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.

a phoebe + kate update // on playing small

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Everyone wants to be big. Everyone wants that McMansion life. A friend introduces me to someone and says, Felicia started an agency. I recoil in response. I joke about how I’m allergic to certain words: marriage, guru, agency. Another friend asks me about my plans for this non-agency. Do I want to be big? Do I want to go global? And then it occurs to me that I’m allergic to a whole lexicon. I spent two years recovering from working for a sociopath; I’m not booking a return ticket to that life in the near future. I don’t want to be on a magazine’s list. I don’t want photos of my staff in quirky outfits splashed across some fashion blog. I do not want to be big. Big means beholden. Big implies choices I’m not interested in making.

Big ruins everything. Focusing on the size and weight of things was nearly my ruin. It’s important to learn from one’s mistakes.

Months ago, I sat across from my psychiatrist. It hadn’t even been three months since I existed in another space, one in which I wanted to quietly end my life. The medication he prescribed, Wellbutrin, altered me overnight. I went from thinking this is all too much to this is manageable. I can work with this. I borrowed money from friends to continue my therapy until I was able to balance on two feet, and three months in, I found myself talking to him about purpose. 

I remember saying, just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I like doing it. Although I admired and respected the people with whom I worked, I didn’t feel challenged. Days felt rote. In response, my therapist asked me when was the last time I felt joy in my work. It need not be a huge project or a major accomplishment–just tell me this, when were you last challenged? I thought about that, a lot, and I laughed. You’re going to think this is ridiculous… I remember fidgeting on his couch, crossing one leg over the other, uncrossing, and crossing again. I recounted a day I’d spent with a former colleague turned friend turned partner on a project, and we were on my patio styling and taking pictures of beauty products. It was fun because my friend made me laugh the entire day, and part of me knew that what we’re doing was kind of good, but not yet great. Meaning, I had a lot to learn. It’s a feeling of standing in the middle of your life with the recognition that part of you was excited about starting over. And that feeling of wonder, of abandoning a cap and gown and navigating all the firsts (apartment, rent check, job, performance review, etc) was about finding joy in the mystery.   

Can you make something out of that? my therapist asked. I shook my head. I didn’t know.   

The walk from my therapist’s office to my home is about a mile and a half. I like the walk, it’s necessary as it allows me to process the past hour I spent being honest and vulnerable in ways I’m still not accustomed. Even recently, my therapist asked me if I perform in therapy. If I like to put on a show. To which I responded, yes, for the first 15 minutes–I need to warm up. I can’t just walk in here and lay it all out to bear. I need those 15 minutes because it allows me to manage the difficult 45.    

So, I’m walking home and with the passing of each block, I got excited. I’ve built businesses before. I started thinking about value proposition, and offering, and I thought about a company where I would partner with people smarter than me to create and tell stories about the brands we love.     

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Then I thought about all the capability decks I’d created for my previous agency and subsequent clients. I thought about the words I used and how I rolled my eyes while typing them. I didn’t want that bullshit. I didn’t want to be like the rest. I met with a few friends and tried a few different ways of explaining what I wanted to do, and people got excited. But still. I didn’t want the stress of a P&L, of overhead dictating creative decisions. I wanted the fluidity of project work, of having the flexibility in picking my collaborators and partners, without being beholden to a retainer. I didn’t want to work with anyone crazy. I didn’t want to become crazy. And I wanted to work with people smarter, older, and younger than me. 

So I looked at my new novel and I remembered the first novel I really loved, and Phoebe & Kate was born.  

My problem (well, one of many) is that I tire of things quickly. I get hot about something then I lose interest. So I deliberately created a business model that gave me a Houdini-esque escape clause should I want to move on. At first, it was as if I made all the obvious mistakes I spent years undoing. I hired an incompetent bookkeeper, whom I quickly fired. I lamented over LLC vs. S-Corp since the latter has greater tax advantages, yet comes with paperwork that could possibly drive you crazy. A wise friend told me to stick with an LLC for now, and sent me this handy comparison, which made my decision that much more palatable. Even though I just got hit with a California small business tax bill (WTF is it with California and TAXES?! For the love.) And although I told everyone I knew I was doing this non-agency thing, I didn’t put on my Willie Loman suit and pack a briefcase of decks to pitch the world. I wrote an article on Medium, sent a few emails, and hid under my desk.

