I drove to have lunch with my mother today, with a three-hour gap between conference calls.
It was noon. I had actually had time for coffee and deadlines and general catching up at home. I was wearing jeans, and had nowhere I had to physically, absolutely be outside of my house until the next morning. I had a commitment to do a live Google+ hangout this evening, representing one of my favorite clients. On the way to meet her, I took a call from a former colleague who wanted me to teach a class on short notice (as in tomorrow.)
It occurred to me as I drove that I was happy, and specifically so in my work. All of the projects I was managing were happening almost entirely in words and pictures. I had variety, enough excitement to keep things interesting, didn't have to sit behind a desk in a windowless office 40 hours a week, and flexibility, while I'm getting paid for things I'm producing on a daily basis.
It was one of the best moments I've had in a long time.
It probably helps to know that the path to this was circuitous, and not without tears, worry, and the belief that things could never be better. I could not have told my 15, 25, or even 35-year-old-self that today's feeling was possible. For one thing, the technology that enables me to do the jobs I have now didn't exist. Go back to the early 90s and tell 20-something Laurie that I would someday work most consistently and effectively, and also swap jokes and life news, with a person who is based in California? It wasn't even real.
For another, the person I was, prior to 35, anyway, didn't dwell so much in possibility as in limitation, arising from a difficult college experience and unfocused early career launch. I did mostly good work, sometimes even of high quality. I helped people as a counselor and a teacher. I pulled off some interesting accomplishments in spite of a general lack of a core plan. But it had very little do with my best and most effective skills, and made me feel more regularly stressed than fulfilled.
I started working towards fixing this in 2007, when I went back to journalism graduate school. And since I made the radical financial decision to quit my full-time job last year and embark on a life in writing, editing, photography, and social media, I have had a good number of the most difficult days of my life. Going from a bi-weekly paycheck to freelance checks that arrive on other people's schedules hasn't been easy. Shedding my workplace identity, and learning to work for myself, largely alone, at home? Another good but sometimes jarring change.
It all set me up for the moment I had today, though, where everything almost made sense.
I have always told people (cough**mymother**cough) that there was a method to my madness -- that walking away from a stable job at a supposedly rough economic time was the thing that made the most sense for me at this point in my life (translated in my head as absolutely essential to my daily functioning and any shot at future happiness, honestly.)
Now, at least I believe me, 90 percent of the time, anyway. I don't know what things will look like next month, but today? They looked pretty good. And I know that the people who care about me appreciate that I'm easier to get along with, and somewhat obviously happier, too.
These are a few things that it would have helped to know as I agonized over what to do and how to be, as a college student and an early-career professional:
Identify and use your strongest and most favorite gifts and talents.
I never knew how or wanted to do anything but write. I failed out of journalism school at 19, and always thought that derailed everything, and it was done. Histrionic much? But I was young, it hurt, it was hard, and I didn't rebound well. I could have been a writer anyway, but I took that external event as a sign that it wasn't meant to be, and that I wasn't any good. Never mind that I got As in my writing classes, and it was failing the gen ed classes that bored me and I therefore blew off that wrecked my GPA and sent me out of the major. It took almost 20 years of being called upon to write in all of my completely-unrelated jobs, depression related to a daily working life that had very limited relationship to creativity, and the advent of blogging, to make me wake up and realize that I had to, and could, turn this car around.
Because it can be done. All of the cliches about "doing what you love" aside, figure out what you're good at, and what lights up you up, as early as you can, or I believe that it will keep nagging at you and distracting you from the things that are in front of your face now. Plus, everyone will be better off when you put this into practice. Especially you.
Don't stay in unsatisfactory situations for longer than you absolutely must.
I loved doing this. I loved carrying the torch and playing the tiny violin of the weird assignment or the overworked position. It became my habit, and my excuse not to send cover letters to better jobs, or to submit freelance articles to local publications.
Don't do this. It is an unattractive waste of time, and we don't have a lot of that as it is. You can find another job. You can stay in your job that you hate while you find a new one. You are allowed to quit. You are allowed to hope for and eventually find better. You will be okay. Trust me.
Stop cramming yourself into the wrong spot and wondering why it hurts. Find what fits you.
A big part of my happy moment today was realizing that I was valued in my current work for some of my skills, insights, and personality traits that were considered negatives in my previous positions. And these were some fundamental things, like creativity, independent thought, and the ability to change course without a blink at the last minute. Sometimes it's not just you that's wrong in the environment -- it's that the environment is not right for you. Considering this has allowed me to forgive myself for what I considered solely my errors, and to look at where my personality and habits might fit the best in job. (We're at the best place in history to do this, by the way.)
Do Something Productive
I did not do a single internship, practicum, or independent study in undergrad. As curious about the world as I am, I didn't study abroad, or go anywhere other than Florida or Mexican resorts for spring break, and lolled away my summer vacations.
I didn't have the best advisors, no (which I can say now, since I've been one) but I also didn't seek out challenges or experiences beyond my own backyard. It wasn't until I found myself staring down 40 in a job I knew I didn't want to have until I was 65 that I got motivated. It wasn't until I was the oldest person in my graduate program with the knowledge of what not taking risks had cost me that I said yes to reporting trips to Vietnam and the 2008 Democratic Convention. These were two of the most significant experiences of my life. This is what happens when you start saying yes to things.
Better late than never, but the risks were definitely higher later on, and I can't help but think sometimes, although I know I'm in a good place now, of all of the opportunities I missed to go places, to meet people, to learn things.
I'd go back and tell that (smart, impassioned, confused, needy) slacker to go to the advising office instead of to the quad to take a nap. Hindsight is its own torture, and effective motivation.
Get a Mentor
The people I respect personally and professionally have been essential in helping me identify my strengths, helping me find the confidence I needed to leave a bad situation, to fix it if I planned to stay in it, and to envision a better future regardless (letters of recommendation and job referrals are nice, too.) There are a lot of smart, experienced, kind people in the world, and many of them want to help you. Make friends with them. I did not until the past five years or so, and now I'd be lost without a few mentors in my phone for specific situations. I wasted all of my undergraduate years not reaching out, and who knows how much farther along I'd be if I hadn't?
Create. Have fun. Do good.
My jobs now come from other people, but there is so much of me in them, in addition to the effort it takes to manage my daily entrepreneurial schedule, that this is a strictly DIY operation. It stands or falls on me, and as much as that could seem like the worst kind of pressure, it works better for me than anything has.
It's everything I may have believed at one time that I was capable of, before I started to think I wasn't capable of anything. Now I'm circling back to the beginning, a much better place of possibility and opportunity. I could feel sorry for the me of years ago, that it took us so long to get here, and for the trouble along the way, but that would just take my time away from being glad that it ever happened at all.
There may be a time when it's too late to get it right, but I'm glad that I never got there.
This post is part of BlogHer's Success Guide for My Younger Self editorial series, made possible by Kaplan.