When I graduated from college with an English degree in 2006, plenty of people told me that I could “get a job and write on the side”, as if that option weren’t already obvious.
The advice that I needed was what kind of job to get.
In those 12 years I’ve worked in property management, customer service, crappy temp work, and even at a bakery and deli.
The thought that ran through my head during that whole time was, “I should be writing.” I shouldn’t be doing data entry; I should be writing. I shouldn’t be writing maintenance plans; I should be writing fiction. I shouldn’t be clearing bus bins; I should be editing my stories.
Throughout it all, I was making a living, but I wasn’t living. Most days I would wake up and think, Let’s get this over with. My heart wasn’t in it.
It’s an interview in the The Atlantic with Leslie Jamison, author and director of the nonfiction concentration in the writing program at Columbia University School of the Arts.
“…I just got an email from a student that just graduated from the MFA and is applying for a job at a hedge fund. It was a hedge fund that I applied for a job at when I was 22. And I remember thinking, God, I want to be a writer. But also would be really nice to make some serious money.”
What would be the top three pieces of advice that you think your younger self would have benefited the most from hearing?
Be patient. Life, hopefully, is long and you don’t need to make everything happen tomorrow.”
At the same time I was clearing out that bus bin and thinking, I should be writing, I also thought, I am writing. I am writing and also paying my rent. Clearing bus bins is helping me write by paying my rent.
That was the last time I ever felt guilty about having a day job.
There is no shame in working temp jobs, at a deli, at a hedge fund, or hell, driving a garbage truck if it gives you the stability to write. You are doing what you need to do.
The cool thing about all these jobs is that you really do learn a lot. You learn about different trades.
And if you work in the service industry, in a place like a deli, bar, or restaurant, then you encounter all kinds of people. Some of them gave me ideas for stories. Or like the teenage girl who came in the deli one day, I thought, That is how my protagonist dresses!
I started my business seven years after graduation and had no idea know what I was doing. I knew how to write. I knew that it could help businesses and provide a living for me. But I didn’t know how to make that happen.
I made a lot of mistakes, nearly quit, gave it another chance, made some more mistakes, nearly quit again. Now, for better or for worse, I’ve come back to it fully.
That sums up the twelve years since graduating college.
What a lot of people don’t tell you is that you have no idea what you’re doing when you’re in your twenties. You’re not supposed to know what you’re doing.
Your twenties are for making bad choices. Terrible relationships. Hangovers. A few (but not too many) regrets. Moving (a lot). More hangovers. And jobs. Jobs that are good, jobs that are bad, jobs that are good but still don’t feel quite right.
I know that’s hard for you to imagine. Your twenties feel like the rest of your life, until you’re not in your twenties anymore.
If you’re a grad who wants to write then this is even more true. Because not only are you in your twenties and you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re a writer in your twenties, who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
You don’t know if you’re the kind of writer, who can stand having a 9-5 job.
You don’t know if you’re the kind of writer, who can work in a creative industry and have enough energy for your art.
You don’t know if you’re the kind of writer, who can work for themselves and can’t work for anybody else.
And if you’re a high achiever and you went to school with other high achievers, then you’re going to watch your peers go to grad school and wonder if maybe you shouldn’t go to grad school, too.
If I could give advice to my younger self, I would say that none of these are easy decisions. You won’t know until you go out and make mistakes.
All those jobs I’ve worked in the past twelve years, most of them were wonderful employers with amazing teams and great clients. I took away valuable lessons and skills from every single one of them.
But after doing it for that long, I realized that I cannot get up every day and do a job that is not in my heart.
I only figured that out after spending the last decade dragging myself out of bed every day and dreading every cover letter I wrote.
I only figured that out after watching many of my friends go to grad school and pursue careers they loved, while I had to reassure myself that grad school was not the best decision for me.
I only figured that out after feeling the pull between doing the responsible thing and doing the risky thing.
I only figured that out after nearly giving up on my business twice and only then realizing that I found the work that was in my heart.
I only figured that out after making a lot of mistakes.
When you’re a high achiever with a college degree, it feels like there is no margin for error and no room for mistakes.
You’ve spent the last eight years taking honors classes, putting hours in at internships, racking up the extracurriculars, scoring high on tests, because you felt like your future depended on it.
Your future does not depend on those things anymore. Go forth and make mistakes.
Photo by Hin Bong Yeung on Unsplash