What happens after you design the life of your own making? What then?

the new work

Boomers will be our ruin, was our constant refrain in the late 90s. This was a time when we actively practiced our apathy, regarded the internet with a mixture of interest and suspicion, and carried cellular phones the size of small bricks. We survived grunge (barely), witnessed a 70s comeback (no thanks), and shirked off our over-generalized Gen-X moniker. We weren’t fragile unique snowflakes, but we didn’t aspire to be our parents either, and it would take a new generation of upstarts to fix the mistakes we initially made with the internet (remember the epic implosion of 2001? My unemployment checks sure do) and show us that everything we were taught to believe about work, success, and life, was far from gospel.

For seventeen years, I worked in an office. I did what I’d been told to do or mimicked generations past — I worked hard and paid my dues, knew my place in the hierarchy and adhered to it, and believed an Odyssean commute and a matching 401K were the “only way”. I never conceived of a career outside the confines of a cubicle until I learned that corporations couldn’t guarantee a safety net or protect you from market and industry volatility, and even though you were constantly reminded of your value and worth during the annual corporate retreats and holiday potlucks, your livelihood was predicated on a P&L. You were only as valuable and indisposable as a company was profitable. You existed for as long as a company could bear the weight of you.

In 1997, I graduated college with a plan: work in finance for 10–15 years, get married, have kids — the whole whitewashed nine-yard. Just stick to the plan, I told myself because this singular version of a dream, one that had been photocopied by multitudes, was the only way. Right?

Until I learned that I loathed finance. You could be good at something and still cry in bathroom stalls. My work didn’t challenge me, the dress code (yes, back then we had a suit dress code with only Fridays as a reprieve) was daunting, my coworkers all hailed from the same Northeast schools, and I became curious about this “Internet thing”. I spent nights and weekends navigating AOL and dial-up service (remember when no one could reach you because you were online? Good times.) and using my financial and accounting skills, I launched a small business where I bought designer clothes and accessories from outlets and samples sales in New York and sold them online. I did this successfully for two years, but still didn’t believe in the safety of going out on my own. I’d relegated my business to a side project, that thing that would steer me away from finance and I could mail my paper resumes to new companies in new industries. During this time, I managed to fit in getting my master’s degree in Fine Arts — the antithesis of my “safe” Bachelor’s of Science degree.

My plan in 1997 was a graft that didn’t take, an implanted organ rejected by its host. My views on marriage shifted — I cared less about the white dress and the fanfare and confetti and instead wanted a partner, regardless of the paperwork. I also realized that I didn’t want children, which made marriage at the time a trickier proposition. Instead, I wanted my career and my novels. I worried less about the whitewashed life and figured that a partner would eventually materialize.

By 2013, most of my views of success were usurped. Millennials annoyed me initially with their impatience toward hierarchy and their seemingly abnormal professional velocity. There seemed to be an urgency in this generation that hadn’t existed previously. I kept thinking know your placeuntil I began to wonder what is “your place”? I was reminded of how I hated being silenced in the room when I had good ideas simply for the fact that I was under 30. I wanted to work hard, true, but I also wanted to contribute and be respected even if I hadn’t yet gone gray. I’d spent time around smart and creative millennials, who had great ideas and worked hard, but believed one could take control of one’s success, that one’s identity was not inextricably bound to their title. I saw them leave and start their own ventures and at first, I was shocked (though mostly afraid), but that fear turned into envy because I thought: I could do this too. So I left a job that made me unhappy to venture out on my own.

At first, I thought, oh, I’ll probably consult for a few months and get a job. Fast forward three and half years later.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that will instruct you on how to be successful as a freelancer. I’m not here to add to that noise, other than to say yes, it’s important to discern if this kind of work is right for you as opposed to being seduced by the glamour of working from home (it’s not glamorous, rather, it’s often isolating), getting experts like bookkeepers and lawyers are tantamount, and being smart about your offering and value proposition (i.e. what you do and why you do it better or differently than the freelancer down the block), know you have to have multiple projects going as a hedge and you have to always be pitching, closing, etc — these are all important and elucidated elsewhere in excruciating (and necessary) detail.

I turn 41 this weekend and it took me a really long time to be okay with not having a plan, of playing the days as they lay. That I’m not a failure because I didn’t cleave to what I had thought defined one’s personal and financial success and realized that definitions aren’t binary. That you can fail and fail better.

Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.

