I could have sworn I wanted the job. It was the 9 to 5 equivalent of the perfect-on-paper boyfriend: stable, sexy, and plenty of benefits. But then three o'clock would roll around and without fail, I'd be in the bathroom wondering how long I could sit in the last stall without anyone taking notice of my shoes. I think I lasted a half an hour once. Sometimes I would start to cry which is a really pathetic thing to admit because if I told you where I worked you'd probably look at me cross-eyed. Everyone did. It was like saying, "I'm just not that attracted to my boyfriend, Ryan Gosling."
By all accounts except my own, I should have loved every second and never wanted to get out of bed with it. It seemed like a no-brainer: I like clothes, a lot. I like writing since it happens to be one of my more valuable skills. So it would seem that I would I like being paid consistently for my writing, so that I can buy more clothes. My job was all of the above plus secret sales on Chanel bags and conference rooms filled with $10 cashmere. It came at a time when I thought I wanted something like a routine. And it was: I took the same train, I made friends with the employees at the deli across from my office who remembered to add soy to my coffee and include extra straws, I sat down at the same linoleum desk and did the same thing until it was time to leave. But at some point what I thought I needed -- stability, one of those office break rooms, weekly meetings -- wasn't what I wanted anymore. So at the five-month mark, I stopped talking about it. If anyone asked, I'd put on this face that looked like I was wearing Saran wrap around my stomach, smile big, and say, the discount is amazing.
By the seven-month mark I was messing up. At first it was just small stuff. Then small stuff turned into forgetting to go to meetings, turning things in late, and making careless errors like I used to make in math class. I hated math. I was constantly bored. I began dreading the extra straws. At the eight- or nine-month mark, I started leaving early. I would promise myself I would make up the hours, but I never did. At the eleven-month mark, I started visiting the candy store across the street and rewarding myself for "making it" to 4 p.m. A year in, I started to think I was going to get fired. I probably should have been fired. I think I was wishing I would be fired. I was miserable and worse, doing a miserable job at pretending I wasn't miserable. My Saran wrap smile had disappeared and I was definitely getting a cavity.
This wasn't the first time this had happened. Since graduating from college, I'd been a really loose working woman, leaving each job I'd tried within a year. I'd done everything from edit magazines to parade around as an aspirant law student. Nothing stuck and I was constantly being reminded that I was far too old, smart, or whatever to pay for my clothes with babysitting money. It would have been nice if I was lazy or lacking direction. Only I have a very strict work ethic and I have known exactly what I wanted to do since I was 5 and wrote my first book on a stack of yellow Post-it notes. Rather I think it was an aggressive mix of entitlement, and my stubborn perfectionist streak. I'd been told my whole life that I was special, so I figured my job should be special too -- like an astronaut or one of those bloggers who photographs their outfits every day. But here I was an ID number with one of those cards that came attached to a lanyard. My job was supposed to be the homecoming king not the student with no signatures in his yearbook. I was supposed to want to brag about it for an annoying amount of time. It was supposed to make me feel validated. I wanted it to inspire me, challenge me, focus me, and do all the other things that I couldn't seem to manage to do on my own. Instead, it just bored me and paid me a healthy sum to show up on time, eat bags of candy, and make grammatical mistakes.
At the thirteen-month mark, I started to figure things out -- a bit. I'd been blaming my job for not living up to my expectations, when the truth was, I'd asked way too much. I was essentially the girl who opts to date a plumber and then tries to dress him up in suits and ties. My job had never promised to be anything but what it was. I, however, had changed. So the routines that I'd thought I had needed to feel stable and secure had become suffocating. In the time I'd spent working at my linoleum desk, I'd become more independent, self-sufficient, and a worse speller. The most frustrating thing was realizing that it couldn't keep up with my growth. I wanted a change. So I began looking. This time, I refined my list of what I needed, now. I added a few things I wanted. It was long but not completely unattainable. Resumes were assembled, and I made clear my intent to stop pouting in the bathroom and do something. There were a few interviews, but nothing that quite matched up. And then an offer fell into my lap: Two of the companies I had been freelancing for decided they would team up and hire me. I would be leaving my good-on-paper, dependable job to work in entirely different capacities for two start-ups. I would be almost managing myself, with a bit of stability to keep me from skipping showers, living in pajamas, and holing up with my computer.
I know what you're thinking: I quit that same day. Nope. I was completely terrified. I was staring at exactly what I'd asked for and felt paralyzed by it. There were even health benefits. In spite of everything I couldn't shake this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach it was like I was about to jump out of a plane with nothing but a parachute made of cotton sheets. I tried to silence the stubborn doubts, but all I could hear were the what-ifs on shuffle.
What if it didn't work? What if I couldn't afford my overpriced juices and fur jackets? What if what I thought I wanted wasn't perfect? What if I messed up and had to move in with my parents and be the 28-year old who left a perfectly good job, only to fail, again? What if I wasn't good enough to do it? At the time, I remember thinking that it would just be easier to stay where I was, take home my paycheck, and eat candy until all my teeth fell out. Then after a particularly long break in the bathroom, I realized there was nothing easy about what I was doing. Sure, it felt familiar. But after I had my coffee and sat down at my desk, I couldn't escape this overwhelming need to run out the door. I also liked most of my teeth and this candy habit was getting aggressive.
A few weeks later, I summoned whatever pea-sized courage I possess and sent my boss the telling can-we-talk email. I was done with good on paper, having traded the familiar for something scary that I believed in a more honest way would be way better -- for me. It wasn't what my parents wanted for me. It wasn't what would allow me to retire with a healthy savings, but it checked the boxes that I needed to check. No one really blinked. My boss said that it seemed like I'd checked out months ago, which admittedly I had. When she asked me weeks later how things were going at my new jobs, I didn't put on my Saran wrap and fake grin. It was hard. And I was proud of that. It still is hard. Each days feels like there is too much to do, and for the first time, I don't know how to do it all myself. I am learning. I am asking for help. I am taking ownership of my work and not hiding in the bathroom. I haven't eaten a Swedish Fish in months.
The lesson? For starters, it is never easy to get to the why of "what do you want to do when you grow up," and unfortunately I learned no job will ever look quite as good as Ryan Gosling. However we do spend a lot of time doing whatever it is we do, so I believe that it should be at least a little special or not something that drives you to spend hours in a bathroom stall. And when it does, because sometimes it does, be honest. What's not clicking? Is it the place? The people? Or the fact that you'd rather sit home and watch your "stories" all day? I don't think I could have expected the offer, though now it makes complete sense to me that I do what I do. I don't know if anyone else could understand -- that's why it is what I do. And I only received it after I was honest about my intentions and decided to address the reasons I was binge-eating candy and scheduling fake doctors appointments.
For better or worse -- whether you're an astronaut or a photographer who happens to wait tables -- our jobs say a lot about the people we are. So it makes sense that we would want to get something out of them. But it is not everything. My business card could never tell you that I once collected feathers and harbored dreams of becoming the inventor of a self-twirling spaghetti fork. It doesn't bother to mention that I sometimes have trouble falling asleep at night and can never properly match the right key to the right door. The reason it matters and the reason I like to have it tucked inside my wallet, it speaks to my determination to go after what I needed, even when I wasn't quite sure it was exactly what I wanted. It says that I am creative, independent, willing to take risks, and figured out something closer to what I think I should be doing, now. Is it perfect? Nah, but then neither am I, or else I would be dating Ryan Gosling.