Interview with Wurtele Center for Work and Life Director and New Author Jessica Bacal

Olivia Goodman '14 News Editor

A new book by Jessica Bacal, the Director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life, called “Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong” will be published this April. It has already been named as one of both Publishers Weekly’s “Top 10 Business and Economics Books for Spring” and Fast Company0 “10 New Books You Need to Read This Year.” Bacal sat down to talk to the Sophian about her new book and her career at Smith.

Can you talk a little bit about your career background and how you ended up at Smith? My background is in progressive education and in writing. I have a Masters Degree from Bank Street College in New York City and I taught in public and private schools in New York. I then pursued an MFA in writing at Hunter College, tutoring and working in curriculum development to earn a living. After my son was born, my husband and I decided to move here. (My husband is from Amherst.) I started at Smith in 2006, taking a part-time job as a program assistant for the Women’s Narrative Project, which evolved into bigger jobs. I was on the ground level of thinking about how the Wurtele Center for Work and Life might develop and worked as acting director before being offered the job of director. How would you describe the Wurtele Center for Work and Life? The short answer is that it’s a leadership and life skills center. I think that self-awareness and the ability to reflect on what’s meaningful to you are important leadership skills, so the Wurtele Center is interested in helping students to make sense of their experiences at college – to find meaning in and outside of the classroom. We hold workshops designed to engage all types of students, but I’m particularly excited about my new work with concentrations, including book studies, museums, archives and translation studies. I’ve been developing and leading curricula designed to guide participants in thinking, talking and writing about internships, practical experiences and classes, and in sharing their thinking and writing in online portfolios. What inspired your book? Can you talk about the process of writing and researching for the book? How did you decide whom to feature? When I took on this job, I was asked to develop leadership programming; there was, and continues to be, renewed energy in the cultural conversation about women and leadership. But I was also learning about the experiences of students and hearing that they often felt like everyone else around them was doing everything right. They felt this pressure to be perfect. Meanwhile, I would go to leadership conferences to hear panels of women who, when asked to talk about not being perfect – to talk, for example, about mistakes – seemed unable to tell stories that made them vulnerable. It made me think there was a gap in our cultural conversation and in the mentorship of women because research shows that a key ingredient of success is the ability to make mistakes, learn from them and keep going. I thought it would be exciting to have a book in which successful women told real stories about making mistakes at work. I imagined this book would provide a kind of mentorship that’s been missing. The editor at Penguin who wanted to publish it was interested in having me develop it as interviews, and so I spoke with influential women in a variety of fields, including six Smith alumnae, like Laurel Touby ’85, founder of the website Mediabistro. After each interview, I would sit with a transcription and look at the important themes that emerged; then I’d turn each interview into an essay. Can you discuss the workshop series you are leading in conjunction with your book? What is the format? What are you trying to focus on?

I was interested in seeing how I could use the book as a catalyst for conversations about mistakes. In the first session, we each jotted down a mistake we had made on a Post-it and put the Post-its up on the wall. Students read each other’s mistakes [and] found one that resonated with them, and [then] we went around and talked about them. (This exercise was taken from a curriculum created by the Echoing Green Foundation.) In the next workshop, we discussed the acronym “ARC” as a guide – Acknowledge the mistake and apologize if necessary, Reflect on your role, Carry forward what you learn and leave the rest beyond.

What are you hoping Smith students and women in general take away from your book?

I’m hoping that reading “Mistakes I Made at Work” will help to normalize mistakes so that people who screw up at work won’t think “I’m a bad person,” but will instead see every mistake as a learning moment. Also, I want women to know that making mistakes is integral to succeeding. We look at successful people and think they haven’t done anything wrong, but in order to get to where they are now, successful people have suffered failures. They just don’t advertise it. Also, I’d like to use the publication of this book as a chance to talk with students about the idea that there are a lot of different paths you can take in pursuing your interests. Sometimes I think students feel as if each time they make a life choice, they’re closing doors and eliminating possibilities. But developing this book was a powerful way to connect my desire to write to my job at Smith. Even five years ago, I never would have been able to predict I’d be able to do that.

“Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong” comes out on April 29th and can be preordered on http://www.jessbacal.com. Readers can also enter to win an early digital galley of the book through Penguin’s First to Read program at http://bit.ly/1ffPej1.