‘If It’s Not a Hell Yes, It’s A No’: Elaine Welteroth on Her New MasterClass, Combating Impostor Syndrome, and Redefining Success

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a better career idol than Elaine Welteroth, the former Teen Vogue editor in chief and current bestselling author, performer, and recently announced co-host of The Talk. As the second-youngest editor and second person of African-American heritage to lead a Condé Nast publication, Welteroth knows plenty about breaking barriers, but the focus of her new MasterClass—titled “Designing Your Career”—is less about hitting prescribed benchmarks and more about learning to build a career journey that actually excites and inspires you.

Vogue recently spoke to Welteroth about putting together her MasterClass, overcoming the impostor syndrome that so often trips up professional women, finding inspiration in her mother’s path, and creating a class experience meant to connect with a wide range of people. Read the full interview below.

Vogue: First things first: How did the idea for your MasterClass come about?

Elaine Welteroth: Well, MasterClass approached me, and they were really open in terms of how to frame it. I was like, “Wait, really, me?” I actually dragged my feet for quite a long time, but I got a call from someone over there who was extraordinarily understanding and patient and reminded me of all the reasons why people need this right now. So it was like, “Okay, this is in service of people; it’s bigger than me. Get over your impostor syndrome and practice what you preach!” This is something so many women encounter when they get big opportunities to share what they know and share their experiences, so I had to give myself the TED Talk that I’ve given to so many other people. The process unfolded from there in a really organic way, and we built the class around lessons that I’ve learned along my professional journey. Looking back now, I couldn’t be more proud of the class we made, and I couldn’t be happier about the decision to push myself to do this. To be a sounding board or a voice of encouragement or to share some tools and frameworks with folks during this really transitional time is an incredible opportunity, and the response has just been overwhelming. 

I always tell people, “I don’t do anything unless I give it a hell yes.” I didn’t quit my job to build a company that I don’t want to work for, and I am fully responsible for my sense of enjoyment in my work, so part of my parameter is, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.”

Your MasterClass is open to all, of course, but is there anyone with whom you particularly hope it resonates?

This class really is for anybody who’s interested in growth or trying to lean into change, whether you are a college student who’s wrestling with those existential questions of “Why am I here? What am I meant to do with my life?” for the first time, or somebody who’s mid-career and looking for more, or somebody who’s going through retirement and looking at the latter years of their life and how they want to spend them. It’s for anybody who wants to optimize the time they have left here, because we’ve all realized how precious life is and that it is not promised. I like to emphasize privilege, because, in a sense, it is a privileged concept to be able to define success for yourself and follow your passion. But I do also think that no matter where you are in your life, there are ways to implement the mindset that you’re in charge. 

My mom was going through retirement when I was working on this class. I’m very confident speaking to millennials and Gen Z because of my age and my experience at Teen Vogue, but I wanted to make sure that this is also something that applies to everybody. My mom worked in the same job for 43 years, and I feel like she’s the gold standard of the American Dream that we were sold. You know, the previous generation’s American Dream. Nonetheless, she still has—we hope—decades more life to live, right? And now she’s having to think about, “How do I want to spend my time? How do I want to make an impact?” There’s something beautiful about that to me; it connects all of us and allows us to have this conversation together.

Have you observed a lot of people’s career journeys changing recently due to COVID-19 and the general unpredictability of the world?

Absolutely. I think that as a result of the pandemic, people are reevaluating their lives and rethinking their career paths, and they’re yearning for a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment and seeking out more balance. “Hustle culture” has really glorified living lives that are severely out of balance, and I think we’ve all experienced some sort of reckoning in the last year. Even just as somebody who hires folks, I can tell that the marketplace has changed drastically. It’s an employee’s market, and it’s a freelance economy where people are looking for more flexibility and want to have more freedom and control over how they spend their time. I just don’t think that we would have gotten here this quickly without having something as jarring to all of our systems as a pandemic, because it completely interrupted all of our lives.

Not to ask you to give the key to your MasterClass away for free, but what does success look like to you these days?

One concept I come back to a lot is the “zone of genius.” Something I actually don’t talk about much, or at all, is that when I was appointed editor in chief at Teen Vogue, it came with an executive coach. At the time, I thought that that was a punishment or something. It was something that people didn’t ever talk about having, and I didn’t know what it meant—but this woman came into my life and became a sounding board for me. We would talk a lot about the “zone of genius,” and when she first said that, I was like, “Ooh, that has a ring to it like, but what the hell does it mean?” The way that I define your “zone of genius” is as the intersection between your values, your skills, your talents, and your passion. And if you can identify that sweet spot, then you can start to design a career and a life that allows you to spend more time operating from that. 

It sounds so simple, but it requires a deep excavation of yourself and interrogation of what actually motivates you and excites you. What were you actually put here to do? I think that that process is necessary in order to identify what success is for you. For me, success is liberation; it’s feeling free to do what I really want to do. But if you haven’t identified what that is, then you’re constantly going to be chasing the next best thing in a prescribed path. I think the idea of doing one thing for the rest of your life is an outdated notion, and we all have had to concede that pivoting is a part of everyone’s career path, so you might as well go into your career with future pivots in mind and prepare yourself for them, versus finding yourself in a reactionary position where you’re feeling completely lost and scared of change. All of that is normal, but if you plan for it, it completely rewrites your relationship to the inevitability of change and it becomes more of an adventure and something that you invite in and have fun with along the way.

Originally Appeared on Vogue