This is the conversation I wish someone had held with me when I was 24 or 28 or even 31, early enough in my life to grab my shoulders and shake me and say, “Don’t just let life happen to you. Make some decisions. Don’t assume it’s not going to matter.”
Because that’s how I did it, and it kind of sucks to realize in the rear view mirror that I should have–and could have–planned ahead.
My experience is not the norm for yours, but maybe this can serve as a starting place for all you lovely ladies out there who are still trying to figure out your place in this world.
1. You need a plan.
This is what no one told me, boiled down to its simplest form: Regardless of your family status (married, kids, cat lady, divorced, whatever), you’re going to live a long time and do a lot of stuff over the course of your life. You’ve got 40+ years of life – probably more if you’re in your 20s and take relatively good care of yourself.
What are you going to make out of those years? What would you like to build with your life? What problems do you want to solve?
Or play the “Write your own eulogy” game: imagine you’ve just died, and write out what people will recognize as your greatest accomplishments. Don’t laugh – this is a great way to force yourself to imagine what your future might could look like. *
You don’t have to map it all out. But you can start heading in a direction toward something that holds your attention. Whether you turn that passion into your “day job” to earn income is a different set of questions. But you’ll be happier if you can get your work and your interests/skills/talents to align – even a little.
2. Make it a flexible plan – create room for growth and change.
It was really liberating for me to hear someone say, when I was in my 20s, “You won’t hit your [career] peak until you’re in your 50s. That’s when many of this world’s great minds churned out their best work.”
I know a couple people who are in their 40s and are doing the job they set out to train for when they were 18. Some of those folks are still in the same occupation because they are trapped there due to educational debt or the consequences of some career arcs. But a couple really did know at age 12 they were going to be a lawyer or doctor or whatever, and are happy with it.
That’s a few people. The vast majority of people I’ve encountered fell into their jobs, or stumbled into a career they enjoyed, or realized they weren’t happy doing one thing, and launched out (despite the risk) to do something better. Even approaching their 40s or 50s.
Knowing that life is uncertain (so eat dessert first!), you need to build contingency plans into your career master plan.
Acquire new skills constantly. If the job is meh but they’ll pay for you to train in some useful skill, it might be worth a couple years of relative boredom to gain something that opens doors later. Or take some classes at a tech college for a couple hundred bucks. Or go hang out at the maker’s collective downtown and see if you can get some hours painting or building furniture or sewing or whatever. Learn to code – classes on Udemy or EdX or Coursera are often on sale for $20 or even free. YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE NOT TO BE LEARNING SOMETHING RIGHTNOW.
Education is usually a good investment, except when it isn’t. Learn all you can about the job market you’re interested in before committing to anything long-term. [If you earn a masters, do NOT pay full price for one. Get funding, do a grad assistantship, or shop around for other schools.] Balance the value of the credential (at any level) with what it will cost you to earn it. For the record, pretty much every adult needs at least an associate’s degree.
But don’t let the potential consequences of your choices cripple you psychologically, freezing you into a state where you don’t make decisions about your future. If it seems like a good idea and you can legitimately afford it, go for it!
Be willing to trade comfort for experience. It’s nice to do a job that’s easy and in your wheelhouse… until you’re bored to tears with it. Then what will you leverage to move up or out? Will you have gained any experience or skills that will make you marketable? If not, it’s probably time to look for something that will challenge you, or get some more education in the field.
Keep analyzing your interests and strengths, and get people (preferably older, wiser ones) to comment on your options. Do a career inventory every couple years; check out what jobs are developing in your field. Read job ads. Revise your resume. Apply for a couple dream jobs just to keep your interview skills sharp. Don’t assume things will just stay the same.
3. Don’t trade away the real future for a “maybe.”
My critical mistake was to assume the future was going to go a certain way.
In my 20s, I “knew” that eventually we would have kids, and then I’d have to drop out of the work force for at least 5 years because there’s no way we could afford full-time child care, and wasn’t that the best way to raise kids anyway? **
That perspective led me to believe my career choices wouldn’t much matter … until I didn’t have kids, and then my passive not-choices became my choices. It’s a hell of a thing to wake up at 37 and realize you don’t have a plan for this Life speeding along.
To be clear – I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done. I’ve worked as a teacher, reference librarian, academic coach, graphic designer, and communications/marketing professional. Along the side, I’ve honed my skills in design, writing, cooking, networking, problem-solving and game-playing…. not to mention instructional design, research, and progressive approaches to education.
