Careers, Curveballs, And Hitting Hard

Meg Keene Book Tour

“I am still every age that I have been.” —Madeleine L’Engle (full quote)

I stumbled upon this quote by Madeline L’Engle while leafing through an Oprah magazine last month, and I paused. It summed up one of the primary joys I’ve felt moving into my thirties in a way I hadn’t been able to put into words. Our cultural dialogue about aging is all about loss: as we grow older we give up the wonderful fun parts of ourselves, and we slowly dry up into less and less. But what I’m finding about my third decade is that it’s given me a huge breadth of experience to draw on (at least comparatively), and lets my lungs fully fill up with air in a way they couldn’t before.

I have a long memory. My first memory is being about two and a half, and letting my toy bottle fall out of my crib over and over again during naptime. When my mom refused to get it the last time, I was livid. And I still vividly remember how angry I was, standing in my crib, screaming my face off. I remember how it felt, and why I was so pissed. I’ve long thought that this is why I’m very good with young children. I really remember how it felt to be that age (complicated, human, confusing) and am able to get down on the floor and talk to them person to person while still explaining that, “No, I’m not going to keep getting the toy bottle if you throw it on the floor, but yes, you have the choice to throw it again, and I understand your frustration.”

And in the same way, I vividly remember my other years too, mostly fondly. Sometimes I miss the intense bonding and emotional complexity of High School, or the tangled possibilities of my early twenties. But I don’t miss them too much because I worked very hard to live the f*ck out of each of my ages, and because I have all the ages inside me, all at once. I can grasp them in a moment if I need them.

Which is why I found it so hilarious when I was asked a question by a young 20-something in the Co-Lab workshop that went vaguely like this: “How do you balance work and play in your 20s? Because I want to really LIVE in my twenties, before life’s all over.” And I laughed and blinked, and then realized “Oh, that was a real question, because that’s actually what we’re taught.” And then told her, “I’m 32. Trust me, the living doesn’t stop after your twenties. And honestly, it mostly gets way better as you get older.”

Because what I’ve realized recently is that the core things about myself that I figured out at four or sixteen (two very happy ages for me, interestingly enough) are still true. I have had a lifetime of messaging that I need to grow up and focus on The Important Things, but I’m finally learning that those things that were important to me all along are the actual things of value. At four I liked creation, having vivid imaginings, and telling people what to do. At sixteen I discovered that I needed solitude and creative freewheeling time (at midnight at a beach in LA) to feel like myself. I figured out that I liked writing, acting, and performing in public. I decided that living within the strict cultural boundaries of success wasn’t making me happy. I spent hours collaging things. I discovered the joy of working on creative collaborations with my friends.

And even though I was supposed to grow up and move on from these realizations towards a structured adult life, I’ve realized that these things I’ve always loved now create the backbone of my business and my life. Writing. Creative solitude. Telling people what to do (cough). Visually collaging. Speaking in public. Creative collaborations with my friends.

But that’s not exactly why I’ve been successful.

I mean, if I’d only focused on making collages at the beach at midnight by myself, I might not be doing so well (and by doing so well, I mean able to eat). What made it all work was the totally insane looking career trajectory I’ve been on for the fifteen years. What made it work was never feeling (or having the luxury of feeling) above taking a paying job and figuring out how to excel at it, so I could pay my bills (and later our bills). What made it work was learning hard skills as: a cigar sales person, a gas station attendant, a medical records clerk, a Turkish coffee house manager, a nanny, a cupcake counter person/icer, a temp, a receptionist, a real estate sales person, a freelance theatre producer, a theatre development staffer, a theatre operations manager, a temp again, an investment bank research writer, and a high powered executive assistant. (And yes, those are my real jobs.) Give me a job, and I can probably make it happen for you (unless it involves spelling things properly), and I’ll suck it up and do it without complaint.

Earlier this month, thinking about the course of my professional career and how I tend to surround myself with staffers and employees that have a similar background (they’ve always had to work, they’ve done it all, they don’t complain) this Ani DiFranco lyric kept echoing in my head. When the album Little Plastic Castle came out, I was working as a gas station attendant. They’d hired me to staff the mini-mart, but right after I was hired, they changed the rules and I spent half my time pumping gas and washing windows. I was eighteen years old, and weighed about 100 pounds. I barely fit in the teeny uniform they gave me. I was pumping gas for (horrified) truckers who kept trying to take the gas pump back from me and give me a tip. And that summer this verse played in my head on repeat:

Maybe you don’t like your job
Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep
Well, nobody likes their job
Nobody got enough sleep
Maybe you just had
The worst day of your life
But, you know, there’s no escape
And there’s no excuse
So just suck up and be nice

And I spent that summer, and much of the next thirteen years, sucking it up and (usually) being nice. Which is why I’m always so profoundly grateful to the nice parking lot attendant, or garbage man, or barista. Which is why I tip so damn well. I’ve been there. Part of me feels like you never know when you might be there again.

Which brings me to curveballs. There is this idea that we live the best, and most fun years of our lives during some particular period of our youth. And then we pull it together, grow up, and forget what we learned. There is this idea that careers are formed by a straightforward path. That we find our calling by focusing on the things other people tell us are important, not by listening to the things we know we love. In my experience, all of this is false. And the craziest and most wonderful thing you can do is slowly learn to trust yourself (and to work really hard, always pursue the most difficult goal, do unpleasant things as needed, and be nice).

Because my career looks like a curveball, and some days it feels like it. How did I end up as a writer and a publisher (after being told it wasn’t an option for someone as dyslexic as myself)? How did I end up as a blogger and public speaker (a career that didn’t even exist in any shape or form when I was in High School)? It seems like magic. It seems like luck.

And then I look back at four-year-old me, or sixteen-year-old me, and I realize it wasn’t a curveball at all. It was always there, I was just born with the personality that allowed me to listen for it, to take risks, to be poor, to do terrible jobs, and somehow put it all together. It happened because nothing else made me happy, and I decided I couldn’t settle for less. It happened because it was always the ball being pitched at me straight across the plate.

I just had to step up and hit it. Hard.

Photos: Me at work in 2012, by Katie Jane Photo. Me at work in 2002 in my first job after college at Magnolia Bakery icing cupcakes (that was a different recession, with different awful jobs).

Featured Sponsored Content

  • Steph

    Wow! Just wow. And THANK YOU! :)

  • granola

    This reminds me of Steve Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford (I think). He talks about how you can only connect the dots when you look back, but they’ll definitely be there, even though you couldn’t have seen what they would lead to at the time.

    Thanks for a lovely post on my way to work this morning! And it’s great birthday food for thought. Turning 25 and hitting my mid-20s and beyond feels good, and like it can keep getting better.

    • meg

      25 was TOTALLY the turning point for me. Not the last of them, but the turning point from total confusion/ poverty/ fear of my early 20’s to starting to see the occasional pattern. Happy Birthday!

      And yes about the dots. In my early 20’s my grandmother told me that looking back, it was the worst stuff that allowed the best stuff to happen. I clung to that, and it was definitely mostly true.

    • Caitlin

      It’s my birthday too (26!)! I agree that this is great food for thought on my birthday. Thank you Meg! These posts always make me think and reflect.

  • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

    This was a timely reminder for me. You are living your life right now, not just keeping time until ‘real life’ starts, and everything you are doing right now is helping you shape yourself into who you will be later Which means that even if something sucks right now, it has worth.

  • ProjectWed

    There is so much in here that I want to scream, “YES!” at. But I’ll focus on:

    “There is this idea that careers are formed by a straightforward path. That we find our calling by focusing on the things other people tell us are important…”

    Thank you. As a 30-something who skyrocketed into her career, through hardwork [and a whole lotta luck] I feel as though I’ve topped out. Of course there is more to do, I am not ready to leave the field quite yet. But, I cannot imagine working another 35+ years in this field. I may last another 5.

    I’m blessed to have a job that pays well, and allows me the freedom of wondering where to go next. The world is still my oyster– perhaps more so now that I have experience, a professional network, and perspective. I’ve learned that I don’t need to know exactly where I will land, but that it will always be on my feet (possibly bruised feet with a twisted ankle, but such is life).

    Thank you, Meg, for reminding me that growing up does not mean giving up one’s self.

  • Rachel

    Great post, Meg, and a great reminder that not every single thing I want to do in my life, every thing I want to accomplish, every place I want to travel, every degree I want to have, needs to happen right now! I’m nearly 27 and sometimes I get so anxious because I feel like I haven’t accomplished everything I “need” to before I turn 30 and I only have 3 years and how is it all going to happen, aaahhhh! But I have, hopefully, a good 50 or so years left after I turn 30 to live and enjoy and accomplish so many things. Thank you for that reminder.

  • rys

    I love the emphasis on living a full life at every stage of life — not expecting the past, the present, or the future to be the only time to embrace all facets and stages of life.

    However, I think it’s important to not discount luck — or what happens between the pitcher releasing the ball and its appearance over the plate. There are indeed so many ways we can practice and prepare, but strokes of luck — good or bad, personally or professionally — are present as well. Recognizing the role of luck is, I think, critical to empathizing with others and with ourselves. Sometimes the projected timeline for a goal pans out, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the path we pursue leads directly to our goals, and sometimes it doesn’t.

    In particular, I think finding and keeping a love-life partner requires quite a bit of luck and glossing over that makes single people (myself included) feel like we failed to work hard enough. (I don’t think this is the point of your lovely essay, but your essay made me think about something I’ve been mulling over for the past few years). It’s taken me a long time to accept that luck matters in my love life — I drank the American kool-aid that working hard enough will produce desired results. Often it does, but sometimes it doesn’t, and in that space of dreams deferred, luck is often the choreographer.

    • Carbon Girl

      You are so right that a lot of success does depend on luck. Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton last weekend touched on that theme. (It has been on the news a lot, so you can probably look it up).

      • And not only luck, but in many cases privilege…race, class, sexuality, etc.depending on who you are, privilege.

      • Jessica

        Drew Gilpen Faust, the president of Harvard, had a similar theme in her speech to graduating seniors a few weeks ago:

        • Jessica

          This quote, from the same speech, is especially relevant: “For years I have been telling students: Do what you love; do what matters to you. It might be finance, but maybe it’s something else. Don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it may require a miracle. I call it the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.”

          Also relevant: “Accepting luck can be liberating. Paradoxically, the less we acknowledge luck, the more we feel the terror of pressure to do something big, to be extraordinary in what one student recently called the “coliseum of achievement.” Walter Kirn, in his book Lost in the Meritocracy, calls it “fleeing upward,” in a society where, as he puts it, “percentile is destiny,” where belief in our own excellence shuts us down and shuts us off. According to recent evidence, however, believing in luck makes you luckier. Apparently it cultivates the qualities that entrepreneurs and CEOs attach to luck – qualities that I would in fact regard as foundations for a meaningful life – “humility, intellectual curiosity, optimism, vulnerability, authenticity, generosity, and openness.””

          • meg

            Also, this *IS* my Plan B. I gave Plan A my all, hated it, and quit. Clearly, Plan B has been pretty ok. Always give Plan A everything, never be afraid to leave.

    • Jashshea

      Absolutely. Luck has something to do with it (and privilege). But if you also work hard and pay attention, what other people call luck sometimes finds you.

      • Alexandra

        At some point, luck and privilege become the same thing. Sure, people talk about the privilege of being a white male in most fields, but then, being of a visible minority occasionally opens doors just so big companies can fill a certain quote and appear more accepting. I’m a female programmer. It’s not terribly common, and makes employers think twice. Not always in a good way, but also not always in a bad way. Males get a second glance in nursing roles or for teaching young children.

        Whatever label you fit into, some doors open, and others close. What colour/gender/race you happen to be born to isn’t really something you can plan on, nor can you plan on how another person will view those labels. If they do line up, luck is really as appropriate of a word as privilege.

        • Jashshea

          Also a great point. My field isn’t quite as male dominated as programming or engineering, but most females migrate out of the field if they’re planning a family (long hours, demanding customers, consistent inconsistency).

          However, being different from a given pool of contenders for a particular job is a stroke of luck sometimes. Though you will, statistically speaking, compete against fewer women than men for a job in your industry, who’s to say that the next big job doesn’t have an applicant pool overrun with other females.

          I like to think of it as parts of a whole – luck, privilege, hard work. I worked hard in HS and got into a good college. I was privileged in that my father had gone there, so my application was given special consideration. I was lucky that my parents could support the bulk of my education costs.

      • meg

        Maybe. I had some privilege, but not tons (ie, my parents were educated, we knew there was money to eat and stay in our house, but there was never money beyond that). I think for me, lack of the kind privilege I see most of the time around me these days is what made me me, and what made me successful in my own particular way. I wouldn’t trade in how I grew up: gang schools, surrounded by poverty, no money for fancy programs, really tough public school… for anything. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to work my ass off to make it better for kids in places like my home town, but it does mean that for me, privilege isn’t always the magic ticket. Which is part of what I’m saying, in that I’m talking to other people without a lot of privilege, and saying that while the world tells you that you are missing something, maybe you just have something else of value that the world doesn’t know is valuable.

        With more privilege, I’d never have had to work those shitty jobs (and I hired a staff that’s also always had to work those shitty jobs, because we get each other).

        • Class of 1980

          “Which is part of what I’m saying, in that I’m talking to other people without a lot of privilege, and saying that while the world tells you that you are missing something, maybe you just have something else of value that the world doesn’t know is valuable.”

          YES. For one thing, you have a different perspective that might be sorely needed in this world.

          • Laurel

            (deleted, misplaced)

        • Laurel

          Privilege is relative. I taught math in Philly for a while: I never met a kid at that high school who had two college-educated parents and a reliable household income that covered the basics. That stuff isn’t enough to make you privileged in the big-city professional/arts scene, but it goes an awfully long way.

          • Class of 1980

            This is true also.

