January 12, 2021

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community of trailblazers. 

I’m writing to you from a surreal place.

I’m in my home office. I’m clutching a stuffed animal my stepdaughter gave me, because quarantine life allows us to brazenly clutch toys at work. But that’s not even the surreal part.

I write for my beloved newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, where I’ve been almost 18 years. And I’m a columnist. A humor columnist, mostly. I started at the beginning of the pandemic — read more about that journey here. I have a free weekly newsletter (sign up, it’s fun!). In March, my column will be syndicated via Creators Syndicate, potentially all over the world. I still wonder if there has been some horrible mistake.

I feel … oh, God. Happy. Am I allowed to feel happy? But I do. I was happy before, but my happy now is different. Like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And it took leaving the management ladder to get there.

In a boss babe society obsessed with ascension and busyness, stepping off is OK. It might even be key to your happiness.

Allow me to explain.

You know that lie you tell yourself? Taking on ___ will give me more time and energy to do ___.

I thought this when I became an editor in our features department in 2016. I had been a reporter until then, but I wanted to move up and take on new challenges. Plus, there was that lie. Because I would not be spending my days writing, I would have stores of energy for creative prose in my spare time.

You are laughing, right? But, like, in that sad way where you laugh at a baby who has fallen on her full diaper?

The truth is, of course, that management is exhausting, especially in this difficult media landscape. There was no such thing as extra energy.

But I really loved the job. I loved helping writers structure and shape their copy, refine and create ideas. And I got pretty invested in the psychological aspect of management, how to create a happy, high-functioning team. Coming out of the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media in early 2019, I planned to continue climbing the ranks at my company. And I did. I made it all the way to the masthead.

But there it was. That nagging urge to write, like a weird Fraggle that lives in my mind’s basement. In November that year, Lady Gaga went on Twitter and dogged her album “ARTPOP.” I shamelessly love “ARTPOP,” and will always defend it. I was in the middle of 17 meetings and edits, but I stopped to write. I didn’t care if anyone read it; it just felt amazing.

The Fraggle had crawled up on my shoulder now. At a management retreat the next month, my friend Ellen Clarke (who ended up taking my old job, but I assure you was not setting up a long con) said she missed my voice in our pages. I flashed back to reading Dave Barry with my dad in the ’90s. How I used to think that one day, I could do that, too. Where had that dream gone?

The next week, I talked to my boss, Mark Katches, about what a column from me might look like. Not traditional. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not me. I wanted to do something funny, something slightly twisted, something with heart, something that sewed our more human fabric.

We have a great relationship, so I came to him in a casual, thinking-out-loud kind of way. After he showed interest, first, I picked myself up off the floor. Then, I pulled together old clips that matched the tone: first person; commentary; funny. I compiled ideas for potential columns, most of which have gone in the trash now because of the pandemic. Within weeks, we decided I would do it, starting a few months later in order to transition the department to a new editor.

If you’re thinking about stepping off the ladder, ask yourself, “What if?” Try to conceive how your new life will look. What are the hours? The tasks? The pros and cons? The new challenges? The day-to-day might be different than the fantasy in your head. It might be worse. But it might be better.

If you anticipate a tough conversation with your superior, make notes and be prepared. If you have an easy relationship, just be honest. Say what’s on your heart, even if you haven’t reached a decision. I believe most managers want employees to be fulfilled. That’s when the best work happens.

RELATED: How to think about your career goals during this time of upheaval

Not every move will come with a pay cut, but if it does, reframing can help. Maybe the mental benefits outweigh the financial ones. Maybe this new role is like going back to school; you are going to spend a period of time learning new skills and resetting yourself for what’s ahead.

And prepare to let go. I was supervising 12 people, and leaving them was the hardest part. When you spend enough time leading, you get the wrongheaded idea that everyone will perish without you. They will not. They were sad to see me move on, but they got it. They ended up in wonderful hands.

That’s the thing about stepping off the ladder. It’s discarding ego, self-importance, the need for titles. It’s listening to that thing inside that really makes you bloom, and being honest about it, no matter how your business card looks.

Being an editor helped me be a better writer and colleague. It taught me to be tough and compassionate. It sharpened nearly all my skills. I might even do it again someday. I’m still leading in our newsroom, overseeing our training program and mentoring others. As a result of the cohort, I initiated newsroom training on harassment that I’m proud of.

But for now, I’m happy to be off the hamster wheel of meetings, the miles-long to-do lists, the feeling that there was never time to give people the attention they needed. When there is bad news, I am glad that I don’t have to deliver it. I am privileged to be edited by Maria Carrillo, once my editing colleague. It’s a pleasure to change dynamics and see things from the other side.

Oh, and as for that fantasy that I’d have energy for creativity outside work? It finally came true. I’m writing for pleasure more than I have in a long time. Turns out, it’s like sports, music, cooking — anything that requires practice.

Doing the thing you want to do helps you do the thing you want to do. Weird.

For additional insights, community and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.

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Please buckle in for a glamorous journalism biography. I left my job at a mall CD store to work here at 19, distributing faxes and…
Stephanie Hayes

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