But if I’d made a plan – an actual plan – when I was in my mid-20s or even my early 30s to target something I’d like to spend the bulk of my time and effort working to fix/make/create, I would have done things differently to prepare myself for the decades to come. I probably would have earned a PhD in my 30s, opening doors in higher education I can only dream of at this point.
I’ve met a lot of women who found themselves single at 30, childless at 35, or divorced/widowed by 40. It happens. If you’re in Evangelical Christianity, you may not even see these women because they’re painted out of the picture in so many churches or sermons. They are seen as the exceptions rather than the norm; yet demographic statistics argue the point that half of us won’t be married by the time we’re in our 40s.
My upbringing within Fundamentalism actively workedagainst me realizing I needed to plan a career arc formyself; instead, I viewed my work as a subset of my husband’s career (which has been even more patchwork than mine) and didn’t bother planning much for myself. (Not his fault. And he tried to get me to.)
It’s hard to row against the current here – so many forces push women to focus everything on getting married, making babies, and raising them. [If that’s what you want and what you get, great! Enjoy! But eventually, your babies are going to grow up, and you’re going to find yourself an empty-nester. Then what?]You need more of a plan than “I’ll figure it out once the kids are older.”
4. Seize the opportunities that appear in front of you.
Serendipity is a central feature of success. Yes, hard work and practice are essential too – your luck doesn’t matter if you don’t have the chops when it comes time to seize the day.
But being “in the right place at the right time” is a thing. Take steps to put yourself in the way of potential opportunities by expanding your skills and networking wth people.
At least a few times in your life, you’ll be staring right in the face of an opportunity, usually one that’s enticing you to take some big risk for an even bigger reward. And I’m here to say, when those opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to say YES.
We girls are notorious for under-rating our own value and abilities, for hedging our bets because we’re risk-averse almost as a genetic trait. We live with imposter syndrome daily on top of suffering the real effects of gender discrimination in the workplace. There will be 1,000 voices in your head shouting down a new idea. Go get some outside perspective to affirm the benefits of taking an opportunity when it comes.
My husband and I became teachers because someone we only sort-of knew thanks to the internet called us and asked us to consider helping him start a high school that was unlike anything else in the community. We said yes. It’s still one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, and it set me on the path of becoming a formal educator. I was 27 at the time.
In hindsight, we should have probably wrapped things up a few years earlier than we did and moved on to new developments in our teaching careers. We should have looked for the new opportunities that would have stretched us, opened doors, helped us see the bigger picture. Live and learn from my example, young ones.
5. Do what you must to get mentors in your life. Don’t make career decisions in a vacuum.
This one is hard, because you don’t have a lot of control over whether people further along in life are willing to sit down with you and talk about how they’ve lived their lives to this point, what they’d change, and what wisdom they can share. And you might have grown up in a family that didn’t invest much in you, one that didn’t see you as having potential or much of a future.
But I’ve hardly ever met someone who, when asked with sincere interest, would turn down the offer to talk about themselves. 😉
You can connect to professionals across the globe now using Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s not weird to write someone in your field an email asking to grab coffee or for a quick paragraph response to a question about how to succeed in that field. It’s not weird to approach someone a little older than you to see if they have time for a drink and a chat.
It’s not weird to do more than daydream about the things you love doing, and to build the machinery to make that life possible. But it’s going to take a whole lot of work, and there will be times in your life when that work simply won’t be possible (because you won’t have the funds, the time, the energy, or the freedom).
No one can plan your life for you. (If someone is attempting to do so, set some better boundaries or get that person out of your life.) But you can learn a lot by asking people to share what they learned about #adulting.
Not gonna lie: adulting is 99% making it up as you go and hoping this isn’t going to be a colossal failure. On the other hand, I’m thrilled to be an age where I’m ok with that. Haven’t died thus far (from my own stupidity) and hopefully won’t die till cancer gets me (it’s in my genes; I’m resigned), this in-between time is mine to play with, and I’m glad to say I finally have some goals in mind to shoot for.
If we know each other IRL and you want to grab coffee and talk about planning your own career (regardless of your gender), please don’t hesitate to reach out. My door is open. Plus I really like coffee.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ *If I were do this exercise now, because really there’s no reason not to check in on one’s life goals every few years, this is what I’d write: “Lori left behind a legacy of creating opportunities within education for many who would have otherwise dropped out or given up. A respected instructor at several university centers of teaching and learning, she mentored hundreds of faculty into better teaching practices and ways to support struggling learners. Thanks to her work, thousands of students attained their educational goals and graduated. She also worked to simplify educational processes, clarify messaging within the educational world, and unite disparate departments into holistic teams working for the best interests of students.”
