I've spent the last 10 years living as a ghost. I write words that others claim as their own. I've had the opportunity to work with inspiring individuals and earn what I call "mini-Masters theses" in their areas of expertise. But let's be honest: this is not a profession little children dream of pursuing. I just happened into it.
It starts, as these stories often do, with my childhood. I am not blaming my parents, who provided me a loving and supportive home; it was merely a matter of circumstance. My brother, Derek, was only 19 months older than me, just one year ahead in school, and better than I was at everything. He was a better student: He earned straight As while I got the occasional B+. He was a better athlete: He made it to the state championships, while I barely earned myself a place on the JV track team. He was a better gamer: He beat me at every match of checkers and Monopoly we ever played. And, to add salt to my wounds, Derek also was a better person. More sensitive and compassionate, anyway. He cried when his fifth-grade classmates cruelly poured salt on the slugs he had been tending for Pet Care, killing them. I laughed.
Even my name placed me firmly in this second-place role. My parents were living in Taiwan at the time of my brother's birth, my father working as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. He and my mother learned Mandarin and hired a Chinese-speaking nanny. When I came along in Hong Kong the following year, the nanny and Derek took to calling me MeiMei, which means "little sister" in Mandarin. The nickname stuck, at my own insistence, my whole life.
The day I took off for Stanford at aged 17 1/2, was for me what the events of Tahrir Square earlier this year were to the Egyptians: liberation. I was free at last from the shadow of Derek's reputation, from teachers who would tell me, "You're not living up to your [meaning: your brother's] full potential." Away from my family, I could finally be MeiMei without being the little sister.
And that's precisely what happened. At Stanford, I was able to shine brightly, playing a supporting role to none. I expressed myself courageously, made friends easily and felt blissfully happy to be alive.
But then, somehow, I lost my way again. Not long after graduating, I went to work for the management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. I felt intimidated, not as smart -- or at least not as skilled in creating Excel spreadsheets -- as my colleagues. A misfit. My self-esteem began to slip.
Yet I was still riding the coattails of my Stanford success. So I left consulting to pursue my dreams of being a writer. I co-authored and found a publisher for my first book, "Sexual Fitness." But at the same time, I met D. He charmed me with his easy wit, Southern preppie style, and success as an entrepreneur. The more I became involved with him, the more I let go of my own career dreams. Soon, I was playing second fiddle to D, just as I had done throughout my childhood with Derek.
And so, when a publishing mentor asked me if I'd like to ghostwrite for a living, it seemed like a perfect fit: I would be another's voice. I didn't need to be in front of the audience, promoting the book. I was content to do the nitty-gritty work of choosing the words, rearranging the sentences, bringing other people's ideas to life on the computer screen.
Then, six years ago, I noticed that I'd become a ghost not only in my professional career, but also in my personal life. D was running the show in our marriage, making all the rules. He demanded that we have an open relationship. He told me that he wasn't ready for kids and didn't know when he would be. I tried and tried, through individual and couples counseling, to find a compromise. But when I realized that he wasn't going to change, I found some of that college-MeiMei courage. I left.
The years that followed were crushing. I felt unworthy of existing on this planet. I felt I'd failed. Yet it was precisely this failure that set me free. Now that I was no longer Derek's sister or D's wife, I was forced to confront the question: Who am I? And what I found -- through therapy, yoga, meditation, poetry and spiritual books, and many long conversations with friends -- was that I am me. The MeiMei I was at Stanford: unapologetic, brash and full of zest for life.
Now it is time for me to speak with my own voice. To say what I have to say out loud. To, as the inimitable Walt Whitman put it, "sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world." It's time for me to free myself from the supporting role of ghostwriter. I'm ready to write under my own name, to call myself an author.
It's easy to live in the shadow of another, offering yourself up as the helpmate, the assistant, the midwife. So many of us travel this path. Why? I think it's because doing so frees us from taking responsibility for our own lives. You have an excuse for not being the fully expressed version of yourself: You were putting your children's interests first. You had to move because of your spouse's job. Your boss asked you to stay late, so what choice did you have?
Well, I'm here to tell you from experience that that's no way to live your life, offloading the burden of your choices onto other people's shoulders, hiding behind their greatness. I'm done with that, and I hope you are, too. Come join me on my journey as I learn, once and for all, how to speak confidently with my own voice. Together, we'll cast off the chains of our self-doubt and stand proudly in the spotlight. Welcome to the Life Out Loud.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more