As Millennials have suffered to find work in the shadows of a recent economic crisis, the idea of doing something you love for a career seemed harder to grasp for many once-optimistic 20-somethings.
The pattern of middle-class life (go to high school, go to college, get a job, get married, retire) is reassuring, comfortable and so drilled into our culture that most grow up expecting it. However, what if you decide that this isn’t exactly what you want?
What if you decide you want something maybe a little harder, a little different, a little bit riskier?
I have a friend who lives in Olympia, Washington, who, at the age of 24, built herself a house of economically sourced materials. This past summer, as small and mobile as it is, she wired the entire thing with electricity and plumbing, built a kitchen, added mosaic windows, stairs and a skylight.
She did it all in two months, with no prior building experience. This was the same girl I watched spend almost five months in Europe on less than two grand.
She survived on hitchhiking, WWOOFing (working on a host farm for a small amount of time) and couch-surfing her way through her dreams.
As I silently stalked her journey on Facebook, -- while simultaneously browsing job listings for the fourth month in a row -- it occurred to me that we had both chosen paths that delineated from the norm. To me, however, hers seemed to be so much more rewarding.
It was ironic that while I was doing what I “thought” I should be doing (looking for a secure job), she was having these amazing experiences without the need to spend hours on end on Craigslist (except for when she was using it to look for materials to build herself a roof).
It made me wonder what direction I wanted my life to take. Furthermore, and this part was by far more anxiety-provoking, it made me question how much control I truly had over the outcome of the next few weeks, months or years of my life. How much control did I have over this open-ended dream with a minimal amount of direction?
You see, I had everything planned out. I moved to New York City to go to grad school and become a social worker. I’d be married by 27, in private practice by 35 and making my own hours around PTA meetings by the time I was 40.
Then, something happened: I realized everything I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted anymore. One year into my program and $50,000 in debt, I just wanted out. I’m sure this happened to far more people than myself, but I wonder how many of us decide to take the leap.
I did; I dropped out, and it was really scary, but I also didn’t see the alternative, besides being endlessly dissatisfied with my life. I had started freelance writing as a hobby, and the idea of telling stories consumed me.
I had been skipping class to cover fashion presentations and restaurant reviews for my website, and nothing had ever made me so excited or fulfilled.
I dreamed about pitches and blog posts and reaching out to people through my words. So, with a women’s studies degree and half a year of social work schooling under my belt, I decided to try to make writing happen for me.
I knew I had an aptitude for it, but with no valid experience, the countless résumés I sent out probably never made much of an impression. I imagined people looking at the paper and being puzzled by my degree, my experience and my purpose in applying with them.
I tried to work around my lack of experience by writing unique, off-beat and personal cover letters that maintained professionalism, but basically begged people to give me a chance.
Without connections, experience or any idea of what to do about it, I decided to build my own volume of work. What this basically meant was working for free. I would write stories and provide press coverage all over the web, I built my blog and a presence and even started receiving recognition via personal press invites.
Soon, I landed tickets to Fashion Week, and even a request to be a guest host on a local cooking show.
Still, working this much for free in New York City is a highly unsustainable lifestyle, and as each day passed that I was living off of babysitting money with not an interview to be had, my anxiety rose until I felt like I could barely breathe anymore. It caused me to reevaluate how we as a society view people who spend their lives working side jobs to pursue their passions.
Living in New York, you run into these people all the time. There is a heavy amount of judgment placed on them by many who have work-a-day jobs. When my joblessness forced me to start waiting tables, I found myself explaining to everyone that I was actually a “writer,” not a “waitress.”
I soon realized that everyone I worked with was actually an “actor” or a “dancer” or a “photographer” and not a “waiter,” as well. But when you don’t have the ability to work actively in your industry, can you really classify yourself as such?
My impression was that after attempting to explain our professions to people, their thoughts were that we were doing something really hard to do, and for most of us, it eventually won’t work out.
Even if that’s true, what is wrong with seeking that happiness, even if it means sacrificing your security or working a job you really never wanted to work?
Since it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t what was expected of us, we were deemed as pretentious. We were assuming we were talented enough to make it in a field where one needs to be particularly gifted.
However, choosing instability, insecurity and personal discomfort in the hopes of your dreams coming true is one of the biggest personal sacrifices a young adult can make.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more secure career choices that are immensely rewarding for those who choose them, or that people with work-a-day jobs don’t work incredibly hard.
It just is to say that when you find something you love this much and you don’t follow that path, there is a limit to how happy you can be. I told myself when I left school that I would give myself a year to make it. If I didn’t get somewhere, I would finish my degree.
It has been about six months, and I am still looking for a job. I’ve never worked so hard, been so beaten down or had such instability in my life before. I can say with full confidence, however, that I won’t be going back to school. I just cannot imagine living my life in any other way.
Presumptuous and audacious or not, I know I have the work ethic and ability to excel in this field; I just haven’t exactly put all the pieces together, yet.
In this process of self-discovery, I have grown to appreciate so much more about my ability to stay true to myself. I am sure that knowing that is more valuable than anything I learned in graduate school.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It