** I’ve always loved Ursula LeGuin’s assessment of how women can juggle parenting and a career in writing. One person cannot do two full-time jobs and make it work. But two people can effectively juggle three jobs, and that’s how she and her husband made it work:
“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”
Salty language in that article, but David Wong hits on a number of important themes that will need to be addressed after Nov. 7, regardless of who wins the election.
Actually, if Hillary wins, I think these become even more important.
You might assume that the Cracked article is just another rant at rednecks and “mouth-breathers” on the alt-right who wave around white supremacy code at Trump rallies….. but it isn’t. Wong grew up in rural America, and he knows that folks in the rural areas are caught in a devastating wave of poverty and unemployment.
Unless our local, state, and national leaders work to address the grinding poverty of rural America, the tsunami of hate and ugliness that drove so much of Trump’s voting block will crash on us all over again. The rural struggle is real, and we nee to be listening.
See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business — a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs — small towns cannot. That model doesn’t work below a certain population density.
If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” …
In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may only be two doctors in town — aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The “downtown” is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart’s blast crater, the “suburbs” are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.
I’m telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive.
And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will pull out their iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege. Already, someone has replied to this with a comment saying, “You should try living in a ghetto as a minority!” Exactly. To them, it seems like the plight of poor minorities is only used as a club to bat away white cries for help. Meanwhile, the rate of rural white suicides and overdoses skyrockets. Shit, at least politicians act like they care about the inner cities.
I live in South Carolina, in the suburbs of a small city. Within 10 minutes, I can be driving a country road passing trailer parks, abandoned textile mills, and patch towns where no core business exists. People talk about trying to pull in industry to SC to provide jobs, and several governors have had success at this — BMW, Fuji, Boeing, Michelin, Bosch and many others drive a manufacturing economy that employs thousands and scrapes to find enough technically skilled workers to man their factory floors. You can build the shiny factories, but that doesn’t put those jobs in reach of someone living in a town of 1,000 people 70 minutes away.
America is doing a poor job of funding worker education, adult education and retraining, and relocation programs to help people get established in a new town where jobs exist.
This breach between rural and urban will continue to drive American politics until we can develop ways to address the deep, underlying problems. Unless we resign ourselves to going once more, into the breach of ugly political division.
I’ve lost my stories, and it’s really bothering me.
I didn’t realize until I started changing jobs that I’d come to rely on the steady diet of stories I was getting out of my teaching experiences. And now I’m starving.
Back up, I don’t want this to sound too weird. Let me explain.
I’m no gifted storyteller. Pretty much every one of my friends is a better joke teller than I am. I like the momentary attention of telling a funny story to a circle of close friends, but when I’m honest with myself (usually that happens at night as I’m falling asleep, or in the morning as I move from hazy dreamland to uncaffienated semi-consciousness) I know that I’m a middlin’ storyteller at best. Hearing people like my North Georgia father-in-law spin a yarn about guys named Walkin Tom and Shine go on adventures in Appalachia just reminds me of how much I stand to learn about wit, hyperbole, irony, pacing, and understatement.
So I’m not talking about those stories.
When I began teaching, in 2002, I discovered a wealth of stories. Like Boris Karloff’s Grinch, my heart great three sizes that first year, expanding again and again to wrap its arms around the children in my classroom. It was achingly hard, teaching was, but it was deep and rich and satisfying in its difficulty. Some moments were very hard, they were formative, they left deep impressions that changed who I was at my very core.
I’m not talking about those stories either, though I treasure the lives that intersected ours so hard they left skid marks.
I am talking about the daily tales that emerge from a teacher’s experience. They’re scattered throughout my digital existence now; probably not even able to find them all to put them in one place. But they each started with a line like “Today in class, So-n-So said…..” or “You won’t believe what happened in 3rd period!”…. or “I thought I was going to die of laughter but I managed to hold myself together when…..”
For 7 hours a day, we lived life together, our little learning community. We ate lunch at the same tables, swapped stories, talked about shows on TV or games we were playing or books or current events. There were arguments in class and out of class about politics or anime or sports teams. I was exposed to a million YouTube videos and memes and songs and pop culture references that I would have otherwise missed. (Trogdor!)
It was a wealth of stories, and I drank in every one, relishing the opportunity at the end of a day or week to fall into a chair near a co-teacher to rant for a minute, or sit at a table in McGees with a pint on a late Thursday afternoon and hear Jack launch into a story with “These kids are driving me to drink!” (He was kidding. Mostly.)
