I’ve never worked a real job in my life. At least that’s what I tell myself.
The minute I graduated college, I started applying for jobs with furor. Writing gigs, editing, blogging – anything and everything creative I could find. Looking back now, I realize that I had no idea what I was doing. I was given little career advice from my college, other than a few meetings at the career development office where a friendly well-dressed woman named Meredith gave me a few pointers. I would spend hours crafting “the perfect cover letter” then would ask more experienced friends and family to edit them for me before sending them off and crossing my fingers. In return for my hard work, I was rejected – constantly. Applying for jobs is emotionally and mentally exhausting. Half of the time I just wanted to write:
I’m applying to this because I need the money and I’m currently using my degree to write blog posts on topics such as, “20 of the Weirdest Etsy Items.” So please hire me NOW.
I hated every minute of it – the struggle to find the rights words to encapsulate why you were the perfect person for this job and how you just knew you would love working there. Then emailing your letter off into the internet abyss and waiting. Waiting was the worst. It could be a few weeks, it could be months. I tried to follow up by email or even phone calls if I was desperate. Most of the time, I felt like I was shouting into a cave, my voice echoing back at me in the face of this invisible company that was aloof and stony-faced.
Meanwhile, I was bouncing from internship to internship, while also working part-time jobs on the side. Despite feeling like I was wasting my college degree, I felt lucky to work in a beautiful tiny tea shop, with earthy wooden counters, surrounded by iron teapots and huge canisters of pungent tea. The shop’s mission was to focus on the art of tea, with food that was made with care and organic ingredients. Most of the customers were wonderful and intriguing. I also discovered my love of event planning and rediscovered my love of poetry there. My second job was in retail, which I mostly hated because, despite the quirky, beautiful atmosphere, the company culture was catty and all the managers played favorites. But it did help me make friends in my austere isolated suburban town. I also now have plenty of fuel for writing if I ever need to write about rich white women and their attitudes towards sales people.
Long story short, one and a half years go by and I’m pretty much in the same place. I don’t know what I want, but I find jobs I want. So I apply, but I just don’t quite have the ‘thing’ they’re looking for. Part of it is that I’m terrible in interviews. I hate being put on the spot and talking myself up. I turn into a nervous stammering wreck, who loses track of what I’m saying and then ends up trailing off.
At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship. Every time I visited my boyfriend, I felt so sad to leave him in a city that was actually affordable, where there were a million things going on and the possibilities seemed endless. Part of this was because we were still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. But part of it was also the fact that I was returning to a place where I spent most of my time at work or home, where I was working so hard to pay my student loans and save money but I still just seemed to be treading water. I found myself sinking lower and lower into a funk. I started applying to jobs in Baltimore, hoping for a change. I went on a few interviews and continued to be my messy self. It was like stepping into the room turned the interviewers into demons and my inner self-doubt emerged to dance around the room, taunting me.
I didn’t have a job waiting for me, but I had a loving, supportive boyfriend, so I took a leap and transferred stores to a Maryland location of the store where I was already working. I quickly discovered that being in Baltimore was different and exciting. I suddenly had a big group of friends. There were things to do. Cheap things – sometimes free things. It helped lift my funk.
But moving locations doesn’t necessarily mean anything changes. You can’t escape your problems. Two years went by and I still didn’t have the full-time job I longed for. I felt incredibly guilty for moving from one support system (my parents) to another (my boyfriend). I felt like I had tried to make a change but I had reverted to my old patterns.
When I was let go from a contracted job after just three months, I decided I was done. Frustrated and fed up. I decided that it was time to take my career into my own hands. I would try freelancing. I was already managing a family friend’s Twitter account, so I listed this on my resume. I started applying for freelance gigs. Through a connection (funnily enough through the job I was let go from), I managed to get a marketing and social media part-time position at an organization that focused on women business owners. I attended a happy hour hosted by the organization and met tons of interesting women. Through that, I got another gig. It didn’t pan out. But still, I’m getting work and I’m doing work that is relevant to my skills.Through a list serve, I got another gig. I feel confident and capable. I thought it was going to be an uphill battle, just like applying for jobs, but for the first time, I feel like I’ve taken my life into my hands and created something, instead of ending up in tears over rejection.
Freelancing is a whole different game. Being my own boss is incredibly hard and sometimes lonely. There’s no office chit chat, no one to explain things to me when I’m confused and no one to complain to when another coworker (or in my case, client) is being a pain in the butt. If I don’t know how to do something, I have to either commit to researching how to do it or reach out to ask for help from someone else who might know. As a woman, I find my skills second-guessed and questioned constantly by male clients who are more experienced (or at least think they are), consistently interrupt me and have a certain idea of how things should look.
Freelancing becomes a lesson in standing up for myself. I have to learn what to charge people and how to value my worth. As a writer, a woman and someone who has low self-confidence, this is a huge deal. But, I’ve learned how to look objectively at what I know I’m good at and what I think I could do better at. Sometimes, I have to explain when I’m out of my depth and know that this is ok. It doesn’t make me weak or inferior. It just means that it’s a chance to learn something new. This is something that most people learn in their office and then are taught by someone who has done it before. I don’t have that, so I am figuring it out on my own. Sometimes, I have no choice and I have to figure out how to complete a task, even if I’ve never tried it before. It’s hard – really hard – and it’s terrifying but it also makes me feel so proud of myself when I can manage to untangle a problem.
I have to learn how to advocate for myself and not be afraid to insert my opinion. I’m slowly learning how to convince myself that I have a lot of experience and I DO know what I’m talking about! At least once a day, my inner voice tells me that I’m a fake and I will never succeed. I am a constant victim of imposter syndrome. In an office, there’s someone to give you feedback, which is at least some assurance that you are on the right track whereas here, I’m my own worst critic and it’s like I have my very own Miranda Priestly living in my head. It gets so bad that sometimes I almost want to cry. My imposter demon will sneak up behind me and whisper, “You are a f**king joke. What do you think you’re doing?” If I’m struggling with a problem, it will smirk and say, “Why are you even trying?” I’ve started writing down these thoughts in the hopes that I will look back on them in a few months, realize how horrible they are and understand that it’s all in my head, that I’m doing the best I can.
Becoming my own boss has its pros and cons. It’s a many-headed beast that I sometimes tame and sometimes it tries to devour me. But in many ways, it’s freeing. If I don’t like the work I’m doing, I can always walk away and find something else. I can make my own schedule, work where I want and travel where I want, as long as I get it done. Whenever I tell people that I work for myself the usual response is how lucky I am. I think that they imagine me as a character from Girls, spending my days watching tv, baking cupcakes, working on art projects and meeting people for coffee in the middle of the day, while occasionally working. It’s not like that. That is a glamorized Martha Stewart version of what I do. My job is hard in many ways that are different from a 9 to 5 office job. If I don’t get work done, if I can’t complete a project, it’s on me. I have to learn to get along with clients because even if we don’t work together in the future, they can be the key to my next job. I have to know my worth and be completely unafraid to tell people that I have to work for a certain amount and no I can’t go any lower. I need to make a living and my work is valuable. This is my career. It’s empowering, it’s terrifying and it’s mine.