A few years ago, writer Anna David was at a crossroads in both her personal and professional lives. Desperate for guidance, she turned to a classic: “Sex and the Single Girl,” the 1962 best-seller by future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. David decided to follow the book’s advice to the letter, to see if it could improve her 21st-century life, and turned her experience into a new book, “Falling for Me.” Gurley’s 1962 book is known mostly as a guide to feminine sexual empowerment, but David — who has been writing about the experience over at The Gloss — found a surprising amount of career advice there, too. I spoke with her yesterday about what she learned.
So how would you sum up Helen Gurley Brown’s overall philosophy? As far as I understand it, her philosophy has always been to first and foremost build a career you love. That’s before any love or sex or dating advice. I really responded to that, and it’s my philosophy as well. I grew up in the ‘70s and my mom was very much verbally a feminist, but my dad paid the bills. They did not have a great marriage, and I looked at it and said in my childlike brain, “The reason she must stay with him is money. I’ll never be in a position where I have to do that.”
What did you learn about her work life in researching the book?: She grew up penniless in Alabama. And she says marriage is for the worst years of your life, so live life to the fullest before then. … She was the assistant at [huge advertising firm] Foote Cone & Belding, and Don Belding took her under his wing. She went from an assistant to being a very highly paid copy writer. Then she wrote the book and then went to Cosmo, and brought it to a whole new stratosphere.
Did you relate to that? I got sober about 10 years ago, and from the moment that happened I got totally Reese-Witherspoon-in-”Election,” like, “Where do I get my #2 pencils sharpened?” … My parents and my friends have said things like, “You work too much.” My mom will be so proud if I take a couple days off, the opposite of what you think parents will be like. So for someone who is as career-obsessed as I am, this validated it. I felt a common bond, and less ashamed. I had shame about my workaholism before.
What do you think she was like a boss? I hear really good things! … I know she had the same assistant for something like 30 or 40 years, and you don’t keep someone that long without being good. … By all accounts she worked harder than anybody. And no matte what you’re like, that makes your staff respect you. And she still works!
Did you find specific career guidance from the book? She says a lot about being the most impressive person you can be. Be that one who can do things other people can’t, the one willing to work the hardest, get there the earliest and stay the latest. … I was very much raised on [the idea that] if you want to get ahead, get them before they get you, you know, sue them — a very adversarial approach. That’s how I always approached my career. Since reading “Sex and the Single Girl,” I realized the whole cliche that you can get more flies with honey. That [adversarial] approach had worked against me. What worked was to be a delight to work with, not assume that they were out to get me. Assume they’re on my side, and we have the same goal, and to try to be of service as much as possible. I used to waste a lot of time in these ego battles. I learned from her, pick you battles, and pick not to have them whenever you can. There are few things worth fighting over at work.
… I think also i had really gotten into thinking that my career was a detriment in my dating life, that it intimidated men, or that men only like yes-women who will be a support system. It’s pretty refreshing and amazing to say, she married at 37 and she got the man she wanted, and he was drawn to the fact that she was a partner.
Here are three more tips from Anna (and Helen Gurley Brown):
1. Stay true to your vision. While I was writing this book, I was at a low point in my career. I wasn’t getting paid very much for the book and I had really no other income coming in. I started to look into the idea of writing ad copy — ie, doing a reverse Helen Gurley Brown — but then I realized that I’d wanted to be a writer since I was 7. I remember reading the Guinness Book of World Records when I was 7, discovering that the youngest author was 6 and being depressed that she’d beat me! … Since then, I’ve started editing a website, begun speaking at colleges and just signed a deal to do another book…all things I couldn’t have predicted would happen back when I was researching advertising jobs.
2. Remember you’re only where you are right now. I used to look at my work circumstances and illogically assume I would always be wherever I was right at that moment. She never planned to write “Sex and the Single Girl,” let alone edit Cosmo; she just worked hard and it paid off. That helped me to develop a longer-term attitude.
3. Ask for raises. I used to believe that what I’d been offered was the final number. In both my job at the website and my proposal for this new book, I asked for—and received—more than what I’d been offered. I knew in both cases that I wasn’t being greedy—that I was willing to work so hard that I deserved it. Very Gurley-esque.