How Humanitarian and Famed Journalist Sally Armstrong found her guiding principle for changing careers
Being forced out of a job is tough, but it’s often no easier to recognize when it’s time to willingly move on. If a career transition is required, and at some point it always is, tapping into our values is the way to make the “right” choice. First though, you’ve got to get still and listen to yourself.
BY ASTRID VAN DEN BROEK
It’s not quite going on gut instinct; it’s more like paying attention. That’s what Sally Armstrong thinks women need to do when we start playing that ping-pong game “Should I leave my job? No—it pays well. Could I start a new career? Maybe but I’ve put so much time into this one…”
It’s critical we see those signs for what they are: the need for change. “It’s difficult to leave something you love even though you know it’s time to go,” says Armstrong. “I loved my job as editor of Homemakers [a national magazine started in 1966 and that ceased publication in 2011]. But I’d been there for 11 years and I decided if I was ever going to do anything else with my life, now was the time. If I waited much longer, it would be too late.” It’s feelings like these, says Armstrong, that we recognize but try to reject because they force us to make tough decisions. “But once you step back and are sensible about the messages you’re getting, you should act.” Armstrong has acted a lot. For almost four-decades, she’s been a storyteller shape shifting through a variety of positions—from freelance writer to editor-in-chief of Homemakers to author of six non-fiction books, including her latest, Ascent of Women: Our Turn, Our Way—A Remarkable Story of World-Wide Change, to humanitarian. And while from the outside it may seem Armstrong flowed river-like from one position to the next, if you look deeper, there’s a strong and constant undercurrent to her work—fighting for the rights of underprivileged and disenfranchised women—that reflects a commitment to her values, rather than a fixation on professional progress. It’s a guiding principle rather than a strategy, but it has nonetheless brought success.
Before journalism, Armstrong started out as a gym teacher after graduating from McGill University with a bachelor of physical education in 1966—she was a high school athlete and, in the 1960s, women’s career options were generally limited to teaching, nursing or secretarial work. Soon enough, though, her true calling came…well, calling, when she received a phone call from a friend who wanted to introduce her to someone starting a new magazine. Even though Armstrong was teaching phys ed at the time, she was hired as lifestyle editor for what would become Canadian Living, a title which would grow to become one of Canada’s leading women’s magazines. She went on to edit its sister title, Homemakers, for 11 years and shortly after taking over, began turning the concept of a women’s magazine on its ear by reporting on issues such as female genital mutilation in Senegal and rape camps in the Balkans. And in so doing, she proved that homemakers, and women in general, are interested in more than home economics, that we have an appetite for meaty issues too. But after years of working at the top, even imagining something new, a career shift of some sort, excited her. When she decided to walk away, she had to face the question of where to go—after all, editor-in-chief positions are elusive in the Canadian magazine industry.
“Your gut tells you things,” she says. “And I thought: if I’m not going to be the editor anymore, who am I going to be? My work had been focusing in on humanitarian and women’s issues…” So Armstrong went after a Masters of Science degree with the intention of working for an organization such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. After graduating in 2002, Armstrong returned to what she knew best, journalism, and acted as contributing editor and an editor-at-large to Maclean’s and Chatelaine respectively. She eventually moved to the other side of the desk, as they say in her industry, and now works for herself as a freelance writer and book author.
This new career phase allowed Armstrong to focus on what mattered to her most—that is, women’s rights—using journalism (including documentary films) as a vehicle to promote them. During that time, Armstrong travelled to Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other war-torn countries to seek out those stories. What she did not seek out was another senior position at a magazine.
Instead, according to long-time colleague Rona Maynard, onetime editor-in-chief of Chatelaine magazine, Armstrong continued to play to her strengths. “Most people define themselves by a title or a function. And then when they leave their job or it’s taken away, they’re high and dry,” she says. “There are many people who’ve had desirable editorial positions and they’re now casting about finding work and supporting themselves with gigs they never would have considered 15 years ago. That’s because they’re defining themselves in terms of a function and Sally didn’t. That’s the lesson: know what is distinctive about you and play to your strengths.”
And while shaping your strengths and redefining exactly what function you’d like to pursue, Armstrong suggests that women consider the bigger picture: what do you do outside of your job that moves you, excites you and stirs you? “It’s there and it’s a matter of identifying it,” she says. You may not be able to earn your keep doing it at first, and it may not bring the external validation you’re used to, but it is the key to any successful career transition. What are you pouring your energy into? “Run with it.”
What makes Armstrong a stand out? Besides being named to the Order of Canada, there’s this for starters:
1997 Achievement Award for Human Rights for Women, from Jewish Women International
2000 Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, from Royal Roads University
2005 World of Difference Award, from the International Alliance for Women (Florida)
2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, from the Canadian Journalism Foundation