Recently, a writer emailed me to ask for advice. Should she take a buyout at her job and go freelance? Or should she stick with it? She wanted a career in media but didn’t know how to do it. I was reminded again of all the times my career path has diverged, circled back, or dead-ended. And it got me thinking about what I wish people had told me about achieving dreams, careers, and work.
When I was 22, I got married, moved from Minnesota to Iowa, and spent the next five years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but a family crisis in college sent me reeling. I didn’t show up to my LSATs and I sobbed through my GREs.
I was lost. I married the first stable and kind person who asked me. I moved with him to Iowa for his dream job and didn’t have a plan for myself. I had been so focused on planning our wedding, working part-time, and finishing college, that I didn’t have time to find a career. I had the vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea how to do it. I spent the first four months in Iowa, cooking through the Joy of Cooking, applying for jobs, and googling “how to become a writer.”
I eventually got a job and then another. I worked in marketing for a newspaper archiving company and edited a martial arts magazine. I was always writing at night or in the early mornings or when my husband would work late. I did become a writer. I have three whole books! It’s a dream come true that keeps coming true.
But I do wonder a lot about what if we hadn’t gotten married right away? What if I had stayed in a city? What if I had stayed in Minnesota? What if I had taken the LSATS? What if? In 2018, while I was working on my first book, newly divorced and very very poor, I got a job offer to be the content manager for a startup. The salary was incredible. The people seemed kind and very fun. I didn’t take it. I told them I was sorry, but I had recently blown up my entire life just so I could become an author and I needed to stick with it.
I think a lot about that moment. What if I had taken the job? Would anything be different? How would I have changed?
With all these thoughts in my mind, here is what I told the woman who reached out, because it’s what I wish I would have known. There are no right paths to anything. There is only your path. Comparing yourself to others isn’t fair because you aren’t others, you are you. I used to spend so much time being jealous of all the writers who were young and working at Gawker while I was nursing babies and writing blog posts about poopy diapers for $50 and now here we all are, at the same point (mostly) in our careers.
Also, I don’t think there are wrong choices. We spend so much time worried that a choice we make will ruin our future. But it’s false thinking, because sometimes life happens. Sometimes we burn out and burn up and burn everything to the ground. The line of logic also has no room for error. A life well-lived (or just lived) involves a lot of error and screwing up and changing.
And that line of thinking is also bad because it presumes you cannot just decide that maybe you screwed up and you’d like to change. You can always change. You can always wake up one day and quit your miserable job. You can end a marriage. You can decide being a lawyer was not for you and now you want to start a BBQ food truck. We change and change until we die and even then you slowly change back into the earth.
So much of our life is out of our control. And something I wish I had been better at is being patient. Of course, it’s hard to be patient when you don’t believe in yourself. When you feel like you have to take every good-enough opportunity that comes your way because great will never arrive. I wish I had been confident enough to say “no” to some things, like agents and book deals, and writing assignments. But I don’t regret them. Okay, maybe I regret some things. But regrets just mean you learned something.
But more than anything, I wish someone would have told me it’s okay to be ferociously ambitious. I spent a lot of time not asking for what I wanted out of a job because I was just so grateful to have it. Turns out, you can ask for things. And sometimes people say “yes” and sometimes people say “no” and their response usually has little to do with you. But you can’t find out until you ask.
I remember hearing someone say that we cannot be jealous of other people getting awards and jobs and deals if we aren’t also applying for them. I think about that a lot. How can I be jealous of a book deal, if I myself was not actively trying to sell a book? Also, it’s not a zero-sum game, other people’s successes do not diminish my own chance of success.
Finally, one thing I wish I had known is that sometimes the best things take a long time. Sitting quietly and working on your own big project or goal may mean you aren’t hitting short-term goals, but the long-term goals will change your life.
These are all the things I told her and remind myself again and again. What do you wish you could tell your younger self? Let us know on social media using the hashtag #youngerself.