Life Paths and Growing Up

Dear Yours Truly,

I am in need of some advice on the matter of life paths. Some background: I am on the brink of my Saturn Return and feeling like I need to start getting my act together. I’ve spent the last five years post-college doing things that made me feel great, like being in bands and going on tour and doing cool things with my friends; and things that I am less enthusiastic about, like working in restaurants and retail and stressing fairly constantly about money, health insurance, etc. Also, there is the added pressure of having been an overachiever my whole life, and having the feeling that I am letting down parents, mentors, etc. by not achieving more by traditional measures of success (I know that this is something I need to work more on letting go, but for the present, it definitely weighs on my mind). Basically, I am trying to figure out what I should be doing for work in my life; ideally, I would love to find my vocation, but minimally, I would like to have a job that I like waking up for in the morning and can take a little pride in. I’ve been waiting to see if the Universe will nudge me in one direction or another, or reveal my path to me or something; and in the meantime, I’ve worn myself out with both existential angst and by being perennially broke. I am pretty ready to go balls-to-the-wall on a life plan once I figure out what I’m doing, and my life is pretty lovely in most other regards, but this is a fairly significant part of my life that I would like to get figured out.

So I am turning 28 in a few months, and my years of odds-and-ends jobs have given me some clarity about the kinds of work I do/don’t want to do- I don’t like sedentary office work, I like using my brain for things, I would rather have a flexible schedule than a bigger paycheck, etc. These have been helpful things to figure out! Also, I should mention that I am a gender-nonconforming queer person, and the thought of working somewhere where I need to look more “acceptable” or pass in some way gives me deep anxiety.

Anyway, now I have a scheme I think I might want to follow through on, but I am a little terrified about it, and would really appreciate some objective advice from a complete stranger who hasn’t had to deal for years with all of my belly-aching about my future. I have been baking up a storm for the last few years, and am getting better and better at it, and more and more people are asking me if I have ever thought about selling my stuff or becoming a professional baker. I’ve brushed them off for a while, because I’ve thought of it as a very pleasurable hobby and because I know that baking is usually hard and thankless work. But I’m starting to think about it more and more- specifically, renting out industrial kitchen space and selling things at farmer’s markets, to local coffeeshops, etc. Pretty small-scale, at least at first. The things I make are pretty good, but I’m entirely self-taught, and if I were to sell things, I would need to really step up my game as far as presentation- so I guess that would mean an apprenticeship or something similar. I’m a smart cookie, so I think I could handle the business side of things (I think this would mean some business classes and lots of informational interviews with folks who have similar businesses). So far, so good.

But I have no savings to draw on in order to get a small business loan (although I do have parents who might help me); I am a little apprehensive about small business failure rates AND the prospect of having neither free time or money during the first few years it would take to get a small business off the ground and into the black; and have worked for enough small businesses and front-end food service to know that I am likely looking at tough hours, a lot of long-term stress, and a pretty huge lifestyle commitment. So I’m psyching myself out a little bit, and wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to have the stability of an office job and all the attendant comforts. Whether to take a big risk with the potential for deep satisfaction, or to choose a more conservative (responsible?) option. Either way, I am looking for a way to escape my crappy job rut.

Sorry for being so long-winded in cataloging my own angst, but I wanted to give a clear-eyed view of things and my list of pros and cons. Deep thanks for tackling my question, and I look forward to any words of wisdom you are willing to offer!

Wow, so much stuff! Also fairly universal to our demographic (privileged Saturn Returns westerners with lots of choices who nonetheless live during a weirdly shitty time in their national history, fiscally speaking), so thanks for a great question.

The easy stuff first: you absolutely should not get a responsible bills-paying office job where you have to hide your identity. Bullshit! First of all, we’re all gonna die no matter what we do–on your deathbed are you really gonna be like “I wish I had just gotten an office job and pretended to be somebody else for 40 years, alas”? No way. I just really do not think there is any way that scenario could happen. Second of all, this is the aughts, not the sixties–there ARE no responsible jobs anymore. Everything is fraught with corruption and bullshit. The safest office job still probably won’t make you rich, so what would even be the point? Thirdly: any job that means you have to hide who you are is going to eventually be so soul-crushing that you’d be better off just living in the woods as a kooky hermit or something. In conclusion, life should not just be about settling for what’s the lowest-risk option. Life is not just about procuring the bare essentials to assure your continued aliveness. If we choose to live that way, we are choosing to say “fuck you” to the almost unimaginable privileges and riches we have been accidentally born into, in this time and this place and this subject position. No, you’ve got to grab life by the lips and YANK. Otherwise what is even the point of being alive?

Harder stuff: RISK!

Risk is scary. Risk is horrifying! We are by nature cautious creatures–we have to be, or we’d all be dead. We’re like little bunnies sniffing the breeze for the faintest hint of a hawk before venturing forth from our warm little burrows. And this is good–caution is good. But ideally you marry caution with a little well-thought-out risk, otherwise nothing ever happens and you end life right where you started except way more depressed.