          • meg

            What I’m saying is I grew up going to school in inner city poverty. My middle school had drive bys most nights. I lived in the nice part of town, where bomb squads taking apart meth houses was a regular thing, and my “nice” high school had a 40% drop out rate. My mom taught in schools where dad and brother being in jail was par for the course. What you taught in, I grew up in for my whole damn life. TRUST ME, I know what my privilege looks like, probably better than you do. That said, when people who grew up with privilege like money and experiences throw “privilege” in my face, it makes me profoundly angry. I know what I’ve got. TRUST ME. I’ve counted every single thing I have a thousand times. And you know what? The way I grew up is one of the things I value the most. And THAT is the point.

          • Laurel

            I’m not throwing privilege in your face. I hope. Definitely not my goal. I prefer not to throw things, baseball metaphors or no. I also totally believe that you understand your own privilege, and am not (NOT) saying anything to knock what you’ve done and what you’ve learned.

            What I’m saying is that there was literally not one child at the high school where I taught who had college-educated parents and a stable income that covered the basics. Not even one. Between the level of danger in the neighborhood and the chaos in the school (example: a couple of years before I worked there, an assistant principal got shot in the leg in school), people whose parents had ANY options or resources got their kids into charter schools or moved to a different neighborhood or finagled their way into the neighborhood Catholic school or left the state or lied about where they lived. I know people who did all those things.

            In some ways we’re talking about this from different angles. You’re talking about your individual personal experience. You want people to hear that you don’t need to start out rich to end up successful, and that what you learned growing up is important and valuable. I’m thinking about it in terms of policy and politics, and in terms of the social messages people get from personal stories.

            I want to remind people who read this (not even you) that there’s a real difference between growing up around crushing poverty and violence when you have college-educated parents and a stable income that covers the basics, and growing up crushingly poor. I want to remind people of that because it’s NOT ENOUGH that highly motivated super-smart people can grow up in poor neighborhoods and learn important, valuable lessons. And I think it can be hard for people (not you, but lots of people I’ve met) to get their heads around the difference, and to understand that the backgrounds of kids at charter schools or the ‘nice’ high school (even with a 40% drop-out rate) are totally different from the backgrounds of the kids at the neighborhood high school. Or that my partner’s family privilege (not very different from yours, in a very different crazy environment) is an enormous part of why she went to college and so many other kids from her hometown ended up in jail. The privilege of having stability and parents who went to college is really effing big.

            You know this. Not everyone who reads APW does. I think it’s worth saying.

          • I want to say that there is more to privilege than its economic connotations. I just don’t find it fair to blanket ‘privilege’ to those who have a stable income and college-educated parents.

            I grew up in a relatively affluent home. However, I also grew up in an extremely emotionally and sometimes physically abusive home. Both of my parents went to college, but I viewed children who had a happy home life as more privileged than myself. Is that true? Depends on your viewpoint and about a hundred other factors.

            Privilege is individually relative, and there’s no denying that some people are dealt far, far worse hands than others. However, I think it’s 1) what you do with your cards and 2) how you improve the cards for others that really defines success. At least, in my head.

          • Liz

            For these very reasons- that privilege is relative; that privilege is not strictly economic- I tire of hearing the word. We’re all reading a blog on the internet. Thereby, we all have a certain amount of privilege. I’m a white educated woman living in America. That denotes a certain level of privilege. But, I have also faced challenges. Whether or not someone is privileged seems a secondary point in a discussion about the different challenges we face and the ways we face them.

            I’m not dismissing the very real point that certain factors automatically give some folks the upperhand. But I do think that discussion isn’t necessary EVERY time we discuss overcoming the challenges we DO face.

          • Laurel

            Yeah, totally. (Also, I’m super sorry that you had to deal with that.) There are a million ways to be privileged or not privileged that cut across each other: I was talking about economic stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only or the most important kind of privilege out there.

            One broader point I want to make is that we have this cultural idea that if you say you were privileged in some way, your accomplishments don’t count. Or that the challenges and disadvantages you had to deal with don’t count. And I think that is part of why people (including me) feel sensitive about talking about our own privileges.

            @Liz, I think this comes back to the difference between talking about personal experience as itself and talking about personal experience in social context. I tend to think of personal issues in terms of politics. Acknowledging privilege — that is, the help we’ve already gotten to get where we are — is important because it gets people to support policies that help other people have better chances in life. (My research is about policies that help rich and middle-class people, and how that makes people think about the more visible policies that help poor people.)

            Ugh. Talking about privilege on the internet is hard. Half of me is like but it’s really important and the other half is like shut up already before you hurt anyone else’s feelings. Sigh.

          • Liz

            Laurel, I agree with that point (also, I sort of want to take you out for coffee because we probably have a lot more in common than just teaching in inner-city Philly schools), but it grows tiring to reestablish again “by the way, I’m privileged!” as a footnote in every discussion about facing challenges. (I wrote a post about skipping meals so I could afford diapers and people piped in to remind me that I’m privileged. I GET IT.) I think often, though, rehashing that “are you privileged or aren’t you?” debate only serves to force people to prove their merit badges of difficulty. “Well, my parents didn’t go to college!” “Oh yeah? Well at least you have parents!” etc.

            As far as supporting better policies, I really think the major difference between a successful blogger and the students you or I have taught is that one of them was told along the way that they could work hard to achieve something. Economics, family, community, education- all of those are minor factors in comparison to being told, “Hey. You can do stuff that’s important and worthwhile, you know.” (in my experience)

          • Laurel

            p.s. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great post about the ways that privilege breaks down when you think about individuals. I want to be clear that I think privilege is most important to think about as a social force, rather than as a way of judging individual merits and experiences.

          • Laurel

            Liz, I totally agree with you that anti-privilege oneupmanship makes for irritating conversations.

            One thing I want to point out is that I started talking about the nature of privilege in direct response to other people talking about privilege, not in response to the original post. I certainly don’t think every personal story of struggle and accomplishment has to get a privilege footnote.

            About students and accomplishment and privilege: this is a much longer conversation. I’m not sure I agree with you, but let’s save it for hypothetical coffee?

          • Liz

            Coffee it is!

          • Lynn

            There’s a lot out there about poverty and what kids think about what happens to them…where the locus of control is. If I’m remember it right, kids who grow up in poverty tend to believe that if they do well on something, it can be attributed to having good luck. If they do poorly, then they must have had bad luck. Their effort rarely plays into it.
            There’s also a lot out there as it relates to privilege and power structures. The field of adult education does a lot with both. As a white female, I don’t buy into all of it, so I didn’t spend a lot of time paying a lot of attention to those specific veins of thought because like others, I feel as if I overcame quite a bit to get where I am today (for god’s sake, my father’s “home” was a utility shed that didn’t have any running water) but I can also acknowledge that I benefit from privilege. My family knew how to navigate the bureaucracies that you have to be able to move through in order to do well in school. My family knew how to be effective advocates for me and my future…even if they weren’t the most emotionally available folks around. I had it rough. So did everyone around me. But I didn’t struggle the way my fellow GA, a black woman, did when she was navigating our doctoral program. There were barriers for her that didn’t exist for me. I saw others like me succeeding. I had someone on which to model my experience. She did not.

            Admitting to benefiting from power and privilege does not diminish my experience.

          • Steph

            So, I couldn’t find a reply button for later in the thread, but just wanted to say hi and recognize you for teaching in Philly. This school year just finished today (i don’t teach but provide behavior support/intervention) and it nearly broke me. Thank you for the time you spent in our city trying to make a difference. You too Liz!