Would I love to be out of debt? Absolutely. Do I regret going to a fancy Ivy League school for a graduate degree when I could’ve saved money and gone somewhere equally good and local? Sure. But right now, right this moment,I have a business that makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I write the books I dream of writing, and I’m healthy (finally), sane, and the things I want will come…eventually. Right now, I focus less on a “plan” and more on living the best and most mindful life I can live. Right now, I focus on giving back and using my privilege to help others. Right now, I focus on living.

I read this quote today (I’m not a fan of Kerouac, but felt it appropriate):

And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.

You could look at it and think, that’s morbid, or you can view it as a call to live.

freelance life + careers

because the cult of busy is probably killing you

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You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize…is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. You will never clear your plate so you can get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing. –From Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

You can’t make a suggestion of sadness. You can no longer whisper or mutter your grief, rather you have to bludgeon your loved ones with it, and then you’ll realize you have their strictest attention. I have a hard time asking for help. Having had to assume the role of adult as soon as I left the womb, I never knew what it was like to be a child; I never had the luxury of screaming tears and being swathed in blankets because I was forever hushing, always wrapping people with the things that comforted them most. In my home vulnerability was considered a weakness, and I spent much of my life telling people I’m fine, even when it was abundantly clear that I was the very opposite of fine. But don’t worry, I’m taking care of it; I’ve got it under control, it’s handled, as the popular protagonist from a nighttime show would say–even when I stared down at my bare hands knowing that I didn’t have the tools for fine. Fine wasn’t a place cartographers had mapped, and I spent much of my adult life with the burden of my grief and sadness, bearing the weight of it. Alone.

Until a few years ago when after my beloved Sophie passed away and I’d left a job that was slowly killing me, and life was dark and uncertain. After seven years of clarity, I drank. A lot. And over the course of two months I’d begun to realize how this relapse was markedly different than all the ones that had become before because I had time. I had the weight of seven years of living a nearly-present life and I finally understand what was at stake, what I could lose. This time was different because I had the gift (or burden) of awareness, and in the midst of all the drinking I knew in my heart this wasn’t right, I had to stop but I couldn’t stop, and I called a friend shaking and said, Angie, can you help me?

Before that morning, that moment, I can’t tell you the last time I said those words out loud.

My friend didn’t flinch or hesitate. She dropped her kids off at school, drove to my home and got me out of the house. We drove around Brooklyn and talked all day, and over the next few weeks she made me adopt Felix. She saved my life. And I knew how busy she was–she had a full-time job as an executive and took care of a husband and two children–but she made time, and that time is something for which I’m forever thankful. Even after a year and seven months of not drinking, when I see her I sometimes remind her that she saved my life.

A few weeks ago I went through another period of darkness. I can’t describe these dark times other than to say that they’re like a storm that’s ferocious and brutal, yet passes swiftly. For a brief time the whole of my world was shrouded in grey and I had a hard time finding my way out, back into the light. Out of habit, I withdrew from friends, receded. Some of them asked what was wrong and in pained replies I said nothing. I said I was fine. But everyone was so goddamn busy, so consumed by the goings-on in their life, to notice the signs. I had become angry over the fact that the people closest to me knew something was wrong and apart from a perfunctory how are you and the answer they knew I’d give, they resumed their state of busy. In some cases, I actually told a few friends what was going on, asked if I could see them, and getting a date on their calendar rivaled admittance into the Pentagon.

Are you fucking kidding me with this, I thought.

It took a status update on Facebook (I’d pared down my friend list to those whom I know and love “in real life”) to remind my closest friends that I am someone who always goes above and beyond, who drops everything and inconveniences herself. Someone who ignores busy, who makes time for her friends when they need her. And wouldn’t it be nice for you to reciprocate? Do I always have to usher in the dramatics and a cry for help for you to make time? Must my needs always be so extreme for you to make time?

Suddenly, everyone magically had time. It no longer takes a gentle prodding to ask for someone’s time or help–it takes an enraged status update on a semi-public social media channel. I don’t begrudge my friends this because they are wonderful, devoted and kind, however, I do worry about the busyness that consumes them. Where mourning the loss of time has become common, a constant bewildered state.

