Seemingly out of nowhere, I noticed myself referencing certain details of my past over the past few weeks-- where I went to undergrad and grad school, my majors, previous employers. I've even noticed myself doing this in recent blog posts to an extent. Most of these topics have come up naturally, especially when meeting new people, but I got the itching feeling that there was something more to my recent desire to highlight my résumé.
When I asked myself why I wanted to focus on these details of my past, I realized that it was all about the ego. Not necessarily in a too-big-for-my-britches braggart way-- my flagging self-confidence would never allow for real boasting, but I can't deny there hasn't been a touch of humblebragging going on.
The fact is that I went to two amazing schools, both of which consistently rank among the top five programs in the US for my specific majors. I was surrounded by skilled, ambitious, and hungry people for six years. And what showed up as impostor syndrome while I was a student ("I don't belong here among all this talent!") has now turned into a badge of honor now that I made it through the rigorous programs.
It's no surprise that my talented classmates have turned into talented professionals. Given that this area of study tends to lead to careers in the public sphere (and is only amplified by social media), I have been witness to more and more of their successes, a few of which include:
- A prominent lifestyle blogger who just got her first book deal.
- A news anchor in a metropolitan market who won a few regional Emmys for his reporting.
- A web producer for the style section of a top US newspaper who recently attended the White House Correspondents Dinner and met a boatload of celebs.
- An advertising copywriter that just had a hilarious ad go viral that will likely lead to a new job for him.
- A director of social media for a major communications firm who is writing her first book and regularly appears as a correspondent on local news segments.
- An actress appearing in commercials that air during the Oscars and starred in a music video for a popular band's first hit single.
- A photographer shooting editorials for Rolling Stone and album covers for the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Frank Ocean.
These people were friends and acquaintances. Some still are. While I'm so happy for their success, I can't help but want to throw myself onto the floor and moan about how I seem to be falling short and how my life pales in comparison with theirs. It's no surprise that I noticed myself bringing up my own accolades around the same time that all the hard work of my classmates has led them to their own successes. I hardly felt the need to mention it when we were all newbie graduates fighting to forge our own path. Now there's a little bit of an impudent-yet-actionless "I could do that if I wanted to" attitude.
But here's the Stupidest of Stupid Things: When I ask myself if I really want what they have, my gut immediately shouts a resounding, "NO!" Well, it would have been my dream to meet Amy Poehler, and I do want to write a book someday, but certainly not about styling and throwing chic soirées or how to use social media. And while I loved my time in school, I've learned that I don't love my major as much in a professional or corporate capacity.
I'm comparing myself and my work to these high achievers simply because they are in more public positions than I am. I'm sure there are dozens of my fellow classmates who have quietly gone back to school, changed careers, taken time off to raise their children, or quit their jobs to travel the world-- all of which are things that appeal to me greater than the public life and accomplishments of my aforementioned classmates.
There's been so much written lately on how social media makes us depressed about our own lives or makes us feel bad that our own existence isn't as pretty or perfect as what we see online. This conversation sort of annoys me because it seems to suggest the fault lies within the blog world or specific networks like Facebook or Instagram. No-- the onus is on you to choose your feelings and examine why you're triggered, online or otherwise, and assess the role of social media in your life. It's ridiculous to expect someone to reveal the negative side of their lives just to make you feel better or more secure. Do you really want to see people posting a Facebook status about how much they hate their boss or Instagramming a photo in the middle of a fight with their husband? Would that make you feel better about yourself? I certainly hope not.
I share the good moments because I'm happy and I want to share in that happiness, not because I want to make my friends and social media followers jealous. And if I am going through something challenging, I'll sometimes share that because I'm looking for support or connection, not because I want you to know how "real" I am.
I'm now realizing I need to apply this healthy and balanced view of social media to the feelings I've had around my own career path and the successes of my former classmates. The mantra I can use to best sum up my attitude is, "Keep your eyes on your own fries." This was a phrase a high school teacher of mine used during exam time, but it also applies so well to life.
My career path thus far has been full of false starts, detours and sometimes driving alone in the dark while only being able to see as far as my headlights shine. I've worked in cafes, taught college classes, slaved away at an advertising agency, assisted law professors, and worked "client-side" in professional services marketing. Over the past year and a half, I've put the time and the effort to cut back my expenditures so that I don't have to work in an office job at the moment. I have been able to live in Ireland for six months and travel Europe while doing freelance graphic design work and running an Etsy shop for wedding invitations and other paper goods.
Because I haven't been keeping the focus on my own journey, I have let myself feel so much shame around my alleged lack of a "real" career. There's not many things I dislike more than having to answer the question, "What do you do?" I know I often tend to shrink when answering it. The comparison game leads me to label myself with a lack of traditional success, not enough income/too much dependence on my husband's income, and less professional accomplishments than my peers. Then, mix in a dose of first-world guilt and a heaping spoonful of societal expectations, and you have my brain on careers.
Yet, when I keep my eyes on my own fries, I see a life centered around my values. I have the flexibility to travel/move to another country(!) when the opportunity arises. I have the chance to engage my creativity everyday and grow myself as a creative person outside the limiting constructs of modern corporate environments. I have the time to focus on wellness and am far healthier than when I worked in traditional offices. Though I don't know exactly which direction I'll go, I see options and possibility in my future, instead of the same thing day after day, year after year. If we're able to have kids at some point, I will be able to be home for them while also continuing my side gigs.
There is nothing in the previous paragraph that sounds disagreeable or shameful to me. So I'm putting away the yardstick I using to compare myself to others' paths-- especially since what others are doing is rarely something I want for myself.
In writing this whole post, I'm reminded of a time during our travels when Mark and I took a chauffeured ride up to Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, Italy, with a few fellow guests from our hotel. In exchanging pleasantries with the other passengers, I immediately began dreading the inevitable "What do you do?" question, and I was relieved when they focused on my husband's (real/professional) job and how it brought him to Ireland. Later, after we'd gotten to know each other a little better (and had a glass or two of champagne), it circled back to me, and I decided to be completely open and not be ashamed of my lack of a "real" job-- "Me? I'm a freelance graphic designer and writer, but mostly I'm fully taking advantage this travel opportunity with Mark and enjoying the living heck out of Ireland and Europe." And then, to my surprise and delight, my new friends clapped and cheered for me, and told us they deeply admired our enthusiasm to make the most of traveling while we're young. The fear I have of judgement and the comparisons between what's a "real job" and what's not are entirely made up in my own mind. In reality, people are happy when I am happy with myself.
Own your story. Repeat, ad nauseum: Keep your eyes on your own fries. And then get to work!
(PS - Ashley wrote about comparison today, specifically in regards to creating, making your ideas happen, and avoiding "brain crack." It's a great post, and I'm thinking a lot about it as a compliment/continuation of my feelings in this post.)
(PPS - Nicole wrote about changing your story regarding "not being a real ____." Seeing as I mentioned my freelance work as not being a "real job" at least a few times above, I think Nicole's post also came at just the right time.)