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Working Women Wednesday: Sophie Donelson of “House Beautiful”

Working Women Wednesday: Sophie Donelson of “House Beautiful”
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“Working Women Wednesday” is a series in which we profile leaders in their field, shedding light on who they are and how they’ve achieved success.

Sophie Donelson is the 23rd editor-in-chief of
House Beautiful, “America’s longest published home magazine.” From her office on the 27th floor of New York’s prismatic Hearst Tower, she makes sure that the stories and images broadcast to the publication’s 816,000 print subscribers and 7 million digital readers are the right ones. Whether it’s choosing a cover or approving the next color trend, her job requires quick decisions informed by the trajectory of the current cultural pulse. “It’s about communicating ideas or receiving ideas and refining them,” she says, “and that’s just about as cool as it gets.” Below, we spoke with Sophie about how she stays the course. From office decor to finding a Friday flow, she inspires us all to live a little better and work a little smarter.

Is there a lesson you learned during childhood that you continue to carry with you in a professional context?
Empathy. My parents taught me to always try to see things from another person’s perspective, whether that’s a stranger, a co-worker, or a neighbor. The point is that it’s not all about you, and it’s important to always keep that top of mind. I’ll also say that I was raised, and I think of myself, as a true New Englander—which is to say my siblings and I had these puritanical and Pilgrim-like traits embedded in us: ideas of simplicity and economical living but without feeling righteous or thrifty about it. In other words, “You don’t need that much to live a good life, but what you do have should be good.” And all of this ties into my professional life, particularly since our mantra at House Beautiful is that “a beautiful life begins at home.” Every investment you make, from your coffee mug to something grander, should make your life richer from an experience standpoint; each thing should resonate with you in an emotional way. If you do this, you’ll end up surrounded by things you’re passionate about, and there’s a sense of enjoyment in that. And I think I can thank my folks for teaching me that. 

What things do you need to live a beautiful life?
Art is the thing. It’s both essential and nonessential at once… It’s not a need per se, but it’s such an emotional and personal thing, it’s like, what’s the point of life without it? My parents were silk-screeners and photographers, my sister’s a painter and a sculptor, and every aunt and uncle (both blood and friend-wise) is a fine artist or a crafter or a maker of sorts, and I think in another life I would have been one as well.

What kind of artist would you have been?
A bad one [laughter]. Maybe a woodworker? I’m very dextrous, and I really enjoy crafts, so I think that would have been a good fit. I get a lot of satisfaction in making something from where there was nothing.

I’m guessing you have a lot of art hanging in your office.
I do. There are a lot of paintings and weird little found objects. Since most of it was gifted or created by someone I love, each one is a reminder of a person, and together they’re a place to gaze and gather perspective.

How do you maintain focus when the going gets tough?
What always centers me and makes me feel better is thinking about others. I believe that whenever you feel stressed or mired in your day, it’s helpful to  step outside and look around and if you’re feeling meh about yourself, do something for someone else.

Whenever a reader sends me a note telling me that they’ve found something in the magazine that resonates with them and how it helped them, that’s when I know I’ve done my job.

— Sophie Donelson

What’s your decision-making process?
It depends on the situation. I was just in a meeting, and we were looking at covers for the next issue, and there was one where I immediately said, “Gosh, I love that.” It had feeling. You could smell cut grass, the lake, the aging paint… There’s a whole host of emotions that a great story or photograph gives you, and being able to isolate those for the magazine and to share that with an audience is an incredible power. To have a hand in creating something that evokes a memory within someone or a visceral reaction is so special. And so much of my job as an editor is pinpointing what those moments are and finding a way to telegraph it to our audience in a way that feels authentic. And that’s important when it comes to making decisions. Being able to describe things in terms of a taste, or a scent, or a smell, or a look, or what it feels like, or what you’re feeling when you see it, helps my art director and my writers and editors create those images or write the story in a way that’s true to the issue.

What methods do you use to produce your best work?
I do a technique called chunking, where I’ll give myself 20-minute increments to get something done. It forces you to think in one direction and accomplish things more effectively. So, for example, you can’t push out a creative idea and read emails at the same time, just like you can’t tweet on one screen and scroll through Instagram on another. The other thing I do, usually on a Friday evening if I can stay late, is “flow time.” I’ll sit at my desk and do any ideas that pop into my head, and since it’s at the end of the week I’m not on anyone else’s timetable and can be totally scattered as I move from one idea to the next. No editing, no beating myself up over what I “should” be doing, just free flow in the present moment.

How do you know you’ve done your job?
Whenever a reader sends me a note telling me that they’ve found something in the magazine that resonates with them and how it helped them, that’s when I know I’ve done my job. It’s a reward to know that people have had a really intimate or emotional experience with something that was created for a mass audience.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
I’m thinking about the mantra of the magazine, and I must say that I feel really lucky to be at a brand that I believe in. And maybe that sounds trite, but I truly think that if you have a home you love and spend time in, that it’s the biggest reward. It’s so fun to help readers pull their own home together and help them make a way of living that feels authentic to them. 

Related: Working Women Wednesday with Jamie Rosen

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