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).

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