Kate White knows a thing or two about being gutsy.
For one, she ran Cosmopolitan, the bible for “fun fearless females,” for more than 14 years. Boldness was arguably one of the biggest secrets to her success in the magazine world—secrets she shares in her latest career advice book, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion, and Create the Career You Deserve. And two years ago, she made the gutsiest move of all: Leaving her longtime profession to devote more time to her other career, mystery writing.
After recently publishing her newest book, Eyes on You, about a similarly gutsy career woman, White sat down with us for an incredible webinar on her career change journey, “How to Find the Guts to Go for Your Career Dreams.” Read on for a glimpse of the highlights—her best tips for changing careers, going after your dreams, and making the biggest move of all, working for yourself.
A few years ago, you left Cosmo to follow your big career dream of writing mystery novels. How did you decide to make the leap?
To tell you the truth, it all started with a fortune teller! I had her come to my office to discuss writing a horoscope column, and one of the things she said to me was, “As I look around this office, I sense that you love the power and excitement that comes with this job, but there’s another part of you that wants to be very solitary, in a room someplace, just doing something very creative and alone.”
That experience really got me thinking about how much, at some point in my life, I’d love to try something beyond magazines, which I’d been doing for many years. I started as a writer, but as you move up in magazines, you have to let go of that. So, I started playing with the idea of how I was going to make it happen at some point. I couldn’t make it happen right away—you definitely don’t want to walk away from a job at Cosmo, particularly when you discover there’s a Cosmo beauty closet!—but I definitely laid out a game plan to do it. I figured I was still young enough to make another stab at another career.
What did that game plan look like?
There were two big steps—and I would advise everyone to do this. First of all, I tested the waters. I think there can be a danger when you’re thinking about changing careers of romanticizing the new career. But if you haven’t really done it, you can have some real shock when you get there.
So, I started writing mysteries while I was at Cosmo—I actually wrote eight of them in the Cosmo years. And, you know, I did something similar back in my 20s. I had this notion I might want to go into TV, so I volunteered at a small cable station once a week. I started as a floor manager, and eventually I would anchor the news one night a week—and it was a great experience that taught me, you know what, I don’t want to be in television! So, if you can test the waters, either by freelancing or doing volunteer work, that’s so important.
Secondly, you’ve got to get your ducks in a row financially. You’ve got to do your homework and figure out if you can afford to make a change. Once I decided that I wanted to leave my magazine job, I met with my accountant—and this was several years in advance—and I plotted out what I needed to do and how much I needed to sock away to make sure I could make the change without having any financial worries.
Even though you were prepared for the change, was there anything you were afraid of? What helped you get over those fears?
I was a little bit afraid of living a solitary life after I had 65 people working for me. I adored the people who worked for me—I’m still very close to them. It was very important for me to face the fact that a writing career could be very solitary.
I think what helped was just really being sure that I wanted to make this change and that I was passionate about it. It’s also really important to understand that everything takes adjustment—I knew there would be an adjustment period and I wasn’t going to be in love with it from the first moment.
Coming from the top of your game in one field to the bottom of the totem pole in another can definitely be intimidating. Any tips for facing those fears and boosting your confidence?
One of the first things is to understand that knowledge is power. When you’re transitioning to a new field, just get up to speed as quickly as possible. For my last book, I interviewed the co-founder of Paperless Post, and she said that when she was starting that business, she would read a book every week about whatever transition period she was in. If she needed marketing info, she read a great book about marketing. You just have to learn as you go.
I also think it’s important to accept that, so often, while everyone around you seems to be so smart and know everything, they’re not as clued in as they appear to be sometimes. I remember the first time I went out to a murder mystery conference. I felt like a newbie, I was very shy about it, and I kind of hung by myself. And only later, as I’ve gotten more entrenched in the world of mystery writers, have I realized a lot of them are self-conscious, too—they’re writers, after all! All I would have had to do is walk up to them, introduce myself, and say, “Hey I’m Kate White, this is my first conference like this,” and they would have been more than happy to talk to me.
Are there any other lessons you wished you had known while making the switch?
I think it’s really important when you switch careers to be in a constant evaluation mode, stepping back and asking yourself, OK, how’s it going? Could this be better? Could I be doing something a little bit differently here? I didn’t do enough evaluation in that first year.
I often talk about draining the swamp as you’re slaying the alligators. Draining the swamp is the big picture stuff, while slaying the alligators is the day to day. You really need to build in time every week to think big picture. It’s important no matter where you are in your career, but particularly when you’ve made a career switch, to really be looking at whether there’s something you should be doing differently.
Many Muse readers have asked about switching careers once they have 15-20 years in one field—without taking a giant step back. What’s your advice?
This is where you really have to check things out and see what the move means financially, because it probably means you’re going to have to take a pay cut. And it can be done—I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it! But that’s why I think it’s important to listen to that early restlessness you feel, and just ask yourself what it’s telling you. Because if you can make the move at seven years as opposed to 15 years, it’s not going to be as tough to do financially.
But more importantly, if you’ve done some volunteer work or put some effort into this new career on the side, that allows you to focus more on that in the interview process. It becomes less about what you were doing for 15 or 20 years, and more about this wonderful stuff that you’re doing now. It’s hard to go in there cold turkey. You’ve got to show people, hey, I’ve done some of this already.
That said, I think it’s important when you’re switching careers to simultaneously invest in the job you have—engage with people, ask for more opportunities. What happens sometimes is the realization that you like your job better than you thought you did—you just didn’t have anything new and exciting to tackle! Try to kill two birds with one stone, and you might realize that you don’t want to change your career after all.
How is your new life and career? And how has your definition of success changed since leaving Cosmo?
I love my life now! And certainly we’re talking about career switches that could involve moving from one company to another, but I think a lot of us toy with being on our own one day, and just being able to have a lot of personal freedom. That’s what I was looking for, and I love it.
When I was at Cosmo, it was loaded with perks—the clothing allowance, the car and driver, that Cosmo beauty closet!—and yet that probably never mattered so much to me the way it did to some people. Today, success to me is so clearly about personal freedom. Success now is really about the pleasure of doing things that I want to do, just enjoying them, and not having to answer to a boss or deal with office politics (which used to drive me insane!). I loved success then, but I really love this new definition.
And I’d say that for anyone who’s considered going out on your own, go for it. Be gutsy—try it! There’s a lot of pleasure in being your own boss.