        • I am TOTALLY not trying to diminish your luck or your hard work, because they are both super apparent and amazing, but privilege that we DO have is often more invisible than that which we don’t have. yes, your lack of class privilege made you have to work those shitty jobs, but being white and marrying a man made your race and sexuality something that could be looked at as “neutral” rather than different. in other words, you didn’t HAVE to think about your race or sexuality. you did, because you are awesome, but when people see your book, it is not a “gay wedding book” or an “african american wedding book,” which i think it may have been considered regardless of the content if people identified you with one of those labels, you know?

          • Also, Liz and Laurel, I really appreciate your discussion here. I also don’t think we need to talk about privilege in every discussion about accomplishments or overcoming obstacles. But I do think it is important to bring it up when it is a discussion that might make people who are involved who don’t have the same advanatages you do feel that THEIR accomplishments or obstacles are trivialized.

          • meg

            At this point, I think the conversation is getting into difficult and insulting territory. As much as people on the internet might think they know me, my circumstances, how I grew up, and who I grew up with, the bottom line is that you don’t. Period. There are a ton of assumptions on this thread, and they’re frankly not terrifically appropriate.

            I understand that a lot of people find discussion of privilege to somehow be empowering, but for many of us, it’s not. We were dealt the hand we were dealt (the details of which you don’t know), and we made the best of it. Many of us that were dealt tougher hands do a whole lot of work (and writing in my case), trying to let other people who were dealt difficult hands know that WHATEVER the hand they were dealt, however different or similar it was, there are personal ways they can dig out, not just policy ways (because they have some limited control over their personal circumstances, and none over policy).

            The bottom line is, because I look the way I look, carry myself the way I’ve learned to carry myself, and do what I do. y’all have a whole bunch of assumptions that you’re going to make about me that may not be particularly accurate. And what’s happened on this thread is a really invasive and inaccurate dig into my personal circumstances that you don’t know very much about. So, just like anyone that writes for this site, I need to be respected as a person, and this needs to stop.

            This isn’t a policy discussion, and while I agree with you on policy, this particular dig into my personal circumstances and if you personally think about my privilege is way over the line.

          • Laurel

            Meg, I want to specifically apologize for taking this thread in a direction you found insulting. That really wasn’t my intention, and I’m sorry.

    • meg

      Sort of. I’m not totally sure I 100% believe in luck (this is also probably a long and partially religious discussion that I’m not going to get into). In that, looking back, I’ve had as much HORRIBLE luck as moderately good luck. And for me it’s mostly about keeping going, and making the best choices you can in every given moment.

      Maddie has this powerful theory of “the one terrible thing,” that most people she really thinks are awesome have had at least one terrible thing happen to them that they had to live through. And I can point to more truly awful random things than luck in my past. Most of the things that seem lucky from the outside came after a ton of hard work and failure.

      I also think the idea of luck is really disempowering, particularly to poor kids without a lot of privilege. Luck you can’t control, keeping going and making the best of it you have a chance of controlling.

      • rys

        I don’t think luck is inherently good or bad (to me, random awful thing and random awesome thing both count as luck). But I also think assuming we can control all facets of our lives (including, but not limited to, opportunities and how others behave and/or respond to us) can lead to very problematic thinking, about ourselves and about others. I agree that focusing on luck can be disempowering but I think not recognizing it can be similarly disabling, in that it allows the successful to think they’ve earned every step of their success and it allows those with less success (in whatever realm of life) to think they’ve caused their lack of success.

        We all contribute to out successes and our failures, but outside factors exist as well — call it luck, or call it something else, but there are elements outside of our control. I’ve worked hard for things that came together in amazing ways and I’ve worked hard for things that completely fell apart. The critical part is recognizing that working hard and doing what we can within our control matters, and if we’ve done that, we should be able to work with the results. But we shouldn’t pretend that either our hard work got us everything or that putting 100% is meaningless if it doesn’t yield what we seek or desire.

        • meg

          Well no. I certainly don’t think that, even one teeny tiny bit. NOT being able to control the world around you is the core of this post, really, and certainly of my life. But I don’t call it luck, nor do I believe in it, nor do I think it’s helpful to the kind of kid I was and grew up around to talk about luck, when everything is already arrayed against them. But again, that’s probably a religious discussion not appropriate for APW. Believing and knowing that there is a whole world outside of you, and you have to make the best of it, is the core of what I am saying. Luck? Yeah, we disagree there. But it’s a deeper issue than could be tackled in the comments.

          But I think, in the end, we’re disagreeing about what success IS. For me success is about getting to a point where you’re happy with your place in the world, and where you’re happy with the journey that got you there. It’s something that all of us can work towards, and sometimes we even get to find. I don’t think it’s about outside markers.

          • rys

            Having now reread your post and this thread, I think we’re disagreeing less about the definition of success and more about the interpretation of it. I absolutely agree that “the craziest and most wonderful thing you can do is slowly learn to trust yourself (and to work really hard, always pursue the most difficult goal, do unpleasant things as needed, and be nice).” I’m just not sold on the non-existence of the curveball life – in contrast to it “always being there,” I tend to see life as dynamic and responsive and changing such that we may be able to make a path out of past meanderings but that’s different than the path already existing. Anyhow, I have a feeling we disagree much less than this comment thread suggests, and it may be more a conglomeration of slight interpretive and semantic differences than anything else :)

          • Becky2

            maybe the correct term to use is perseverance instead of luck? For me that alligns with what you’re saying, Meg, and the “one bad thing.” Having the life skills of perseverance and determination and grit will see you through all the crappy jobs and bad things, but it’s not wandering into the religious territory you’re alluding to. What happens on the other side of the shitty jobs and horrible events can seem like magic or luck, but I often see it as plain old perseverance and moxy.

        • Liz

          I personally don’t often think about luck or talk about it (unless euphemistically). Except for those times when my mom says, “If you didn’t have bad luck, you’d have no luck at all.”

          I agree with the point (I think RYS made? i lost track of the comments) that you can’t control everything that happens in your life. If you know anything about my own life, it’s abundantly clear that where I am has little to do with where I planned to be.

          But to me, the point isn’t working at one thing until “luck” strikes. It’s taking what happens (whatever pitch the pitcher throws, I guess, if we continue with that metaphor) and then working with THAT with all of your might. Until something (out of your control) changes. Then, you bust your ass on THAT and try to make it work.In the example of singleness vs marriage, when someone says “you just need to work harder to find someone” they’re establishing “being partnered up” as the definition of success: as the goal. I don’t see it that way. I planned to be single for my whole life (not lying, this is the truth) and then I met someone, and I had to determine how to best play the hand I’d been dealt.

          I guess my point is that by using the term “luck” we seem to imply that you start at point A, bust your ass, and then this thing called luck either comes along or it doesn’t. I sort of see things differently. You start out with what you’ve got, and you bust your ass on it until you need to change lanes.

          Does that make sense? Did I just spill a coffee-fueled ramble into the internet?

          • meg

            Yes, this.

