Succeeding (And Being Okay With Not)

Success. Aiming for it. Feeling like we missed the boat. Lack of job opportunities. Envy. If there is anything that defined my 20s (and my very early 30s), this was it. And now, with the job market in wreckage, this is a conversation that’s happening over and over again, whispered over the pillow late at night, discussed over dinner, sobbed about over the dishes. Michelle’s post about coming to terms with feeling less successful than her husband is a conversation we all need to be having on a grand scale. Success and shame are too closely wrapped together to keep these conversations private. (Also, if you’d like to submit a post on success, careers, and your relationships, please do!)

When Josh and I got engaged in college, we were six hundred miles apart and our day-to-day relationship consisted of talking on the phone and online. Sometimes about the boring stuff, but sometimes about the big, meaningful, how-will-we-approach-the-rest-of-our-lives stuff. I’m not going to lie. Going into premarital counseling and into the wedding, I pretty much thought we had it figured out. We took a quiz designed to see how we lined up on the Big Issues, and aced it. I was psyched.

As our long engagement wore on and graduation and the wedding inched up on us, we made an agreement. I was in Boston, he was in Pennsylvania, our families were in Ohio, but we decided that we would move to wherever one of us got a good job first (knowing it would probably be none of those places). And I, as I tend to do, whispered to myself I got this. My head was full of plans to make it big and the stubborn expectation that I would do it before my graduation cap hit the ground from its celebratory toss. Some of my friends had already landed sweet jobs, and I was at least as awesome as they were.

Then Josh’s great internship position in Virginia turned into a great job offer in Virginia, and off we went. Newlywed bliss and snuggling and eating real food instead of frozen chicken fingers was wonderful. We enjoyed every minute together, but during the long days when Josh was at work, I was compulsively checking Craigslist for job postings and wondering why my awesomeness wasn’t paying off yet. I got really depressed, fast, and had pretty regular breakdowns about how I couldn’t contribute, and my education was a waste, and I was worthless. Bitterness and nervous breakdowns are not exactly things you want to be experiencing at the beginning of your new life. (Side note: I became convinced that the solution to all my problems was to have a baby for some validation. Thankfully, Josh very nicely pointed out that we had been married four months and to calm the heck down.) Eventually I found a mediocre job that gave me something to do and a paycheck, but I still felt unfulfilled.

About a year and a half into married life, Josh came home seeming extra stressed. His current position was being eliminated, and he could apply to two other ones—one in DC and one in Denver. We deliberated for weeks and asked just about everyone we knew for advice, but when he was offered both jobs, we had no idea what to do. I told him it was his career decision, but I also didn’t try to hide the fact that I desperately wanted to start my job search over in Denver. He knew I had sacrificed when we moved to Virginia, so we decided to go west. We got on a plane and looked at the mountains as we landed and thought, “Holy cow, what have we done.”

Employment has come much easier here for me, but Josh is still very much the breadwinner. Maybe it’s because I am a few years out of college or maybe because I have a decent job now, but I have been slowly absorbing the idea that my job is not my life. I can and do find joy in traveling, spending time with friends, learning new skills, supporting Josh, and serving others in a way that would not be possible if I was successful in the way I originally wanted to be. (I am reminded that you can have everything you want, just not at the same time.)

But, I am not perfect. Sometimes I still get a little cloudy over the fact that Josh is making progress and has an impressive and solid career trajectory, and I am a somewhat specialized manual laborer. He finished his Master’s degree a couple weeks ago and is in the process of getting a promotion and hiring someone to work beneath him. He is extremely smart and (probably correctly) said the other day that he feels like he could have done well in almost any career. My old feelings of inadequacy snuck up on me, and that little voice in my head said and you can barely do well in the field you’re trained in! I had to forcefully remind myself our wonderful life and the things I would have to give up to have it any other way.

A quote from So Long, Insecurity by Beth Moore (a terrible title but an amazing book that every woman should read) came to mind. It is referring to the “bad math” that women use when comparing themselves to each other, but I think it applies to the competitive pressure between spouses to be successful too.

“We can esteem another [person’s] achievements without feeling like an idiot…. Where on earth did we come up with the idea that we have to subtract value from ourselves in order to give credit to someone else?”

Life is not a contest, and I would be terrible at Josh’s job. I like being a worker bee in a big operation with my little job to do and not too much responsibility. It just took me a while to figure that out, and it takes regular reminders to remember it.

Photo by: Emily Takes Photos

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  • Oh this hits home so much, I am right there, struggling with all those things… and it is hard. But it is true that you end up valuing other things (like you say so well, travel, time spent with family, learning skills (hello baking), and more importantly “slowly absorbing the idea that my job is not my life.”
    Not there yet, but walking that path…

  • Graduating right at the begining of the recession has almost forced me to redefine my ideas of success, and how career success fits into my life overall. What I’ve come up with, and truly believe, is that what I do to make money really is the smallest part of me. It’s not who I am, and I can’t define “success” in my life on that alone.

    But. I struggled for some time after first graduating with the disparity between my career and my partner’s. Bunny is older than me by a decade, and has had a lot of time to build his career. At the time he was working a very high responsibility job with hours and a paycheck to match … and it was hard sometimes to be making a quarter of what he made and to do something that was so mundane in comparison.

    • I hear you. I went to prep school, I was at the top of my class, I went to college and expected to take on the world…and then I graduated in 2008 with a debilitating chronic illness that barely allowed me to finish me senior year, let alone go on to grad school like I planned. My then-boyfriend, now-husband went on the grad school and now has a wonderful job working in higher education, but me? I worked in a coffee shop so I could have health insurance and am now a stay-at-home mom. I wouldn’t trade my little goober for the world and I’m grateful for what I have and what I have learned post-college, but I still wonder about what-could-have-been if I hadn’t gotten sick and feel insecure about my “achievements” in life. I look forward to going back to school someday, but that seems a long way off right now. It’s time to come to terms that the work I do everyday is valuable and my life experiences are worth more than I understand right now.

    • meg

      Yes, no fair comparing yourself to people older than you by a decade! We actually graduated into a different recession (I didn’t have a steady job for… a few years?) but then there was a boom, and we had time to build skills before it all fell apart in an even bigger way. Ten years in the workforce is a long damn time (really 1/5 of the time you would be expected to spend there), so that’s not a fair measuring stick!

      • It was definitely not fair to myself. Bunny graduated into a very different situation, had a great break right out of university that just worked out well for him in the long run and has had so much more time to build his career success. It was a lesson that took some time to learn.

        Similar logic holds that it’s also not entirely fair to compare your own career success to a partner who is in a different field that has a different job market, or who has more networking contacts in the same field. It’s all so relative.

        • meg

          Comparing yourself in general is a recipe for emotional disaster, totally not fair, and totally not necessary.

  • Kestrel

    This is something I’m a little worried about. My SO graduated in May and now has a good full-time position in the area he wants to be working in. I’ll be finishing my masters in Dec. 2013. I’m worried that if I move to where he is now, I won’t be able to find a job that actually uses my education – and that’s really important to me. Both my SO and I are engineers and it’s a rather large part of both of our identities.

    I’m also worried about asking him to follow me. We’ve had this discussion time and time again about how he wouldn’t mind and is actually planning on it when I finish my masters, but I’m still a little worried about that. Gender roles are firmly entrenched in society and while I know my SO would be fine with it, I’m worried about how the rest of society will react and how that in turn will make him feel. Silly, I know, but I’m just a bit worried.

    What if he’s underemployed? What if I am? What if someone’s unemployed? Will there be resentment? I’m still worried.

    • Umpteenth Sarah

      Are you me? Because your dilemmas sound like mine — my husband is an academic, and with THAT job comes the expectation that when a tenure-track job comes up, you hightail it to Omaha or Houston or Guam or wherever the benevolent university that wants to hire you is located. The spouse trails. It’s so common to have academic/academic couples these days that some universities will hire the spouse as a “bonus!” There’s a term for being married to a smart, educated partner if you’re an academic: the second body problem.

      I AM THE SECOND BODY. And do you know how weird that feels? I have a similar education to my husband, in a similar field, but I don’t want to be a professor — I want to work in my field for real, which means I want to live in a Major East Coast City, not (for example) Columbia, MO. But do I make him stay where we live now, so that I can work in a job that isn’t using all of my education but might someday be? Or, do I move to Whereverville, America because his jobs are harder to acquire? Ugh.

      I am a successful person. I work hard at everything I do. But, I can’t ask him to stay, and when I signed up for this marriage thing, I knew that the move-to-wherever time would come. But… now that it’s very near, I am surprised by how upset it makes me.

      • Emily

        Yes, it’s a lot of insecurity and ego checking! I just left a wonderful tenure-track job in academia so my husband and I could leave a place we didn’t want to be in. We both had on-campus interviews, but he got the offer (from his alma mater, in his hometown). Now I’m waiting for school to start so I can teach my one class I was lucky enough to get. Spousal hiring at his university was a joke.

        What I’m trying to do is just take it one day at a time. It’s up and down, but as time passes it seems like more days are up than down. It’s a wonderful (and excruciating) lesson in patience. It’s also a time to reassess – is this what I want to do; what else do I like to do? I’m trying to be positive, but like I said, it’s really a one day at a time process.

      • Kestrel

        Yeah, I’ve heard it called the “two body problem” – in reference to the famous physics two body problem ( One of my plans is to become a professor some day if possible, so that’s so scary and I would feel bad if I continually dragged my SO around, particularly to parts of the country where he possibly couldn’t get a rewarding job.

      • Anya

        I am stealing myself for this. Right now, I’m the breadwinner, and he’s working on his PhD. And then, I promised, I’ll move with him. Even though my job is about land and community and place and soil. And I’m sure it’ll feel like hell. And be an adventure. And make us switch places in the money-anxiety-breadwinner tug of war. And I am both excited and terrified. I’m already planning my self-renewal.

      • Karen

        Ok, I know it’s not D.C. or NYC but Columbia, MO is pretty awesome! I moved there in 1995 to get my master’s and loved it so much I stayed for seven more years. Don’t knock small college towns until you’ve been there. Opportunities abound where you least expect them.

        • Umpteenth Sarah

          I wasn’t trying to knock it — I spent most of my higher-ed years in smallish midwestern college focused towns. I pulled it out as an example of the kind of town that is hypothetically in our future (big Uni, more jobs for him, etc) But, as far as opportunities in what I do are concerned, that type of town is just are more limited, no two ways around it.

      • KM

        Ugh, the double academic job search is it’s own kind of hell. My husband and I are both finishing up of PhDs and while we’re both in the marked for more applied jobs, our skills are so specialized it’s not like ideal jobs are thick on the ground.

        I actually am the 1st body in the 2-body problem in that I landed a really sweet, amazing, pays well job early in the year that moved us across the country. He’s still looking, and it’s frustrating for us both. I think the gender role reversal might be adding a little to some of his success insecurities. In addition, while my salary technically can support both of us, money is tight and we’d be in a happier place financially if he could get a job. Plus I have guilt for “making him move”… this is all so complicated and we’re still working it out.

      • My FH and I are young, so we’re still in the grad school phase, but we face a similar dilemma. He’s got a great job right now, but it’s not what he wants to do forever. So he’s applying for medical school and hoping and praying, while I’m starting to have offers on the table from Ph.D. programs. And it’s such a terrible waiting game of hoping that somehow we get something in the same city; but, if not, it’s going to be quite a adventure for the next few years while we work out the taking-turns prospect and other possibilities.

