If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get

by Jancee Dunn

I used to be a staff writer at Rolling Stone. It was a dream job in so many ways—I used to run around New York City going to every show I wanted. But after a few years, I really needed a raise.

I remember laboring over an email to my boss, and writing out a concise but clear case for why it was time to raise my pay, and also about the many duties I was happy to take on if I could just get more money.

There was another editor named Karen, whom I adored, but she wasn’t the big boss I had to petition. I remember she walked by my desk, and read my email over my shoulder. She saw the amount of money I was asking for. Then she leaned in, and changed the amount, adding on ten thousand more dollars. It was just a quick tap of my computer keys, and then she walked off.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she said over her shoulder.

Her point was to aim big, and don’t self-sabotage, and talk myself out of things. If you get rejected, who cares? If someone says no, at least you tried. Be assertive. Know your own worth.

I got the raise.

I think about that little tap of the computer a lot—and what a difference that ten thousand made, especially when I was first starting out. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Introduce yourself! Who are you?
I’m a writer! I live in a converted church in Brooklyn. I write articles for magazines like Vogue, goop, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Travel & Leisure. For many years, I used to be a rock reporter at Rolling Stone, and I was a veejay for a long time on MTV2.
I also write books, my latest is How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids. I wrote it after I had a baby, and my husband and I started fighting. A lot. (Before we had the baby, we almost never did.) It’s something that’s pretty common, but people still don’t talk about it. In our case, we fought because I ended up doing almost all the childcare and housework. And my husband is an evolved guy! It was bizarre (this is also pretty common.)
I write about health and psychology, and know a lot of experts, so I thought, ‘Well, before we get divorced, I should consult them, and try to fix our relationship.’ It took over a year, but it worked.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Listen to your gut. Every single time I’ve ignored my gut feeling about a bad friend, bad boyfriend, or a bad job, I have paid dearly for it. And also, when it comes to a job, one of my bosses named Karen told me, ‘Think about what you can bring to the table that others cannot.’ How can you set yourself apart? When I left Rolling Stone and started my freelance writing career 15 years ago, I asked a dozen editors, ‘what’s your biggest issue with freelance writers?’ They all said, ‘Ugh, it’s when writers turn in their work late.’ So I immediately did the opposite. I made sure to turn in my work early. I’d say, ‘I’m known for turning my work in early.’ Now, by ‘early,’ I meant one day early—nothing crazy. But so many writers are late that word started to get around that I turned in work not only on time, but I turned it in early. It became my calling card—editors would tell each other,’ Oh, she gets things done early, she’ll make your life easier.’ Editors are so overworked, and probably some of the hired me because of that, and not because of my writing. (I’m okay with that! I still got the opportunity!) Now, sometimes I had to really crank to do it, and get horrible back problems as I hunched over my computer, but my reputation as being reliable brought me a ton of work.

What would you say to 16 year old you?
You know what? I would beg my teenage self not to drink a lot of alcohol. I used to get blasted with my friends, and I could just scream when I think back on some of the incredibly bad decisions I made when I was drinking like that. I know now that I drank to get over my shyness, instead of figuring out a healthier way to overcome it. I was sixteen years old, and after a bender, I’d be too hungover to get out of bed the next morning. I cringe when I think of it now. Drinking tons of beers with my friends when my cerebral cortex was still forming, when my body was still growing, did me no good whatsoever.

Have you ever had anyone doubt you? How did that make you feel?
Oh, way more often that that, I would doubt myself. Starting out, I used to be my own worst enemy. No more! I started telling myself, ‘Don’t get in your own way! No more automatic, reflexive self-sabotage. Don’t talk yourself out of asking for a job, a raise, an opportunity. Don’t talk yourself out of going for something. Don’t stress out before you send a business email, wondering if you’re too forward, or too aggressive, or any of that crap.’

