The 5 Biggest Problems for Millennial Women, and How Emotional Agility Can Help Solve Them

“You would think, with hundreds of women around my table, there would be hundreds of problems. It’s not true.”

Ann Shoket is a trailblazing senior media executive—formerly the editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine—author of The Big Life, and advocate in the lives of millennial women. She recently joined Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, leading Harvard psychologist, and co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, for a Heleo Conversation on how a new generation of working women are tackling life’s most difficult questions.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Ann: The Big Life is about the way millennial women are changing what it means to be powerful and successful. As part of the research for the book, I had a series of dinners at my apartment, the Badass Babes Dinners, and I always asked the question: if I could solve any problem for you, what would it be?

You would think, with hundreds of women around my table, there would be hundreds of problems. It’s not true. It all boiled down to four or five problems.

How do I find a career that feels like a passion? How do I get respect from my bosses who think I’m a lazy, entitled millennial? How do I get paid what I’m worth? How do I find a partner who honors my ambition? Will I have to take my foot off the gas of my ambition and career when I have a family and children?

That’s it. That’s what’s keeping young women up at three o’clock in the morning. I call them the itchy emotions—they’re uncomfortable. These are the things that are hard to work through, the problems that they want to have solved.

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Susan: What’s fascinating is that those problems, which you talk about in the millennial context, are very much human problems. How do I adjust my career and my needs in an ongoing way as I evolve in my life? How do I continue to engage myself in a passionate way with the work that I’m doing? How do I have relationships in which I’m seen and I see the other [person], and we enter into a space that feels full and supportive?

Ann: This generation of young women, though, is changing what it means to be powerful and successful. I was editor-in-chief of Seventeen for seven years, and before that I was on the launch team of CosmoGirl, so I’ve had this long view of the tastes and values of young women. Frankly, this generation of young women is laser-focused on career, ambition, and success in a way I’ve never seen. They tell me that they don’t see role models for how their life should go.

They can’t talk to their bosses, because they can’t be that vulnerable. They can’t talk to their friends, because they just want to hang out and not endlessly go on about their ambitions, hopes, and dreams. And they can’t talk to their mothers, because the way their mothers led their careers and lives doesn’t connect with the nuance and the texture of their lives.

These are universal, human questions, but when it’s you, it feels very personal. It feels like you’re lost and you don’t know how to get started.

Susan: Absolutely. We live in a society that tells us to fight on and go towards your goals with a good attitude. We should be happy all the time, focused, and go-getting. When their career isn’t going the way that they want, or the relationship isn’t working out, people will have difficult emotions. An important part of growing, evolving, and being powerful is being able to connect with these emotions and to recognize that our difficult emotions contain signposts of things that we value.

This idea of your purpose—so much of the narrative in society is that individuals should all have purpose. It’s their job to find purpose. It creates so much unnecessary stress.

Ann: It’s paralyzing—you’re sitting by the sidelines waiting for your purpose or passion to hit you, and that’s just not how it works.

“As human beings we change. The story that you told yourself about what you wanted to do when you were 15 years old is different from the story when you’re 30.”

Susan: And if I don’t find it, it’s my fault. We need to start changing this narrative.

Because as human beings we change. The story that you told yourself about what you wanted to do when you were 15 years old is different from the story when you’re 30. It’s only when we embrace the idea that we are evolving selves and that we have many purposes that we are able to connect with what my value is right now and how I want to move forward in a way that’s congruent with it.

Ann: You call it value. I call it meaning. Sometimes, it’s fun, adventure. It doesn’t have to be lofty. When I got out of school, I was told to do something I was good at, not something that was going to change the world. I was good at asking nosy questions and writing stories, so I became a reporter.

I started out at The American Lawyer magazine, which was phenomenally boring. It wasn’t until my third job that I realized how meaningful it was to have conversations with young women about becoming who they’re meant to be. It didn’t hit me one day that this was the thing that was meaningful to me. It wasn’t even until I was well into my career in magazines for young women that I realized that this was what felt important. It made me feel good to be a part of young women’s lives. It was something I had a lot of experience and expertise in, and happens to be fun and adventurous. Those are my values.