      • Me too! Except C has his PhD in not only the death-knell humanities, but late 19th century American Literature, which is one of the most popular disciplines. His degree is from a 2nd tier school which is the worst place to be – 1st tier are sought after; 3rd tier are “lower risk hires” at small schools. He’s been stuck for sometime, so he’s writing a book.

        In the meantime, I am the successful partner and am on an upward trajectory in my career. I am well-respected in my field locally, so the prospect of eventually uprooting and going to the ever-elusive tenure line is scary. My career is one that is VERY portable, so I know I won’t have problems getting established, but it is still a scary thought.

        So? I have been making strategic moves to ensure I will be in demand wherever I go. I became active in my professional organization locally so I can make contacts on a regional and national level. I got my professional certification in my field. I volunteer for new projects. Etc. The fuller and more diversified my resume is, the better off I will be once this elusive tenure line does come a-callin. :)

    • meg

      I’ve written quite a bit about surviving unemployment as a couple, so it might be worth a read (plus there are a ton of good links within that post). Also, martyrdom.

    • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

      I mentioned something about this in my comment way down the page, but I want to repeat it here, just in case you’re reading all the replies. I know this is not precisely the same thing-but you will be using your education, no matter what job your are/are not working. It’s hard to love your field and know you may not be able to work in it directly, the way you envisioned. However, the things you learned through that education-the skills in problem solving, methodology etc are going to used no matter what you end up doing (personally or professionally). Maybe it seems like a small comfort, but I thought I would give you the thoughts that have helped me recently.

      Also, it’s ok to worry. A little worry keeps you on your toes ;)

  • Elsie

    This is so wonderful. It similarly describes our situation– I have a master’s degree but am underemployed, while my husband ended up with a great job with more responsibility and more pay. Thanks for the reminder that there’s more to our validation that career success.

  • Anya

    I think this connects to yesterday’s post, but here it’s more major – rather than a dishwasher, a job and money are the Thing, and just getting one, or becoming a breadwinner, isn’t the whole solution, but it’s part of one.

    What do you do in this equality-driven world when one person is the breadwinner but you think of yourselves as equals? In my relationship, I make twice as much as my fiance. I work in a job that I love, that does contribute to my sense of self and takes up oodles of time in the summer (I’;m a farmer) and it stresses him out to borrow money from me and then, in turn, stresses me out that he won’t just let me cover expenses. I tend to think that once we join our accounts, this problem will go away, but part of me knows I’m just kidding myself. I know this is the Feminist-Discussion-That’s-Been-Had, but when his (lack of) money is our Thing, him making more money than me is a flawed non-solution. So what do we do to make it okay? Clearly, one person playing “housewife” is an anachronistic non-answer as well. So what do we do? Seriously, what?

    • Kelly

      I am in the same boat. I have a job that I love that I’m successful at, and continually more so. My partner has an MFA but is temping just to earn a paycheck right now, and it’s hard. We combined our finances a couple months ago and while it’s been great to not worry about who’s paying at dinner, the disparities haven’t gone away. I feel like I’m not supposed to splurge and buy things for me, but he is adamant that it’s still my money and to do with it what I want.

      I think you just have to keep talking about it and find what feels right. Trying to change your own feelings about money just leads to discomfort and resentment. Learning to make decisions that are right for both of you, and finding ways you both contribute to your household (I don’t just mean I earn money and he vacuums, but real contributions in how you balance the hard parts of being an adult), will help you see that money isn’t everything. And it is REALLY hard. The part above where Meg mentioned sobbing over the dishes? That’s us.

    • KC

      For some people, the getting-married makes the difference between “I don’t want to borrow money from you” and “this is our money” – it’s not a guaranteed difference that you would necessarily want to bet on (maybe counseling would clarify? premarital counseling is awesome), but with us, that was one of the weird light-switches (unlike, say, whose saucepans could move out upon combining households; I think (more than five years in) we could now discuss that without super-defensive misery on both sides, but at the time, it was NOT happening).

      At this point in our relationship, it doesn’t matter much who is earning more (or not at all) as long as enough total money/financial stability is coming in, although part of that is probably because we’ve now had trade-off times. I would note that I would almost certainly be all freaked out now by not contributing as much financially if I hadn’t had a period of time where I was mostly/entirely financially supporting us. That’s really a me-thing – I am much, much happier having proved that I was willing/able to. If he’s similar to me, then that starting situation might cause him problems (and, by extension, cause you problems). If he’s similar to my husband, it might be just fine all around (husband: more sensible about these things than I am).

      It sounds like you are fine with earning more and covering the expenses, so hopefully your side of things is sorted out (by the way, since I was an initial-breadwinner too, make sure you squish or talk out resentment re: other things, though – free time, discretionary spending, etc. – it’s easy to fall into often-unfair “Well, *I* can’t go to coffee with friends during the day, why does *he* get to have time in the afternoons?”, but if you catch it fast – “Wait, I’m mad because my husband had a great day? Really?” – it’s possible to kill the resentment before scratchiness results)(sometimes household things or discretionary spending really do need to be re-negotiated for mutual sanity, though; hence *either* squish it or talk it out). Anyway, so maybe premarital counseling could help sort out whether *he* can deal with it. Seeing it as something that will likely shift over the course of your marriage may help, though.

      Good luck!

    • Alexandra

      Combine the finances as soon as possible. We combined ours shortly after we got engaged, and I’m so glad we did, because it makes me so much happier like that.

      On the other hand, as the person who previously was the “unemployed bum living off my boyfriend’s good will” (Not saying that’s what the situation is, but that exact feeling caused me to have meltdowns for 2 years), if he doesn’t have his own source of income it might not help a whole lot. But you say he is making some money, so I’d say just throw it all together and hope it stops him from feeling so guilty when he needs to borrow some from it. I can’t promise that it will stop him from feeling guilty, but if he looks at his own account and knows that he can’t afford to cover the bill, it might be a better situation to look into a mutual account and just see that “Oh yes, this money IS available to me, and it does cover what I need it to, and we don’t both go broke in the process.”

      Though in the end, if it still bothers him… Well, it still bothers him. You can’t change that, all you can do is what you are doing. It is just a really miserable situation to be in, and hopefully he can either make peace with it, or magically make more money. (I eventually just got a job and made more money, and yet I STILL feel a little guilty spending said money even now.)

    • meg

      One more vote for combining finances and thinking about everything as a team (sometimes easier said than done, but counseling can be GREAT for really specific issues like this). I’m linking to past posts like crazy today, but we have great ones on budget discussions that are totally worth a read (along with the many, many comments).

      Marriage & Money Part I
      Marriage & Money Part II
      Marriage as Mini-Socialism

      • Anya

        Thanks! I LOVE those posts and have reread them a lot. I think combining finances will help. A lot. Also, I know that once he starts making enough money to feel comfortable, he’ll come to a similar place as I am now – pure ecstasy over not only having enough money to have some left over after groceries/rent/necessities, but actually having enough to give to someone else. I LOVE that feeling, and I tell him so all the time. Because I know what it’s like and it’s not fun.

        KC – I think you’re really right about addressing the issues or squelching them. When I lived off only what I made that week, I would occasionally still by myself something nice – for sanity’s sake. I’d go out for lunch once a week to still feel human. my fiance does that too, but in very different ways than I would – so I have to remind myself, constantly, that we have different needs when it comes to our weekly paycheck, and sometimes it’s better to be happy to buy the $50 cookie sheet and drying rack set and then let him borrow money for rent, because I would have bought a dress too, and I’m the one who found the apartment that’s more than he can afford but comfortably within my grasp. And I’m the reason he bought a car. And my parents would have paid that ridiculous dentist’s bill.

  • Stephanie

    I’m a newly minted lawyer working in a job I love that pays fairly decently — enough to (just) cover our rent and groceries and income-based repayment on student loans for the past year while my newly minted lawyer husband has been looking for work. But being on the other side of this — seeing my smart, thoughtful husband with all of his talents struggling to maintain optimism in the face of an incredibly demoralizing job search with no end in sight has been very difficult. Especially on those days when I feel anxious about being the sole breadwinner or unenthused about the idea of going into work — because I know I’m lucky to even have this job. Meg has discussed her (similar) situation here before, but I guess my struggle is that I think I could be okay with MY not “succeeding,” and yet I’m having more trouble with my husband not “succeeding” because I can see that he’s so not okay with it. No real wisdom in this comment — just musing aloud and wondering if others have similar experiences/suggestions…

    • meg

      Yes. I think I empathize more with this than with anything. We had a hard time when David’s unemployment made me feel like I couldn’t take my next steps (and then I realized I just had to anyway and things got better). And there were moments of bitterness (aren’t there always, if you’re human?) But mostly, I just felt TERRIBLE that he wasn’t getting to do the work he was so brilliantly qualified for, and watching him just solder on was was damn hard.

    • See my comment above. In our case, he has a PhD and I work in the government sector, but it is the same idea. He has been struggling with unemployment and being the sole breadwinner is … stressful. We have more consumer debt than I am comfortable with, but I feel bad talking to him about my money worries because he then blames himself. So, instead, it blows up when an unexpected expense comes along and I have a meltdown. Not good. We only recently combined finances (they were essentially before, but we only made it official a couple months ago) and we’re working through this.

      It also doesn’t help that people around us are super judgy about the fact that he’s unemployed and working on a project (self-funded) that will (we hope!) launch his career. If the tables were turned, and it was me, no one would bat an eye. But men are supposed to be “providers” so the thought of ME being the breadwinner has been a hard lesson to teach others.

  • Karen

    I wouldn’t have said this many years back, but early in my career I had the blessing of being fired from the job I thought I went to college to do. I was in quite a tailspin for a long time. I had other skills and was definitely underemployed for a long time but frankly I needed that time to learn a few life lessons.

    I finally realized that the work you do to earn money is not the identity you are as a person. It took me *a long time and lots of therapy* to learn this! Many years later I have finally arrived in a job and field that I feel very blessed to be part of, but it required me letting go of who I thought I was. Amazing how that worked out.

    I highly recommend the books “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron and “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Learn to love the questions…one day you will live your way into the answers. Trust the process and yourself to make it through.

  • KB

    I have the opposite and yet still annoying problem – I’m considered “successful” because I have a higher-paying job than my fiance. Yet I hate it and would rather be doing something for a lot less money, whereas my fiance is happy as a clam in his job. There’s pressure to stay in my current job because the pay is just so damn good and we have a wedding (and a life!) to save for – but I’m really glad that my fiance understands where I’m coming from and encourages me to find something that makes me happy.

    • Totally with you on this! My fiance and I often joke about how we’re the inverse of just about every heteronormative gender role. I’m the breadwinner; he provides ancillary support. While my job is lucrative, it’s definitely not what I want to be doing a year from now but it’s my paycheck that’s holding up most of our household.

      Fortunately, the boy has been incredibly supportive. While I endeavor to complete my master’s degree in order to transition to a less soul-consuming career, he does most of the chores and keeps plugging away at his own job.

      There was a distinct moment, wrought from a supremely stressful day of work and school, where I broke down and exclaimed that I wanted to quit, but just couldn’t. He gathered me up, wiped away the tears and said, “Quit if you need to. I’ll work three jobs if I have to, but no amount of money is worth these tears.”

      Though I didn’t end up quitting, just knowing that he was willing to go to such lengths took an ENORMOUS amount of pressure off. My paycheck still holds up the household, but it’s wonderful knowing that it doesn’t have to.

