Steph Stepan, 28
Lives in: Amsterdam
I read about Steph before I met her. Starting a new job at an independent, Melbourne based publisher was nerve wracking enough, but it was made worse by the fact that I had read an interview with Steph on a popular blog ahead of time. The incredibly accomplished, multi-lingual, creative young woman featured in the blog post was about to become my colleague and, coming off a two year sabbatical from a 9-5 gig, I was beyond intimidated.
And yet, our rapport was immediate. I very clearly remember arriving at the office and Steph appearing—a grin on her face, hands in her jean pockets, brown leather jacket on. I would soon realise these were the Steph fashion staples. No matter the season, this was her kit and it worked.
The idea for Friday Best was actually Steph’s. We’d both moved on from our jobs in publishing and a random catch-up led to the fruition of this idea. An interview series with young women seemed like a natural project for Steph who used to pepper me with questions at every opportunity. Steph and I are separated in age only by a couple of months and our past 28 years have been, at times, incredibly similar, and, at others, markedly different. These converging and diverging life experiences have provided us with hours of entertaining conversations.
While we were working together our lives seemed oddly parallel—we were never without a book in our hands, lived in the north western suburbs of Melbourne, dated tech head guys, and seemed to be constantly battling our own expectations of what we should be doing as we approached our late twenties. Go back a few years and Steph was trekking through South America while I was glued to a blackberry for a corporate job, go back a few more and she was in Pony Club while I was dreaming about becoming a musical theatre star.
Steph is naturally curious. Her forehead crinkles whenever her brain forms a query in response to what you’re saying at any given time. Then it’s, ‘But, wait, how…?’ or ‘So, if you were to…’. She constantly interrogates herself and if you’re close enough to her, she’ll put you through those paces as well and, let me tell you, it is well worth it.
So let’s take a look at how Steph became this particular Steph—brave and creative, kicking PR goals and living in Amsterdam.
We met while working together at a small independent publisher in Melbourne. Could you tell us a little bit about how you ended up there?
I ended up in publishing soon after finishing my Creative Arts degree at The University of Melbourne. I had chosen Creative Arts because I felt at the end of high school I wanted to do something creative but I wasn’t quite sure I had the technical skills to go out and do something specific. Funnily enough, at the end of my degree I had that same vague feeling—that I’d like to do something creative but I wasn’t specialised enough!
I kind of felt that I almost didn’t know
the titles of the jobs I was looking for.
I had no sense of what I should type
I started looking about for work and I kind of felt that I almost didn’t know the titles of the jobs I was looking for. I had no sense of what I should type into Seek. There were these broad categories you could go into and I knew which ones I fitted into but I wasn’t brave enough to go down one particular path.
So, to test myself, I went out and did lots of work experience and one of those experiences ended up being at a publishing house. I had seen this job ad for a publicist at a children’s book publisher and this just lit me up. I thought, That’s fantastic. I didn’t even know this job existed! I had no sense of what experience I needed to get the role and I was inevitably rejected from the role. But I did call up and say, ‘What kind of skill set do I really need?’ and they ended up offering me an internship.
That internship cemented in me that I really loved children’s books. I loved the literature that comes with that period of your childhood.
Soon after, I got another six month internship at Text Publishing and stayed on there mainly working on children’s and young adult books. That was a list that they were trying to build and I could see myself fitting in there.
I saw lots of people in school who had
clearly never enjoyed a book and struggled
with reading. It had really set them back.
I thought, What a shame that they’ve never
found a book that really hit the spot.
So what is it that you love about children’s books?
I think they have an unashamed sense of playfulness about them. That fun to me is what gets you hooked on books in the first place, and you only need one book, one great book, to make reading a good experience. For me, I found that really early on with Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. I just remember having a hoot reading that book and I still get that sense every time I walk into the children’s section of the bookstore. I think it’s the nicest place to be. I saw lots of people in school who had clearly never enjoyed a book and struggled with reading. It had really set them back. I thought, What a shame that they’ve never found a book that really hit the spot. So, I have always seen reading as really important. But more than that, I think it’s really fun.
You stayed in publishing for five years, what have you taken away from your time in that industry?
A fake it ‘til you make it attitude. Which is always easier said than done.
Also, learning how to hold your own when you still feel you’re a little bit too young in the profession. For me, something I felt immediately, and this may be because I started as an intern, is that when you come in and you’re seen as a real junior, it’s almost hard not to think like a junior. And in a really competitive industry, I found it hard not to believe that junior tag.