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For a period of nearly four years, I was busy. I missed weddings, baby showers, important moments in friends’ lives–I missed everything. And for what? A title? A six-figure salary? The promise of ownership in a company that I’d become wedded to? Stress and busy wore me down, made me sick, exhausted, and tired, and it took a breakdown and a long conversation with my beloved mentor to convince me to resign. To take my life back because my mentor once told me that when I’m on my deathbed will I have regretted that email I didn’t send, the meeting I didn’t attend or the presentation that could have been tweaked? No, I’ll regret all the weddings and moments in my friends’ lives that I’d missed. I’d regret all the time that I’d squandered, all the people I’d abandoned. It’s been two years since I left that life behind and it’s taken me nearly that long to truly understand the cult of busy and how it can invariably ruin.

I read a lot of articles about the disease that is stress and being busy. As someone who once sent rapidfire emails at six in the morning, I’ve since learned that no one likes to wake to a flood of obligations in their inbox before they have time to wipe the sleep from their eyes. The amount of hours in a day will never change, the to-do list will never be completed to our satisfaction, we can never have all of it because all is nebulous, grey, and holds a different meaning depending upon who holds the weight of its obligation, so why not take control of our time and how we spend it? Contrary to popular belief, busy is a decision we make.

We choose busy. We choose to assume this word as a badge of honor rather than a sickness. We use this word as a measure of endurance–how much of the world could one bear and are we stronger than someone else simply for the fact that we can hold our breath for one more second underwater? Are we better than someone else because we’ve become adept at near-drowning?

For the past two weeks I’ve been immersed in Brigid Schulte’s book on the business of busy, after having read this smart interview. Although it’s primarily targeted to parents, specifically mothers, on how they can find time and balance, much of the book is applicable to everyone that feels the weight of their calendar and to-do list on their shoulders. Schulte’s shares the affects of stress on our brain, that living in a constant state of anxiety actually shrinks our pre-frontal cortex (our intellectual center, arguably the most important part of our brain) and enlarges our anxiety/depression center, all the while shooting cortisol through our bodies. Stress and busy are inextricably bound, and the physical and mental damage it can do will put you on pause. I felt the bulk of what Schulte’s research ascribes–I felt sick, gained weight, no longer felt creative. For a time, exhaustion and anxious were bedfellows.

Much of the book goes to places Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (a book I onced admired, now I question) failed to go. Schulte not only detangles the societal and social mores around women, feminism, work and what it means to be a capable parent in today’s society, she also examines (in stark comparison to other countries) how our society fails to support the family unit. And while I’m not a parent or have any plans to have children, this doesn’t mean I should be blind to how our system fails mothers and fathers–people I know and love–nor does it mean that the impact on the family wouldn’t have any adverse affect on women, particularly single women. We don’t live our lives in silo, and much of the success in other countries as it relates to the ability for people to have leisure time, to not be so tethered to their devices, has to do with a communal mindset. Taking care of yourself while keeping an eye out for your community.

Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives. [Leisure researcher] Ben Hunnicut says, we are doomed to live in a purposeless and banal busyness. “Then we starve the capacity we have to love,” he said. “It creates this ‘unquiet heart,’ as Saint Augustine said, that is ever desperate for fulfillment.” —Overwhelmed

Schulte also deconstructs our insatiable appetite for competition that essentially goes nowhere. We are, at best, productive for nearly six hours a day. And that’s it. At one point our overwork becomes a state of diminished returns and we start to make mistakes we wouldn’t normally make and spend (or waste) time in cleanup mode. While we’re one of the top productive nations, we’re productive when it comes to output, however, we fail at the time it takes to get to the output in comparison to other nations. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of spending time relaxing. We see leisure time as wasteful if it’s not productive (working out, organizing our closets, etc). We don’t understand the art of play and how stretches of time spent doing nothing can actually bring forth our best ideas, our greatest work.

Over the past two years I’ve been privileged in the sense that lots of companies want to hire me. They tell me about an impressive salary and benefits package, about the days of vacation I’ll be promised. The travel! The exposure! In response, I type the same two questions and wait for a response:

1. How many hours do people normally spend working and is flexible time (real flexible scheduling) empowered from the top?
2. Tell me about the hobbies or passions of two of your junior employees

Radio silence.

I made a pile of money (don’t know where that went), I had the exposure and travel and look where it got me: sick, exhausted, burnt-out. I make half as much money as I once did yet I’m richer in every sense of the word. I’ve shown a current client that in three days I can do the work of five because I’m focused. I’ve done some of the best branding and organizational design work for clients than I’ve ever done. I’ve written some of my best work since I’ve resigned from my job. I’ve traveled, discovered new foods, tastes and interests, and I’m present. Fully present for those who need me.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo. Second image, text is my own.

finding joy

book buff freelance life + careers the gathering kind

new york crumb cake + a call for career questions!