Susan: They’re all connected. One of the things I talk about in Emotional Agility is social contagion, where your friends are doing things, so you want to do it. We are all impacted by social contagion. When people even two or three degrees of separation from us get divorced or put on weight, even if we don’t know the person, we are more likely to get divorced or put on weight. What are our friends doing? What are people saying in the news? How do I embrace a big life that is my big life, not someone else’s?

If you start connecting with your values, saying “What are my values, what is truly important to me, what did I do today that was worthwhile?” that not only protects you from social contagion, but allows you to start shaping career choices that are comported with those values.

Ann: But can’t social contagion be good? From my point of view, I call it your squad. You are surrounding yourself with badass babes who see the world the way you do, and are devoted to helping you succeed in the world. Not your best friends, not your coworkers: a squad of chicks that are in your industry or in surrounding industries who come together, who are there for you.

However, sometimes you find yourself on an airless planet where nobody sees the world the way you do, and you can’t connect in real life. That’s when you need a feed of inspiration—clear all the negativity out of your social media feed and fill it up with people who inspire you. That kind of social contagion is very important.

Susan: Social contagion impacts us in both positive and negative ways. The important thing is being aware of it, and being connected with, “Is this move that I’m making, this career choice I’m making, is it my choice or someone else’s choice?”

Ann: Another [example of] social contagion is the dark clouds in the office. When I started at Seventeen, there was a group of people who literally hung out by the water cooler. They were negative and gossiping. They were bringing me down, and I was just walking by. You don’t want to be associated with those dark clouds.

Susan: Often, when we’re going through difficult experiences, we do one of two things: bottle those emotions, where we push them aside, or brood about our emotions, where we go over and over our emotions in our head. What you described at the watercooler is co-rumination. It’s co-brooding. The idea behind it is, if you are one of those people who is having a big fat moan about things that you don’t like at the office, you can walk away from that interaction feeling much better about those individuals. It’s like, “I got it off of my chest.”

But what we know from the research is it actually undermines your wellbeing. It undermines your ability to set and make changes around your goals effectively. We can contribute to social contagion as well as be recipients of social contagion.

“When we experience difficult emotions, we often want to push them aside, but those emotions are signposts to things we care about.”

Ann: In your book, you talk about the movie, The Babadook, how this monster that she’s battling throughout the movie is really a manifestation of her fears. Rather than kill the monster, she tucks it away in the basement, feeds it, and makes peace with it. That is such an important idea, that you need to make peace with uncomfortable feelings rather than try to make them disappear.

Susan: Absolutely. When we experience difficult emotions, we often want to push them aside, but those emotions are signposts to things we care about. If your idea was stolen at work, and you are angry with your boss or your co-worker, that is a sign that you care about equity and justice. These values are important.

What I describe is this way of moving into a space where instead of saying “I shouldn’t have that feeling, it’s a negative feeling,” we end any struggle that we have with whether we should or shouldn’t feel anything by dropping the rope. That acceptance, paradoxically, is the prerequisite to change. It’s only when you recognize what you’re struggling with that you are able to start making tweaks and changes.

Ann: What if the thing you want to change—I heard this all the time from young women—is that the world is stacked against them? They’re not wrong. When I tell senior executives that I’m writing a book about the power of millennial women, they say, “What do you hate most about millennials?” Before I can say, “They are game-changing rockstar pioneers,” they tell me, “Lazy, entitled, self-obsessed.”

When you know that your boss sees you as a huge management hassle, it’s hard to move ahead. It’s hard to feel like you are doing something meaningful. When the thing that you want to change is outside of yourself, how do you do it?

Susan: When you’re feeling frustrated because it feels like the world is stacked against you, it can imply that we need to change the world, which feels intimidating. But if we start saying, “What are things I can do that are values-aligned, but that are tiny tweaks?” those small shifts make a big impact.