For a time, I wondered what people would think. I worried about public failure knowing that there are people in this world who wish this for me, or take satisfaction in my undoing. And then I stopped giving a fuck because a few months ago I wanted to end my life and finally, here I was, fighting to create a new one. Fuck everyone, I thought. If this fails, it fails. At least I tried.

Over the past couple of months, I hired a new bookkeeper (Brittany is fucking awesome, please hire her) who is making me realize that although I might have worked in investment banking I know nothing about money. She’s helping me get my financial house in order. I’ve made investments in this business, and I’m still working out processes with freelancers who operate on different schedules or have varying ways in which they work and communicate. 

Then I landed two awesome clients and I fist-pumped the air and thought, holy shit, this might work. 

Last week, I spent two days with a friend, Joanna, who I knew from blogging (we met once or twice IRL, but kept up with one another via text and our blogs), a friend who is an exceptional stylist and thoughtful creative. A friend who has become a trusted collaborator. One who isn’t afraid to impart wisdom while at the same time letting me know when I need to stay in my lane. We took a room in a fancy-pants hotel in Santa Monica, Palihouse, since it resembled a home, complete with airy rooms and a pristine kitchen. I shuttled over thousands of dollars worth of espresso machines, props, and all the photography equipment I’d accumulated and Joanna rolled up with a suitcase of props and her vision. From her, I learned how a real photo shoot was supposed to roll.  

The experience was exhausting and exhilarating. We worked from morning to evening and I wanted to collapse into my bed and have someone fork-feed me pasta. This shoot, which took a dizzying 3 weeks to pull together (from content strategy to brainstorming to shot list creation to prop purchases, styling, shooting, editing, and delivery of selects to the client), but in that brief amount of time I felt I’d learned more than I had in the past three years. I spent months taking online photography classes, downloading tutorials, and although I’ll never be as adept as someone who’s a professional, that’s not what I’m going after. We’re not shooting national ad campaigns–we’re having fun with food and coffee. I don’t need to do more because I’m content with what I have and I’m privileged to have the ability to live out a second act.    

There’s so much I need to learn. How to balance schedules. How to make processes easier and fluid, especially for people living in different states and time zones. How to budget and project revenue and costs. How to get a good working margin. How to know when to grow.

All of this is happening while the specter that is my insane amount of debt looms. I’m focused on paying that down aggressively, which means I have to work longer hours than I should. I take on more than what I’m sometimes able to manage–all with the knowledge that this is temporary. That in a couple of months I’ll be able to hire an assistant who will be able to help me streamline the jobs that come in.

But I’m happy. I haven’t been able to say that in a long, long time. I have a book coming out next year, I’ve got my health (mental and otherwise) back on track, I’m starting to make friends and build a life in Los Angeles, and I’m dealing with my debt, head-on.

So this is 40.   

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odds & ends

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“Can’t you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful?” ― Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

I haven’t loved a book so hard since Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. I never thought a relentlessly dark tale of a prodigy pianist, who so desperately wants to end her life, could be funny. It’s easier to write binary and it’s downright difficult to create balance, and Toews manages to achieve this on a level that is awe-inspiring. The novel centers around sisters, one of whom is a gifted, yet tortured, musician (think: the poet in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Percival in The Waves), and the other the prodigal fuck-up, and how their private, unbinding love is challenged by suicide. In one scene you’re reading about Elf and her latest attempt to take her own life by slashing her wrists and downing bleach, and then you’re somehow laughing at the dark comedy that is this large, disruptive family plagued by a history of depression. As a writer, I often read books on two levels–one for pure enjoyment, entertainment or education and another as a devoted student. I deconstruct structure; I diagram character and tone. I’ll ask, how does he/she achieve what I’m trying to do, and how could I learn from them? While I’m tethered to the darker side of things, I’m feeling the need, especially now, to imbue my work with needed light.

If you don’t mind a book that’s a little heavy (balanced by light), I can’t recommend Toews’s novel enough. Buy it. Now.

