Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be here today with Alicia Menendez who is an MSNBC anchor and leads the “Latina to Latina” podcast. Previously a cohost of PBS TV’s Amanpour & Co, her reporting has appeared on Bustle, ABC News, Fusion TV, PBS, and Vice News. Her book, The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are, is published by Harper Business. A native of Union City, New Jersey, Alicia is a graduate of Harvard College. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.

Welcome, Alicia. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alicia Menendez: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: We’ve already been chatting. Now we’ll let the rest of you into this little conversation. Alicia’s book, The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are, can you tell everybody what it’s about? What inspired you to write it?

Alicia: I’m a person who cares a lot about being well-liked. Originally, I wanted to write an Eat Pray Love for likeability where I would do fun things like meditate and go to yoga and somehow release this care I have about what other people think of me. What I learned talking with other women is that even women who don’t give a damn feel that they often pay a price for being so brazenly themselves. It shifted my focus to ask why that is and what these challenges are that women contend with. There’s a lot of social science research on this. It’s all really interesting. If you’ve lived it, you’re like, I don’t need the social science research, I know this from experience. Women are put in one of two categories. We’re either assertive. We ask for what we want and what we need. Then we’re punished and told that we’re too aggressive. Or we are warm and kind and communal and all of the things that we expect women to be. Then we are punished because we’re not seen as leaders in our workplace. Women are in this impossible bind where they can either be the things we expect of a woman or be the things we expect of a leader, but we’re told that those two things are mutually exclusive.

Zibby: Interesting. How have you navigated around this?

Alicia: I don’t know that I have. One of the things that I think is so funny is that there are a lot of women who, like myself, have been given both sets of feedback, that we’re too much or not enough, which tells you how subjective and context specific that feedback is. There are two different pieces. There’s the, you want to be a leader at work, in a PTA capacity, and you keep running up against a wall. There’s how to navigate that. Then there’s this other piece which is women like myself who care a lot and examining the cost we pay for internalizing those demands. Both pieces are really important. In the first piece, we pay a price in wages, in promotions, in who we see as worthy of power and agency. In the later piece, I lost so much time and energy thinking about, did I make my in-laws happy? Did I make my coworker happy? Is everybody okay? If I could get that time back and harness it into other things, I could do a lot with that.

Zibby: Then maybe you would’ve had to deal with people not being happy and the repercussions of that.

Alicia: Correct. Yes, absolutely.

Zibby: Not to play devil’s advocate. I’m with you. I’m constantly trying to do that.

Alicia: That’s also part of the complication of this conversation. I like being a person who’s sensitive to other people’s feelings. I wish more people were sensitive to other people’s feelings. Where I think it becomes a trap or a problem is when that thinking becomes overthinking. There was a late Yale professor, Nolen-Hoeksema, who said that women were suffering from an epidemic of overthinking. She has a great book called Women Who Think Too Much, which I highly recommend you walk around reading because it is a conversation starter. Everyone can identify with that. Do you have it somewhere in your treasure trove of books?

Zibby: No, I’m looking around because the journal that I always have in my purse, which now I can’t find — it’s a little light blue thing with a pen inside. It says, “Let me overthink this” on the front. That’s my journal. That’s me to a T.

Alicia: Life mantra. You do care. You’re a person who cares.

Zibby: I am. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here finding out about other people all day. You too. We were just talking about your podcast.

Alicia: Where does it cross the line for you?

Zibby: I don’t know. Where does it cross the line for you?

Alicia: I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the context of work and how very often I will know exactly what I want, but instead of saying, “I would like this press release written. Here’s the title. Here’s the subtitle. Here’s what I need in the body of it,” I’ll be like, “You just go for it. You do it. Then come back to me.” The funny boomerang effect of that is that then when I get the product back, I’m like, this is all wrong. Then I have to deliver the hard news again saying, “You put all this time and effort in. Now I have to walk it back. We have to do it again.” It’s not as though I’m constantly succeeding in this effort to be well-liked. I’m simply grappling with the tension myself.

Zibby: I was chatting with a friend at a Halloween party. She was talking about how she was so desperate to meet everyone’s needs and be liked and whatever. That was why she was afraid of writing something. What if it didn’t appeal to everybody? I dropped off the galley of your book to her. I was like, “You need to read this book.”

Alicia: Thank you. As I get older, I’m really trying to work on a very simple phrase which is, “That doesn’t work for me.” I mean that in a social capacity. So often, people extend invitations. I’m very introverted. I would love to spend most of my time on a couch by myself in my sweatpants. It very often has nothing to do with the other person. It just has to do with how I derive energy, the amount of energy it takes me to interact socially. I have a tendency to overexplain why I can’t do things as opposed to allowing it to be, “It just doesn’t work for me.”

