A study in contrasts, Abigail Posner is a perfect example of how a circuitous path can take you where you need to go in life just as well, if not better, than any straight shot.
Currently a director at Google, this Power Figure came up through advertising and finance after studying anthropology at Harvard. She also blogs about fashion and beauty from a cultural standpoint. An observant Jew, Abi powers down for the Sabbath, then powers back up to hit a fashion show or launch party after services end.
These conflicting worlds don’t rattle her a bit. Instead, they propel her. Abi takes whatever personality traits most of us would consider our weaknesses and harnesses their power to adapt herself to any job, in any field. She draws on what she knows. By embracing all the pieces that make us up, by leaning into the way they clash instead of constantly fighting to reconcile them, in this Bare Necessities exclusive, Abi proves that knowing what makes you different is the real secret to rising to the top.
Q: Tell us about your personal background and how it shaped you.
A: I was born in the Boston area, the youngest of three children to a doctor father and a mother who was a professor of chemistry. They had different lives they led—they were always doing research on the side, filing for patents, creating products and companies. There has always been this expectation in my life that you can dabble in a lot of things, and that they can all coexist.
Some of it was role modeling that got me to where I am now. My mother was very successful in a male-oriented field, but she also loved fashion and beauty. I grew up in all these worlds continually conflicting and coming together. That was not only accepted but embraced. Both my brother and sister are very book smart. I did not get those traits. Very early on, I knew I had other things they didn’t have, and one day those things would be important. I could either be insecure or try to tap into these other sides of myself.
Q: How did you get to where you are now?
A: I followed my siblings to Harvard. I was very lucky, and I took advantage of that gift. There, I dove into social anthropology. Again and again, I realized the necessity of pulling from my other skill sets and bringing them to bear on whatever I was doing at the time.
After I graduated, I thought I should get proper job, so I went into management consulting. I failed at that; they were going to fire me. I started talking to anyone I could about what I really loved, culture and business. Economic anthropology. People thought I was crazy.
My next job opportunity was in advertising. I didn’t know anything about the field, and that was probably the best thing for me because I had to pave my own way. I spent 15 years in that industry trying to dig into human motivations, to reveal insights.
“I didn’t know anything about the field, and that was probably the best thing for me because I had to pave my own way”
I’ve always been kind of a positive malcontent: What’s the next thing? I decided to start a blog about beauty in America, exploring it not from the angle of makeup and hair tips but why we do what we do. Why do we have these opposing emotions about our looks? What do they mean? Why do many educated women feel the need to eschew beauty? There’s a weird conflict we have around it.
The blog was an example for Google to see that I had a unique way of blending tech with humanity. I wasn’t totally sure of the role, but I jumped in.
Q: What drives you?
A: I am not naturally cut out for the tech world. I do not fit in. I do not speak the language. I definitely have Imposter Syndrome: I cry and I moan for a while, and then I tap into these other sides of myself. I know somehow I’ll figure it out. What do I know? I know anthropology. I will always go back to what to human beings think about the significance of something in our culture. I saw what people were saying about and doing with data and photos and videos but nobody was talking about why. Here was an opportunity to dive into the deeper meaning we ascribe to these platforms and devices, to humanize digital. I’ve been able to build teams, to bring in people who think like me, and little by little we make a difference. This was a world that needed this humanistic understanding. Businesses benefit from this kind of thinking. That keeps the fire going.
“How do I stand out in a world that’s so different from who I am? I don’t know how to curb myself. This is my survival skill”
I don’t know how to curb myself. This is my survival skill. How do I stand out in a world that’s so different from who I am? How do I maintain my me-ness? I don’t feel right not wearing high heels, for example. I could wear sneakers, but that’s not who I am. I can’t be my authentic self like that. Having these different sides is not only something I think one should be able to do, but one has to do, not only to fully express yourself, but to come up with new ideas. Connecting two or more seemingly disconnected things to reveal something novel is the origin of creativity.
Q: So what’s a typical day like?
A: I’m hopping between my different lives, living them all at the same time and combining them, for better or worse for my kids and colleagues. Here’s a great example: South by Southwest always coincides with Shabbat. I don’t use my phone, I can’t connect—it’s stressful. One time, there was this added wrinkle: Saturday night and the following day were Purim. You’re supposed to listen to the Book of Esther. So I had to go to a synagogue that accommodated my timing. I was all dressed up to meet with clients afterwards. I had to walk there because I couldn’t drive, and it started to rain. I can’t so much as open an umbrella, let alone call an Uber. I’m drenched, I look a mess, but I made it to this reading in the middle of Austin. As soon as it’s over, I get into a cab to the event, calling my kids in the spare minutes in between.
That’s the mix and match of my worlds. The common thread is the depth of humanness embedded in our everyday behaviors, be it around fashion or beauty or economics or technology. When we can unpack and uncover that, people are amazed at themselves. These things that are seemingly banal are actually full of intentionality, and how you leverage that is important. Why do we do what we do? Why do we share what we share? I’m looking for the deeper understanding of why we share these stupid videos or memes, how important it actually is in terms of human connection and why we love it.
“I feel like we were put here to make a dent, and how we do it is different for everybody”
Q: When so many different parts of you are always in play, how do you focus?
A: You have to weigh the opportunity versus the risk of doing something different. I have to challenge myself to say yes to more things. One of my mantras is that even when it feels painful, say yes; you’ll learn something from it. I feel like we were put here to make a dent, and how we do it is different for everybody.
I always hear the same clichés about finding balance and bringing your whole self to work. There’s a relationship, but they’re not the same thing. I don’t even know what balance means, or if I’m a model of that. You can’t always make everything work together; there may be some casualties along the way. I just try to do my best. I just need to get through what I can achieve today.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ABI
Wardrobe staple: I wear a thong every day. I like them to be sexy and lacy, with no lines.
Best way to de-stress: Hanging out with husband watching good TV, like Homeland.
Role model: My mother.
Prized possession: My wedding ring.
Weakness for: Sugar.
Secret talent: I like to cook when there’s seemingly nothing in the pantry.
Fitness routine: Cardio.
Fear you’re trying to overcome: That I’m not good enough.
Craziest thing you’ve ever done: I lived in Israel with bombs flying.
Most useful emoji: Laughing-crying.
In a word: Energetic.