    • Ambi

      KB, I have been in your position, and did end up making a change, and it has been really good for me and for my relationship. I also have so many friends (honestly, almost every single couple that I am close with), where at least one partner is unhappy in his or her job and wants to make a change but just can’t do it right now (economy, family to support, etc.). I don’t really have any good advice for you, but I do want to offer hugs and support. This kind of thing is hard. My boyfriend also left an extremely high-paying job, that had no opportunity for advancement, for a much lower paying and less prestigious job, but one where he knew he’d be able to go from there to bigger things (and he has). We have talked many times about the fact that the periods of time that we were each respectively in jobs we hated were the hardest two periods in our relationship – being so unhappy every day really does things to your personality and can put huge strains on your relationships (not just romantic relationships – we both also had very difficult relationships with our parents at those times, too). So, in the end, I’d that knowing you are unhappy and that you would prefer to do something else, even if it made less money, is a huge first step -some people never actually reach this realization and just go through life pissed off and miserable without understanding that it is their “great job” that is the problem. I’d suggest that you first talk to you fiance about how you feel, and really open up the lines of communication – you may want to lead into the conversation by saying that you aren’t going to do anything rash like quit your job tomorrow, but that you’re not happy and the two of you really need to start planning for a day when you will be able to change jobs. Then start looking. And if you can, get an estimate of how much of a pay cut you would really be taking and start trying to work out a family budget on that money. Try to live on that salary now, and save the extra money you are currently making as a bit of a cushion for the transition. Finally, and this is probably the most helpful thing I can offer, once I left my “successful” big-money job, and moved into a less-lucrative government job (that actually allowed me to do work I was interested in), I began to separate my identity from my job. I was who I was regardless of where I worked, and it really didn’t have any bearing on my friends, family, hobbies, taste in books, passion for cooking, etc., etc. – once I was able to realize who I am as a whole person, including a huge part of me that has nothing to do with work, I was able to be happier both at work and away from it, because I didn’t carry it around with me all day. If I could have done that in my previous job, who knows – maybe I would have been happier there, too. I don’t know how to tell you to work on this – it just happened organically for me. But you could try, for example, to not talk about work outside of the office – when you meet someone new, introduce yourself and get to know them based on all the other aspects of your life, and minimize work talk. Same for socializing with your friends or talking to family – just really try to connect to people based on all those other parts of who you are, and you may start internally focusing on those things too. Good Luck!!!

    • meg

      Mmm. Yes. I think it’s so asinine that we confuse money with success. I know people who don’t make much money, but are happy as clams, and people often apologize for their ‘underachievement’ or whatever. And I’m like “WAIT. Isn’t that the goal? Figuring out what makes you happy and whole heartedly embracing that?”

      • Ambi

        Ha ha, I agree (obviously), but I just posted something down below about how, sometimes, our worries about “success” have a lot to do with immediate financial struggles, so sometimes money IS a part of feeling successful.

      • Jess

        So true! I get stuck thinking this way a lot, and it is always great to be reminded that money is NOT happiness. And that worrying about money is the opposite of happiness!

    • MDBethann

      My DH and I are both “successful” in that we both have good, financially secure jobs in different parts of the government. I’ve been at my job for 9 years, and while I used to really enjoy it, I just haven’t for the last few years and feel like it is time to do something more meaningful, even if it means a smaller paycheck. So DH and I have talked about it and our plan right now is for me to stick with my gov’t job and the nice maternity and other leave perks that come with it until we have our kids (so for about the next 5-6 years). At that point, I’ll have been with the gov’t about 15 years and have a pretty good pension and 401K built up, so then I can hopefully move to the non-profit sector field and do some work that I find a bit more meaningful but won’t have the financial stability of my current job. In the mean time, I can also work to add on some skills that I’ll need for the non-profit world that I don’t currently have. After we talked this out, I felt soooooo much better because we had a PLAN for the future and I didn’t feel trapped in my job anymore. Good luck in coming up with your plan KB!

  • Oh god, yes.

    We’re both currently employed in rather decent ways. But he wants a career change, go back to school and, to facilitate that, move continents (back to his home country). My career is very strongly nation bound, so it means we’re working towards a move where I have absolutely no idea what I’ll be doing. I’ve been busy imagining reinventions of myself for as many possible scenarios I can think of, but there are very few that make me feel good.

    Where we’ll end up will depend on where he’ll get accepted into grad school. Hence, my job prospects are pretty much dependent on 145272 different factors, none of which I can influence at all. Also, his career will probably skyrocket after his new degree (and if not, it’s very solid where he is at now, and returning won’t be a problem even if grad school does not work out), but I’ll be in a place where no one can properly evaluate my previous achievements. I’ll have to start from scratch, or so it feels. Not knowing if I’ll have a (chance at) a career where we’ll end up going is the one thing that frightens me. Culture shock? Sure, doable. Leaving my relatives? Okay, can handle that. Not having a half-way decent job? AAAaaaaaaargh! Halp. Nooooooo!

    I know that for us (oh, the luxury!) money is not a problem. But I just can’t get myself to see the fact that my income isn’t necessary for our economic survival as a benefit, even though I know it is a very, very privileged situation to be in.

    I want to bring home some Tofurkey too, even if it is the last thing I’ll ever do. *gnashes teeth*

    • Umpteenth Sarah

      I feel your angst.

      I also don’t think you need to get to the point where you feel “ok” not doing what you want to do. Certainly, as people have said, things can work out. You may find meaning in your new situation. A whole world of opportunities might open up. You are not your job. Etc etc. But, it’s also ok to WANT to work and to WANT to be doing what you worked hard to be able to do. This global world is confusing, and throws wrenches into even the best-laid plans.

      I hope things work out for you, but I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong by questioning your willingness to move on from what you’re doing now.

  • Julia

    I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. If the author is truly feeling at peace with her career and her life, then that’s great, but I just don’t get the sense that she is. When she says that it takes regular reminders to remember that “I like being a worker bee in a big operation with my little job to do and not too much responsibility”? That wording doesn’t sound like someone who’s happy. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this post gives me that feeling you get when you ask a friend how she’s doing, and she says “Great!” but her face is saying “I’m miserable, please give me a hug”.

    I think it’s more than ok to find meaning in things other than work, to make your life about travel and friends and building your baby family. It’s amazing to truly be content. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that your career is not where you want it to be, that you’re still fighting for the life you want, that you’re not at peace with the way things are. Honest unhappiness is better than false contentment.

    • Michelle

      I guess the main point that maybe I didn’t make so clear is that I’m at peace with shifting my goals. When I was 19, I wanted to move to LA and be a record producer. It was a process to realize that I would’ve been miserable there, but now I am at the point where I would choose my current life over that one every time. Sometimes I feel like my 19-year-old self would be disappointed, but in the process of growing up, I’ve realized what is really important to me. The balance between my worker bee job and my friends/family/travel would not have been possible if I had been too stubborn to say “this is not what I want anymore.”

      • “Sometimes I feel like my 19-year-old self would be disappointed, but in the process of growing up, I’ve realized what is really important to me.”

        I feel this way all the time – lots of little events that seemed beyond my control at them time went into my decision not to go to law school and pursue what 19 year old me would have thought of as “big things” – instead I run a tiny business, and make a lot less money – but have a lot more flexibility. At least a few times a year I feel panicked about all the opportunity I’ve let go by, freaked out that my husband out-earns me by so much, etc…but in the end I’m doing what I love and in control of my own schedule, which is ultimately what’s important to me.

      • Julia

        Michelle, thanks for jumping back in and responding! I totally agree with you that growing up entails big, big shifts in priorities and goals. I guess I just felt like there was a discrepancy between the content and the tone of your post. Maybe that means something deeper, maybe it doesn’t. Only you know for sure.

        I can also relate to what you’re going through. My career is going ok, not terribly but not terrifically either. It could be better, and I’m working very hard to make it so. My fiancé, on the other hand, has had enormous success in his career through a combination of hard work, smarts, and sheer luck. Of course I’m wildly happy for him and proud of him, but it also bugs me a little to see the discrepancy between us. But you’re right when you say that life is not a contest — I’m not competing with him (if only because we’re in very different fields). I just want to meet my own goals, and to be just as proud of me as I am of him.

        • V

          “I just want…to be as proud of me as I am of him.” Exactly.

          Maybe its immaturity (7 years into my career?) but I still strongly define myself by my career so being proud of myself means being proud of my career. And I’m not there yet. And certainly not by comparison to my husband’s success.

          • KEA1

            I see absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be proud of your career. I wouldn’t call it immature at all; in fact, I’d say it’s exactly the opposite. I’m almost 10 years into my “career years,” not counting the years in grad school (I went right after undergrad). I’ve always wanted to be proud of my career accomplishments, and I’ve always wanted them to be a big part of who I am, but I want those even more strongly now than I did before. Pride in your accomplishments, including career accomplishments, is something you *should* have!

        • Michelle

          Hi Julia! I had a hard time writing this post, and I think that I was trying so hard to sound convincing (a reflex from feeling like I needed to defend my choices to people in the past) that it came off sounding like… I was trying really hard to sound convincing. Hahah, sorry about that.

    • KC

      I see what you mean, but I’m not sure; at least some of us are conditioned to think that we need to be *more* than a small someone contributing in a small to a larger goal. We need to be leaders – outstanding – movers and shakers – going for it! – on the top – all that. (And I’ll note right here that I’m happier with this view of things than with the “oh, because you’re female, your main goal is to be pretty and that’s all” – it’s just still not quite right on)

      But some of us really are actually happier doing our little piece; not growing an empire, not working 70 hour weeks, not famous; but going out and harvesting our bit of nectar every day and sighing in contentment when we see the collective results that we know we helped to build, and then letting it be. Both high-responsibility and low-responsibility can bring fulfillment in different situations to different people, but it can be hard to express that without self-deprecation when what you’re “supposed to” want to do is be famous/rich/important.

      Personally? I own my own small business, and it is staying small. I like doing the actual work (it’s awesome!); I do not like managing/hiring/firing other people; the business is work-based, not product-based, and does not need to “grow to survive” (at least, five years in, I’m doing very well); I get to help make the world better; and I’m generally more than content with the money it brings in (although I’m on temporary hiatus right now due to illness). If the business grew enormously (like you’re supposed to want), I would be spending all my time on business-y things, PR things, management, not on the part I enjoy. But still, people want you to be wanting your business to “skyrocket” or something; fame; wall street interviews; becoming the CEO; management structures; IPOs; big money. No, actually, I like doing this kind of work and earning enough money and I don’t like any of those other things; where I am really *is* what I want right now, and I did work hard to get here. But it feels a lot like when wedding-y people asked “oh, aren’t you so excited to choose your wedding favors?!!!” and actually, you don’t want to do wedding favors at all – but what do you say?

      Or you could totally be right and that could be a hint of dissatisfaction, not the awkwardness I’ve experienced about feeling like a Bad Feminist for being okay with something less than “impressive”. And I definitely agree with you that it’s good to be able to say “I am not where I want to be, career-wise” and to then conclude that the place you are is okay, or not okay (sometimes a not-ideal career is worth it for other reasons). But I’ve said similar half-hearted things about things *I’m* really happy about when I know they’re not what I’m expected to be happy about… so I’m not sure?

      • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

        Ah! I want to exactly this a lot! It’s ok if you don’t want to ‘have it all’. I’ve never had the ambition to be some big name, or reach the top of my profession, or whatever. I refuse to apologize for that-not everybody has to be ‘somebody’, even if others seem to think it’s shameful that I lack this ambition

      • meg

        I actually want to write a post about this. I’ve learned that people want tons of different things with small business ownership (and sometimes you have no idea what you want till you dig into it for awhile). And I think the most important thing is just KNOWING what you want, and being 100% honest with yourself about it—not feeling bad because what you want seems too small, not feeling bad because you want seems too big. Just owning it (which is theoretically why we all go through the pain in the ass of working for ourselves in the first place, right? To be able to fulfill our real goals.)