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The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough. — Ernest Hemingway (via Iris Blasi)

A few months ago, I wrote a note to someone who was embarking on a new path. For years, she slouched her way through her job, which was sufficient in the sense that it afforded her a lifestyle that one might, in certain circles, covet. Every morning she typed her way through hundreds of emails, and the greatest accomplishment of her days morphed into how many meetings she artfully dodged, how she achieved inbox zero. During this time, she fell in love because that’s what the books all tell you to do. Much like her job, this love was agreeable. Theirs was a home of compassionate compromise — she had her way with the walls, bedding and the closets, and he demanded a bathroom that was austere, borderline medicinal. Their furnishings never disturbed the order of things, as they ordered from Crate + Barrel, IKEA, with some select, “talkable” pieces from ABC Carpet + Home.

Theirs was a quite love of undisturbed sheets and the predictable squabbling over mutual friends and weekend plans. For years, I listened as she complained about nothing, and this made me wonder if the problem was everything. But I did the thing that friends ought to do, which is listen, offer enough so the conversations never veered toward the uncomfortable. I kept inching my foot into a pot of boiling water when I wanted to hurl the whole of my friend, in.

During this time, I was employed in a place in the business of subtraction. It was an office festooned with barnacles who caused minor, unremarkable cuts and lesions, but slowly, over time, I felt the life drain right out of me. My body had become a layer of skin I desperately wanted to shed, and I watched myself board planes, taxis and cars with the sort of dread I imagined one would feel walking toward their own death.

My friend and I met for dinner after months of silence, and I suddenly became dramatic in my protestations. It’s as if I have a gun to my head every day, and I keep pulling the trigger. My hand is on that gun; I keep clicking. My despair is mine alone, one of my own making. I can blame my creative atrophy and stress on everything from my boss to the minor politicking that only served to lengthen and darken the days, but I willingly walked into this and I can so easily walk out. I said all of this as we ate our way through the bread basket, and my friend turned to me and told me that she quit her job and kicked out her boyfriend.

After moments of stunned silence, we fell into former versions of ourselves minus all of the bad habits and dramatics. We hatched plans. We spoke of architecting our own lives. We will break ranks. We will not settle for anything less than extraordinary.

And more importantly, we will sing out all that we’ve learned like song, like sermon. She doesn’t have a virtual life, so she’s making the circuit within her network, while I’ve plans of my own. Because once you’ve been jolted awake, the first thing you want to do is shake everyone on whom you can lay your hands.

So this is me, slightly terrified, making a major leap on this space. Each week, I will publish a short video blog that will answer YOUR career questions. While I don’t talk much about my professional life on this space (and that has been a very deliberate decision), I’ve been a consumer marketer for the past 15 years (my LinkedIn profile), with an emphasis in digital + social. I’ve managed teams, have worked with some of the best and some of the certifiable insane. My career on client + agency-side has spanned industries such as retail, fashion, luxury, media, publishing and beauty/CPG. I’ve mentored dozens, have been mentored by a choice few, and have a lot to offer in terms of career growth, management, and even the ways in which you, akin to me, can embark on a second act.

While I don’t purport to know all of the answers, I think it’s only fair that I offer what I know to you. Also, I can definitely offer some insight into publishing a book and writing, for those folks who want insight on everything from process to marketing your book.

Feel free to leave your questions in the comment space below (or email me at felsull -at- gmail -dot- com).

{shivers, eats cake, hopes you’ll ask a question or two}.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Baked Explorations by Matt Lewis + Renalto Poliafito, with minor modifications
For the crumb topping
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted (and still warm)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups coconut palm sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9×13 baking pan with cooking spray. A glass pan is recommended, but metal works too – your edges may be a little more crispy if you bake in metal.

To make the crumb topping: Whisk the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Add the melted butter and whisk to combine. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour – you’ll have to use a little elbow grease to work in the final bits.

To make the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, letting the first incorporate fully before adding the second. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat for an additional 30 seconds. Add the sour cream and vanilla to the mixer and beat until just incorporated. Finally, add the flour mixture in thirds, beating just until combined.

Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan. The batter will be thick – just use a spatula to spread it evenly. Pick up the crumb topping by handfuls, and break off chunks, scattering them over the top of the batter. Use all of the topping – it will be a very thick layer!

Bake for 45-55 minutes (rotating the pan at 15 minute intervals), or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes before serving.

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cake + sweet loaf recipes sweet recipes