          • Jashshea

            “start at point A, bust your ass, and then this thing called luck either comes along or it doesn’t”

            I don’t define luck that way. There are people who are no-good sloths there whole life, then they have a stroke of luck and get something they didn’t earn. There are people that expend a ton of effort on a particular goal and don’t achieve that goal for whatever reason.

            Speaking from my experience, any successes I’ve achieved have come from the combination of hard work/preparation and good fortune/a leg up/luck.

            Furthering the sports theme a bit (and I find sports to be a great way to describe how I feel about luck vs preparation) – very few professional athletes would attribute their successes fully to preparation or skill. Most also include a time when a powerful coach took a particular interest in them or they happened to have a great game when a scout was watching or the player in front of them got injured and they stepped up. Those secondary (or tertiary) items are what I call luck – something out of your control happening that breaks down the barrier to your success.

            Of all the “things” that make someone successful, luck is the least important in my book – working hard, natural aptitude, and being on the lookout for opportunities will get you light-years further than silly ole luck.

          • meg

            Though we also haven’t talked about talent. If you ask me, talent is the real bitch, because you have what you have. And the best you can do is figure out where your talents lie and work hard at them. But in the end, your talents pick you, not the other way around. And there you have ZERO control.

            Once there is talent, in my experience, it normally gets found out one way or another. But what you’ve got is… what you’ve got. (I’ve had less talent in some areas than I wanted, and man is it painful.)

          • Liz

            Jashshea, I’m not sure where we’re miscommunicating, but the sports example you just gave seems to be exactly what I was trying to say in the phrase you quoted.

            For some athletes, maybe bloggers, some models, whoever- I’m sure that’s how it happens some of the time. But the formula is a bit off because certainly not everyone accomplishes things that way! We can’t see success as a matter of “work hard at what you love + hope that you stumble upon some luck = maybe you’ll strike it big.” The chance that my super sweet basketball skillzz are noticed by a giant coach are slim to nil. UNLESS I find a way to play where I know the coach is going to be visiting. And I bust my ass practicing the whole week prior.

            Very often, “luck” is just a matter of taking what you already have (like Meg mentioned talent, but also experience or resources or whatever else), busting your ass with that, strategically positioning yourself and being aware of what’s going on around you, and being flexible to change as it comes. Which is why the word “luck” seems to fall short, for me.

          • Thank you for this, particularly this bit:
            “It’s taking what happens (whatever pitch the pitcher throws, I guess, if we continue with that metaphor) and then working with THAT with all of your might. Until something (out of your control) changes. Then, you bust your ass on THAT and try to make it work.”

            That’s pretty profound. And an excellent way to look at life – one that I’m going to remember.

          • I can’t reply to the right thing, so I apologize in advance for confusing matters . . .

            Talent is a bitch! Although for different reasons, in my opinion. Yes, you have what you have. In many cases, however, many people are SO FREAKIN’ TALENTED that it takes that extra little bump up — in whatever form it comes — to stand above the crowd.

            That’s not to say that one can’t use those talents in a way that’s different than imagined; of course it’s possible, and it happens all the time.

        • i’m not sure where to put this comment, since there isn’t an option to “reply” everywhere. i’d also like to apologize for my contribution to the direction of personal attack that this thread took. my original comment about privilege was more a response to the comment above it about “luck” than to the post itself, and my later comments were response to the conversation.
          most of the social circles, online and off, make it a habit to question privilege, and i maybe mistakenly assumed that was fair game for conversation here a well. my concern is not with your individual story, meg, but rather how the idea of hard work has historically been used to fault people who are working hard but because of outside forces have not been able to succeed for not working “hard ENOUGH.” i directed that concern at your individual story, though, and for that, i’m sorry.

      • Class of 1980

        “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

        Seneca, Roman dramatist, philosopher, & politician (5 BC – 65 AD)

        • meg

          You know, in my early twenties I thought this was total bullshit, and now I don’t. I also think that, bringing it back to kids without privilege, this is something they can work with. IE, “You don’t know when you might have a moment of opportunity, so you better do everything in your power to be prepared.”

          In my High School we had to work our ASSES off to get into college, because we had to be able to *prove* how good we were, coming from a really poor high school. And then, on top of it, we had to land a big scholarship to have a chance of attending. If you’d told me getting into college was just luck, I think I would have given up right then, because I was already so damn tired from working 13 hour days plus weekends to make my academics live up. But no one told me that. Instead they told me working hard was my ticket out, that my job was to be as prepared as possible. And THAT is what gave our super poor high school the highest full IB Diploma graduation rate in the state of CA. Because it sure as hell wasn’t our resources. It’s that people told us hard work and preparation was our ONLY CHANCE TO GET OUT. And we knew they were right. Maybe luck played into it, who knows. But I sure as hell didn’t have time or energy to think about it.

          • Class of 1980

            Think of luck as opportunity. That’s all it really is.

            However, all the luck/opportunity in the world won’t save you if you’re not prepared.

            You have to be prepared with attitude, skills, talents, and stamina … and the ability to recognize the opportunity in the first place.

          • Rasheeda

            That’s it! Luck is not in the deck of cards I was dealt. For many people that have similar backgrounds to mine (lower middle class, African American, urban area), luck was never even DISCUSSED. You worked, because lazy was detested and not accepted. You were strong, because being weak meant you didn’t eat. You believed in a spirit greater than yourself because, well , somebody had to orchestrating something bigger than what you could see. But luck, naw, not that thing. Luck never really panned out for people that looked like me, so we never talked about that, it was never an option to rest on that. So basically, YES to all that!

          • meg

            Yes. This. Exactly. This is how I grew up too. Why even discuss something that was never going to help you out? Luck doesn’t even know how to find my High School, I think. It gets lost in the nice areas along the coast before it even gets there. But YES to believing in a spirit greater than yourself, because you weren’t going to have a chance of doing it alone. I know it’s odd to differentiate the two to the outside eye, but to me they are night and day.

          • rys

            “Think of luck as opportunity.” I like that. I think that gets at what I’ve been trying to convey in terms of outside factors that could be good or not. You have to be ready when opportunity arises, but you can’t control when it comes your way.

            To go back quite a few comments, I think this is particularly apt in terms of love. I’m now in a place where I’m content with my life, single as it may be. It took me a long long while to get here, not because the world doesn’t think singledom is ok (which it often doesn’t) but because I had to find a space in which I could be ok being single and wanting to be partnered all at the same time. And what that means, for me, right now, is enjoying my life but still holding onto the possibility of the opportunity of meeting the person for me. Because “working hard at it” — whether it’s emailing a set number of guys online or making sure to talk to a set number of people while out or making sure all my friends know I’m looking, well, that’s work that, in my case at least, led more to disappointment and self-loathing and frustration than anything else (i.e., I’m doing all the work that I’m supposed to and yet nothing happens). I learned that either pretending I don’t want a partner or, conversely, working really hard to find one, are not sustainable options for me. In contrast, being who I am, happy with what I’m doing, and how I’m living, and still hoping that opportunity knocks, well that’s a place and space I can accept and hold on to. But it took a long time to get here.