        I totally think this applies to regular work life too. But learning how to own who we really are, what we really want, and what really makes us happy is DAMN HARD WORK. Particularly because, as women, the world is out to shame you for whatever you choose (Too little: bad feminist, lazy, no ambition. Too much: bad wife/ mother, showy, all ego.) It is EFFED UP.

        • KC

          YES. I love all your Entrepreneur posts and would really enjoy reading a post on this. :-)

          Small business goals can be surprisingly like wedding choices – some people or portions of society will be surprised or disappointed or angry or jealous or defensive or condoling or not-care no matter what direction you go in.

          And I’m sure you’ve got more than enough thoughts/words on this topic already, but if any info on what I want and get out of working for myself (as a sample of a deliberately-tiny-business introvert) would be useful to you, email me! I am very bad at being concise and would need to stay anonymous, but this has been a really interesting ride o’ self-development in a lot of ways for me personally.

          Also, on the shame-blasting small business side, I assume you’ve read “The Boss of You” by Mears and Bacon? I wasn’t 100% the target audience, but still found it useful and reassuring in my first year of being a small business. It has a lot of practical info, and some non-blindfolded cheerleading (as in, “here is how you figure out how to do what you want and how financially feasible it is! Price things so you can earn a living wage and don’t feel guilty about it!” cheerleading, not “everyone can make a million dollars within a year while mostly watching TV!” cheerleading). I should probably read it again sometime…

        • MDBethann

          Meg, I think you really hit the nail on the head. The Anne-Marie Slaughter article on not “having it all” from earlier this year really hit home for me. I was actually a bit bothered by her implication that having a prestigious professorship at Princeton and being a mom wasn’t enough and that “having it all” and being successful professionally meant the mothering and the job working for the State Dept. I personally would think a tenure track position at an Ivy League school would be a fantastic gig, especially since it lets her be there for her kids.

          Why does society get to dictate what “having it all” means instead of us? What is enough for some of us (i.e. an Ivy League professorship) might be too much for some people and not enough for others (like Ms. Slaughter).

          • meg

            Totally. Or as Liz said on her post on the subject, “Isn’t she the definition of having it all?” I think it just comes down to knowing what WE want, and then finding a way to make that happen (or changing our goals along the way, if we realize, say, we’d rather be spending more time with our teenagers than working for Hillary Clinton).

          • Ambi

            I have always disliked the idea of “having it all” because it is never applied to men. When was the last time that you heard anyone talking about a man trying to “have it all” by having both a family and a career?

          • K8899

            To AMBI: exactly is not enough.

      • Alexandra

        I feel the same way some days. There’s a Calvin and Hobbes comic that I feel sums up my motivations:

        I feel like you don’t need to always want to be famous or some big mover or shaker to be successful. In the end, we can only have so many big people out there, and then you need some people to hand them a coffee in the morning, or pick up their garbage, or clean their massive house. Or even just have the little pieces in a big name company, to MAKE it a big name. Someone has to be little for other people to big. And I know some people who have over 9 years worth of untaken vacation time, and are so important to their company that they can’t afford to take more than 2 weeks of it at a time. If I ever reach that state… I’ll think I’ve messed up my goals. I don’t want to live to work. I want to work to live comfortably. And right now I have that.

      • Meredith

        This -“but it can be hard to express that without self-deprecation when what you’re “supposed to” want to do is be famous/rich/important”

        I’m still very early in my career and maybe my thoughts will change, but right now I don’t have an advancement mindset. I like my job. A lot. But it’s not my life and I don’t want it to be. I don’t want more responsibility or to move up into management. I see my current manager sending emails at 9pm on a Sunday and I think “I want my Sunday night for myself, not for work.” I like only working 40 hrs/ week.

        For someone my age I feel like this is unusual (my experience could be skewed by my peer group, it probably is). And my parents, well, my mother, seem confused by this. She sees it as lack of ambition. I see it as prioritizing other aspects of my life over my work. Because with advancement comes responsibility and a greater time commitment, which can only detract from those other, more important (to me at least), aspects. Right now, I’m not willing to make that trade.

        • MDBethann

          Meredith, as I see my bosses get Blackberries/IPhones for work and check e-mails on weekends, I often remind myself that the day my job requires me to be that reachable is the day I start looking for a new job. Unless I am teleworking or need to be reached because a meeting or some other plan changed, when I am at home, work stops and I’ll deal with it on the next business day during business hours.

    • Ambi

      I don’t really see these two things as being mutually exclusive, JULIA. What I mean is, isn’t it possible (even desirable) to recognize that you aren’t yet at the pinnacle of your career and that you are still fighting for what you want, but to be at peace with the fact that acieiving it will be a life-long process and, while you aren’t there now, you are giving yourself permission to be okay with that fact, because it is going to take time? I talk to my boyfriend about this all the time. He has a lot of internal pressure and stress about achieving certain things in his career, and he gets really down and beats himself up over not having achieved them, and my response is always, “you haven’t achieved them YET!” You can have a driving passion to get to a certain point in your career, but that doesn’t also mean that you have to be down on yourself for where you are now. Where you are now is just one step in the giant lifelong process, and every successful person will tell you that they had ups and downs and points where they weren’t the VERY VERY BEST, and opportunities that fell into their laps unexpectedly, and times that they had to struggle through having no opportunities – none of it means they weren’t, at those points, successful people. It is a long process, and an unpredictable one at that, and there is no single point along that road that determines whether you are success or not. Sometimes I think that, at least when you are relatively young, the “successful people” are the ones that believe in themselves enough to be okay with their current station in life because they know they’re on a path to doing something more in the future.

      Maybe I sound like Pollyanna. Maybe this crap-ass economy has crushed this type of thinking (and maybe it has changed the career paths I’ve described above). But I really do think you have to stop judging Who You Are based on Where You Are Now. Think about it like marriage – you can’t judge whether a 90-year-old couple had a good marriage based on the state of their relationship during some random period when they were in their twenties or thirties – or even based on how things are for them today at 90 (which may in fact be a difficult time for them) – it is about the overall experience, throught their lives together, which defines whether they had a happy marriage. The same goes for your career.

      • Julia

        This is a VERY good point. Thanks for making it!

      • Marina

        I have had that same conversation with my husband. When he was 19, his vision of himself at age 30 was very different than where he actually ended up. When we talk about his actual feelings about his actual life, he is (mostly) happy and satisfied, but occasionally feels depressed and panicked that he doesn’t have a successful acupuncture business. Or an acupuncture degree. And I, like you, always add in the “YET”. He (we) has (have) made deliberate choices that have lead our lives to where they are now, and neither of us would change any of those choices, but it has meant putting some of our goals at a lower priority level for a while. But we’ve got aaaaages! Most of the people I know who I consider successful are 50 or 60, and were NOT successful in their 30s. My husband could get his acupuncture degree 10 years from now and still have 20 years of success in that field.

  • I needed to hear(read) this today! I’ve been depressed lately about not having a job and not feeling like i’m contributing to mine and my husband’s life together. This really put things in perspective for me!

  • Jenni

    I’m getting married this coming October and I am somehow anticipating the same situation as yours. I’ve been really good in my career but I already agreed to moved to my fiance’s place after marriage (since, he’s getting a higher salary); without an assurance that I can get the job that I want in his area. I feel like going back to zero but, anyway I’m still hoping for the best for both of us. Only thing, I am sure is that it’ll be happier and worthwhile living together with him.

    • Hi Jenni,

      I moved to my husband’s city for the same reasons (almost 3 years ago now- we got married Oct 2009), and felt/feel the same way you do. It hasn’t been easy and I am still re-starting my career (partially due to a delay caused by the immigration process), but I am glad to be with my husband. Good luck in your move and marriage!

      • JENNI

        Yay! I’m also worried about the immigration process :(
        Though, I’ve worked for almost three years in the same country (but in a different area). Coz its a different thing now.
        Anyway, I’m hoping for the best!
        Getting married next month and hopefully, I’ll be able to migrate by end of December.

        By the way, I like your blog and your cat is totally adorable! :)

  • Lynn

    All I have time for this morning is Oh. God. This and so much more (said as I fear I’m about to lose a job that I could love but don’t because of other issues and desperately need right now).

    More later.

  • Umpteenth Sarah

    I have to say, the more I think about this, the more I get confused. I don’t think that being with my husband and holding an ok job is enough for me. I’m sorry. I just don’t. Does that make me a bad wife? I certainly hope not, because that’s not the idea of marriage I’m comfortable with. I can’t just wait until opportunities happen to me (after I make major sacrifices). I still hold onto the notion that I can be Marissa Mayer (or whomever), and I know that I am unhappy when I am bored. Heck, I WANT to be Marissa Mayer. “Making the best out of an unfortunate situation” isn’t what I want to do — I want to make the best out of a situation that I am an active part of choosing.

    I will say that my husband is unwilling to drag me to wherever his job is if I don’t want to go there — he considers our careers to be of equal importance to our marriage… but his is 100% important to me, and mine is 100% important to me. We want to live together, but I think we’re coming around to the idea that if we need to live apart until the perfect situation comes up (both of us with the right jobs in the right city), we’ll do that. We won’t be the first couple to do so. I am a better partner when I’m happy, and to me, happiness includes a fulfilling career on the path that I still intend to follow. Maybe I am closing myself off to the world of unexpected possibilities that come from a change in scenery. But, isn’t that ok, too?

    • Class of 1980

      It’s ALL okay. We are individuals and we don’t all need the same things.

    • KC

      I think there’s a difference between when you have options and when you don’t have options; sometimes you have to play the cards you’re dealt (i.e. paralysis), sometimes you have a chance to trade some in (i.e. we can both have the perfect job, but we’ll have to be long-distance for a year).

      Like apartment-hunting; it’d be great if the cheapest option also had the best floor plan, beautiful natural light, the space you want, abundant closets, great neighborhood – and it might! – but you might have to choose which aspects are most important, pick an apartment, and then, ideally, enjoy it (rather than obsessing over the fact that that *other* apartment had a nicer view, etc.).

      Each person and each couple will have different non-negotiables (and those non-negotiables will change over time), and that’s okay – but you want to be sure to leave yourself space to be happy on the way, while keeping an eye out or while actively working towards the additional goals. Some people want to travel the world; some people want to *stop moving already* (ahem); some people want a 9-5 job that they keep separate from the rest of life; some people want a more comprehensive this-job-is-a-part-of-me-24/7 career. Some people realize that what they thought they wanted wasn’t actually what they wanted; some people realize that what they thought they wanted is, in fact, incredibly vital to their not going crazy. Some people can do long-distance and some people can’t. It’s not worth it to be long-term dissatisfied in a more-important way to make things that are less important match up – but what that looks like to each couple is going to be very different, and goals sometimes take a while of varied imperfection to reach.

      On review, what Class of 1980 said. I need to learn how to be concise!

    • meg

      Um, YES? Clearly you and I are the same. But we work really hard to present a whole range of honest perspectives on APW, because we’re NOT all the same people. I’m really hoping we can do a whole week on this topic, and people will write from this perspective as well.

    • I had the same notion: My career is just as important to me, whatever incarnation it takes, and actually in some ways more important to me, than his career was to him. So we didn’t even get married until I’d done what I needed to do for some years.

      And now we’re together in the same city and would much prefer not to be separated again so in the next incarnation of my career, I’d like to make sure it’s highly flexible and still has lots of room for growth.

      Made some extraneous people grumpy but guess what? Not their lives and not their business. That’s what worked/works for us.

