The term “wheelhouse” came into use almost two centuries ago, in 1835. Back then, according to Merriam-Webster, it was a maritime word, referring to the chamber on a boat from which the helmsman steered the ship. In baseball vernacular, it means the sweet spot within the batter’s strike zone. In modern business parlance, it connotes one’s area of expertise. In each case, “wheelhouse” describes a small space where an individual can command and succeed.
Interestingly, “career ladder” also dates back to 1835. Perhaps that’s no coincidence. Both terms suggest that in professional life there is just one direction to climb and one ideal place to stand. A straight path to a single, well-defined space.
The professional journey of Anne Benveniste ’03 belies this assumption. Anne has worked stateside and abroad, in sports and in advertising, for start-ups and a massive corporate creative agency. And recently, her diverse experiences in the field of marketing led her to develop a passion for another field altogether: career coaching. Today, Anne is a coach at The Career Studio, which she founded, as well as the director of marketing for The Fast Forward Group, an organization that helps companies like Google, Disney, and Nike cultivate happier, healthier, more effective work cultures. In both roles, Anne helps people imagine new, un-ladderlike paths to follow in pursuit of fulfilling careers and personal lives.
For many Americans, an unsatisfying job is more than a downer; it’s an existential crisis. In a 2019 Atlantic article titled “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable,” journalist Derek Thompson (Potomac Class of ’03) describes how work has become a new American religion.
“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production,” Derek writes. “They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.”
Millennials, Derek explains, are especially devout followers of this compelling faith, having grown up in the economic boom times of the 1990s. “The Millennial generation – born in the last two decades of the 20th century – came of age in the roaring 1990s, when workism coursed through the veins of American society. On the West Coast, the modern tech sector emerged, minting millionaires who combined utopian dreams with a do-what-you-love ethos.”
The problem, Derek says, is that the relentless search for one’s dream job often leads to exhaustion rather than enlightenment. Regardless of whether you land that fantasy job or spend your whole life trying, work worship can lead to a spiritual dead end.
“Where I think we have it wrong as Americans is that some of us believe work can be your single source of fulfillment,” Anne says. “We need to remember that life is more complex than that.” When clients meet with Anne to analyze their career direction, they discuss not only their professional ambitions but also their hobbies, exercise routines, and social lives. Rather than focusing on resumes, interview prep, and job postings, she helps her clients dig into their relationships, health and wellness goals, vulnerability, and personal branding. For a generation raised on the idea that you can “follow your passion” to stunning career success, this type of holistic counseling meets a deep need, providing opportunities for profound professional insight.
Anne takes a structured approach to helping individuals design – and redesign – satisfying one-of-a-kind careers. Working with clients, studying at the Co-Active Training Institute in New York, and reading voraciously led her to develop what she calls the four-cornerstones model of career development:
First, design your north star.
Second, elect a board.
Third, master your rhythm.
And fourth, build your brand.
DESIGN YOUR NORTH STAR
As a student at Potomac, Anne was never quite sure what her passion was, let alone how she would go about following it. She was a strong student, involved in numerous school activities; she just didn’t feel that her joy and abilities were concentrated in a single area. She loved a writing class that she took with Sheila O’Marah, and a transformative art history class with Cort Morgan taught her that she was a visual learner. She also captained the squash team and threw herself into French and photography. She reflects, “I was able to explore a lot of interests, which I have since woven into my career or into my life.”
In recent years, pundits and scholars have begun to reflect critically on the “follow your passion” mantra that is central to workism. Some have dismissed it as simplistic and limiting. Inspired by Angela Duckworth’s research and book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Anne believes that you can develop your passion (or passions) by following your interests – whether you’re in high school or mid-life.
Anne’s first cornerstone – “design your north star” – is about exploring interests, strengths, lifestyle, and priorities and thereby developing passion, rather than simply finding and following it. Anne believes that many people expect discovering their passion to be like falling in love at first sight. But, she says, “It doesn’t work like that. You have to pursue your interests, get good at them, figure out what you like and don’t like. Eventually, as part of this process, passion will emerge.”
Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton, who published research about the effects of a fixed mindset on career development and satisfaction in Psychological Science in 2018, concur: “[T]he idea that interests are inherent may imply that a strong and deeply internalized interest – a passion – provides constant motivation and inspiration; thus, engaging in the interest should come relatively easily, with minimal difficulty or frustration. On the other hand, if interests are developed, then having a strong interest in one area does not preclude developing interests elsewhere.”
Anne believes that allowing yourself more options – and looking for the connections among various interest areas – can be the key to opening up new career possibilities.
ELECTING YOUR BOARD
Anne’s interests led her to major in French and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. When she received an offer to work in marketing for Chelsea Football Club in London after graduation, she jumped at it. Soon, she found herself launching Chelsea’s social media presence and building its youth marketing strategy. She enjoyed the adventure but knew that she wasn’t in sports marketing for the long haul.
Anne was interested in exploring big brand advertising, but she didn’t know how to make the transition. “So, I started telling every person I met – literally every person – that I wanted to get into advertising,” she told Potomac Upper School students at Career Day this March. “Eventually, I found someone who knew about that field. He introduced me to a headhunting firm that gets people interviews with ad agencies. And, voila, that was the key that unlocked my next career step.”