      • One way to look at luck (a theory I’ve developed partially as a result of reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell), is that it is hard to tell what your luck is when you are in the middle of it. One example from the book is a group of lawyers who were considered lower class and not invited to join big firms, so they started doing things no one wanted to do, hostile company takeovers. Then the business world changed and suddenly hostile takeover became common and important and these lawyers made it big. Some of the programmers who couldn’t get jobs at IBM ended up working around the fringes and creating the mega-internet companies that are running things today.
        My point is that while I believe that luck exists, I don’t presume to know what will actually pan out as “lucky” when I look back in 15 years. I choose to treat every situation I find myself in as potentially lucky and take advantage of all opportunities that come my way, no matter how small or insignificant or unlucky they might seem at the time. Or to put it another way- “If you want more luck, take more chances, be more active, show up more often.”

        • Class of 1980

          You nailed it.

          I do often think … “How can I turn my disadvantages into advantages?”

        • meg

          Mmmm. And I’d argue those lawyers were the furthest thing from lucky. They didn’t have luck, so they worked the hell out of whatever they did have. Later that LOOKED like luck.

          • Class of 1980

            Substitute the word “opportunity” for “luck” and everything makes sense.

            You saw the opportunity to talk about weddings in a different way than anyone else was doing.

            Your own unique perspective and skills are part of why you saw the opportunity in the first place, and they (along with drive) are the reasons YOU made it happen, instead of someone else.

            I think your unprivileged background informs the point-of-view of APW, and it turns out to be something the wedding world desperately needed.

            More privileged wedding writers never saw the opportunity in the first place.

          • Class of 1980

            Also …

            Sometimes Opportunity walks up and knocks on your door because it sees you (doing your thing) first.

            Sometimes you see Opportunity before it sees you, and you go knock on it’s door.

          • Rasheeda

            Just to piggy back on this idea of luck and the idea of it in another sense, gambling. My husband (the simple wise man he is) was teaching me how to play craps and he said you stick with your bet (perseverance), you make a bet and you stick with it. You play that bet all night if you have to, you may lose, you may win but you never change your bet. I think that simple advice speaks volumes even in life. You find your strength/talent/desire/passion, and you play it as long as you can. You may win, you may lose. But you play that until you can’t play anymore.

      • This whole comment.

        Overall I don’t know how much I can comment without drifting towards spiritual/religious beliefs, but I do want to say this much. I really dislike the idea of luck. Having cancer as an adolescent and living through it causes a lot of people to call you lucky, and the idea that whether I lived or died was somehow decided by some disembodied coin flip is aggravating.

        This discussion also hinges a lot on how you define the word luck. For me luck has always carried a negative connotation. I’ve seen a great number of people who use it as a crutch, false hope, or as an excuse not to invest themselves fully. So I just don’t really like thinking in those terms.

        • Class of 1980

          With the cancer, people don’t know what other word to use to convey that you beat the odds.

          • This is something that I’ve understood with age. I probably should have phrased it “was aggravating to 16 year old me.”

  • PA

    “What made it work was never feeling (or having the luxury of feeling) above taking a paying job and figuring out how to excel at it, so I could pay my bills (and later our bills). ”

    Thank you so much for including this in a success story. One of the most difficult parts of the past few years, since graduation, has been untangling my sense of self-worth from the specific career goals I held. Some of those things may yet come to be, but life has brought all sorts of wonderful things that I would never had had the opportunity to see if I had gone haring off to Save the World immediately.

    For instance … my fiance. And OTHER career achievements. *grins*

  • Jashshea

    Yah for appropriate baseball metaphors! Makes me crazypants when people refer to “doing a great job” as “stepping up to the plate.” “Stepping up to the plate” is “showing up for your job.”

    You have to hit the ball or sweat out the count to “do a great job.” And you’ve done a great job, dammit!

    That is all for now.

  • Carbon Girl

    I loved this, “always pursue the most difficult goal.” It can be hard to wrap one’s head around and often one can think they don’t deserve to even try, but aiming high has its rewards even when one falls short.

    And what is it with our cultural narratives? They can be so unhealthy and damaging. It irks me to no end when people use their age as an excuse. My husband does it at 30, my mom at 55. It is a huge pet peeve of mine. Though, the cultural narrative on aging drives me to push myself harder because I am a contrarian that likes to prove people wrong. But really, why does our culture portray fun as ending after your “youth” and marriage as “a ball and chain”. Seriously, why??

    • meg

      Age as an excuse. HUM. Thoughtful pause.

    • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

      I goes another way as well, in that the cultural narrative also often says that when you are in your teens and twenties, that you should just be having fun. Sure, you should go to school, but you don’t really *need* to have ambitions so you can be more or less irresponsible and get away with it ’cause you are still a kid. Untrue of course, and perhaps not what everyone hears. It’s almost just as smothering to hear that side of the cultural narrative, especially when you’ve had to work so hard to provide yourself with the future you wanted.

  • As a person who also has a series of seemingly unrelated jobs, I’ve also tried to explain to people (read: my parents) that I did learn something from each of those that makes me better in my current profession yes, but also makes me better as a person (and a tipper!) And as a person whose current profession is teaching kids with language-based learning differences, I love reading that you are dyslexic and making a living at writing. There are so many amazing strengths that come with the way dyslexic brains are wired differently, including having a terrific memory! Here’s an article I shared with my students this year that specifically mentions that and other strengths:

    • meg

      Wait! My long memory is tied to dyslexia???? No one ever told me that!

      • A lot of the science is new since they’ve only recently figured out how to study the brains of living people. Apparently dyslexia isn’t a deficiency, just a different system of wiring. It makes it more difficult to do a lot of the things kids are asked to do in school, especially in early learning, so it’s been regarded as a deficiency. The studies show strengths in several areas, including narrative thinking, meaning the dyslexic brain processes better in story form. For example, my fiance is dyslexic and found when he was in med school that he learned much more effectively from case studies than from text books because the information was presented in a narrative. They say that’s why dyslexics tend to have great memories for events – you remember the story. The flip side is difficulty with rote memorization, which is what they want you to do in school (multiplication tables, etc.) But a whole lot of creative folks are people with learning differences. It makes sense – a brain that processes the world differently sees different possibilities. It also means that you always had to work harder to do what the other kids did in school, so it made you (and my fiance) unintimidated by the idea of hard work..

        • Thank you so much for that article! I am moderately dyslexic, and have a long, rich memory. I had no idea the two were linked, but that article describes me very well (it is a little eerie, actually).

        • Wow, this has me wondering if the flip side of this works too. Because I am unusually gifted at rote memorization, but I can barely remember my own life. Seriously. I’ve gone on whole vacations and not remembered them later. Thank you for that Wired link, really fascinating stuff (I think the second Wired link this week I’ve clicked on from APW about memory…hmm).

      • I remember reading that people in societies with oral history traditions but not written literature tended to have better memories than those who rely on the written word; I never thought of it being connected to dyslexia, but that makes sense. Fascinating.

  • Lynn


    Yesterday, while doing my morning pages, I was ruminating on turning 36 and my job which is difficult and where I’m going and how my Soul is screaming for creativity and some sense of fulfillment. Which is great and all but there are still bills to pay…particularly while my husband is going back to school.
    So. Yeah. In the meantime, while my dreams marinate and my Soul is preparing for where it needs to be, I’m going to be doing the best that I can every where else.