  • Michelle

    Maybe the point to this post is that we have to define “success” in the way that feels comfortable to us. My life may look like I’m settling from the outside, but I am happy because I’m not an especially career-driven person. That’s not the way it is for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Class of 1980

    A lot of people spend a lifetime thinking a high-profile job will bring happiness, and discounting the happiness they already feel. It’s a shame.

    Some people chase a higher status job instead of one that brings them joy. Also a shame.

    And yes, the more your job demands of you, the less you have to give to other activities and people that might be a great source of happiness. Jobs are important and you want to be in the right one, but they are not the A to Z of life either.

  • zoe

    This is interesting, and I think a good reflection of where many of us are. When you’re married, you have to factor someone else into all decisions, including career. You’re also much less able to move for career.

    I think it’s particularly interesting in light of previous posts in which it was posited that luck doesn’t really play a role in career success. The problematic inverse of that is that luck/chance doesn’t really play a role when career doesn’t go the way you want, and that is just not true.

    • meg

      Well, this is a complicated topic. What I was actually saying is that when (women, usually, this is not a conversation men tend to have) say to another woman who’s doing well, “Oh, it’s just luck” they are discounting the fact that it’s mostly NOT luck. IE, everyone has tons of good luck and tons of bad luck, and people who are successful (again, whatever that means in any given situation) have usually worked crazy crazy hard to overcome the bad luck, keep falling on their face and getting up, and sacrifice all sorts of things to get where they are. When other women wave their hands in your face and say, “Oh, you’re just lucky” it’s profoundly dismissive.

      That said, ALL of us have good luck and bad luck, and all of us go through phases, ups and downs, hard stuff. I’ve totally been where the poster was (abet not married) in my early 20’s. Now I’m in a place that’s totally different career-wise. That doesn’t mean the hard stuff didn’t happen, or I didn’t have periods of feeling like “I guess this is it for me.” I did. It means I lived through the bad stuff, and worked hard, and then I got to some good stuff. The cultural female narrative requires that I say “Oh, I just got lucky.” But I think that’s not only not exactly true, it’s not required of men to say, and it’s not actually empowering to anyone.

      But mostly, what I was discussing last time around is that when we tell people (particularly kids coming from underprivileged situations) that success depends on luck, we’re being disempowering. Because lots of us will look around and say, “Shit, if it’s luck, I’m giving up. Luck I don’t have.” But the message that you can have bad luck and fight through it with hard work and get good things is empowering. (Mind you, it’s not something we should build POLICY on, we need policy that provides tangible support for people). But personally, telling people that things other than luck are a huge part of success (whatever success means, in a given situation, which could just be a paying job) is far more empowering.

      So, it’s complicated.

      • margo

        People have good luck and people have bad luck, but not everyone has the same amount of both. I agree that saying, “You’re just lucky” is both dismissive and not empowering, but it’s not wrong. It’s also true that working hard is important (IMPORTANT), but that you’ll get farther working hard with good luck than you will with working hard and bad luck. If you graduate into a recession you can work your ass off and you’ll always be at a disadvantage to someone who graduated into an economic boom and worked their ass off.

        Hard work does not guarantee of success. Which is why we need to build policy that creates tangible support for people, like you mention, Meg. It’s also why using luck as an accusation or excuse is a waste, it doesn’t help anyone, not you and not the women coming up behind you. It’s just as easy to take your good luck for granted and as a natural byproduct or hard work as it is to become defeated by your bad luck. The trick is to walk the middle line and try to make it easier and less luck-dependent for the next woman (generation).

        • meg

          Agreed, particularly with this, “The trick is to walk the middle line and try to make it easier and less luck-dependent for the next woman (generation).”

          That said, I don’t actually think that all people who were successful (again, whatever that means in a given context) had more good luck than bad luck. It’s that the good luck they had is more visible, at the point that you’re looking at someone and perceiving them as having done well. IE, I graduated into a terrible recession in New York City and didn’t have steady work till I was… 25, actually, because there simply were not full time jobs available for the bulk of college grads. But that’s not the most visible thing you’d see when you look at me now, the most visible thing now is probably good stuff. Also, lots of achievements simply are not luck, when you look at them closely. Lots of accomplishments have to do with hard work and merit, something men are given respect for, and women tend to be dismissed for.

          Also, as I’ve said before, there are tons of things outside of our control, like talent, that awful fickle beast. But my personal position is that the best we can do on a personal level, is focus on the things inside our control, and empower women coming up behind us to do the same. Worrying about luck gets you nowhere, and implies that when terrible things happen, you can’t pick yourself up and have good things happen later.

          • zoe

            I think you can say that someone succeeded through hard work, while also acknowledging that for MANY people, hard work alone is not enough to achieve success. Particularly when you add in the compromising factors of the economy, sexism/racism/classism (and other -isms, probably), plus the need to accommodate family members and loved ones.

            When terrible things happen, the only thing to do is to TRY to pick yourself back up, but that still doesn’t mean you’ll get where you want to go. You are right in that the only thing you can control is how hard you work, but I would hate for talented, driven people to assume that the only reason they are not succeeding is that they are not working hard enough. That’s a little too Rand-ian for me…

          • meg

            See, I don’t think we have to correlate the two (if I just got accused of being Rand-ian, that would be a hilarious first, since oh my god no). We’re allowed to honor people’s successes as lots of hard work, without saying people who feel/are unsuccessful (I don’t really like the idea of calling people unsuccessful, but we need a word for the point) are just lazy. One does not equal the other.

        • meg

          I actually keep thinking about Mark Ruffalo here. This is a man who was working as an actor, kept getting tiny roles and not big ones, and happened to be crazy, crazy talented. He didn’t get his big break till he was in his mid-thirties, and he got the lead in You Can Count On Me. That means he pushed through 15 years of auditions that didn’t go his way, shitty parts, shitty day jobs (and apparently the horrible murder of his brother, says wikipedia). Then after all that bad luck, or whatever we want to call it, he got a (incredibly well deserved) lead role, and blew it out of the water. What happened next? The poor man got a BRAIN TUMOR. He survived it. He then has gone on to have a crazy successful career, that is totally deserved. He’s super talented, he worked insanely hard, and pushed through more adversity and “no’s” and terrible luck than most of us would ever be able to survive.

          But it’s easy to look at him and say, “Oh, he just got a lucky break. He was cast in You Can Count On Me, it became a surprise hit, and then he got really famous.” But that’s not exactly true, and the man survived more bad luck than five people put together should have to. Also, if you’d looked at him in 1997, you’d think he totally wasn’t successful (you’d call him a thirty year old bartender trying to be an actor). But that wasn’t the end of the story.

          So like I said, it’s complicated.

          • zoe

            Right. But his hard work is no GUARANTEE. No hard work, not even talent is a guarantee of “success” (however you are choosing to define it. If he never found a breakthrough role (which is entirely possible in a place as cut throat as Hollywood) would he be any less hard working or talented?

          • To go along with this I’d also mention that, as a generality, people who do become very successful in their careers tend to fail … A LOT. It’s part of the process of getting there. You have to go through all the “nos” (like in the Mark Ruffalo case) to get through to that breakthrough. And sometimes there are so very, very many “nos”.

            It’s like in sales – the people who are the most successful salesmen and saleswomen have more deals that never closed than people who aren’t as successful. Working through the failures and setbacks is a HUGE part of getting to the end goal.

          • meg

            Zoe: OF COURSE NOT. That, I think, is the point of the post. But I will say, hard work isn’t a guarantee of anything (though it’s sure as shit your best chance), but often it’s a guarantee of a life that feels well lived, right? In the he-never-made-it instance, at least he would have spent his life devoted to what he loves the most, which is it’s own kind of success. Hell, just having something you love that much is a triumph. (Though, I’d argue that talent like that tends to always find a breakthrough of some sort, because everyone is looking for that. I mean the man is…. CRAZY CRAZY talented. And talent, we have no control over, though we do have control over how we work at it, respect it, sacrifice for it, follow it, etc. But talent is still a total bitch, says the woman who wanted that kind of acting talent.)

            Sheryl: Exactly.

          • Class of 1980

            Luck and hard work … it’s such a mix!

            I think I’ve felt both unlucky and lucky. The way our business came about was PURE LUCK as far as the inspiration for it, already having an established web site, and the market potential it had … and HARD WORK as far as us already having earned the preparation for it before even knowing anything about it as a possibility.

            I can look at years and years of frustration prior to this business where I felt I wasn’t in the right life for me. It wasn’t the right job, location, lifestyle, or relationship. That felt unlucky. It also was a giant lesson.

            My divorce and impulsive move across country changed everything. It wasn’t always easy, but things just happened. We went through wild swings where the business grew dramatically, and trenches where the business was going downhill. We reinvented it.

            My outlook on the world has radically changed with having a business, and it’s opened up my eyes to a lot of important issues.

            Now, we are on a giant upswing and everything feels like it’s happening in a way that I can only describe as magic. It seems like everything is happening at the exact moment I need it to happen and it feels like I’m being watched over.

            I am really overwhelmed right now, but it’s because everything’s happening faster. I’m also considering adding on a new business that is entirely unrelated, and like this one, it came to my attention rather than me seeking it out.

            The way my life is unfolding, it feels like there is some hidden influence going on. I feel that any success is not just for my benefit. There are things I feel I am here to do.

            I feel like two separate things are happening at the same time – I’m being helped by the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, and yet I still have to show up and figure a lot of stuff out and cope with chaos sometimes.

            Not sure if this makes any sense, but there it is.

          • meg

            Class of 1980: Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Good stuff.

          • Class of 1980


            One thing I mean by feeling the support of the Universe, is that every time I need a big infusion of cash, it shows up exactly when needed and just in time. It’s been uncanny. Weird. Crazy.

            But I never ever think it’s for only my benefit. Sure, I’m chasing financial security, but ultimately that is to support me in helping others.

          • Class of 1980

            And how many times did I type the word “FEEL”?

            -head thuds on keyboard.-

      • Marina

        It’s luck, but it’s never *just* luck.

  • Jashshea

    This is a funny one for me, unrelated to my relationship with my husband-in-less-than-three-months. He and I are about equal in pay/title/success rating and he knows exactly how good I am at my job b/c we used to work together. I work at a huge company in a very very niche technology department and I’m clever, creative, I pay attention to what’s going on around me and I do my very best to make my team, my boss and myself look good. (Note I did not say that I’m a hard worker – I’m uber-lazy, but I use that power for good, rather than evil – I find ways to cut down time on repetitive tasks so that I can leave early, not so I can get more done in a day).

    The funny part for me is that my friends & family are always bemused/surprised/gobsmacked to find out that I’ve made something of a success of myself. I was relaying a story to a friend (former teacher) about something that happened at a conference and it somehow came up that I spoke on a panel and gave a presentation at this particular conference. Quote: “*you* speak at conferences?”

    This person is not a bad friend in any way, I just don’t fit her idea of a person who speaks at conferences (I had a fairly crippling fear of public speaking in College).

    Anyway, no real advice, just know workplace success often has very little cache outside of your office and it generally matters very little to the people who matter to you.

    And shout out to D-town! I spent 8 months of a project there a few years ago and I just love it to pieces.

  • noteasybngreen

    This was a great post to read….just graduated this past spring to change careers and really thought I’d have something lined up by our wedding (in two weeks!) or shortly thereafter. I’ve found part time work to keep me busy but the fulfilling job that got me into this field remains elusive. At the same time, my partner is in medicine, works long hours and brings in plenty of money. So I’m struggling with all sorts of questions – am I more valuable contributing financially or with my time to our household? what do I really want to do? how would we balance everything if I did find a full time job? how can we negotiate finances and big expenses if she’s contributing more? My partner is totally supportive, but I haven’t yet let go of work as a big part of my identity.