The thing about Risk is that yes, it might end poorly. This is important to confront and fully internalize. You might take a big risk and it might go completely south. You might completely fuck it up and end up worse off than you are now. Okay, that’s just a fact. We’re all gonna die; risks don’t always work out; life isn’t fair. Facts! Deal with it!

Now that you’ve accepted that, though, think about it. Every time you leave your house you’re taking a risk. You could so easily die in a car crash but you keep driving your car. You know you might suffer heart break but you fall in love anyway. Life is always this delicate balance between optimistic risk-taking and acceptance of possible consequences. Because truly, nothing ventured nothing gained. What a great saying!

Or another way to look at it is in the Hamlettian sense. Is it better to accept the shittiness of your current life, or to fly to other evils you know not of? I just finished reading Frankenstein and am so struck by this moment of truth where Victor decides not to make the Creature a mate. The Creature has told him, “if you make me a mate, I’ll go away forever and never harm another human being, but if you don’t make me a mate, I will ‘glut the maw of death’ [note: awesome] and kill a thousand people.” So Victor says NO WAY, I will never make you a mate, because what if your mate is even worse than you, and then I will have unleashed TWO monsters into the world? What if you change your mind, and you AND your mate go rampaging around? This is so astonishing, because he’s basically choosing CERTAIN HORROR (the creature’s PROMISE to commit murder if his demands aren’t met) over the POTENTIAL for MAYBE horror (what if the creature doesn’t honor his promise to be peaceful). And why would anyone do that?

You aren’t Victor Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is the biggest piece of shit to ever walk the earth. He’s such a monumental ass that it’s hard to read that book, even though we’re SUPPOSED to think he’s an ass!

Any reasonable person knows logically that potential horror is better than certain horror. An office job is certain horror. Starting your own business is only potential horror.

Okay now think of the worst case scenario: you go fantastically broke. You are bankrupted! You fail. So, that’s pretty bad. But how bad is it, really? Will you be executed in the electric chair if you fail? Will an unearthly raging creature kill all of your family members if you fail? No. You lose all your money. I’m not making light of that–it would be devastating–but I mean, maybe the prospect of POSSIBLY losing all your money is still more felicitous than the certainty of hating your job every day of your life.

My grandfather hated his job every day of his life, and he was never happy, and he had a terrible marriage, and now he’s dying in a nursing home, and it’s like, what was the point of all that.

Plus, maybe you do get an office job you hate. You could STILL lose all your money. There are so many ways to lose all your money! My grandfather worked that shitty job and saved up a ton of money and now is spending every last cent of it on dying horribly for years. I mean, honestly, what even is money. I get that we need it, I’m not meaning to be blithe. I just think, money is never a sure thing no matter what you do. None of us are ever going to have much money anyway. And then we’ll all be dead, like I said earlier, and nobody needs money once they’re dead. I don’t know, fuck it.

Furthermore I would point out that you describe yourself as tired of being broke and worried about health insurance. So if you try, and fail, you’ll just be back where you started. You know? You’re ALREADY oppressed by money worries. You might as well give something new a shot, because it might pan out awesomely!

Existential stuff:

Bottom line, being challenged and working hard and learning new things and TRYING is awesome and the only way to continue being a happy person. In our privileged world it is our responsibility to not just sit around whingeing but to actually try to make something of what we’ve got. It’s funny because the way you open your letter could totally have described me when I was just marginally younger than you are now. I was bumming around, playing in bands, having a great life, with wonderful friends and boyfriends and whatever else. It was great! But I wanted something else, in addition. I wanted to not keep temping at random office jobs. I wanted a Career, in the broad sense of feeling like I had a vocation, something meaningful to do with my life. Not that playing in bands isn’t meaningful–it is–but for me personally I never felt 100% committed to that as a vocation. I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to contribute to society in this particular way that I had been turned on to in college. And so I went to grad school, which entailed a lot of risks. First of all, leaving my community and my home was difficult for me. Secondly, grad school was hard, really hard. Third, I had to move to a city I genuinely don’t enjoy being in. Fourth, this was all in pursuit of a very fleeting chance at a super competitive career that I did not have (and still do not have) any guarantee whatsoever of realizing. And finally, and most importantly, going to grad school meant spending 3 years living apart from the person I knew should really be my life partner. Was I throwing it all away? Was I fucking everything up? Was I just going to be a failure anyway at the end of it all?

Not like I am this great success story, but what I mean to tell you by telling you my history is that I REGRET NOTHING. I swear with my hand on a bible that even if I never get a job, I will not regret these years I have spent living in weird places and going to school and writing a book. I don’t regret the 3 years apart either, they were super formative and instructive and ultimately fine. I loved grad school; I like who I am now more than I liked who I was before. My mind has changed in powerful ways that feel deeply satisfying to me. And no matter what else happens, I’ve also seen that I was RIGHT—this is a career that makes my life better; it’s something I’m suited to do. I found my vocation. If I never get to practice it fully, that would be sad, but it’s still incredible to discover it in the first place and be validated in your belief that it was a good fit for you. I remember the shiftlessness of my 20s, wondering “what am I meant to do, alas etc.” and now that angst is simply no longer in my life. Yes, it’s been replaced with new angst (what if I fail; what if I’m not able to practice my vocation) but I prefer it to the old angst. It’s good to find out who you are and what you’re really good at.