What message do you think every woman should hear?
Stay on your own side. I’ll explain what I mean. My friends and colleagues ask me for advice a lot, I think because I am decisive. One friend of mine is looking for a job, and having a tough time of it. She had asked her mentor repeatedly for a recommendation. The mentor never responded, and she was upset. She asked me, ‘How many times should I email her?’ I told her my rule: three, spaced out five to seven days each, if it’s not time sensitive.
She said, “I probably emailed her five or six times, and never heard back. She must hate me.”
I hear a version of this all the time, and I always tell my friends, ‘if you’re in a business situation and you’re upset, ask yourself if you’re injecting needless emotion into it by what Brene Brown calls ‘the story I’m making up.’
In other words, it’s very likely that my friend’s mentor, who ran a company of hundreds of people, was buried under work. She might not have been actively rejecting my friend—she just receives hundreds of emails every day. I told my friend, ‘You don’t know the facts, so stop torturing yourself by making up a story that she ‘hates’ you. Move on, don’t think about this for one more second, and hit up someone else.’
The business world is full of rejection, so stay on your own side. If you get rejected, don’t make up a story about it if you don’t know the facts. Don’t brood if a business colleague ghosts you, or you get passed over for a job. Brooding saps your precious mental energy, and has nowhere to go – it just swirls around inside you and never escapes. Gather yourself, and hit up another person or place. I have another friend—let’s call her Avery— runs a very popular cooking website, and put out a notice for a job recently. A former coworker accosted her on the subway, and said, ‘I applied for that job, and you never got back to me. I thought we were friends.’
Avery told her she received over 500 applications for that job. She just couldn’t contact everyone personally—even people that she knew. Assume the person who is rejecting you is overwhelmed, rather than evil. This will preserve your mental health!

What is one thing no one really knows about you?
That I cry at parades. I start sobbing the minute I see the first person in a parade. Any parade. If there are elderly veterans marching, I will almost have a breakdown.

What is it like to be a businesswoman?
I’m a freelance writer, so I am self-employed, and there are definitely good and bad things about it. I have to manage my own finances and buy my own health insurance. I’m constantly pitching stories to maintain my workflow (I never like to turn down work, because I always think it will be my last assignment!) On the other hand, since I’m my own boss, I feel like I have at least some control of my time.
Some people can’t handle the freelance life, and that is okay, too. You have to know your own personality.  

What is your favorite thing about where you live?
I grew up in a town where everybody looked exactly like me, which is why I made a beeline for New York City after college. I love that Brooklyn is so diverse. I take my kid to the playground, and I’ll talk to people from ten different countries.

What do you love most about yourself?
I was class clown in high school, and I love to make people laugh. I even make myself laugh. I’ll crack myself up on the subway, and people edge away from me.
I love this question, by the way. I’ve been interviewed for decades, and I’ve never gotten this one once.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Telegraph confidence and capability, even if you’re not feeling it. My first job was as an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone, and I was so green, and so scared. I knew nothing about publishing, didn’t grow up around it—my dad was a manager at J.C. Penney in New Jersey.
My boss told me later that his favorite thing about me was that I constantly told him ‘I’ve got this.’ He didn’t have to devote any mental energy to worrying about me. Now, half the time, I didn’t actually ‘have that,’ and didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. But I would quickly figure it out, and learn.
Of course, ask for help if you need it, but figure out as much as you can on your own. The more I figured things out, the more my confidence grew, until my acting job wasn’t an acting job anymore, and I was, in fact, confident.

What motivates you most?
This is not a very uplifting answer, but it’s the fear of being broke! I think about it a lot. It’s a constant worry when you have this kind of job. I am trying to talk about money more with my female friends, and lift the taboo somewhat.

How do you manage your work-life balance?
I write from 9-3 every day while my daughter is in school. I basically sit down and write, write, write for six hours—but after that, when I pick her up, I’m done for the day. As I mentioned, I used to have an office job at Rolling Stone, and I get the same amount of work done now that I did when I was in the office nine hours a day. It’s because I don’t futz around now—no going out to lunch, no looking up websites, no sitting around and talking about my weekend with my coworkers. I’m ruthless. Cut out all of that stuff, and six hours are left.

