[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I attended Bradley University from 2011–2015, completing both my Bachelor’s and Master’s in English. I spent 5 years studying literature and writing at an institution that charged a hefty $40K per year to attend. After graduation, I landed a job in Chicago where I made $35K a year. I earned less in a year of full-time employment than it cost to attend my institution of higher learning. That seemed, to me, fairly fucked up. At the time though, I believed that education was the only path to a better life, and my education happened to hinge on running fast since I had an athletic scholarship. So, I figured if I ran fast and earned good grades, I would land a good job and therefore have a good life. The simplicity of it all astounds me, now.
If you’re predisposed to believe your local college admissions advisor, you might be thinking that English isn’t an area of study directly tied to careers offering large sums of money. But I wasn’t trying to sell insurance packages or become a hedge fund investor. I certainly had no aspirations of engineering or doctoring or laywer-ing. I understood money to some degree but also knew I would hate working if I didn’t pursue something I loved. So, I studied what I loved and assumed I’d figure the rest out later. The simplicity of my belief in “figuring it out,” astounds me now as well.
My first job was for a nonprofit in Chicago’s South Side that was started by a husband wife duo with cloudy intentions and a propensity for the spotlight. The woman who hired me was named Sheri, and Sheri taught me how to write grants. Sheri also taught me how to package a proposal, how to interview clients for a story, how to put together a run of show for a gala, and how to walk the professional-business-woman-walk. Sheri recognized my talents for writing and encouraged me to on to do bigger and better things. I knew nothing about how to interact with people in a professional space and Sheri taught me by throwing me in the deep in. Once I got my footing, I was shuttled across the country with my cat and my ex-fiancé for his new job.
I floundered a bit until I landed my next and current job, where I cut my professional teeth deeper in the fundraising space. My starting salary was over 20 grand more than I made in Chicago, but Orange County is expensive and for the first time ever, I had to plan my finances, figure out how to invest, figure out where to save. I am relatively happy in my work, and relatively good at what I do. But I’ve also realized that the system we are sold is largely a lie. We are told that college will prepare us for the world, that we will exit the grand doors of higher education with all the tools to become profitable, self-sustaining adults. But nobody ever taught me how to ask for a raise or negotiate salary. Nobody ever taught me how to budget my finances, negotiate the price of a car, or do my taxes.
When I graduated, I knew everything about William Faulkner and nothing about how to live in reality, which is either a failure of our education system, a failure of our culture, or both. I called upon my parents to guide me, asking my mother, a seasoned HR professional, for interview advice or to look over my resume. I asked my father to listen, over the phone, to the strange rumble in my car’s engine. I asked them both why life had to be the way it was: going to work with people who don’t really care about you to work for someone else who doesn’t really care about you, to talk to other people who don’t really care, to earn money to pay bills and hopefully have enough free time to do the things you really enjoy. It all just seemed so far from the good life we are all sold.
School has become a conduit to work because we live in a way that values consumption over everything else. Each day in the United States approximately one pound of food per person is wasted. The average American spends $2,792 on food each year, or about $54 a week, or $7.64 per day. The average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash every single day; with 323.7 million people living in the United States, that is roughly 728,000 tons of daily garbage. Every year there is a new and better cell phone to buy, new fashion trends to purchase and eventually throw into a landfill. We produce to consume, and the corporate structure is just a wheel in that cog: production is valued and rewarded. Consumption is encouraged and normalized.
If this seems bleak, it is. A good friend of mine has monetized her online presence, trading a typical 9–5 job for a work-at-all-hours-to-monetize-herself structure. She told me I could do that too: monetize myself and not have to work for someone or something else. But she isn’t exactly working for herself either, the platforms she uses to monetize herself are just large media corporations, rewarding her for driving traffic to their platform. Monetizing myself feels sad, though. If corporate America is a half-baked and inauthentic method of driving consumerism, social media is a half-baked version of real life where we can be whatever or whoever we want. We don’t have to be ourselves.
We are digitized, entertained to death, numb to our emotions and the emotions of others, siloed in our experiences, and fearful of upsetting anybody, especially if we upset them through a screen. I don’t know much, but I do know that I am happier the less I look at my phone, the less I engage with strangers online. I am also happier the less I stare into my computer, the fewer meetings I must sit through and pretend to actively participate in. The corporation wants you to act happy. The social media platforms want you to act happy. You must always be creating, finding a new angle of yourself, a new short, limited story to tell. You must always be doing, or you are nothing.
School taught me to memorize answers, equations, formulas, historical facts. School didn’t teach me how to cut up my life into a million little stories, how to make small talk over oysters at a fundraising gala, how to play the game of make-money-pay-bills on repeat until I die. School gave me a cookie cutter version of life, in which education equals meaningful work equals success. But school didn’t ask me what success and/or happiness meant to me, so I wrote my own list and it looks something like this:
1. Having strong friendships with good people.
2. Having the emotional capacity to be there for my family.
3. Having the emotional bandwidth to make room for a partner.
4. Having the time and energy to pursue my real passions: running & writing
5. Having enough money so I don’t have to worry about rent, or the electric bill, or my car payment.
6. Having enough money to travel, sometimes.
7. Building a happy, safe, and comforting home space.
8. Inviting new people into my life, and letting old or dead relationships go.
9. Learning to be happy on my own.
10. Keeping myself alive and healthy. Learning to cook and nourish my body. Learning to love and embrace my body. Learning to love and embrace other people.
11. Being happy most of the time, and letting myself be unhappy sometimes, too.
12. Learning to grieve when I must and rejoice easily.
13. Having time and resources to go to the mountains.
14. Being paid for my writing, finishing my book.
15. Having the courage to build and keep boundaries.
16. The ability to be a person free of bitterness and resentment.
17. Having the time to read all the books I want to read (there will never be enough time).
18. Having fewer things and more experiences.
19. Not regretting my decisions.
20. Saying yes more than I say no.
After thinking about my list, I realized that there are three things that really make me happy: good relationships, ample free time, and enough money to not worry too much about money. That’s it.
What nobody will tells you about success is that it doesn’t come in a gold medal or fat paycheck; an enormous house or an expensive car. Success is more about who you are and how you are than what you do or what you have, but you’d never know that just by existing here, in this hectic, messy life. Success is having the courage to pursue your own version of happiness, whatever that is.