Coffee with Emma Stenström
Associate Professor and Center Director for the Research Center for Arts, Business & Culture (ABC) Stockholm School of Economics
Coffees at Espresso Room
23 Southampton Row, London WC1B 5HA
Describe your career path in two or three sentences including any twist or turns ending with where you are now and where you see yourself in the future.
So funny, I never think of it as a career path. My work-path or whatever it was, was never planned. It turned out to be both linear and diverse. On one hand, I stayed in university, I did my PhD, I became an academic and moved to assistant professor then associate professor and at the same time became head of a research centre, etc etc so in that way my path has been quite straight. But, I have always done other things on the side; I wouldn’t have survived without my side projects. My academic career has provided a platform to do these other things and has allowed me to reach out to a wider community. For example, for the last 19 years, I have been writing a column in Sweden’s daily financial newspaper, Dagens Industri, I have hosted a TV show, I presently sit on a number of boards and these are just a few of my many projects over the years. So in that sense, my career path has not been straight and that makes me happy.
What decision / experience proved to be the most helpful to your career?
Definitely, moving abroad. I don’t think I would have stayed in academia if I hadn’t done that. Things I couldn’t find is Sweden, I found abroad. And living abroad gives you an opportunity to do something in a different way because you learn to look at the same thing from a new perspective.
The other thing I would say is to say yes to a lot of things and just try stuff. For example, I had never hosted a TV show in my whole life and I never dreamt about doing it but when someone called me up and asked if I wanted to try out, I thought, yes, I could do that. And it was kind of fun. I took a leave of absence for a year from academia. In the end, it wasn’t that fun, it was actually quite horrible but I learned a lot and I am happy about those experiences. So saying yes to those things that have crossed my path has made me take a lot of turns and some loops but it’s been good.
What do you think are the most important qualities are for sustaining a fulfilling career(s)?
Doing something that you find meaningful, absolutely. It’s a little bit cliche but if you think about the Ikigai concept where you combine a little bit of passion with something that gives you purpose but also something that you can get paid to do and ideally something that you are pretty good at and if you find the sweet spot within this mix you probably have the answer. I do think the number one thing is meaningfulness, to have a purpose and to feel like you are contributing in some way. You want to work not only to make money but also to feel that you are doing good. That is what I will tell my students too.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self knowing what you know now?
Believe a little bit more in myself. Don’t spend so much time doubting yourself and your capacities, just jump because you can always turn back.
What are the biggest challenges for people wanting to make a career re-entry or re-invention in later life?
The norms of society around age in general. We need to change them. It’s a huge loss for society as a whole that we don’t value experience, that we don’t value maturity. There is a lot of talk in Sweden about the ‘Wise Women’ coming into the workforce, especially after menopause. We need to understand the value of mature women. That’s about the norms. It is difficult and there is a lot to be done.
What are the opportunities are for people hoping to work into their 50s, 60s and beyond?
It’s a good time in life to work, the kids are grown up, you know a lot more, you’re secure in yourself and your abilities, you’ve developed yourself so there are a lot of advantages. In many ways, you are less threatening as an older woman.
There are opportunities. Starting your own business is probably the biggest one. There are a lot of women entrepreneurs over 50. It’s a good time to collaborate. But I do I think it’s really difficult to get a traditional corporate job. I am not sure people will employ us, they will be afraid we are too close to retirement or think we will cost them a lot. I think the answer is for women to run their own businesses.
What is your top tip for staying relevant in today’s job market?
Top tip is always to not think of development as horizontal. For example, a lot of people think I have to learn AI or a language or book-keeping, they think about adding skills in a horizontal, linear way. Of course, there are always skills you need to add but you also need to think about more vertical development, things that build character, patience, resilience, emotional intelligence… that kind of stuff. I am always studying and taking courses. It is important to take time and develop yourself.
Recommendation: Favourite book to read, website to browse or podcast to listen to while drinking coffee?
Theory U from MIT is my number one choice. It is kind of like design thinking theory, it’s about introspection and innovation and is used by business leaders but it can also be used for it for personal development and thinking through where you want to go in life. There are online courses you can take. I’m actually going to redo it shortly because I think it is one of the best theories I know to help you not only figure out what you want to do in life but also what the world needs.
With my students, I use ideas from the 80000 hours organisation which is for people a little bit earlier in their careers (Editor’s note: Target is graduates 20-35 who want to focus on social impact) but still, there are some useful methods for older workers like us. Its premises is you have 80,000 working hours (40 years x 50 weeks x 40 hours) and it asks you to think about how can you make a positive societal impact with your working hours.
Finally, the best thing I have done in recent years is to work on my own personal development through meditation, yoga, coaching etc and that gives me more confidence in work life.
- For more information on Theory U see Primest’s article Theory U: The Application of Transformation Thinking for Effective Change
- The 80,000 Hours Podcast