What do you do on a daily basis to grow and move forward?
Every day, I devote fifteen minutes to doing something for my own brand—working on my website or social media, proposing essays that reflect my personality, things like that. Things that aren’t about making an editor or a celebrity more famous, but will help my own business.
And I take a walk every day, even if it’s just for fifteen or twenty minutes. It’s the best way of clearing my head. There’s something about the physical act of moving forward that gets me un-stuck, and helps me plan, and reflect. I think that in these hectic times, blocking off time to reflect and plan is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Do you have a mentor? If so, what did they teach you?
I don’t have a specific mentor, but as I considered this question, I realized that every life-changing opportunity I’ve ever been given was provided by another woman. Women have believed in me and supported me, over and over again. And I have made sure to do the same for other women who are coming up. Sisterhood!

Did you always know that you wanted to be an author?
From the age of eight. I used to make books, and set up a little table at the end of my driveway, and sell them. I spent many dreamy hours in my bedroom, writing in my diary and making up stories. I never wanted to be anything else.
And when I’m in a creative flow, sitting in a little sunny spot at my kitchen table in my Brooklyn apartment with a cup of tea, it’s the best feeling in the world. Sometimes I’ll look up in amazement and realize that a few hours have passed, and I have been so immersed in writing that I didn’t notice.

Were you scared to start the process of being published? 
My first book was called But Enough About Me, a memoir of my rock-chick years. I was excited more than scared, but I was nervous. And I also had to fight against that inner voice of self-sabotage, saying, ‘Who are you to tell your story? What’s so interesting about you?’ I would constantly tell myself, ‘Your story is valid. And only you can tell it.’

If you weren’t doing the job you have now, what would you be doing?
A pastry chef. I love to bake, I love sugar in every form. I follow so many pastry chefs on social media. I go out to restaurants in New York specifically for their dessert menus.

Where do you find inspiration?
I read a lot—books, newspapers from other countries, academic websites. I strike up conversations with people all the time – I find a lot of inspiration in the stories that other people tell. And when I’m talking to groups of people—like moms on the playground, or my extended family, or friends at dinner—I use what’s called ‘active listening.’ I zone in, and really pay attention to themes, and sub-themes that are underneath what they’re saying. What are people bringing up, again and again? Is this an issue worth exploring, in an article or a book?
That’s what happened with the idea for How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids. I started bringing it up to other new parents – ‘Hey, are you guys fighting a lot?’ And they would confess that they were. And of course, not give themselves a break that they’re sleep deprived, hormonal, wondering how to pay for this new human being. There’s shame around the fighting, because everyone on social media with new babies is beaming, right? Not fighting about where the hell did you put the baby wipes. Everyone is #SoBlessed.

So your marriage after you had a baby was an inspiration. Was it uncomfortable to expose your relationship in the book?
It was. My husband is very private, and was not excited about trying different kinds of therapy and techniques in order to save our marriage. We went to one notorious guy who yells at both of you (it was great.) We went to another who had us write down what we loved best about each other, and read it aloud (which made us surprisingly nervous.) I even interviewed two F.B.I. crisis negotiators on how to calm down agitated people quickly, and applied that to our fighting—the best, most lasting advice in the whole book.
Anyway, my husband is a journalist, too, and while he wasn’t thrilled to do this, he said yes. And he said we had to tell the absolute truth of how it went. I was touched that he was willing to go there. Although we still fight that when I put a bag of garbage near the door for him to take out in the morning, he steps around it. He literally does not see it! It’s bizarre. So I stopped beating my head against the wall. Now I take out the trash, and he does the laundry.

More About Jancee

Jancee Dunn writes for publications such as Vogue, The New York Times, and Travel & Leisure. She is the author of six books, most recently How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids, and the children’s book I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is In Trouble Today. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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