I think in figuring out how to start a business, you would be similarly challenged, and you would similarly learn a whole new realm of skills and concepts. I can’t even imagine! There will be so many things you’ll have to find out the hard way; so many unexpected things to think about. You’ll change, you’ll grow, you’ll incorporate new things into your worldview, you’ll learn new habits, you’ll overcome challenging obstacles. All this leads to a deep satisfaction that some office job that pays your bills can frankly never provide. Even people who DO have dumb office jobs have to have something else profound in their lives–children or something. Deeply focused hobbies. For me personally, not even this was enough–the nature of the office job itself oppressed me on a spiritual level I don’t think I could ever overcome.

And here’s the thing about doing something FOR YOURSELF (starting a business vs. just working for some office you don’t give a shit about) is that it ceases to be a “job” and just becomes “who you are.” I never think about my job as my job. It’s just who I am, it’s a fundamental and intrinsic part of my identity, and much of my leisure time is spent doing things for my job that don’t feel like that’s what I’m doing. Like I’m reading this book because I’m interested in it; I’m grading these papers because I want to see what my students are saying; I’m getting up at 6 and going to campus because I fucking love teaching and I’m excited to get there. When you choose a vocation because it suits you and appeals to you, instead of just choosing a Way To Make Money So You Can Support Your “Real” Life–when you turn your job INTO your Real Life–you reach this amazing place where you no longer have to bear that burden of hating your job or not wanting to get up in the morning or wishing for Friday. It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s hard to even describe how powerfully different it is. No longer having that separation between Job and Life.

So all this hard work you’re sort of afraid of, you have to understand that for the most part it wouldn’t feel like “hard work” in the sense you maybe mean. You know? Staying up until 2 in the morning trying to read Hegel and crying–that is something I would describe as “hard,” but was it as “hard” as dragging my ass out of bed for some job answering phones at a software company? There is literally no comparison between these levels of difficulty. One is hard because it’s intellectually challenging and because I want to do a good job at it because I care about it; one is hard BECAUSE IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

I think to begin this kind of extraordinary undertaking you’re pondering, you, obviously, make a list. Start at the beginning and break it all the way down. What things do you need to learn? They will probably be grouped in categories. Businessy stuff–getting a license, starting a bank account, applying for small business loans, how does all that shit work. Accounting. I have no idea, my heart shrinks from contemplating this kind of thing but that’s why we are all beautiful unicorns in god’s eye, each of us different. Then you’ll have a category that’s about baking–the actual nuts and bolts of what you’ll be doing for your business. Who can you apprentice with? Identify your strengths so you can build on them; identify your weaknesses so you can obliterate them. Work toward reachable goals. If you want to learn how to make a danish or a wedding cake or a vegan scone that doesn’t taste like a balled up toilet paper roll, find somebody who can teach you, then learn it, then check it off the list. Yeah, you start small. You don’t open a 12-oven bakery in the Pearl district right away. You start small, you create as firm a foundation as you can, and you go from there. And at first you’ll be broke, and scared, but you’re broke and scared now. At least then you’d be Doing Something Real.

As you slowly check things off the list, your goal will become more and more normal-seeming. Which is an amazing feeling. Goals slowly attained, what a blessing! They help you look back on your life and make sense of it; they help you feel like you’re actually progressing in your life instead of just treading water, getting older and older while the world changes around you. It may even start seeming less and less scary, as you actually accomplish all the little steps toward it.

You might fail. We all might fail. I might never get a real job; but then again I might get my dream job and immediately die of dreadful cancer. Fear of failure is one of the most dastardly albatrosses around the necks of so many of us. What is the point of not doing something because you might fail? Of course you might fail. You might get hit by a bus tomorrow but that doesn’t stop you from walking up Burnside to that Goodwill with all the Banana Republic. People who let fear of failure stop them from making changes in their lives end up stifled, stymied, bitter, cynical, emo, depressed, incapable of giving or receiving love, ashamed of how they throw away the incredible privilege they were born with, the gift of life, etc. This life is a crapshoot, and we have to be brave enough to open ourselves up to the myriad possibilities–exciting and horrifying–that are out there. We have to care enough about ourselves and our experience to at least TRY to take hold of the rudder and do something by choice instead of just letting the winds of chance blow us wherever. We should not be like Frankenstein, and just respond passively to whatever fate throws our way. We should be like the Creature, full of action and resolve and awareness of consequences. Yes they both end up dying in the Arctic full of sorrow, but one of them is just simply a cooler dude than the other. Be that cooler dude.

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