  • This has been one of my struggles as well. My husband had a decade to establish himself in his field before we even met and he is doing very well in that field. When we married, ten months ago, we moved to provide him with a base for building relationships with colleagues in his industry. I left behind a horrible job, but since arriving here I haven’t found a good balance for what I want.

    Finally, I realized what I want to do is make a difference and I started taking steps to work with a nonprofit that works with families of children who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Helping others navigate the confusing waters of communication and education is exactly one of the things I have always loved to do. I just have to figure out how to get over the fact that I feel like I am not providing monetary value to the household.

    • Anne

      Jennifer — I absolutely love working with children with special needs.

      When older family members learn about the work I do with children, they often say, “Bless you; you must be so patient.” I always reply with a smile and tell them that I AM blessed because I work with such fun and inspiring children all day. There are a LOT of career opportunities for working with exceptional children. Keep trucking. I’m always surprised how volunteer work can develop into something bigger.

  • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

    It’s a real possibility that my SO will be bearing most of the burden for providing financially for out baby family. I’ve made the choice to plan on a wedding soon after completing my M.Sc., to marry a man is tied to one place in a very real way-with a farm that’s been in the family for multiple generations, which I would never ask him to leave behind. I’ve made the choice that I don’t wish to live married life apart for long periods of time, if at all possible. The job market is awful, as we all know. If I immediately become the ‘homemaker’, I believe I’ll be more than ok with that. Though I have yet to see all those choices make themselves a reality, I have a hard time thinking that I may feel regret. Most of this is simply because I can hear echos of people saying ‘but you worked so hard on your education’. I wonder how many of us feel that way, and how this contributes to the stress and the guilt when we don’t feel like equal partners, financially speaking.
    So, this is what I tell myself: education has an intrinsic value beyond the facts and figures you learn in the class room. You can translate it into any aspect of your life, even if you can’t clearly see how it can be done. I know I would feel great joy in working to create an environment that nurtures our baby family. This is just as important as bringing home a pay cheque. My contribution will be just as valuable, even if it can’t entirely be measured in dollars. I’ve struggled with this over the past several months, and have come to terms with it-at least as much as I can come to terms with events that haven’t quite happened yet.

    I hate seeing people mesure success by their job alone, and I’m very happy we can have conversations about this sort of thing on APW.

    • Class of 1980

      See, I think it’s incredibly insulting to homemakers to suggest that they don’t use their education. If they’re using their brain, they’re using their education.

      • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

        Yes, it really is. And yet, it has been suggested to me more than once. Some people… A relative of mine informed me that there was no point in his daughter attending school beyond high school because her greatest wish is to have a family. Ergo, it would be a waste of an education. Oh, I was so livid. I also have a very close family member that seems to belive that I am ruining my potential in academia by getting married at this stage. Education has become, to many, something that is only valued for the potential for monetary gains. It is very sad.

        • Class of 1980

          Ask your relative if he thinks his daughter’s future kids would benefit more from having a mom with an education or a mom without.

          (Not that I define “education” as necessarily formal education, but you get the idea.)

        • MDBethann

          And yet in the early days of the U.S., there was the idea of “Republican motherhood” (not the political party kind either). In this philosophy, in order to be a good mother, a woman should be educated both in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as the “housewifely arts” so that she, as the earliest influence in the lives of her sons and daughters, could understand and pass on the republican values of the young country and prepare her sons for their future education and careers (and her daughters to raise their own families). Eventually we strayed from this, but the idea that an education is important to raising a healthy, productive family is definitely an old one that we need to support more.

          My favorite quote is from John Adams, and I think it sums up why ALL disciplines are important in a society, even though we tend to marginalize things like literature and the arts these days: I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” – John Adams in a Letter to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780

          I love that he viewed the study of the arts as a goal to strive towards and something that is a symbol of a good, productive civilization. I feel like today we keep discounting it in favor of other things.

    • R

      If your husband’s family farm is anything like my grandparent’s, there’s simply tons of work to do, and everyone’s contributions make a difference. After all, you’re running a small (or not so small) business that has, one way or another, 24/7 business hours. That quite often is run, one way or another, out of the house. So a well kept house is, in fact, essential to smooth business operations!

      • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

        I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before. Thanks!

  • Ambi

    I posted a comment above that talks about success in a very theoretical, abstract sense, based on the fact that I read the original post and many of the comments as being about these big abstract ideas and dreams and expectations we all have about where we should be in our careers (now, and in the future). But, after posting it, I realized that there is an entirely different type and measure of success, which isn’t abstract or life-long-big-picture at all – it is the day to day struggle with money, and it is really a key aspect of this type of conversation, although we rarely talk about it. I personally have been struggling in the past few years, and the past year especially, with the fact that my salary has been completely stagnant, while my living expenses just keep going up and up. My car is breaking down. I’ve been paying for repairs I can’t afford, and what I really need to do is trade it in, but I can’t afford that either. My boyfriend and I are both emotionally drained from trying to find money to keep up with maintenance on our home. One bathroom needs to be completely renovated and is unusable, and now the other bathroom is having horrible problems, and we have to come up with some money fast, or we’re going to be living in a house with no working bathrooms.

    My point is, that for the past two years, my struggles with money really weighed heavily on my own view of whether I was successful. And then last week, I got a raise. Not a huge one, but enough to help lift some of this burden and make life just a little bit easier. I’ll be able to trade in my car. And in about six months, my boyfriend and I should have saved enough to tackle one of the bathrooms. I didn’t get a promotion. I have no new job title or responsibilities. In fact, my raise was part of an office-wide pay bump, so it wasn’t even a personal recognition of the work I’ve been doing. But you know what? I feel more successful. I’ve held my head up a bit higher and been more outgoing and friendly and happy. This is probably a topic that is very different from the original poster’s story, but I did want to bring it up because we often feel more comfortable talking generically about “success” when in fact sometimes it can be very specifically about money.

    • KC

      A quote I enjoy about money (the internet appears to think it’s from Dickens):
      “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness.
      Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”

      (although, obviously, we have more control over some expenses than others, so sometimes it’s the income that needs to bump up over the expenses rather than the expenses that need to come down. Congratulations on the pay raise and the resultant ability to reduce stress and frustration from a breaking-down car!)

    • Jashshea

      An important reminder that success does not equal happiness; happiness does not equal money; money does not equal success, right? More money lessened your struggle, which may have made you happier and made you feel more successful. Being really good at your job running a non-profit may not get you more money, but you may feel successful.

      That all being said? Sometimes it really feels like all three are conflated. And I think this post (and your response) highlights how closely they’re related in our minds.

      Edited to fix stripped out items.

      • Ambi

        By the way, I would be the first to tell you that, even through the financial struggles, I would have said I was happier in this job than in the job I used to have (which paid more but made me miserable, so I left it). But I didn’t feel successful because I had this idea in my head that a successful person can support herself financially and wouldn’t have these struggles.

        • Jashshea

          That’s the reason I haven’t left my job for more money. In my industry more money almost always means many more hours and/or more travel and my job, while complicated and occasionally challenging, doesn’t require much beyond the occasional 50 hour week (which, it should be noted, is often a result of my ineffective time management skills). Before my last 2 promotions, I was often working 50-70 hour weeks with full, exhausting days that left me so spent that I could barely watch television at night (let alone exercise or have a social life). For me, doing that work wasn’t worth what it did to me emotionally. I was excelling at the work, leading other people, making a name for myself and getting great perf evals but it wasn’t sustainable. I earned every bit of my promotions and now, wonderfully, I have less immediacy and less oversight on all my tasks.

          This response is longer than I intended since it’s basically a 200 word “Exactly.”

  • steph

    So grateful for this post. I’m still in the middle of this issue. I don’t feel particularly jealous of my husband for being “more successful” (he’s made and continues to make sacrifices for his career that work for him but I know would NOT work for me, that got him to where he is).

    That being said, I’m certain my unhappiness about my own career affects my marriage. I am working in my field and have been realtively stressful, but oftentimes at the expense of my health and sanity. It is demanding work that falls under the category of “making a difference in the world” and for several years the purpose of the work sustained me. But at this point I am left managing burnout, asking now (for the first time) in my early 30’s “what else could I/do I want to do?” while balancing the reality that I need health insurance and we need my salary just as much as his to live as we do now, or we need to figure out ways to cut back.

    Learning that I am more than my job is an on-going process. As a smart, hard working feminist who declared her major at 18 and spent the first half of my 20’s alone, I went into “adult life” with the expectation that I may never find love and that success in career would define my success as a person. It’s been hard learing to let go of “19 year old me’s dreams” and acknowledge that even though my life is very different from the life I imagined back then, it is still beautiful in ways 19 year old me could never have imagined. And also that in order to discover new dreams I have to let go of some old ones.

    Thanks for starting this discussion here.

    • Marcela

      When I was 17, I wrote a letter to (then) future 27 year old me. When I read it, years later, I started crying. 17 year old me had very high expectations I wasn’t able to meet and, even if she didn’t necessarily want what I do know, I still sometimes feel like I failed her.

    • MDBethann

      The beauty is, that while somethings 19-year old you wanted aren’t what you expected they’d be, you ended up with so many wonderful things in your life that never thought you’d have. Since I knew the 19-year old you and I know the 33-year old you, I think 19 year old you would be pretty happy with the way your life went. :-)

      I think we all tend to not give our teenage selves or post-college selves enough credit. We think we’d be disappointed in where we ended up – that we gave up, sold out, “failed”. But we also didn’t know at that age what opportunities or challenges lay before us, so we could only make our best guess at the time. I hope our teenage/college selves were smart enough to realize that we can’t control everything that happens to us and that it is how we react/interact with life that matters. Considering our teenage/college selves evolved into the people we are now, we might not be as disappointed in current selves as we think.

  • Jess

    I just want to say thanks for writing about this. I have been fortunately enough so far to feel pretty good about my career, but I can still identify with the feelings in this post. I know that I would feel not-so-great about feeling like I was taking the backseat to my husband–or even with relinquishing control by letting my husband’s job opportunity pick where we were going, even if it makes total sense (as it seems like it did for the writer of this post). Sometimes marriage definitely means having to make tough decisions, that turn out in a different way than they would back in the single days.

  • Balancing two careers has been one of the hardest part of married life for us. Our dream jobs are on different sides of the continent and as we work in the stepping stone jobs along the way, it feels like a race to secure the dream first before the other dream eclipses us. I have started to think about what it means to let go of my dream. To dream a new dream. What does it look like for me to say, “I tried as hard as I could, it didn’t pan out and my marriage is more important to me than my career.” Some couples never have to face this – they’re living the dream together already, or they’re geographically stable, etc. But for us, the military, graduate schools and the economy has required us to be mobile and flexible in order to stay together physically.

    On a more practical note, I got some amazing advice from a professor of mine on balancing careers in a marriage. She said that at every decision point, they started with a clean slate (no, IOUs from previous moves) and made a decision that reflected the maximum amount of collective happiness. For instance, if she was going to be 100% happy abroad, but he was going to be 0% because he couldn’t get a visa to work, but she could take an offer where she’d be 70% happy in the States and he would be 50% happy, then the latter won because the collective happiness was higher. As the person who’s done a lot of following moves in the relationship, it’s hard for me to not see it as an IOU – but that has bred resentment. And the fact remains that if I had to do it all over again, I would choose to be with him again and again. I’m not always successful at seeing it in this perspective, but when I am, my happiness level goes up.

    • “For instance, if she was going to be 100% happy abroad, but he was going to be 0% because he couldn’t get a visa to work, but she could take an offer where she’d be 70% happy in the States and he would be 50% happy, then the latter won because the collective happiness was higher.”

