Non-Career Advice is a series that asks people - young, old, and in a range of occupations - for words of wisdom unrelated to work, career-building, dollars, or getting ahead.
I woke up hours before my alarm on the morning before my 29th birthday. This was partly due to the fact that it was August, a time of year when my bedroom floods with sunlight at five AM. More likely, though, it was because my mind was ajitter with worried thoughts. I'd started a game with myself that involved matching facts about my life with the words "…and I'm almost thirty," and, no less than five minutes in, I'd morphed from a reasonable, thinking human being to an exhausted heap of frayed, frazzled nerves.
I live month-to-month… and I'm almost thirty. I have roommates… and I'm almost thirty. I don't have a plan - for anything, really… and I'm almost thirty.
On top of it all, I felt that while I had a plethora of resources to help me on how to work faster, make more money, network, and participate in social media more efficiently, I was too overwhelmed to use them. Anytime I read an article on how to be more productive at work, I'd feel discouraged, and unsatisfied, and like I needed a nap.
A few weeks later, as I eased into life as an almost-thirty-year-old, I found myself seated opposite a family friend and recent college graduate who'd just moved to New York. We discussed adjusting to the not-knowing of being in one's twenties while eating bagels and bright purple borscht and smoked salmon that cost so much it made my heart jump — and as I talked, something happened that I'd never experienced before. I felt old (or at least older) — and completely (or at least mostly) okay with it. As someone just entering the last year of her twenties, I felt like I had things to say and advice to offer a friend still in the early stages of hers.
None of it — not a single bit — had anything to do with work. I had nothing to say about increasing numbers, or hits, or likes. None of it resembled the kind of advice I've noticed is so commonly offered to those just beginning life on their own.
It made me think: I'd like to start a series that asks people in a range of occupations to share something they've learned as they've grown into adulthood that has nothing to do with work, or the narrow definition of success that so many of us have grown accustomed to measuring ourselves against. My favorite part of writing is sharing stories and connecting with others — and as my blog has shifted over time to focus on growing up, I want to ask others: what would you have told your younger self knowing what you know now?
I'll start. Here are three things I wish I'd known:
1) There are many different kinds of achievements in life, and they're all worth recognizing. Chances are, when I look back at my twenties, my most significant achievements aren't going to be work-related. If anything, my biggest strides have been emotional ones, and it's taken me a while to realize that this is a type of success that's just as valid as having my name published in a magazine, or being able to raise my rates, or working full-time as a freelancer.
I recently interviewed husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak, whose store, Project No. 8, is so named because it's literally the eighth project they've collaborated on. When I asked them what the other seven were, they included things like "having children" alongside various work-related milestones — and our conversation was just as much about books and family and travel as it was about career. Everything — all of it — was important.
2) Daydreaming is productive. My parents told me this when, at twenty-one, I found myself back at home in California after my first move to New York didn't work out. I wasn't sure what my next step should be, and they encouraged me to give it careful thought — but not to force it. It's important to take time to daydream, my dad said.
I ended up farm-hopping overseas for a month — alone, mostly — and for a time, I spent my nights in a little trailer, dreaming about what life might look like when I got home. In some ways, this felt irresponsible and indulgent — but, these days, I don't believe in any single definition of productivity. Read, explore, travel, laugh, daydream, fall in love — these aren't distractions, or frivolities, or ways of procrastinating, or things you should feel guilty about making time for. (As my friend Lily told me when I complained about being unable to focus amid life's assorted diversions: what else are you supposed to be focused on?)
3) Life doesn't have to look any certain way - all that matters is that it looks like you. I came across a book at a record shop recently that showed photos of a family living out of an Airstream trailer, camping as they traveled, reading bedtime stories to their children by firelight. It occurred to me then that life doesn't need to look the way I always assumed it should. It's why I started posting about projects like this man's travel for trade, or this woman's quest to live minimally — they're reminders that life is malleable, that the world is vast, and that life's possibilities extend as far as your creativity, and imagination, and sense of adventure allow.
Work is a part of life — one that can be exhilarating and inspiring and joyful, to be sure — but it's not all of life. Success, achievement, and the notion of getting ahead can mean any number of things depending on how you look at them.
I want to talk about this because there was a point at which I felt that if I wasn't doing well in my work, I wasn't doing well in life. And to worry about that at length, I think, would be entirely — and very regrettably — unproductive.
Looking forward to hearing from others as this series progresses. Thanks so much for reading, as always - and happy daydreaming.