Zibby: I like it. Has it helped?

Alicia: No. We socialize women and girls to care about other people and to think of ourselves in relation to other people. I’m thirty-six. Doing thirty-six years of undoing, that’s not the type of thing you can do overnight. I think one of the things we’ve gotten wrong in the conversation about likeability is that we act as though you can undo by reading an Instagram mantra. There’s a Tina Fey quote that seems like it’s always being meme’d, which is “You do you. You don’t care what they think about it.” I keep saving it to my Instagram files, but I’m not learning the lesson. How do you actually undo that? Part of what I learned talking to other women is you have to find somewhere else to shift your focus and your attention so that at work something like self-awareness is a thing you have much more control over than whether or not other people like you. Clarity, are you being very clear with yourself and with others about why certain things are priorities and certain things are not? Those are things you can control. You can’t control whether or not other people like you.

Zibby: That’s true.

Alicia: I see the disappointment on your face as I say that.

Zibby: No. Oh, my gosh, not at all. I like you.

Alicia: Thank you. I’m obviously desperately seeking that validation, so thank you.

Zibby: I loved how in your book you called yourself an old soul. That’s been coming up more and more in people’s books. I have always thought of myself as an old soul. I feel like one of my kids is an old soul. Then I was like, we need to start the Old Soul’s Club. This should be a thing, #oldsouls. Is there? There probably is and I’m just not aware of it.

Alicia: Because you’re an old soul.

Zibby: Because I haven’t taken the time to research it before I tell you this theory I just thought of. What do you think makes people old souls? Do you think we’re born that way? Do you think it goes hand in hand with trying to be likeable?

Alicia: You’re the one who’s the mother of four. My two are still under the age of three. I don’t get the impression that my three-year-old’s an old soul. She just runs at life and embraces life. There is very little caution. That may be something entirely different. There is a part of me that feels like she’s a new soul. Everything in the world seems fresh and new to her. Check in with me again when she’s a teen. We’ll see if that’s still that way. I feel like I am fully aligned for the first time in my life in my mid-thirties. In some ways, being a kid was really hard for me because I wanted to be a part of adult conversations. I probably was a lot more mature than other kids in terms of what I was emotionally attuned to and interested in. At least for me when I was a kid, that meant I often felt awkward and out of place because I wasn’t interested in what other kids were interested in. I was so happy sitting in a corner reading a book. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve caught up with my own age. My thirties have been such a fun time, so much more fun than my twenties because this is really what I’m primed for.

Zibby: Wait until you get to your forties. It’s even better.

Alicia: Seriously?

Zibby: Yeah. I was like you. I would go to slumber parties. They’d all be watching Halloween or something scary. I would take my book and I would go hang out in the other room with the mom who became my best friend.

Alicia: Yes, always wanted to be friends with the mom. That’s the thing. Now I’m the mom. I get to make friends with Mom and it’s not weird anymore.

Zibby: I have a friend who, her older daughter who’s not even the same age as any of my kids, I feel this connection with this daughter. I’m like, I’m going to be friends with this girl, even though she’s fourteen or something, not in a weird way. That sounds weird. You can just tell who’s ready to be talking to the moms versus the kids. I also thought it was so interesting when you said for women who are naturally warm, those are the women who when they try to appear the strongest, have the strangest side effect which makes her less likeable. It’s like you don’t get credit for the ninety-five percent of the time that you’re very warm and nice because the times that you then lose it, it’s worse. That’s how I’m interpreting this.

Alicia: That is what the research says. If you are always warm and communal and then one time you are short with people, it is hard to come back from that. We’ve all been there. It can be totally reasonable and rational. There are perfectly legitimate reasons that you have either been short with someone or delivered bad news. Yet we still have that feeling like, Tuesday, I have to come in with donuts and make this up to everybody. It’s hard to come back from that. The opposite, to come back from a place of lost competence, is actually much easier. If you screw up a project on Monday but then you bring in a new client on Friday, you’ve reclaimed your competence. It’s harder to do that with warmth.

Zibby: Interesting. Should we just try to be rude all the time?