    It’s a job; it has to be done; let’s get on with it, shall we Soul?

    • meg

      God. I’m sorry. I hate times like that. But I hope it helps to remember that there is also value in knowing how to get on with it. I really love that in a person (and it’s rarer than you’d think).

      • Lynn

        I think I am remembering how to get on with it. I occasionally fight and kick about it because sometimes it’s nicer to wallow in the dysfunction. At the end of the day, though, while the fighting and kicking might feel good when it’s happening, it doesn’t do me much good and it doesn’t change the circumstances.

        Last week I was told, “Other people and things very rarely change, which means that if something is going to change, it’s got to be you.”

        So true. Fight where I can, do what I believe is right, treat people fairly, look for what is good rather than focusing on what is bad and putting one foot in front of the other.

        I believe that my husband and I are building a beautiful life. We might not be adding bricks to that beauty every day, but every day we can least find a little bit of sand that will eventually become the mortar holding it all together. It is enough right now. Things will work themselves out; they always do.

  • Julia

    I really enjoyed this piece and the lessons even for non-creative-types. The assumptions about career -that at some point you “level-out” and move in a linear trajectory- are the same for relationships. A big hump in deciding to get married for my fiancé was the overwhelming fear that once you get married, That’s It: things level out, and the adventures of your early years together are a memory. Because that’s the message that permeates popular culture and even has been the experience of some married people we know. But from my POV, the future is wide open* and life is what you make it, so as you said, be nice and pursue the most difficult goal.

    *I agree with earlier comments about the role of luck/connection/socioeconomic background in career and life opportunities, but am generalizing here.

  • Okay, APW is doing that uncanny thing where it’s in my head. Again. It’s too early for me to write anything more than that (I tried, and it was a garbled mess) so I’ll just leave that comment with a “THANK YOU” for this post. It’s totally where I am right now.

  • Audrey

    Thank you so much Meg.

    I am paying the bills with my job right now. Trying to drum up passion for the work as I do it, but also running towards other opportunities full speed.

    It’s a bit amazing because I feel like for a few years I have floated. From the DREAM job that turned out to be much less ideal, to temp work, to a job that is still outside the realm of anything that I’d ever imagine myself doing (and kicking butt in that job). Thankfully and finally I’m reaching the point where I understand that I’ve got to live for myself. I’m pursuing my passions (Art! Mentoring! Non-Profits!) outside of my job. AND getting married in 2 weeks, coincidence? Absolutely, most certainly, not. I’ve felt nuts for taking on more and more in addition to all this planning, but this post is the most perfect reminder to me that it all goes hand in hand. This post at this time was exactly what I needed to see as I try to embrace this all!

  • Rasheeda

    Your posts are always right on time! I’m facing possible unemployment in the coming months(we just lost a big client with no other one insight) and everyone around me is freaking out and I am…not. I knew this was going to end for me one day, I just didn’t know when. So, now I need to figure out the next life phase as this one comes to a close.And I needed to hear all of this. And oh how I wish it was set to music so I could just put this on repeat. And as I approach 30, you are so spot on, I am learning to look back and look in more and more. Because so much of my youth I was taught to look outward for validation, direction, justification but the truth is, I always needed to look in.
    Thanks for the message.
    Heard. Understood. Recognized. Acknowledged.

    • meg


  • WAIT! That’s crazy!

    I too worked at Magnolia in 2002 (probably Jan-July?) icing cupcakes and entertaining/corralling people (I know that side window/icing station well)… did you replace me? were you there then? Left to go work in non-profit management/arts education and later grad school but that’s a weird small world thing. Such a nice group of super creative and interesting people, including the really gentle man who lived (rough?) in the neighborhood and used to come in and assemble boxes (Robert?).

    Ten years later and when I smell vanilla buttercream I still think of the bakery.

    • meg

      Oh god that job. I don’t know! Since I don’t know who you are. And I can’t remember the precise dates I worked there… I think it was late 2002.

      • I’m trying to think if I think I recognize you (not really sure that internet people really look the same in real life and it was a long time ago). I’m the person who wrote the wedding graduate post about ‘rites of passage’ a few months ago so there’s pics there if that helps? Also I was probably the person with the fewest tattoos, and I think I wore my hair a lot in braids then (it wasn’t that long from the 90s).

        Anyhow, good(ish) times. the job was kind of random, often (I thought) too filled with bankers who thought cupcakes were a cute ironic date night late in the eve, but in some ways a really nice soft landing for my first job in NY.

  • I love this post. You capture things I’ve pondered myself and I love your attitude about age. It is similar to my own. And the long memory? Me too. People think I am crazy for the things I can remember from my toddler years. I told you we were kindred spirits. ;)

  • I’ve worked a lot of different, hard jobs because I’ve never had the option not to, and I feel exactly the same way about tipping.

  • aly

    This post reminds me of something I just read in Jeanette Winterson’s new book, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?”:

    “In my work I have pushed against the weight of clock time, of calendar time, of linear unravellings. Time may be what stops everything happening at once, but time’s domain is the outer world. In our inner world, we can experience events that happened to us in time as happening simultaneously…. I measure time as we all do, and partly by the fading body, but in order to challenge linear time, I try and live in total time. I recognise that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.”

  • This post was a good reality check. About moving forward, keeping on, and doing what makes you happy regardless of others’ opinions. I’m turning 30 this year so my husband and I are taking a trip to Europe and I’m super excited. But I have to admit, I was looking at this trip like it was the finale of all my fun and exciting times in life when really it’s the beginning of the next chapter. I can choose to let my path be as fabulous or lame as I choose. I’m going for fabulous! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  • Baseball metaphors and making life work for you (you working with life?)? You’re talking my language this morning lady.

    “I just had to step up and hit it. Hard.” My dad and I shared a lot when I was in high school as he helped me practice for softball (he’d played college baseball and coached for a long time). But the advice he always gave me was “If you’re going to get in the batters box, you’re going to have to be patient. But when you swing, swing it like you mean it.”

    Damn right.

    • Kara

      I’d make it a double-exactly if I could. Don’t go tilting at windmills either…but if you’re going to….

    • Jashshea

      That’s where it starts to get fuzzy for me – because in life striking out looking is probably pretty bad, generally speaking and going down swinging is preferred. But in a game, well, did you take a ton of pitches? did the pitcher have to show his hand to the next guy up? did you set up a steal?

      I may be taking this too literally. I just love baseball.

      • That’s why baseball as life metaphors work so damn well–because there’s a million and one variables. Perhaps taking this a step too far (nah…): you have to expand your strike zone with two strikes. You have to work the job you don’t really like or swing at the pitch that might not be “yours.”

        • Jashshea

          Which harkens back to being capable of spotting opportunities and being prepared for them when they do show up.

      • One of the things that gets me through the day in my job is making my students laugh with various Americanisms. “A swing and a miss” is a big favourite this week.

    • “You working with life.”

      This so perfectly describes what I’m trying to do in my own life right now. Life doesn’t work with us, it just throws it’s stuff at us. It doesn’t care what we want, and we can’t control it so just go with it.

