“Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong” (Plume), edited by Jessica Bacal
Jessica Bacal came up with a great book idea: Ask 25 influential women about the mistakes they’ve made at work and what they’ve learned from them. Write down and edit their answers. Publish a book. Let others learn.
It sounds simple. It’s too bad Bacal makes her own missteps.
First, if Bacal’s title had you hoping to hear from women on Forbes’ annual 100 Most Powerful Women list, you’ll be disappointed. Bacal’s biggest interviews include Cheryl Strayed, Laurel Touby, Anna Holmes and Kim Gordon. Respectively, they’re the author of the book “Wild,” the founders of Mediabistro and Jezebel, and a founding member of the band Sonic Youth.
You’d think Bacal has the clout to ask anyone for an interview. She’s the director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College, one of the largest women’s colleges in the United States.
Given her position, it’s bizarre that Bacal seems star-struck at the start of each chapter, gushing about her next interviewee. She butters up Ruth Reichl by saying some of the food writer’s recipes have become “some of my absolute favorites.” McKinsey & Co. director emeritus Joanna Barsh “has boundless wisdom” and “a great sense of humor.” Women’s leadership consultant Selena Rezvani has “a remarkably lovely way about her” and a calming voice. These platitudes become tiresome and detract from these women’s real accomplishments.
If you can get over Bacal’s introductions, her subjects’ mistakes do make good lessons. Physician and NYU professor Danielle Ofri talks about standing frozen at a patient’s bedside, too afraid to act or ask for help. Activist Rinku Sen acknowledges mishandling criticism and dropping what was a good idea because of resistance. Journalist Alina Tugend talks about failing to negotiate her salary or ask for a raise.
Still, the fact that many readers will say “who?” when they look at the table of contents means either Bacal didn’t aim high enough or today’s most influential women weren’t willing to talk with her about their mistakes. Either way, that’s a shame.
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