Alicia: No, that would be terrible. One of the things that is complicated about this is that we don’t have an agreed upon standard of what is reasonable and appropriate in a workplace, period. It would be very easy to say women should just be allowed to act the way that men are allowed to act, but that’s not exactly right either. Most of the advice around navigating these traps has landed in one of two categories. There’s, for lack of a better phrase, lean-in school of thought which is that if you do some gender-correcting performance, gender jiu-jitsu, a smile, ask for a raise with your eyes twinkling, that you can navigate around this. Then the other option is to just let go and not care. I think there’s a third way which is to really reconsider likeability, to examine it in a critical way and to push back on it. There are ways in which you can do that for yourself. For example, if you were getting feedback, whether it was in a personal capacity or more likely in a professional capacity, that you were too assertive, you would ask the person who’s giving you that feedback, “Compared to whom?” That gives the person an opportunity to really consider whether or not they would give that piece of feedback to someone else in the office, specifically whether or not they would give that to a man in the office. Then the other piece of pushback is to ask that person to draw a line for you between how your style impacts your results. In doing that, you have to be open to the possibility that there is a connection between your style and your work product. It again challenges the person who’s giving you that feedback to be really specific about why the style matters.

If I said to you, “Zibby, I know you pride yourself on being deliberate, but sometimes that manifests as indecision. Last week, I needed you to make this big decision. You kept putting it off. That means we were late in getting this thing to the client,” that’s a thing that you can actually change, work around. If I just say, “You’re really indecisive,” what do you do with that? It’s about giving better feedback so that people can also receive and implement that feedback in a more direct way. I think though, as women, it is even more powerful when we do that for other people. If I’m in an environment where I hear someone say, “I just don’t think Zibby has it what it takes,” I push back and say, “What do you mean by that? Why would you say that?” When we hear, even, a woman called helpful, which I’ve always thought of as a compliment, at a minimum an innocuous thing that you would say, calling a woman helpful reduces her to a helper capacity. When you say she’s helpful, I don’t know. Was she helpful because she got everybody coffee? Was she helpful because she crunched all the numbers? You want to be really specific about what a woman contributes to a project. That helps people understand her value, right?

Zibby: Good advice. Yeah, totally.

Alicia: I would’ve never thought of helpful as a problematic word.

Zibby: Now every word can have meaning. Nothing is safe. Do you mind sharing a little about your career journey and how you got to this place? I know you had political aspirations. Then you pivoted. Now you do a lot of TV and podcasts. Give me a little background, if you don’t mind.

Alicia: I grew up in New Jersey. My father’s an elected official. When I was growing up, he was the mayor of our small town, Union City. By the time I was in about third grade, he had been elected to congress. He’s now a US Senator from New Jersey. My mother is a public school teacher. I grew up in this house that was defined by service and where all professional endeavors were service based. I naturally imagined that was the path I would take. I did not imagine a secondary path. I was very judgy about people who were eight years old and didn’t know what they wanted to do, back to the point about being an old soul. Then I got my butt kicked. I graduated from college. I had taken the LSATs. I thought that I was going to go to law school. I worked on a campaign and realized how much power there was in the media, how often they got the opportunity to really set the agenda and decide what we were going to be talking about for the day. It had never occurred to me that there was more than one way to be of service.

I got myself a job at RNN TV which was this must-carry station in Westchester. I did a reverse commute from the city. I was a booker. I would find people to be a guest on their nightly talk show. I learned everything I wanted to learn about television by sitting in that newsroom and just absorbing it. In that job I was given the opportunity to do a bit of on-air reporting. I loved it. It answered for me a lingering question which is whether or not I had what it took to do that. I went back in and out of working in nonprofits. I worked at Rock the Vote. I worked at Democracia USA which was this organization that did Hispanic voter registration and engagement. In doing all of that, I was doing on-air analysis as a young person or as a person who was doing work in the Latino community. I caught the attention of some people in talent departments. Eventually, one of those women went to the Huffington Post, launched HuffPost Live which was the streaming network there, hired me there. I then went to Fusion which was the ABC Univision cable station aimed at Latino millennials. I moved to Miami to do that. Then I worked for a year at PBS on Christiane Amanpour’s show where we did long-form interviews, which is my favorite format to do. Now I’m going to start a job at MSNBC as an anchor on the weekends.

Zibby: Wow, so exciting.

Alicia: Just to validate why my mother has MSNBC on 24/7. Now she’ll get to see me as a part of that.

Zibby: Earlier you said you’d prefer to be curled up on your couch and you’re an introvert. Yet the career you’ve chosen, I would argue, is very extrovert, very people facing.

Alicia: I’m right on the cusp. When you do an analysis — I don’t know if you’ve ever taken one of those.

Zibby: Yes, I have. Of course.

Alicia: I’m a cusper. I lean introvert. I like people. I like talking to people. It’s the socializing piece that I sometimes find to demand more of me than I have to give.

