Recently, I transitioned from a corporate job (as an editor at a book publisher) to writing and editing my own vegan website full time. With stars in my eyes, I wrote a warm email announcement to my “inner circle” of friends and family. Most of them responded right away with congratulations and good wishes. But one friend emailed back, “Oh man, I'm so envious! I wish I could write full time, it'd make writing so much easier...” No words of encouragement or even a smiley face. This hurt, since I’ve always been supportive of all my friends, including this one (I'll call her "E"), who is subsidizing her writing with odd jobs but is a published author in her own right. Also, I could hardly say that my accomplishments are envy inducing, especially from my perspective.
Here’s the public version of my accomplishments. I graduated from one of the top universities in the country with a degree in art history. Less than a year later, I started my own indie clothing label with funding from an angel investor. My work appeared in magazines and sold in boutiques across the country. Then I got a highly coveted job at the biggest publisher in the world. I got to work with famous authors, mingle with the literary elite, and go to fancy parties; meanwhile, I moved into a cute park-side apartment with my loving boyfriend and our adorable cat. A few years later, Boyfriend and I co-founded a vegan website, which quickly grew; and with increasing sponsorship interests, I could choose to focus on it full time.
Then there's the private, more honest version of what happened. I graduated from Princeton with a huge chip on my shoulders, because I despaired of finding a job with an art history degree — not exactly most marketable in the best of times, and even worse during a recession. When I finally got an offer, I moved to New York with just two trunks and about $200 in my checking account. That job was awful, even as first jobs go, and I quit after just four months. After applying to hundreds of jobs on Craigslist (and almost losing my mind in the process), I finally got one as a cocktail waitress, along with an unpaid internship at a fashion label. Of this time I mostly remember the freezing cold after ending the shift at 4 a.m.; how the body feels like a bag of bones after working two weeks straight; snow seeping into my worn-out shoes; and lots of bagels and falafels.
Eventually, I got a chance to start my own label. There were some moments that I’m very proud of, but I couldn’t make enough money, and I was so drained from dragging around trunks of my samples to boutiques; I’m an introvert, and selling myself constantly was so daunting. I also felt out of place in the fashion scene. Instead of going out clubbing, I wanted to stay home and read. I applied for the publishing job on a whim, and for some reason, I got it. This brought me a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of emotional stress.
One day, Boyfriend and I were talking about what makes us happy. I told him I didn’t want to derive my self-worth from the famous people I knew, or dining at expensive restaurants. I still loved writing and editing; but when I thought about my dream future, I didn’t see a Park Avenue apartment — I saw a little farmhouse with a veggie patch, rescued animals, and writing on the porch. That’s when we decided to build our own vegan website, and over the ensuing months, I worked every minute I wasn’t sleeping. On weekdays I’d come home around 7, cook dinner, and work until dawn. On weekends I'd work another 12 hours a day.
When we first started, there was no one writing or reading it except me. I had to wonder whether it was worth staying up until 3, but I stubbornly kept at it. Now, I manage more than 20 regular writers; we have loyal readers and revenue; and most of all, I’m so excited to get up every morning. I have a sense of purpose and passion. It’s a wonderful place to be, but I can’t say it’s exactly anything to envy, because that's both overestimating my abilities and underestimating my resilience after failure.
The thing is, I went through so many downturns during my quarter-life crises — so many moments when I found myself wearing hole-y sneakers in the middle of a snowstorm; or when my bank account dipped below $100; or when I felt much more in common with the homeless than anyone else — that I can’t help but be optimistic that anything is possible.
It’s impossible to know what kind of struggles people wade through without being in their shoes. We tend to not advertise our weaknesses. Just as E has no idea of my struggles, I can only guess that she's going through a period of self-doubt and uncertainty — a quarter-life crisis. But whatever you struggle with the most will also be the thing that gives you strength. It’s the only thing that remains when the snow has melted.