putting in your time," and I resisted it. But I should have recognized that a lot of what you do in your first two or three years of working is simply gaining experience: interacting with colleagues, office politics, learning to be an asset to your boss. All of that comes with time.
What was most unusual career move?
I went to work on a ranch in Wyoming in 2003—I wanted a break from corporate America. But, by doing that, I learned that I wanted to stay in PR. From there, I took another important career step, deciding to go in-house instead of back to an agency. I ultimately ended up at IMAX, choosing an industry I knew very little about and a company that had its share of challenges.
What was your “aha” moment for defining career success?
My “aha” moment came to me over the course of several jobs. Looking back, I realized my career path was only a “path” because of the decisions I’d made along the way, not because there was a set goal from the start.
If you’re determined to follow one set path, you may end up disappointed. Instead, you should strive to learn as much as possible at every step, believe in yourself and your value, and align yourself with smart, supportive colleagues and mentors.
What do you wish you had known in your 20s?
While it’s hard to think this way at 25, your job, in its simplest form, is to make your boss's life easier. At the end of the day, every boss wants to be confident in his or her team. The longer you’re in the workforce, the more you come to appreciate how important it is to have great people around you.
In turn, if you are lucky enough to work for a boss who trusts you, supports you, and cares about you, think long and hard before you move on to what appears to be a better opportunity.