When I left teaching in 2012, I felt like Abraham heading out to a foreign land not knowing where he was going, just that he was supposed to go. It was time to leave. I knew that. And I finally got a job with people who fit what I was looking for in a new coworker tribe: interesting, caring, witty, creative.
But I did notice, rather quickly, the spigot of stories had slowed its output to a trickle. I came home with enough material to retell some witty banter from the day and discuss a bit of interoffice, not-very-important-so-of-course-we’ve-got-to-discuss-it drama.
But that was it.
That first year at Erskine was hard, partly because I had to wean myself off the stories. I didn’t have the rich interaction with students like I’d been used to for a decade. So I had to recalibrate my sensors to detect interest in the work we were doing as an office, in the projects we discussed, in learning to think better and listen more effectively and ask better questions. But deep down, I still knew that nothing was replacing the stories.
Four years later – aka, now – I launched out again, this time charting a course toward academic/student support within higher education. It feels good to be back in education proper again; not that I disliked marketing and creative direction – I learned a ton and liked it a lot – but I like being able to think and write about education and not feel guilty that I wasn’t hired to think and write about it on company time.
But the past month has been hard. Very hard. My new job came wth 5 weeks of training, mostly in isolation. I appreciate the investment of time and care; I feel very prepared for what they’re asking me to do. (Thumbs up.) But there are very few stories to be had in this job. I met some great people during the initial week of training, and some of their stories have become threads in my view of the world. But my daily work is quite tactical, not narrative, not strategic. And not rich with interpersonal interaction.
Self-reflection and self-awareness take time and effort and mostly just experience. Sometimes we discover what we need during its absence, not its abundance.
I have learned that I crave the kind of work that sends me home at night tired and occasionally annoyed but always with a handful of tales worth telling. I’m not trying to carve out a career as Garrison Keillor or a stand-up comedian. But I’ve learned that if my work doesn’t bring me close enough to people to learn something about them and begin to overlap their worlds, I begin to starve.
I hate goodbyes. It’s better to say “see you next time,” because that leaves all kinds of hope shimmering in the sunlight.
It’s hard to leave something, somewhere – wherever you’ve found yourself for the last while, working and building and arguing and creating. But to everything there is a season, says the Preacher. And this is one of those times.
So I packed up my things today, looked around one more time, gave some hugs. Walked out of my (former) office, bit back some tears, already missing the tall ceiling, not missing the steamy 80 degrees on the thermostat in the summer because our AC can’t keep up, missing the witty conversation I won’t be a part of tomorrow morning, not missing the mundane tasks of office life.
It’s hard to leave people. Really, that’s what always gets me. Places can be beautiful or fun or memorable or breathtaking or functional or inspiring and all that … but People. People are what make this world tick, yannow? And the four of us had some amazing moments.
Seriously. We were a comedy machine. Just turn the spigot a quarter turn — give us a funny word, an odd last name, an obscure movie reference, a quote from Monty Python, a raised eyebrow, a ridiculous request from some office across campus — and we were off to the Comedy Races.
There’s that time the guys quoted like whole sections of The Holy Grail, so much that we could theme our Student Appreciation Day around the crazy Brits. (See photo, above.)
There were the snatches of ideas for improv sketches that we knew we’d never actually do, but it was fun to imagine doing them…..
– “What if email spam filters became sentient, and actually explained why you were getting that email about penis enhancement but the expense reports from downstairs were always MIA?”
– “What is the waiting room like outside Hell? Are there snacks? A coffee machine? Decent chairs?”
– And does Heaven have an Orientation session where God or some angel answers all the questions they’ve collected for the past 10,000 years, so they don’t have to answer them individually? “For a presentation on the Noaic Flood, head to Room A at 3pm. For evil and war, a panel discussion will take place in Room B at 5pm. To locate the socks missing from your dryer, see the Steward on Aisle 10.”
– “What if we created a newsletter for campus but called it “Ill-Health Times?” (This was after the sudden rush of “good health” updates from HR on “Wellness Wednesdays.”)
– “Why isn’t there Yelp for drug dealers?” “Maybe there is but we don’t know anything about it.”
– “What about the Rituals Help Desk, where upset pagans call to complain that they’ve sacrificed the chicken and smeared the blood in a precise 8 foot circle, but no demon ever showed up?”
We kicked around endless ideas for mind games, cackling with glee when we were able to end a sentence perfectly as soon as the boss crossed the threshold and paused, wondering if we’d stopped talking on his account. (Honestly, Cliff, almost never. I promise.) And I had other great partners in crime: Tobe & I ran experiments to see how many “dapper” comments we could toss toward Cliff before he’d react visibly. She and her team had whole books of codewords they’d use in text or snapchat to refer to particular coworkers.