      As the follower I really like the advice about the collective happiness in deciding where to move.

    • EM

      This! What you wrote about the collective happiness perspective resonates so much with me. My husband and I are both PhDs who decided to leave academia when we were on the job market for this exact reason. Once we started getting interviews and offers for tenure-track positions, we realized that one of us would be put in the position of being the “trailing spouse”, something neither of us wanted for ourselves or each other. Now we both have PhD-level jobs that we like enough in a city we like living in, but the second guessing creeps in from time to time. Should we have gone for academic positions even if one of us would have been an adjunct or a lecturer and unhappy professionally? I don’t really know. It’s only been a year and a half and the process has been really difficult at times, but overall I think choosing to maximize our collective happiness was the right choice for us. Still, it can be such a difficult thing to put into practice.

    • “She said that at every decision point, they started with a clean slate (no, IOUs from previous moves) and made a decision that reflected the maximum amount of collective happiness.”

      Oh, wise wise wise. I like that.

    • Ambi

      I really like the idea of this approach, but I also think it is incredibly difficult to accurately predict your future happiness. My boyfriend and I have also made several cross-country moves in order to manage our two-career relationship, and we use a slightly different approach. Based on our past experiences, we’ve realized that we both tend to adapt really well to new environments and are usually happier than we expected to be, so now we aim for the “I’ll try it” approach. More specifically, if one partner is worried about being unhappy due to a decision, if possible we set a reasonable time period and then try it out. So, for example, when I was ready to move back to our hometown and my guy thought that he’d be happier staying in the big city, he eventually agreed to try it for a year or two, but to reserve the right to ask for a change if he did end up being as bored and unhappy as he expected to be. It turns out that we both love living here, so after being here less than a year he bought a house and has decided to stay for good (or at least until the next amazing job offer comes in for one of us and we have to go through this compromise again). I do agree that it is better to have a smaller divide between the happiness levels of each partner rather than an all and nothing situation, but I also think that a lot of people tend to fear the unknown and imagine that they will end up unhappy, when their realities may actually turn out very differently. My guy and I both think it is a shame for one partner to miss out on a huge opportunity solely because the other person fears unhappiness – current unhappiness is one thing, and it should be addressed and changes should be made, but basing decisions off of projected future unhappiness seems a bit like worrying about something you can’t control.

    • Marina

      I think a certain amount of IOU keeping may be necessary. Or rather, taking turns may be necessary. If you have a series of 50%-70% happiness decisions, where the 50% might be for instance “I can find things to do but they’re not in my chosen field”, the 50% person’s career/life/choices are being put on hold. They may be okay anywhere the 70% person needs to go, but only okay–at some point both people need to sit down and decide whether “okay” is good enough not only for this one decision, but as a long term plan.

  • kara

    My fiance & I graduated from law school during the same year. He took the summer bar & began looking for a job immediately. I took the winter bar knowing that as long as I passed I had the job of my dreams. I passed and immediately started as a Prosecutor in the office I had worked during law school. Fiance (then boyfriend) was still looking for a job in his city 100 miles away. He ended up moving to my city, getting engaged, and temp-ing for 5 months before he found his current job. He’s now working in the legal education field and not a practicing attorney (something he always wanted to do). As the “bread winner,” I am so appeciative of what HE has done for ME. I know it took a lot for him to move 100 miles without a job so we could be together & I could do what I love. I know he’s not 100% satisfied with his current job and worries that he’s never going to actually practice law, but he’s making connections and hopes to become a “real” attorney soon.

    • Alicia

      Exactly, I make at least double my husband, but I’m able to do this because he has been so supportive and flexible with his career. Where ever we end up during our lives, he’ll have to play second fiddle to my career if we want to live the lifestyle we both desire.

      I can’t thank him enough for being willing to make that kind of sacrifice. Sometimes I have trouble convincing him how the stuff he does at home is worth at least as much, if not more, than his net income. When I got home last night after a day when I almost lost it and he had gone grocery shopping and done the laundry, I almost cried. He makes our lives liveable in a non-financial way.

      • Marina

        SERIOUSLY. Oh my god, getting home after a tough day and someone else has cleaned and cooked and made you a mug of tea? Amaaaaaaaazing and worth all sorts of money.

  • Thanks for this. This is something I’m constantly struggling with as I get my small business off the ground while my (incredibly supportive) wife pays the bills. Sometimes it’s hard to see her make more and more money and gain new skills while it feels like I’m spinning my wheels, not to mention the constant guilt for not being more successful (i.e. bringing in more money.) I don’t think there’s some magic phrase someone will say to make me feel better about this, but it’s helpful to see how other women are handling this as I keep on wrestling with it. As always, APW is thought-provoking and fantastic.

  • Katie

    I wanted to be an apprentice midwife. My husband and I left NYC and moved to Georgia so that I could learn to catch babies.

    It turns out that I hated it. These days I am working from home doing phone support, and spending my free time taking cake decorating classes, working on becoming foster parents and volunteering in the court systems. It doesn’t pay well, but I am happier than I ever was working my ‘real’ job. I am so thankful for this article- it really puts into words what I am unable to articulate.

    • meg

      You know, wanting something and then figuring out you hate it and being brave enough to move on is so important (and I’d argue, total success). I did this, and man was it hard to do, but I was so much happier afterwards (even though for awhile I felt pretty lost, it was worth it).

  • Kirstin McCarthy

    I also would add that it sounds like you’re doing exactly what someone in their mid-twenties should be doing! Exploring one career path, while also focusing on the other things in life that matter to you. I know plenty of people who have had highly “successful” (read, fulfilling) careers, and they didn’t land in the field/track/position/job they have until their mid forties. In the grand scheme of things, you have JUST entered the workforce, and have decades left to learn about what is the right fit for you. In the meantime, the better you know yourself as a person, the better job you will find.

  • In my last relationship, I had a hard time handling the discrepancies in our “success levels”. Neither of us made very much money, but my ex was a musician and spent nearly every minute of his day working towards a goal and a life he’s been imagining for himself since he was 10. I, on the other hand, felt lost and confused – working in the industry I went to college for but feeling no attachment to it at all. Also completely unsure of what to pursue instead.

    I kept reaching around in the dark looking for my “calling”, and it was really hard to admit that I didn’t really have one. That I was hoping to fill my life with people and places and love – not the satisfaction of having (and succeeding at) a dream. Once I did admit that, and I started to consider career paths that could make me happy by fitting into and allowing the lifestyle I want (which also required me to quit my office job and start waitressing again), my happiness levels skyrocketed.

    • HH

      I’m catching up from last week, so I know I’m very late here, but I just wanted to thank you, Melissa, for saying this:

      “I kept reaching around in the dark looking for my “calling”, and it was really hard to admit that I didn’t really have one.”

      It hit me like a punch in the gut, because it is so very true for me, and I have been afraid to put it into words.

      So, thank you.

      Now… onward, I suppose.

  • And then there’s the flip side, where my fiance did not graduate college, does not have a degree, and feels like a complete failure even though he makes $15,000 MORE THAN ME (and I make a very respectable amount) and is in a field in which he doesn’t even NEED a degree, as long as he works hard to stay up to date with the latest technology and maintains his various programming certifications, which his employer WILL PAY FOR.

    I was completely boggled when he confessed this to me, someone who has both an undergraduate and a graduate degree and yet was stuck in retail for four and a half years. At the time of his confession, I honestly didnt’ know what to do to make him see what I see – an incredibly successful young man (he’s 24 for goodness sakes!) who – though he may not have taken the traditional route – is now doing EVERYTHING RIGHT.

    I think the next time this comes up, I’ll re-iterate my two degrees, nearly five years in retail, and the fact that even though I have a mostly-fantastic job now, it has nothing to do with my fields of study…that if HE is a failure…what does that make me? And maybe that will help him generate some perspective.

  • Moz

    This is great. I’m glad you’ve found a measure of contentment, Michelle, and I hope continue to do so.

    But I am really interested to read something from someone who HASN’T shifted their priorities and expectations.

    I’m not knocking Michelle here at all, but she’s decided that she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted. What about someone who still does? So if you’re reading this comment and think you can talk about it, please submit.

    • Marcela

      I still do. I wonder whether it is the sane thing to do, but I still want to go back to my old career and be successful at it, even if it will take me longer to do it due to the years that passed since I left. It’s not easy, but I keep reminding myself that, while this may not be the time for me to go back (different family circumstances make it impossible right now), that doesn’t mean I will never be able to. In the meantime, I have decided to take this time to explore other areas that make me happy and to remind myself that the lessons we learn during times of hardship are the ones that build future successes.
      Then I go watch The Good Wife and tell myself that if Alicia Florrick could go back to work after 13 years as a stay at home mom, I’ll be able to do the same (yes, I know Alicia is a fictional character but let me dream ;)

      • Moz

        There are worse fictional role models!

        Good luck with it, Marcela. It sounds like you plan for a long career, so there’s always time.

      • Not Sarah

        The Good Wife is pretty much my favourite show ever.

    • meg

      Please someone submit on this. I was in the middle of it five years ago, but I want someone writing about it who’s in it now.

  • Man, does this post hit home for me! I’ve been struggling with my stagnant career path for the past couple years and am starting to tell myself that I can find meaning and pride in what I do outside work. It’s been a struggle, but I am trying.

    When I met my now-husband, I had just gotten promoted and I thought my career was going to take off. Then the market crashed in 2008 and layoffs were prevalent. I ended up making a lateral move, rather than take a risk and go to a new company. Anyway, my career has not been the same.

    And I also comtemplated having a baby to give my life some meaning. But the truth is, I don’t think I’d be happy as a stay-at-home mom. I want kids, but I want to also have a great career life.

    I think another part of the problem is that I constantly compare myself to others. Forget comparing my career success (or lack-thereof) to my husband’s success. There are people who are my age or younger making twice as much and doing much more in their careers. The real movers and shakers make me feel a bit worse about myself.

    • My solution is to temporarily block those people on Facebook. :)

      • @ Sharon – Good idea ;)

      • The ‘hide everything but important updates’ button is your friend.

    • EM

      I don’t want to have children, but I completely get your impulse to have a baby for the reason you stated. Since my husband and I don’t want kids, I’ve felt the same pressure but in a different way. I’ve sometimes felt that I must do BIG IMPORTANT THINGS with my career to justify my decision not to have kids to others. It’s as if not having kids and having to dedicate time to raising them increases the pressure to do something else impressive and worthwhile with that time, or at least that’s how it occasionally feels.

  • Wonderful post — this is such an important conversation to have! In my two-year-old marriage, this career balance has already shifted a couple times. We moved right after marriage for me to enter my dream graduate program and my husband was the “follower” in that case — he wasn’t sure what career path he wanted to take and was happy to find any kind of job that would support us while I was in school. Then a whole bunch of doors started opening for him right as I started really questioning if academia is the right path for me (I mean, opportunities to the point where one of our friends joked, “Hey, maybe the whole point of you getting into x program was so that he would land in these jobs!” I wanted to smack her). Right now I’m sticking it out another year in my program while he’s potentially making a transition to his dream job. After that… who knows.

    I’ve definitely had moments of feeling like, “Why is everything coming up Jason??? When will it be my turn???” so I’m *REALLY* glad that we had the experience early on in our marriage where he took a chance on me and supported my dreams because it reminds me of what it’s like to be on the other side and makes me strive to be the kind of supportive partner that he was. Also, Jason always points out that it’s only in the last year and a half that things have started working out for him — when he was my age, he was floundering career-wise, too. My response is usually “But I don’t want to flounder as long as you did!” but heh, it’s a good reminder to have. Life is long and most people don’t immediately walk into their perfect careers.