In 2011, Anne joined AMV BBDO – the largest creative communications agency in the UK. As she rose from account manager to senior account director, she worked on awardwinning television campaigns, managing teams and client relationships.
Anne’s second cornerstone – “elect your board” – is about people. “The people in your life are key,” she says. “They’re going to unlock information or open doors for you, shed light on something, or introduce you to someone.” But she emphasizes that the best relationships in life are not purely transactional: “It’s not just about what someone can do for you. It’s about getting to know people, drawing out the best in them, and allowing them to help you draw out the best in yourself.”
Anne left the agency in 2015 to pursue an M.B.A. at INSEAD, an elite international business school. But many of the relationships that she built at AMV still play an important role in her professional life. Leaving a job doesn’t have to mean leaving good people behind, Anne says. She advises her clients, “Everyone should have their own personal board of directors. This is something you can build over the course of your career. You should be building relationships with people whom you admire and who can offer you guidance when you need it.
FINDING YOUR RHYTHM
After graduating from INSEAD, Anne went to work for a start-up. And then another start-up. It was a distressing period for her, as both fledgling companies were mired in toxicity. “The leaders didn’t create environments where people could admit mistakes or ask for help,” Anne says. She remembers the lack of connection in those workplaces, where everyone kept their heads down and their headphones on. She observes, “In that kind of environment, you’re not going to come up with a great idea or solve a big problem.”
Valuing productivity over personnel, covering up mistakes, sidelining workers’ health and well-being are all denials of employees’ humanity. Anne’s third cornerstone, “master your rhythm,” is about fueling your brain and body and understanding your own personal daily rhythms.
Charles Darwin, Anne notes, wrote 19 books and became one of the most influential and famous scientists in human history. His work hours? Roughly 8 am to 12 noon. The rest of his day consisted of letter-writing, napping, walking, and reading.
Although the average worker doesn’t have the luxury of implementing a Darwinian schedule, it is important to note that working more hours may not lead to greater productivity and most certainly will not enhance creative output.
In Nautilus magazine’s “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang examines the working lives of luminaries who engaged in deep work only a few hours a day, including Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ingmar Bergman, and others. He writes, “Can a generation raised to believe that 80- hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology or wrote Great Expectations? I think we can.”
Anne agrees, and she advises her clients to make time for health and wellness, as well as the personal activities that fuel them. Anne told her Career Day audience at Potomac, “It sounds obvious and simple, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to sacrifice your health in the name of your career. Don’t do it. Because your well-being is an integral ingredient to your success."
BUILDING YOUR BRAND
Before she left the agency to pursue her M.B.A., Anne remembers meeting with an executive coach at AMV. She thought, “That would be a really cool profession.” A light went on in her head. But just as quickly, she shut the light off.
“We often downplay the things we want to do if they involve taking a nontraditional or unexpected path,” Anne says. “Those routes seem scary, and it takes courage to do something different.” She notes that taking a risk can be especially frightening if you have had top-notch educational experiences from childhood through graduate school. Expectations are high, and the fear of disappointing oneself or others can be a strong deterrent to change.
Years after that light went on, when Anne was stuck at one of the start-ups she didn’t love, she began volunteering as a coach at Google. “I fell in love with it,” she reflects. “I realized that I always coach people; it just comes naturally for me. What I’m doing now as a coach is something I’ve always done for my friends and the people I work with. This shows how a natural interest or ability can lead to a fulfilling career path if you just listen to that inner voice.”
Still, Anne believes that she couldn’t have come to this realization any earlier than she did. The juxtaposition of a job she hated with a volunteer role she loved unlocked something in her: “Everything just clicked. I suddenly recognized that this is what I want to be doing.”
Anne’s fourth cornerstone – “build your brand” – is about values and impact. Who are you? What do you value? What impact do you want to make? And how are you communicating these things?
She says, “My top-level goal – my impact – is helping as many people as possible love what they do. And that goal serves to organize my time and define my priorities.”
The distinction between this cornerstone and the first one – “design your north star” – is important. “The first is about what you want to do, and the last is about who you want to be,” Anne says. “The brand might come later in your career, once you really know yourself and what matters to you. It’s especially important as you step into leadership roles.”
As a coach at The Career Studio and director of marketing at The Fast Forward Group, Anne now has not one but two jobs that fit her brand and advance the impact she wants to make. She calls this a portfolio career. A 2018 study by the consumer financial services company Bankrate found that more than half of Millennials have more than one income stream. In some cases, they are working multiple jobs out of necessity, to make ends meet in an economy that never lived up to the promise of the 1990s. But in other cases, Millennials are choosing portfolio careers as a way of pursuing multiple interests and developing new passions.
“A lot of people want variety,” Anne says. “If there is an important part of their personality that they don’t get to express, then they feel a little bit dead inside.”
She continues, “I feel lucky that I get to coach and also use my marketing skills. And there’s even more that I want to do.” In her next act, Anne would like to formalize her study of career passion by conducting and analyzing qualitative, interview-based research.
She concludes, “Human beings are not one-note creatures. We have multifaceted personalities, we have more than one strength and interest, and today we have the possibility of creating careers that play to all of these.”