by Elizabeth Petersen
Less than 10 minutes into the interview, I knew I was bombing.
I was fresh out of college, interviewing for a “stretch” position as a program manager at a prestigious teaching hospital. I was a bundle of nerves to begin with, and I quickly found myself intimidated by my interviewer—an accomplished attorney-physician who was considered one of the top minds in patient safety. My responses to her questions were either too short or borderline rambling. But I (unintentionally) committed the fatal flaw when I mentioned I had a fiancé.
“Stop right there,” my interviewer said, throwing her hand up. “I can tell you’re nervous. But I like you, so I’m going to give you a piece of career advice. Never discuss your personal life at work.”
As you’ve likely guessed, I didn’t get the job. However, more than 15 years later, I regard that interview as a critical professional learning experience.
But I want to shout back to my interviewer over the chasm of time, “I didn’t take your advice!”
Very early in my career, I certainly considered keeping my personal life entirely private. But not mentioning my husband (and later, our son) never felt quite right. Today, no matter where you look in my office, you’ll see signs of my family. My son’s slightly (OK, mostly) dead school-project terrarium is on my side table. A picture of our family of three is perched in my line of sight on my desk. And many of my colleagues met my mother and father during “Bring Your Parents to Work Day.”
Don’t get me wrong—I understand that no one is interested in a daily play-by-play of my domestic life. But my family is as much a part of my personal story as where I went to college or previous positions I’ve held.
In the same way, my job is an inextricable part of my personal life. I no longer apologize for not being the class mom or for not having Pinterest-worthy Halloween costumes.
Almost every morning, I walk my son to his school door in my outdoor-inappropriate work heels and a skirt, and I’m happy. Happy that my loved-to-the-moon-and-back son gets to go to a school he loves. Happy that I’ll see my family again in nine short hours. And happy that I get to teeter in my heels back to my car and slog through a 45-minute commute to a job that I adore.
I share bits of my personal life with my colleagues not because I think my family is especially unique or interesting but because I want my colleagues to better understand my makeup.
I am a mother-daughter-wife-executive, and for me, none of those parts every really exists independently.
I do, however, understand and completely support those who prefer to keep details of their personal lives private. I believe everyone has the right to control their lives’ narratives and decide what is important to them—and what’s important for people to know about them.
To this day, I still admire and respect that interviewer. But, now armed with an additional 15 years of work and life experience, I can definitely say that her advice wasn’t right for me. In fact, the only one-size-fits-all piece of wisdom I’ve ever heard is that there’s no single definition of success—and no “right” way to find it, either.
Elizabeth Petersen is the Chief People and Strategy Officer at Simplify Compliance. Before her current role, Elizabeth oversaw Simplify Compliance’s healthcare division, HCPro. She also has held roles in HCPro’s sales, product management, and content development departments. Before joining HCPro, she held editorial positions at JBLearning and CCI Communications. Elizabeth lives in the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son and is passionately interested in corporate culture, innovation, women’s leadership, and caffeine.