Zibby: That doesn’t work for you. I’m kidding.

Alicia: Sometimes it does. It’s a funky thing. Sometimes we think of introversion as being shy. I am shy. If I were at your apartment and you were having a cocktail party, I would cling to the wall waiting for someone to introduce themselves to me. That act of going up to someone and saying, “Hi, I’m Alicia. Let me tell you about myself,” that’s really hard. There are people who are so gifted at it. You watch them do it, and it’s so effortless and incredible. In my next life, I would like to come back as that person, but that is not me. Media has been a great way to meet people, to tell stories, to be interactive. I think of it as a form of service.

Zibby: Then when did you start writing the book, come up with the idea for the book? When along the journey did you also start the podcast? Tell everybody the name of the podcast and all the rest.

Alicia: The book, I contemplated for years. My agent gave me a great piece of advice. She was like, “You have to love what you are writing about. You have to be obsessed with it. You’re going to spend so much time with this topic that if you’re lukewarm on it, you’re never going to finish it. It took me a long time to really refine what that was. Then it took me about two years to really write it. Part of that is that as I mentioned, the book that I imagined I was going to write ended up being very different. When you write a nonfiction book, you write these forty-page proposals. They have a proposed table of contents. It can be your blueprint for the book. My blueprint for the book that I had proposed went in the trash. I had to start all over again. It was a lot of me feeling my way through it and a lot of dealing with imposter syndrome. I’m not an HR professional. I’m not a management consultant. I’m not a social scientist.

There was a bit of, what business do I have writing this book? It then became a better book because it came from the experience of actually being a woman who strives to lead and finding that so incredibly challenging, and connecting with other women about why that was so incredibly challenging. Some of my favorite parts of the book are where I talk to women who you would see from afar and be like, she’s nailing it. She is ascendant in her career, ascendant in her life. Then when you really sit down and talk with her, she’s like, “I’m so lost.” She’s doing a very convincing performance of leadership, but she’s not being given permission to show up exactly as she is. That performance can be really exhausting. Anybody who’s showing up in the world as anything other than their complete authentic self knows that.

Zibby: That’s part of your chapter on bringing your whole self to work and how important it is to not just have a persona but really do it. The more you can bring your whole self, the better it is.

Alicia: Do you feel like there are capacities in which you get to be your whole self?

Zibby: I feel like doing this podcast, honestly, this new phase of my life. I started this last year. I’m forty-three now. I started when I was forty-one. It was before my birthday. Now I feel like this is great. I get to do everything I love to do. I get to read. I get to chat with people. I get to learn about people. I love learning about people and hearing stories and sharing stories and connecting. I feel like this is the first time. I went through the same thing. I don’t want to make this about me.

Alicia: I want to make it about you.

Zibby: I lost my best friend on 9/11, which I mention frequently. I was at business school at that time. That summer I worked at an ad agency helping market Pepperidge Farm cookies, something that should’ve been really fun. My friend just died sitting at her desk. If I’m going to die sitting at my desk, I have to be at my desk bringing my whole self to what I’m doing. I can’t just market cookies. I left. I finished the summer and whatever else. It’s hard to find exactly the right thing and cross all the boxes. Do you feel like you’re bringing your whole self now in what you’re doing?

Alicia: In some ways, yes. I think part of what you’re talking about is purpose and feeling aligned in the purpose of what you’re doing and the work that you get paid to do. There are elements that I still find really complicated, like being a mom and working. Before I had kids, I imagined that it was just hard — this speaks to how much I like work. You’d be like, “You really wanted to be at work, but those kids were pulling you back from work,” as opposed to being like, “No, I really want to be with my children.” I love my time with my children, and I love my work. I don’t know how those two things can be true at the same time. I wish I could split myself in two and always be fully with my children and fully at work because I love both. For example, on Monday I was doing some television to launch the book, which should be this very exciting thing I’ve been looking forward to. The three-year-old the night before had been a little sick. She was supposed to start a new school on Monday. We’re like, this is good. We won’t take her to school on Monday. I’ll go do my television thing that way I don’t have to miss the first day of school and I can do this thing. She wakes up in the morning. She’s like, “I’m ready to go to my new school.” We scrambled to get lunch together. We scrambled to get her bag together. I’m trying to put myself together. The two-month-old wants to nurse.