Trying to prove yourself, while learning at the same time, can be tough to juggle. You know you’re capable but you don’t fully understand how that plays out in the everyday of your working life, or how to articulate it.
In the companies you have worked at, did you think everybody knew everything?
Initially, yes. I thought that they did know and that was probably sometimes because of the way that they said it. But I also realised that it was the way someone carried themselves.
If you could give one piece of advice to Steph on her first day in the work force, what would you say?
Keep asking those questions that are on the tip on your tongue. Once you hold back it’s too late. Because the longer you wait the more self-doubt will weigh you down. I still have to tell myself this today.
Once you hold back it’s too late.
Because the longer you wait the
more self-doubt will weigh you down.
Also look at the company as a whole and see how you could fit in, see how you could help them. Don’t assume just because you haven’t been asked to do something, that you can’t do it.
That’s great advice, I think twenty-three-year-old Steph would appreciate that. Since your publishing days you’ve moved to Amsterdam, away from your twin sister. How have you found that?
Both a positive and a difficult experience. To give a bit of background, Natty and I hadn’t spent any time apart up until the age of fifteen. Later, when we went to university we actually did quite different things. Our lives were always going to end up on different paths but we’ve remained very close. So moving to Amsterdam has been difficult in the sense that I have had to reconfigure how I hold on to my closest relationships, and for me that’s my sister Natty.
On the positive side, if you are a twin you have to spend a little bit longer figuring out how much of you is you and how much is just a consequence of being around your twin. It can get quite reactive and for me it’s been really good just to start with a blank canvas and experiment and see what feels most like me.
Moving to Amsterdam isn’t the only big adventure you’ve been on though, is it? Can you tell us about some other pivotal travel experiences you’ve had?
I’d say a trip I took when I was fifteen has actually shaped a lot of the choices I’ve made to get to where I am now.
I had two choices: remain a mute,
or speak like an idiot and improve.
As a fifteen-year-old in a new high
school I had to, of course, choose the latter.
Both my twin sister and I studied French at school and when the opportunity came up to live with a host family and go to school in France for three months we took it up without hesitation. It wasn’t until we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport that it clicked we would be living apart for the next three months in a place that was completely foreign to us. My mind hadn’t even processed what was about to come.
I found it really harrowing at first and my host sister turned out to be a real piece of work. What I also hadn’t anticipated was how quickly my French would improve. I had two choices: remain a mute, or speak like an idiot and improve. As a fifteen-year-old in a new high school I had to, of course, choose the latter and by the end of the three months I was even dreaming in French. It felt fantastic to be able to express myself in another language, a little like putting a new skin on.
Since then I’ve been fascinated by the process of learning languages. I chose to study French at university and once that finished I began to pick up Spanish. Arriving in Amsterdam I leapt straight into Dutch. I couldn’t see any other way. I wanted to hear the humour and listen to how locals talk to one another.
I think it’s a shame we don’t really place much emphasis on learning new languages in Australia. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve done so far.
Can you tell us about what you’re doing in Amsterdam?
Well, I arrived with a vague sense of what I might try and do. I initially thought about working in publishing but you really need to speak Dutch so that was off the table. A few people had said I should try advertising because of my communications background. Like everything I’ve done so far, I wasn’t sure about it but I thought I’d give it a go.
I got an internship at an ad agency and stayed on as PR manager before turning freelance. In addition to that, because in the back of my head I called myself a semi-creative, I thought, Why don’t you be gutsy enough and go and get some work with photographers? So I’ve been assisting Dutch photographers and I love it. I love not being at a desk for the whole day.
Everyone questions whether they fit in
to a new workplace at first, but it’s a separate
thing to being good at your role. And I think
we’ve got to be careful not to mix those two
Ad folk are generally a pretty confident bunch and I initially questioned whether I’d fit in with so many different personalities. Looking back, it was probably the wrong mindset to go in with. I think everyone questions whether they fit in to a new workplace at first, but it’s a separate thing to being good at your role. And I think we’ve got to be careful not to mix those two things up.
I have now arranged my work life so that I now have time to focus on things like this (Friday Best). I’ve been able to ask myself if I want to work for myself, and, if so, how do I make that happen?
What is it about working for yourself that appeals to you? Is it the type of work? The lifestyle? What are you working towards?
I’m working towards being more confident in making my own choices. I see myself step back in some situations and working for myself leaves me no option but to stand up and begin creating. No one but myself is accountable and I find that a huge responsibility but also a great motivator.
