Career Advice

Lessons From ‘Emily in Paris’: What the Netflix Show Taught Me About Confidence and Balance at Work

Saanya Ali

Photo: W+G Creative / Getty Images

Netflix’s Emily in Paris stars Lily Collins as a young marketing executive who spontaneously moves to Paris to be the “American voice” at a French agency. At the start of the show, Emily speaks zero French, has no connection to Paris other than the token Eiffel Tower keychain she’s carried on her purse since 8th grade, and is, frankly, an obnoxious trope of an uncultured American determined to impose her live-to-work values on a work-to-live environment. Though Emily’s fairytale outlook can be grating at times—through her mishandlings of certain professional situations and her determination and earnestness in others—I learned some useful lessons about how to be the most human “main character” in a workplace setting.

I started a new role at work this month. As a similarly colorful woman in her twenties learning to navigate the professional world, Emily’s excitement, naïveté, and determination are things I can relate to. I am lucky to work for a team that feels like a family, but the difficulties of learning how to stand up for myself, navigate office dynamics, and find my footing in a new role are universal—especially as many of us continue to work from home.

Throughout the show, despite an unwelcoming and dismissive team, Emily stands her ground even as colleagues ask her to sit down. Accustomed to her previous boss in Chicago who acted more like a friend, Emily’s new French boss is more like a French Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada who would rather see Emily fail just to prove her point. Emily has to dodge daily insults and fight for her voice to be heard.

I applied for my first job after college with big “main character” energy. Like Emily, I cradled a confidence unbefitting someone who knew little about the professional world. Unlike Emily, after my first day on the job, my confidence evaporated. During the first few months of work I backpedaled on half the thoughts I shared and cried in the third stall of the women’s restroom during lunch on a weekly basis. I had no idea where I fit in or what I was allowed to say or do, and lost my sense of self and confidence as a result.

“As we start in new positions, we are faced with enormous learning curves… we have to offer grace to ourselves for making mistakes as we learn a new way of doing things,” says Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Tell yourself, ‘I am in the process of learning and learning is not linear. I have to accept the mistakes and accomplishments along the way.'”

Maintaining your confidence

But I still long for Emily’s sense of confidence. In an early episode, Emily speaks out during a commercial shoot for a perfume campaign with a bravery I wish I had, offering that the concept—a naked woman walking across a bridge while men with perfectly cut lapels and curated scruff watch her—was antiquated and crossed the line from sexy to just plain sexist.

While Emily’s handling of the situation could have used a smidge less entitlement and condescension and might have been better said during a pre-production meeting rather than on the day of the shoot, she believed in what she had to say and found a way to make it known.

Claire Shipman, co-author of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, an informative and practical guide on confidence and how women can achieve it, explains that “the productive way of navigating this balance of respect for one’s superiors and confidence in one’s own ideas is to have changed the “me” to “we.”

“The importance of respect and deference to those who have come before you is essential to being heard and acknowledged as a team player,” says Shipman. For example, instead of Emily confrontationally saying, “This is my idea and here’s why I’m right,” she could have said, “Here’s why we should approach the commercial this way as it might reflect better on the team as a whole.” There are ways to say you have a different opinion or idea diplomatically. “Make small changes to acknowledge your newness while also proving your worth. Listen, learn, say yes. Operate the way your bosses want and then look for ways to put your twist on it,” Shipman explains.

Sharing your voice

How to be resilient and stand up for what you believe in, and do so in a respectful rather than hardheaded fashion is something many young professionals struggle to navigate; it’s not something you’re taught in school. In the next episodes, Emily learns how to handle sharing her thoughts, opinions, and “American” ideas with a grace more appropriate to her environment and a respect more fitting to her role, but her determination never wanes.

In the take-oneself-too-seriously environment of the modern workplace, there is also a distinct fear of failure, an inability to admit mistakes, and an unwillingness to forgive oneself when making one.

“Generally women and girls have higher EQ (emotional quotient/intelligence) and are more aware of the world around us, making us more aware of our shortcomings,” says Shipman. “We often step into situations that are new and think that we don’t know how to handle it and shouldn’t speak up until we’ve found the perfect solution.” The problem is this makes us risk-averse. Part of the issue is really understanding that it’s okay not to be perfect. “Hanging back and shrinking is a mistake in itself… our own authentic ideas are why we were hired,” says Shipman.

Finding balance

Shipman says that a balance of “live to work” and “work to live” is vital to achieving a healthy mindset around work. The best way to achieve this is by finding a job that fulfills you and keeps you thinking, but recognizing that “especially when you’re just beginning, you won’t love your job 100 percent of the time; you just need to make sure that you’re finding a place where you are constantly learning and growing.” That said, the French outlook, aka prioritizing a healthy and happy life over constantly treading the line of work-related burnout, is also important to incorporate, she adds. “Work smarter not harder. Don’t work just for working’s sake. Time is a precious commodity, and you won’t be as productive as you’d like to be if you don’t take time away from the screen for yourself.”

Emily taught me how to find peace and growth in mistakes, strive for balance rather than obsession, and respectfully stand up and speak my mind even when some may want me to sit down and just listen. With big “main character” energy, Emily taught me not to apologize for being myself, to not be afraid to say that I’m still learning,  and to laugh at myself and bounce back more quickly. Just this week, I spoke up and questioned terms and concepts that were over my head in a meeting, and came up with story ideas with more confidence and a less quivering voice in a meeting than I had a year ago when I started. Emily’s rubbing off on me.

I tend to watch my favorite shows on repeat, so as I watch Emily in Paris again, I’m taking in the lessons she’s teaching me—laugh more, fear less, stand up, keep going—and I already feel a little more confident in my position. And that’s definitely a win.

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