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Creating a Big Life: a conversation with author Ann Shoket

The former editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine talks about her new book, the essential women in your squad, and making millennials feel like they matter.

Ann Shoket. Photo by Anne Menke

Maybe it’s just me and the circles I run in, but self-help is having a big moment right now. In the past month alone I’ve either bought or been gifted a dozen of these books, each one focused on either improving one or two life aspects, or building something entirely new from the ashes of what once was. What can I say…I live in Los Angeles, have a lot of feelings (I recently took the Strengths Finder and found my #1 strength is feeling feelings, a.k.a. Empathy), and from a young age was taught, and subsequently started believing, that I should want a Big Life. And not just that I should want one, that I deserved to have one.

However, my generation is constantly being told just how much we suck. Ditto women–except women aren’t told this via online thinkpieces, but through tiny micro-aggressions and latent belief systems. So then, is it any wonder why we’re schilling out for book after book, hoping that at the end of just one of them, we’ve somehow seen the light?

Ann Shoket’s new book, The Big Life, even while being in the saturated self-help space, manages to reconcile these two notions, and makes millennial women feel like they don’t suck, they aren’t alone, they aren’t broken, and that they shouldn’t feel bad for wanting that Big Life. The constant negative messaging that we receive from everywhere else doesn’t exist in Ann’s Big Life–or at least, she’s managed to make us focus our attentions elsewhere, to things like creating the community that will lift us up, focusing our energies to find jobs we love, and forgiving ourselves the pressure to be perfect.

A few weeks ago, Ashley Crouch of Appleseed Communications hosted a Fireside Chat with Ann Shoket, where I had a few minutes to speak with each Ashley and Ann. Each woman is designing her own Big Life–Ashley by using her PR platform to revolutionize the way people see themselves. Says Ashley, “our level of personal achievement is directly related to the stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that we see in the media and in the role models we look up to. So my goal with this discussion is to bring in role models who pave the way and change the conversation.”

Ann’s Big Life comes in the form of helping other women find their own Big Lives through the community she’s building with her book. Below, some excerpts of our conversation.

How did you come up with this book’s mission?

The mission is the subtitle: Embrace the mess, work your side hustle, find a monumental relationship, and become the badass babe you were meant to be. I would hear again and again: “I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but I know I want it to be big.” No one wants to have a small life. This generation of young women is very suddenly and dramatically laser-focused on career, ambition, and success. The book answers the question of, “If career and ambition are at the center of your life, how do you put together the rest of the pieces of your life?” It’s not career in a vacuum, it’s not love in a vacuum, it’s not wellness in a vacuum. All of the pieces of your life have to work together. We are at a moment in the world where it’s all work all the time and all life all the time. There are no boundaries between the two. Young women say to me all the time “There’s no one I can look to that does what I want to to do because…the way I want to live is so different.” And that’s where the book steps in. What’s so important to me about the book is that this is a sisterhood. It’s not “Ann Shoket, Former Magazine Editor-in-Chief Delivering Some Words of Wisdom From On High.” [The book] is the women who came to my table, who told me their stories, told each other their stories, shared their advice with each other, and I was there to help put the pieces together, to be the guide. It’s a sisterhood. That’s the mission of The Big Life: to create a sisterhood of women to help each other through the trickiest bits of becoming the person that you’re meant to be.

How does The Big Life answer the question of mentorship for young women?

It’s great to have a mentor, [but] it feels like that’s a situation for a select few. We have so many emerging industries that young women are leading the way into, and there’s not always someone there who can help mentor you. I think there are two things that are really valuable in helping you figure out your own personal path. The first is to pay attention to the women and men who are in positions of power around you, and how they wield that power: How do they let you know that you’re doing a good job, how do they let you know that you’re doing a disappointing job. How do they lead meetings, who walks into the room first, who walks into the room last. How do you know the meeting is over, how do they run the show, how do they interact with other people. Who do they talk to and how do they speak to them in that five minutes of chit chat before the meeting starts. All of those are the secret handshakes of success. You couldn’t have someone tell you how those things work–you need to watch and pay attention.

The other piece of getting the guidance that you need is to find your squad: a sisterhood of women who are devoted to helping each other achieve and succeed. This is not crowdsourced advice from your entire Facebook friend list. This is women who are connected with you and each other and promise to have each other’s backs. Give each other advice and tough love. Make connections, make introductions, keep an eye out for each other. [Your squad] is not necessarily your friends. Yes, we are ambitious and hungry, and constantly thinking about our place in the world, but sometimes you just want to drink a glass of wine and relax with somebody who loves you. You should be friendly with your squad, but your squad is about your ambition and drive.

What has been your path to your Big Life?

I never had a plan to be Editor-in-Chief of a legendary magazine. I never really had a particular plan to become an author or to build a platform and a movement, which is what we’re doing now with The Big Life. I have always looked for ways that I can tread into new territory and make my mark, and that’s what’s exciting to me. I wanted to be everything, but I had a vision that I wanted to be a writer. I went to NYU and got a degree in English literature and creative writing with minors in political science and Latin. I actually thought for a while I would write novels, but then I realized that would be a path to financial ruin and loneliness. That’s when I started to think about writing for magazines. It felt more creative. I realized how valuable it is to talk to young women about this moment in your life where you are pure potential, and anything is possible, and how do you create the life you want to live. That’s when I started to focus on what felt like a passion, and what felt meaningful to me.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

I had the privilege of interviewing Barbara Walters. She gave me an answer that has become a mantra for me. I asked her “What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?” She got really quiet, and she thought very seriously about this question. I thought, “Ooh, I asked Barbara Walters a really good question! She’s the legend!” And she said “Don’t imagine that your life now is the way that it’s always going to be. You have no idea how interesting it can become. You have no idea the adventures that are in store for you.” It gives me chills to think about that–that every single day you have no idea what interesting twists and turns there could be. You have no idea the adventures that could be out there for you if you go look for them. Keep your brain open to possibilities and to keep looking for new adventures.

Where do you see The Big Life movement heading?

I feel like I’m just at the beginning. Every time I give a talk or do a book signing, I feel so rewarded by the women that I meet and their excitement about their lives and their hunger to learn, about their curiosity about my path and the path of other women. I have been getting the most amazing notes and messages and emails and, frankly, Instagram messages, from young women who are saying that the book makes them feel seen, and they felt very alone. It is hard to do big things. It is lonely and complicated. It’s hard to believe in yourself when the rest of the world is not heaping praise and showering you with money. It’s hard to keep on a path that you know is right for you and yet it’s so different than anything anyone else has ever done before. I wrote the book so that women don’t feel alone–so that they feel seen, and they feel like their struggle is worth it. 

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