I’m lucky to have several flexible employers here in Amsterdam and it’s made me realise that there is no one set formula to working and that being of value to an employer doesn’t have to happen in a traditional lets-just-do-one-thing way. I’m just playing around with possibilities.
What does the word success mean to you?
My definition of success…it would be: being really clear on my values, stripping those values down to a very select few and living by them (most of the time!). It’s also realising that you really can’t control much, and making the time to check in and realign.
I always had this sense that for things
to be good and for me to feel content
with myself, it was an external thing.
I always looked out for reassurance and
it bit me in the bum a lot.
What are your values?
I am trying to get better at being kind to myself and I actually feel pretty corny even saying it! I was brought up in a way that was very academically focused. I always had this sense that for things to be good and for me to feel content with myself, it was an external thing. I always looked out for reassurance and it bit me in the bum a lot. So being kind to myself is a value I would love to live by. That then goes on to being kind to others and also being grateful because I think most of us are pretty lucky.
What’s your relationship with money like?
It’s always running away from me. [Laughs]
Do you think you’ve been given what you deserve in a salary sense?
Hmmm. It’s such a tricky thing trying to figure out what your value is to someone else. I say value here in the monetary sense as well as the stuff that makes you unique.
I have been thinking about the value question a lot lately. For me, it’s two-sided. As a freelancer, I need to be really clear on what my value is to anyone wanting to work with me and it changes with each project.
On the other hand, I think the very best businesses are also clear on how they value their staff. Because everyone in the end wants to feel like they’re working toward something bigger than themselves—and someone’s got their back along the way.
As anyone working in the arts will know, there’s quite often a difference in salaries between someone say working in the arts and a more corporate role. It’s, of course, not true of everyone! I also see more men in corporate-type roles and, again, it gets me thinking about the whole how do we value people question.
Do you think it’s that the men are drawn to these more corporate industries because there’s money, or they went there and pushed and pushed for more money? The chicken or the egg question?
Hard to say having not worked in a corporate environment but my feeling is that the male nature is a bit more forward in asking for what they want. I think a woman might sit on a pay rise before asking for it. So I think the latter.
As a young woman it’s really easy to be
regarded as the young blond girl in the room.
It’s really hard to know how to react to it.
I know there are now the Sheryl Sandberg’s of the world and it’s slowly becoming more normal to have women in a management team but it does still feel like a boys club in senior level environments. As a young woman it’s really easy to be regarded as the young blond girl in the room…it’s not in a respectful way. It’s really hard to know how to react to it.
It’s infuriating but it’s also motivating for people like us.
Ten to twenty years from now, do you imagine that you will be very different from what you are now? Do you currently feel like a ‘grown-up’?
No, I don’t feel like a grown-up. I keep thinking that one day something will just click and switch over and I’ll be a little bit more at peace with myself.
In my 30s I do picture myself with kids but I still see kind of the same person.
So are you an adult right now?
An uncertain adult. [Laughs]
We owe it to ourselves to talk more
to one another about what we really care about.
Any last words of wisdom you’d like to send out to our Friday Best readers?
Ahh, let’s see…here’s what I’m certain of: I think we’ve all got lots to learn from one another and being in your 20s, being spat out of the university system or wherever, we owe it to ourselves to talk more to one another about what we really care about and what we want to do and not be shy to say this is what I’d really like to do.
Everyone wants to pigeon hole you, but it’s important you just sense what opportunities you have around you, what interests you, and try to go from there.
Initiatives like R U OK? Day really only
scratch the surface because in the end,
we don’t even have the vocabulary to
answer that question yet.
And, Steph Stepan, what do you think we should talk more about?
It’s not the sexiest thing to talk about but if you’re not suffering from mental illness yourself, chances are you know someone who is. Initiatives like R U OK? Day really only scratch the surface because in the end, we don’t even have the vocabulary to answer that question yet. I actually want to know what the single most important thing we can do is to help people with mental illness, and then get to work on that.
Things I Love
If I’m stuck in a rut or just feeling a bit
off, I find the best way to get over it is just
to get out and move. I go everywhere by
bike in Amsterdam and, for me, it’s both
a mode of transport and also a daily chance
to clear my head. I get pretty narky
Ways to focus
I often wish there were subjects at school
that had been dedicated to learning new
ways of getting stuff done. The Pomodoro
Technique I’ve found is a good way to work
solidly at a task, as is the Action Method by the
folks at 99U—it teaches you how to break
everything down into bite-sized chunks.