  • This post could not have come at a better but I find that is per usual for A Practical Wedding. Thanks Meg and Maddie!

    This is exactly how I feel right now, in my career, in life and have to constantly remind myself that a job is just a job sometimes. Something that pays the bills and gives us health insurance. Yet I still feel completely inadequate compared to others and my own husband.

  • Another thought: how is “more successful” defined? By money or by happiness in the work you do?

    • Marcela

      I suppose it depends, but for me it is about happiness at work, a feeling of being able to work at what I have always loved, coupled with a sense of progress (not necessarily in money, but in responsibility). Money doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the defining aspect for me.

  • Marcela

    I still miss my old job EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I’m grateful for what I have, and know that, at this point in my life I cannot have what I do and have that job as well, but it really hurts.

  • This is a great post! Thanks for sharing! I DO want to point out that Beth Moore is a VERY conservative evangelical Christian and every woman should NOT read this book!!!!!!!

    • This is the headline on the website you linked to “We’re insecure. You and me and every woman. In fact, chronic insecurity is a cultural epidemic, but almost no one is talking about it. And it ticks me off.” *ding ding ding* Red Flag!

      • KC

        That’s interesting – can you point out what you see as a red flag in that statement? (having not visited the website or read the book – I’m just always interested when I think “hm, that’s approximately correct” and someone else says “Red Flag!”)

        I was under the impression that insecurity (and its cousin, imposter syndrome) *was* a problem for at least a lot of women at present. In general culture, I see gobs of insecurity relating to body image stuff; lifestyle pissing contests; Pinterest; traditional wedding media; advertising. Taking a quick mental census of friends, I’d say that most have verbally expressed at least one area of significant insecurity/inadequacy/doubt-about-measuring-up, although some of that may be influenced by academic subculture. I also think of insecurity as part of the thing APW uses shame-blasting against, and as the negative result of a lot of cultural gender/etc. baggage. So, um, insecurity ticks me off, too; I don’t like things that sometimes make my friends feel terrible and excel less than they could!

        I do see insecurity discussed here (pre-engagement insecurity, wedding media and overexcited-family induced insecurity, etc.), but not many other places? So, I may be totally failing reading comprehension, but what’s the red flag in the headline?

        (oh, I don’t like the use of “every”, but I’m accustomed to it as a statement of hyperbole meaning “most” and am more willing for its use in this case since I’m having a hard time thinking of any exceptions to people-with-areas/times-of-insecurity; is there another red flag?)

        • Let me preface my response my confessing that I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and therefore read Beth Moore’s books and saw her speak in person. I take serious issue with *every woman*. For example, my partner is sooooo not insecure. I honestly wonder whether she has ever been insecure. She’s a kick-ass, stoic, stone as fuck type woman. To say every woman is insecure rings very anti-feminist to me, and I know for a damn fact that Beth Moore IS anti-feminist. She believes feminism is killing America.

          Am I insecure as a woman? Hell yes! Do I need Beth Moore’s book to help me? Ummm, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

          • Here is her bio if you’re interested:

          • KC

            Thanks so much for responding! Aids to reading comprehension are great – thanks for linking up her bio – that clarifies some things. So, primarily the context (background/associations with the author; the fact that the statement is on a site selling a book) combined with the “every”, yes? That would make the red flag alert make more sense – thanks so much for being willing to explain! (and I also object to “every”s more when I have specific counterexamples in mind and when the statements feel loaded for other reasons!)

            I hadn’t been reading the headline as anti-feminist, since insecurity in women seems to me a feminist issue: it affects women negatively, many women are wrestling with this alone, a lot of it is due to gender stuff, can we bring it out to light and can we move to fix the things that are causing it? Which feels feminist to me, if you know what I mean? (although the book may not be, and it sounds like Beth Moore wouldn’t like the label in any event!) :-) But I can see how saying “every woman” and not “every person” could seem to be (or could be) saying “every woman has problems with insecurity ’cause women are all wimpy/emotional” or something rubbishy like that. But since a lot of specific insecurity problems seem to be from cultural gender stuff, it at least makes some sense to me to tackle insecurity specifically from that POV (unlike, say, a book about sinus infections).

            I am, however, entirely mystified as to how even the frequently-held negative definition of feminism (the one that meant that many people in the APW book club didn’t consider themselves feminist until *after* reading Caitlin Moran’s book) can be interpreted as “what’s killing America”. I almost want to know how that logical process would work…

        • Yes, exactly – I suppose it’s because I know where Mrs. Moore is coming from that I see the red flags. Yeah, I totes get that many women DO deal with insecurity and talking about is hard (really really hard). This APW post is radical and life-giving because it’s raw, honest and from the heart.

          Mrs. Moore is against feminism because she’s follows the Bible *literally* and believes that women are to be submissive to their husbands. It’s really tricky though because she coats all of her books and talks in “go women!” rhetoric, but it’s really just a way to rope women into Southern Baptist Christianity.

      • Michelle

        I guess I should’ve said that it was a thought-provoking book that I got a lot out of. It is from a Christian perspective but there is a lot of good insight into women, relationships, and our culture, even if you don’t agree with the religious parts. Sorry to be misleading!

        • I think it’s wonderful that you found the book helpful for yourself in going through a difficult time. I just don’t want other woman on APW to buy this book without realizing that Beth Moore is a conservative Christian. There just needs to be a disclaimer. :)

  • A

    I have been on both sides of this equation with my husband-to-be, even right there with you on the “well if I can’t get a job, maybe I could raise a baby!” *shudders* (fun freudian slip: I originally typed “raze” instead of “raise”). Then we were both without jobs, moved into his parent’s house, and then I got a “good” job first, so a total flip-flop of roles there.

    There is something so overwhelmingly brain-melting about un/underemployment. I also graduated in 2008, into some of the darker times of the recession. I started to think about hoarding canned goods and learning survival skills. I was so deeply unhappy, it messes with who you think you are, what you think your life is going to be like, your relationships. And when you’re both employed and doing well, its like a warm blanket that just washes over you.

    If nothing else I know that what I experienced won’t be easily forgotten. To use a cliche: there are so many people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Everyone is dealt a certain amount of privilege, and a certain amount of “luck”. I already had a few big cards in my hand, being white, middle class, straight/cisgendered and able bodied. I think the biggest lesson in all of this is we do not live in a meritocracy. If you work hard, you will not necessarily succeed. There are not equal opportunities for all. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps happens, but isn’t guaranteed. People who are poor aren’t lazy. Our society, the way we train workers, our economy, are all playing roles in this.

    I guess you could say the recession made me a socialist. I hope employment won’t make me a Republican.

  • Anicka

    This is such an interesting topic. And very relevant for me right now. My husband and I have been working towards our PhDs for the last few years, but I was recently kicked out of my graduate program, while he’s doing really well. I’m very proud of him and happy for him and I recognize that he’s
    working really hard.
    But I’m also at a point where I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do and have to think about my future harder than I ever had to. Part of my definition of success is that my hypothetical future children should be proud of me the way I’m proud of my mom, and right at this moment I feel like I’m letting them down by not getting the same level of education as my husband and by earning much less than he does.

  • Carrie

    I don’t know how to avoid resentment and guilt.

    I’m desperately trying to finish up my Ph.D in biomedical engineering. When I’m done, I’ll be in a pretty good position to get a job in my field (industry, not academia) with a decent salary and benefits. (Right now, I get a small stipend and don’t have to pay tuition.) But the Ph.D process has been much longer and more frustrating than I’d hoped. I’ve dealt with failure after failure after failure, completely lost heart a few times, gotten completely burned out, and am now making what has to be my final attempt to find a research project that will pan out enough to produce a worthwhile dissertation.

    My husband is a photographer. But to smooth out the ups and downs in a freelancer’s salary, and to provide us both with good health insurance, he has a day job. He got the job before we got married, because he was stressed out from trying to support himself with freelance and dealing with the ups and downs. He used to like the day job. But it’s become much more stressful and miserable since we got married. He now wants to quit and just do photography full-time. But he doesn’t feel like he can do that unless I have a job that can support us both during the lean months, and provide equivalent health insurance.

    In short: He feels stuck in a miserable job until I graduate.

    I feel massive guilt over this. And I know he feels resentful of me over it. I don’t know the extent of his resentment; I know it’s spilled over into a fight or two. I’m absolutely terrified that he’ll come to resent me so much that he won’t be able to love me anymore. And I feel like I deserve every ounce of resentment.

    So I feel like not only my professional worth, but also my worth as a partner, is riding on whether I can get this research to work.

    I feel like this situation would be similar if I were unemployed, which is what Meg has written about before. I know this situation won’t be forever. But how do we deal with it now? How can his resentment of his day job not turn into resentment of me? How do I put aside the paralyzing guilt and just work harder to succeed, so I can finally be the partner he deserves, who can make it possible for him to do what he loves?

    • KC

      I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this – that’s a really hard situation.

      Re: guilt:
      You are working towards trying to make his dream come true. That is really awesome! The fact that this is a process, not an instant, should not be a source of guilt. (and, what, he deserves a partner who is *not* working her butt off trying to get to a job where she can help fund his photography business?) He is supporting your baby family so you can get the degree that will help you in the future – that is also awesome.

      Sometimes you take turns in marriage. Sometimes you mutually make decisions that you then have problems with later (the perfect apartment… has roaches. But also a one-year contract that you can’t afford to break. But it isn’t anyone’s fault that it has roaches, even if they irritate one of you more than the other.). You do the best you can, and communicate the best you can, and endure as well as you can, and things will move along and times will change. PhD programs are not forever, even if they kind of feel like it.

      Resentment is hard to deal with, both on the having-resentment end and the other side. Counseling can help. Sometimes just talking it out together, laying things out on the table can help, when not tired/grumpy/hungry/drunk (“I’m sorry that you’re unhappy in your job right now. Thank you for keeping us covered with health insurance during my PhD program. This is what I really, really wish I could do for you. I literally can’t yet. I wish I could, I wish this had happened faster, but I’m trying to get there as fast as I can.” sounds approximately like where you’re coming from. Try to keep it non-defensive, if possible. Sometimes just knowing that the other person recognizes that you’re unhappy in your job or feel really overwhelmed or resentful about X or whatever can be enough to at least cripple, if not kill, the resentment.).

      Unrelatedly, I wish people were allowed to publish the failures of research: X tried this, it didn’t work; Y tried this, it also didn’t work – because that would really help the field and make fewer people have to repeat frustrating experiments and would make some degrees more of a function of what you learned and how hard you worked, rather than luck in choosing an experiment with good results. Part of the point of experimenting is that you don’t entirely know how it’s going to turn out beforehand! This shouldn’t be penalized!

      • Carrie

        Awww, thank you for such a great response!

        For the record, we did sit down and had essentially that conversation. (Well, I might have gotten a little bit more emotional than I wanted to, because guilt complex.)

        I think we’re okay now. After that conversation, I noticed we both tried a little bit harder to sympathize with each other’s work frustrations. I think that’s helpful.

        And seriously — if negative results (X didn’t work, Y had no effect) were considered more important and publishable, I would be doing a whole lot better. And I agree — there are many times when negative results are just as scientifically important as positive results — but they don’t get published. There are “Journals of Negative Results” out there, so people are trying to make it a thing. I hope it works.

  • Katie

    I love your open honesty. Sometimes happiness comes from allowing us to accept that success does not mean taking over the world – especially in times of risk taking and uncertainty. I live in Denver too – I hope the area is treating you well!