  • Wow. Thank you. I imagine a lot of artists really indentify with this, including me z

  • Class of 1980

    I have noticed that being unaware or underprivileged can sometimes blind a person to opportunity.

    I currently live in a small town in the mountains that is both rural and resort. You’ve got the locals who lived by farming or factory work that is no longer here. The elite locals are in local government or own long-standing businesses or made money selling their land. Most locals are not elite.

    Then there are newcomers who either retire or open a business here. They come with money and a wider experience of the world outside.

    One thing I’ve noticed that that no local ever seems to open up an innovative business. It has been mostly newcomers who have seen the opportunity to open businesses that are like where they came from. They can see what’s missing, whereas a local who never lived anywhere else never misses it in the first place.

    For example, we have a grocery store that is a monopoly in the region. While they do carry some organic and alternative products, it is not their focus. They carry absolutely no artisan products from the region even though there are plenty.

    There is an opportunity for someone to fill the gap by opening a small store specializing in alternative/regional food products and locally grown produce. I already know that when it happens, it will not be a local that makes it happens. Nor will it be locals who shop there.

    They simply don’t SEE the opportunity or the need because of their background and because they themselves would never be the target customer.

    • Class of 1980

      Another example …

      I was in the liquor store and saw an elegant looking bottle that turned out to be Moonshine! The bottle was so nice, that I did a double-take.

      The lady behind the counter told me the story behind the brand. She said a lady moved to Asheville, NC a few years ago, and a local gave her some Moonshine. She thought it was wonderful and asked him for the recipe and the right to market it.

      Then she jumped through all the hoops to manufacture it legally and get it into the stores. It’s been a great success.

      I can’t help but wonder what the local who gave her the recipe is thinking now. He missed the opportunity because he didn’t know what he had or how to market it.

      • Dawn

        Ha, Asheville does have some pretty darned good moonshine! The best tasting drink I’ve ever had was still some moonshine I tried from a coworker whose neighbor made it — tasted just like vanilla ice cream.

  • low talker

    YES to this post. I love being 31, and also 1-30 all at the same time. If I hadn’t been where I’ve been, I wouldn’t appreciate where I am now.

    Slight adjustment needed though, since this is about owning your age and experience – you’re now in your fourth decade! (just like how you turn 1 at the end of your first year – you turn 30 at the end of your third decade).

    Swing for those fences, ladies (and gents).

    • Wow, I’m impressed with myself that I remembered a short story in a book that I haven’t picked up since freshman (sophomore?) year in college. It’s by Sandra Cisneros, and it’s called ‘Eleven.’

      “What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and sex, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, ole it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are — underneath the year that makes you eleven.”

      It’s a great short story; if anyone wants to take a couple of minutes to read it, it’s here.

  • Jessica

    I loved this quote: “That we find our calling by focusing on the things other people tell us are important, not by listening to the things we know we love.”

    That is exactly how I feel many times. I’m in a career I don’t really love because others told me I’d be good at it, it paid well, and I could make a good life for myself. Now here I am, late twenties, considering going back for another Master’s degree in something I actually like and starting over with a brand new career. It’s scary but liberating because maybe I will finally really be happy with where I am.

  • Thanks, Meg. This post reminded me how important perspective is. I too have had many shitty jobs. But I resented them, because they took me away from fun things, like art. I appreciate your perspective, that maybe those jobs are not just necessary (for other “fun” things, like eating), but useful, instructive and important.

    “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

  • I love your long list of crappy and non-crappy jobs, Meg. I have one of my own, starting from age fifteen, and these days I’m starting to recognize my meandering career history as an asset. Having been in the place of not being above taking a job (ANY job) in order to pay the bills has meant learning how to work hard in any situation and tying my self-worth much more loosely to “what I do.” I’m grateful for those lessons and wonder if I could’ve learned them otherwise (or how long it might’ve taken).

  • Laura

    I love this post.

    Earlier on I was having a lengthy chat about very similar thoughts – how your career path doesn’t always make sense, and sometimes the best you can do is make small, well thought out decisions when you can. At that moment you might not see where it’s going, but one day you’ll see how it worked into where you are.

    That Madeleine L’Engle is wonderful too, thank you.

  • Purple

    I turned 30 this week and this was such a pleasure to read. Thank you, Meg! (Also, welcome to the east bay. It’s way better here.)

  • I absolutely love that Madeline L’Engle quote. I have always remembered my childhood in rich detail and consequently get along really well with kids. I even remember crying for no reason other than it distressed the babysitter ;)
    Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book about her long marriage and partnership with her husband that would be wonderful APW book-club material – Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. It was published 25 years ago, so it is not exactly hot off the presses, but wisdom ages well.

    • One of my favorite books. Love stories like her and her husband’s beat Nicholas Sparks any day.

  • Rachel

    A year ago, I quit a job that had captured my soul straight out of college and, frankly, still hasn’t lost its grip. It was soul-crushing, after a while. I got a master’s for that job. I worked my tush off for that job. I literally starved my way from paycheck to paycheck so I could pay my student loan bills.

    About 2 months ago, I accepted a job as a housekeeper. I am the only person on staff with a college education–let alone an advanced degree. And you know what? All the time I spend with my head in other people’s toilets has made me a lot happier than that soul-gripping job. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. Maybe, one day, I’ll know why.

    My point is that This Odd Game of Life has the strangest twists and turns. I might be 80 and still feel the claws of the old job in my heart. I might be 80 and laughing at the fact that I cleaned up other people’s pubic hair for $8.50/hr for a while. Or, perhaps, I might be 80 and feel proud that I took a job deemed “below me” by… well… pretty much everyone because that job helped me accomplish goals my husband and I had set before we even got engaged. I’m excited to find out.

  • Kathleen M

    Meg, I work at a college and I think I’ll have to show this to my students. They are under so much pressure from their parents to be financially successful that no one seems to have much trust in themselves to be brave and broke and confused for a while. Posts like this show that so much good can come from being brave and broke and having to be confident in yourself.

    • meg

      That would be AMAZING. Please tell me if you do!

  • Megan

    This is my first comment on your website, which is kind of weird, but whatever.

    But this essay made me say some very important things to my fiance, and I wanted to say thank you.

    My own career looks a bit more like a knuckleball, but I’m okay with that, because without the erratic trajectory, I would never have found this amazing thing that I truly love to do. My fiance’s looks like a curveball that hasn’t yet come across the plate- he doesn’t love what he is doing, and he is trying to figure out what that means. And that’s okay. And reading this made me realize that I needed to SAY that to him, not just walk around thinking it.

  • Pingback: Careers, Curveballs, And Hitting Hard « A Practical Wedding: Ideas … | Dream Wedding Planning()

  • Your posts like this make me hopeful and make bang my head against my desk that the first thing I do in the morning, is not read your blog. I will be rectifying this immediately. A much belated thank you for this post, as I am about to be brave and start applying for jobs that hopefully will be more fulfilling than the dead end job that I have now. Sometimes I think that I don’t know how to make goals because I can’t see the steps between where I am now, and the lofty someday goals. Heeding the advise to “just try anything else” doesn’t seem terribly productive, but then neither does staying in an unsatisfying unfulfilling job just because they pay me (not even well). Thank you Meg. Your curveball trajectory makes you my hero.