It’s messy and sloppy in ways that I never could’ve anticipated. I jumped in the car with wet hair and hoped that someone would be able to blow dry it before I went on national television. That’s the way these things work. Then you show up in the professional capacity and you don’t want everyone to know that you’re a mess. You’re aware that there’s a price for being a person who is anything other than fully present and invested in your work. That can be true for men and for women, but there is a unique penalty that women pay. People perceive us not just as having less time, but being less competent, that somehow becoming a mother has made us so warm and so focused on the home that we can no longer be this strong assertive person. As you know as you the mother of four, as much as motherhood dials up your warmth, it dials up your strength. You’re never stronger than when you are advocating on behalf of your children. Are you a better advocate for your children than you are for yourself?

Zibby: A hundred percent, yes. You have to be.

Alicia: You have to be. It shows you that you have what it takes to be that advocate. You’ve just not done it in the service of yourself.

Zibby: I feel like we’re having a little therapy thing here.

Alicia: It’s going to be in my second book. If I ever put myself through the process of doing this again, that will be it.

Zibby: Do you think you’re going to do another book?

Alicia: Oh, my goodness. Somewhere my husband’s yelling “No, please don’t.” It was hard. I thought that because I’ve written thousand-word pieces before that I would crank out sixty to eighty of those and that would be a book. The actual act of having something to say that can sustain a reader over the course of 250, 300 pages is an entirely different act.

Zibby: So you’re done? Tapping out.

Alicia: Then I’m going to be here in three years sitting down with you. You’ll be like, “I thought you were done, Alicia.”

Zibby: There’s no way you’re done. Also, not to say you’re so young, I’m not that much older than you, but life is long, God willing. There’s a lot that could come. The challenge obviously is formidable. Instead of putting another book on your to-do list for the near future, can you talk about the new show or other things that are shorter term that are coming up?

Alicia: I don’t know much about it. It is an adventure that is waiting to happen. I can tell you about the podcast. I started this podcast two years ago. It’s called “Latina to Latina.” I interview professional Latinas about their journeys. What’s interesting to me, and I’m sure to you as well, is I’ve been on television for ten years. Podcasting is where I’ve built the most intimate connection with my audience. It’s where I’ll get DMs from listeners, or emails. People will share parts of their lives. That’s why I always love doing this, is because I did love that sense of connection and community. It’s been so fun to carve out that space. As a community, Latinas very often — there’s an expression that someone at Goya uses which is we’re a people connected by language and divided by beans. There are all of these big cultural differences depending on your country of origin. What’s edifying about the podcast is there are also all these through lines. Family is very important to us as a community, ethos of hard work. At a moment when the community can really feel under siege, it is nice to have this place where we get to get to celebrate Latina excellence.

Zibby: Excellent. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors? I know you sounded a little discouraging there.

Alicia: No, everyone else should write a book. It’s me who should not. The piece of advice that I was given, which is you have to absolutely love it and want it and feel as though it is a subject that you want to sit with for a very long time. That takes some soul searching and some coming back to revision. I’m interested in lots of things for about a week and a half. Then that moment passes. Since you’re asking me advice, do you have any advice on childrearing? The fact that you have survived four makes me — much harder job.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Call me anytime. I think having people you can call, honestly. I’m sure you have a million people. The people that I could text or call or whatever late at night and be like, “What should I do about this?” are some of the things that got me through. If I can help you at all, that’s my advice is just in the moment.

Alicia: I’ll take you up on that.

Zibby: Last question. To the mom, woman, professional out there who feels hamstringed by how much they want to be liked and feel that it’s getting in their way, what would you say to her?

Alicia: A few things. You cannot control whether or not other people like you. I’ve said that to myself maybe a thousand times in the course of writing this book. I’m not sure that I’ve internalized it quite yet, but it is the fundamental truth. You can be your best, most wonderful self, or you can do a complete performance of yourself. How someone else will interpret and receive that is entirely outside of your control. In many ways, focusing on likeability becomes an act of seeding control. As someone who cares about it, I always thought of it as a me issue, if I could just be a little bit more this or a little more that. It was really helpful to start thinking of it as a systems issue. This is set up so that there’s almost no way for me to be a warm and strong and perfect and authentic leader. Then by focusing on work and by focusing on how difficult it is for women to face these challenges at work, it freed me up to think about the rest of my life and who I wanted in it and how to surround myself with people who really allowed me to be my most authentic self. What I think is funny is we can talk around that, but you know it. You know it in your core, who you spend time with. Then you walk away, and you feel so nourished and so much like you got a chance to downshift and relax and be yourself. You walked away with a million ideas or thoughts or feelings. Shifting my energy towards really investing in those relationships and friendships has made a fundamental difference in my life. I would recommend the same to anybody else.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alicia: Thank you. This was so fun.

Zibby: Thank you.