I often get asked this question, for example: “What if my coworker is not pulling their weight? What if I really am in work situation where my boss is against me?” Often we become very hooked with this idea that they are wrong and I am right. When we are hooked, we are effectively unagile. We are letting our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories constrain us. In this situation, ask what actions can you take that will serve the person that you want to be. We get so stuck in “It’s me against the world.” Even if it’s true, we still get to choose who and how we want to be.

Ann: I have also found that for young women, [many] challenges they’re facing are because they’re holding onto old ideas.

Specifically, the old idea that is standing between young women and the big life they want to build is this imaginary deadline that at 30, you must have the career buttoned up, the big job, and a baby plan. When you’re holding onto old ideas that don’t serve you, how do you let go of that? How do you tell yourself a different story that works better?

Susan: So often, we crawl into stories. Some of them were written on mental chalkboards when we were in grade three: stories about whether we’re good enough, what I need to accomplish by a particular time, who I can or should be.

That story starts to represent our life. It starts to constrain us: “Should I apply for this job? No I shouldn’t, because I’m not that kind of person.” A very important aspect about agility is showing up to your story, labeling that story as, “That’s my, ‘I’ll never be good enough’ story.” When we can see it for what it is, we start freeing ourselves. This is self-compassion. We live in a world that would have us believe that we’re in a never-ending one-man or one-woman marathon. If I haven’t done such-and-such by 30, it means I’ve failed. This just isn’t true.

Ann: Also, on Instagram and Facebook, we put out this perfect idea of what life should look like, and it doesn’t leave any room for vulnerability. It doesn’t leave any room for quiet moments or those dark nights of the soul that are inevitable. If you feel very isolated, if you’re struggling, we don’t see it.

“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. There are setbacks. There’s illness. There is loss. This is the reality of the world as it is, not as we want it to be.”

Susan: Absolutely. When I was 16 years old, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I remember going to school and none of my peers would talk about cancer or about their fathers, because they were worried that talking about something uncomfortable would make me more uncomfortable. I would go to school every day, and there was almost no conversation that happened around these difficult experiences.

We see the beauty on Instagram, the perfection. But life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. There are setbacks. There’s illness. There is loss. This is the reality of the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

I had this amazing teacher who encouraged us to keep journals. In this journal, I would have this secret silent correspondence with this English teacher about my father who was dying. I not only felt seen, but it became the catalyst for my entire career as a psychologist, because I recognized that going to those difficult emotions, labeling them, and working through them are going to help us to become resilient and live a big life.

Ann: How do you do that in your day-to-day? How can that idea come to work when you are just a girl sitting at her desk feeling miserable, like the world is stacked against you?

Susan: When we feel hooked, we’re having an emotional thought and treating that emotional thought as fact. Who’s in charge here, the thinker or the thought? “I’ll never meet someone. This job is a dead end. There’s no point in me even trying, so I’m just not going to try. I may as well be quiet in the meeting because there’s no point in talking.”

In this situation, the thought is in charge. Whereas you are bigger and more beautiful and bolder than any of that. You have values, emotions, stories. You have so many aspects to who you are as a human being.

How can I recognize this emotion—I’m feeling stuck, I’m feeling angry—but also make choices that are aligned with who I want to be in the world? I might need to be quiet in the meeting, but what’s really important to me is to be a contributor, so I’m going to look for ways to contribute. That’s the first thing I’d say.

The second thing is doing things like journaling. Journaling is a conversation with yourself. It starts to move you out of feeling stuck and into insight, processing, and moving forward.

Ann: You said that we put ourselves through a marathon of achievement. However, if you want to create energy that’s going to get you unstuck, you have to say yes to everything. That yes is going to make a huge mess of your life, and rather than see the mess as something that’s dragging you down, you have to embrace the mess and see it as momentum.

Susan: When that yes is values-aligned, when it’s a “want to” goal rather than a “have to” goal, that’s when you ultimately end up being able to thrive.