A phrase from a song I wrote about several months ago keeps reappearing in my head like a mantra that won’t go away. In this particular song by The Milk Carton Kids, Permanent, the speaker sings about trying to make something of himself and find direction in life, because he “can’t live off these childhood trophies on [his] shelf.” As I redirect my life and try to redefine who I am and my place in the world, this phrase keeps reoccurring in my head as a most unflattering description of how I’ve been living my life. As an old roommate of mine used to say, “I haven’t updated my perception of myself,” and it’s time for a good ol’ fashion’ reality check.
Last night, as I excitedly prattled on about a potential opening at an actual magazine, my husband idly said, “I don’t see you as a writer.”
That sentence just stripped away a key piece of my identity. Not a writer? What was I, if not a writer? Aside from my secret desire to be an actress, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, all I’ve ever done, ever since I wrote The Giant Strawberry as an ambitious five-year-old. Even when I responsibly tried my hand at a career as a professor, I knew I’d continue writing on the side just-in-case, because that’s who I am. Now he drops this bomb on me?
I silently accused him of being unsupportive, of not even knowing me, while I coolly asked him, “So, what do you see me as?”
He, unsuspecting of the trap just laid, said, “I see you, you know, like owning a funky coffee or cheese shop.”
Once again, this made no sense to me. I’ve never expressed an interest in owning my own business; in fact, I know exactly how hard it is to hang out your own shingle and make a go of business ownership, and frankly, all the red tape and obstacles are not up my alley of expertise (or even interest). A small-business owner I am not.
So I asked him, “Why?” fully expecting to not like his answer.
“Well, you don’t really have a good work ethic,” – wait, it gets better – “and you’re not willing to change when you need to. You’re stubborn. And too idealistic. You dream way too big for reality, and then you get disappointed when those dreams don’t pan out. You expect things to just come to you, without any effort. You should own your own business, where you make your own rules. You’ll never fit into the corporate world if you don’t put in some hard work, and frankly, I just don’t see you there. You don’t want it enough to succeed.”
Well, that is essentially what he said. I was fuming at this point, and retaining 100% of the conversation simply was not going to happen.
When someone attacks my work ethic, it’s personal. Hadn’t I just finished grad school with a ridiculously high GPA after no one thought I’d be able to finish? Hadn’t I just published 40-plus pages of my thesis after two years of research? Hadn’t I worked so hard for the last ten years I nearly killed myself? Didn’t I keep going back to the same thankless job day after day, even when I hated it and was miserable there? “Don’t really have a good work ethic”????
Needless to say, my indignation was beyond expression, so of course I started to cry. I began to feel like a failure, incapable of accomplishing anything in the real world. I know my husband didn’t intend for me to react this way – he was simply offering an objective assessment of my career prospects and capabilities. But I am my own worst critic, and when someone you love points out your shortcomings, it stings pretty badly.
When he saw the need for damage control, he commenced to immediately explain his frank appraisal of my character. “Hon, I just don’t see you writing what other people tell you to write, and if you go for a job at a place like this, that’s what you’re going to have to do. You’re an artist, and you have trouble with too much structure.”
The worst part of all this is he’s partly right.
When I’m not interested in what I’m doing, I don’t have a very good work ethic. Sure, I can work until the wee hours of the night if I’m painting, or writing, or researching, or baking. But ask me to do data entry or file paperwork and I quickly lose interest. Mention “consumer electronics” and watch my eyes glaze over. Discuss “corporate policy” with me and I begin snoring. Shoot, he’s right. I don’t want any part of that.
But I still felt like he misunderstood a huge part of me, the part so unsatisfied with mediocrity. Then it hit me: he didn’t know that me. I hadn’t been that me since high school, when I was in advanced choir and starred in school plays and ran our high school newspaper and wrote 50 pages of an unfinished novel. I haven’t really done anything since then, as supporting myself through school took every spare second of time from me, just as working, commuting, and being a wife now takes every spare second from me. I steal moments to write because if I don’t…well, I just need to. I grew up with the unique privilege of being surrounded by extraordinary individuals; two of my friends were talented dancers, one so talented she was recruited by nationwide dance companies and the other so smart and driven she took all kinds of AP courses to get accepted to a UC school, and another friend was a gifted singer/actress who was so beautiful and gifted she was constantly praised and asked to sing at public events. Of all these women, one is now a professional ballerina, one is living in New York and starting her own business with another famous dancer, and one is an actress/model who I occasionally see in commercials on TV. I expected greatness from myself, too. After all, I was very smart, driven, competitive, and excelled at every art I tried; I had no reason to believe otherwise.
When we fast-forward to the present however, I am still unsure about what career I want to pursue, while the friends I mentioned before have been promoted, seen bumps in salary, and gained notoriety in their fields. The essential difference between me and these friends now is that I didn’t believe enough in myself, so I didn’t try. It wounds my pride to admit that. I took what was at the time the easy way out, and when the economy flat-lined, so did my plans.
I can’t hide from myself anymore. After updating my perception of myself, I am just another lost 20-almost-30-something with no direction except my passions, and the curse of having had “so much potential,” the kiss of death for someone my age. People say that “she had so much potential” and shake their heads when either somebody has failed big-time, or when somebody has failed to utilize that potential. This is my worst nightmare, to be the object of that pity/scorn. Although the childhood trophies on my particular shelf are accumulating dust and I can no longer brag about them because I have nothing to show for them, I must end this on an optimistic note, because that’s who I am. The show’s not over yet. I’m trying now, and as the overused axiom says, better late than never, right?