And sometimes I’d laugh so hard the whole hallway would hear me, because I do that occasionally, and it’s stupidly loud and probably annoying to half the planet. …But to the other half of the planet, since they all heard me too, I hope you smiled. Laughter is good for your spirit. You should have laugh-cries at least once a month week. Does wonders for your outlook.
It’s hard to leave a job you’ve worked at for, say, 4 years. I finally know what I’m doing. Heaven knows it took a solid year for me to even begin to feel like I had a handle on things. Impostor Syndrome – it’s a thing. Leaving the classroom for a new field made me very insecure. I didn’t know business culture, didn’t know the marketing lingo, didn’t know the work I was supposed to be doing. I watched, observed, studied every word and gesture so I could claw my way out of the feeling that I didn’t belong there. ….Those were unsettling times.
That, and fighting off waves of fear that I’d made a mistake by leaving teaching, the one job I felt called to do, even if it seemed like I had good reasons. And regret – because it’s a visceral gut-punch not to be with your students who have come to campus for a tour. I know that leaving my classroom in 2012 was the right move because I was bored. But I had to come to know that in my bones, in my head, in my gut, in my hands, in my heart.
This was good. Change was good. I needed to grow. I needed to realize that I should have been actually planning for a career this whole time, but who knew? Nearly every married woman in my address book has dropped out of work or left their original ambitions to be a mother. Few have gone back after their kids grew up. How was I to know in my 20s that I would not also trade work for parenting? (And in the world where I grew up, there is no higher sacrifice than that a woman lay down her life’s work for her children.) (Leaves the rest of us in a pickle, doesn’t it?)
So I’ve learned some things.
One, I’m a good designer and creative director, but I still talk too much in every meeting. (Working on it!) I leap too quickly to solutions and skip some of the discovery steps to good design thinking and problem solving… but I’m working on that too. It was great to have such creative thinkers working alongside me. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. It thrives within collaboration.
It’s at Erskine that I learned how much I love creative directing, even more than designing. It’s like getting to hold the wheel of a powerful machine, one that can produce amazing wonders like museum exhibits:
Two, teamwork is hard to achieve but still vitally important. Working in a silo is bad. Also, team “culture” is everything. As the dude said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He’s right.
Three, if I can ever spend my days as the literary bartender/barista in the 21st century version of a Parisian intellectual salon, I will know that I’ve hit the career lottery. I want to talk to people about what they want to do, and then help them make their ideas better. That’s it, really.
Fourth, you need to go do the work that will bring you joy and deep satisfaction. But sometimes employment doesn’t fill that deep hole. Yet you can still find joy in the moment, in the people around you, in a sense of accomplishment. And when you cannot do that any longer, when you’ve explored to the very edges of the day’s work and there are no worlds left to conquer, it’s probably time to find a new challenge.
Fifth, seize every opportunity to get to know people, to find those kindred souls tucked in other parts of the organization, the people who understand that laughter is medicine and kindness is golden and friends are really hard to find once you’re an adult, and hold on to those people. Because they’re priceless. Go “do life” with them.
I’m going to miss many things about my work at this little college in Due West. It’s a special place that’s impossible to understand until you’ve walked a mile in its shoes. Wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything….
And that’s why I cried most of my drive home. S’Ok, though. Something new is coming.
Worth your time to read today. The question of “work/life balance” ought to occupy the thinking of all of us, but it seems especially thorny for mothers in professional careers. Some good thoughts here, though I’d like to read her suggestions for her specific context:
Sure, the game of life is easier to win when we segregate its facets and write rules for each in isolation. And it’s not that women refuse to segregate their personal and professional lives — though I would argue that no one should have to — it’s that many women simply can’t.
That was a personal realization that I believe is critically lacking in the way we mentor female students, particularly those in STEM fields. Those fields — prized for their logic and analytical approach to problem solving — often attempt to “solve” struggling students in the same way: The immediate mentor, statistically likely to be male, simply isn’t wired to experience the “all” in the same way as a woman. Moreover, the mentor, regardless of gender, has been incubated in an environment that rewards days spent hyper-focused on the technical dimensions of scholarship and student formation. The “all” that values the intersection between work and emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being is rarely confronted.
Frankly, we in higher education must do more to mentor the “all” in all of our students, regardless of gender — though I argue that this is especially critical for women. It is not just a matter of saying we are committed to mentoring the whole person.