I love science fiction. My favorite show of all time is The Twilight Zone, and I think Rod Serling a genius for the stories he imagined and brought to the small screen–most of which were provocative in the late 1950s conservative culture. I loved Stranger Things for the imaginative plot, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s, and after I visited Guillermo Del Toro’s very magical and horrifying LACMA exhibit, I found The Strain and I’m addicted. The story is less sci-fi than apocalyptical and biblical — the world we know plagued by a virus, which we soon learn to be a sophisticated strain of vampirism. This isn’t your staid fangs and capes, rather, Del Toro’s modern day monsters are painstakingly conceived from an evolutionary and biological perspective. And while the story is smart and forward (the catastrophic battle between humans and monsters), the characters grapple with real issues of love and loss.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve become enamored by artists who straddle and redefine form. The Leftovers isn’t just a cable drama about a day when millions of people suddenly disappeared–it’s drama, sci-fi, poetry, all meditating on all the ways in which we define and experience loss. This is why I admire writers like Maggie Nelson, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet and others of their ilk who refused to be confined in a box. A few weeks ago, I shared my new novel’s jacket copy with someone whom I was potentially interested in hiring as a freelance publicist but was disappointed when this person wrote back, oh, this is genre fiction. Let me pause and I say that this argument isn’t about whether I like or don’t like genre fiction (I do, and think genre fiction is hard to pull off, thus warranting so much respect–I wish I had the commitment to pacing and patience that a brilliant mystery novel requires), it’s about having myopic vision. I set out to toy with form–I wanted to write a story rooted in literary fiction (my comfort zone) but have elements of psychological thriller and suspense. I look to Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder as a perfect example of collapsing form. If you read her book jacket, you would say, oh, this is just true crime. While there’s nothing wrong with true crime (Ann Rule’s memoir of her working with Ted Bundy is one of my all-time favorites), that reductionist thinking would’ve ignored what Nelson set out achieve. Her slim book is parts true crime, memoir, poetry, and a private letter between her and her aunt, who died in the hands of a serial killer.

I get that we want to give everything an elevator, fit everything into a neat and tidy box because it’s quick, efficient and easy. However, I admire artists who break tradition, who say, this book, show, or song need not be only this. It could be this and that.

A brief aside: have you noticed that shows have literally gone dark? I already wear glasses. Please don’t make me reach for the flashlight.

In the vein of nodding to people who inspire you, I loved this take on success being defined as how you elevate others. Years ago, I read The Art of War, and now I find it a pile of shit. I’m not interested in Darwinian workplace warfare, rather, I know I win by how I treat others and how I help them rock out in whatever they’re doing. Another way in which you can view success is by how you redefine size. We naturally think that bigger and more is better, a sign of achievement. I have X amount of followers, thus I’m an “influencer”. My home is Y square footage, so that means I’ve “made it”. I don’t subscribe to a McMansion view of life, rather, I’m in step with Mike Birbiglia’s call to play small.

And if you’re not reading Bianca Bass’s wonderful blog, you’re not living your best life. She writes about success and creative work from the millennial perspective–namely, you don’t have to hustle 24/7, rest is a virtue, and her musings call for more meaningful connection beyond fan counts. I’ve grown really tired of being sold to ALL. THE. TIME., so it’s a respite to discover someone’s blog and their writing and not feel trapped by an affiliate link. There are people who still tell stories just to tell them.

Finally, one of the things I’ve learned this year is the need to nurture relationships and be patient. I admired this mother’s lament on how the challenges in her life prevent her from being the kind of friend she knows she can be. I’ve been there (with an unhealthy relationship to my work replacing children), and if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s this: Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Lean on your friends and help when you can.

 

you are what you go after

launching a new company

Three years ago I wrote a story about a job that was slowly killing me. There were weeks during the summer when I’d rarely see daylight and I’d fork food into my mouth I couldn’t remember having eaten. Did I eat lunch ?— I can’t remember, but I must have eaten because my garbage was overflowing with take-out cartons and Seamless Web plastic bags. I’d scroll through pictures of myself taken with my phone and I had to turn away because all of them looked like proof of life photos. I was walking through my sleeping life and I became a version of myself that to this day I still apologize for. My generation was reared to believe that if you worked hard, paid your dues, climbed slowly up an invisible ladder, you’d be handsomely rewarded with a matching 401K, and you’d no longer fear the first of the month when rent was due. You didn’t quit; you kept moving even when you knew that as a woman your work would be harder. You kept working because you hadn’t yet come to the realization that the things you own end up owning you. But that comes later, much later, when you’re so tired you stop rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. You kept waking up in the middle of the night to scan your emails because no one ever slept. Sleep was for amateurs, people who weren’t thirsty. People who didn’t want to make partner.

I worked for a man who peddled his snake oil wrapped in Powerpoint presentations. He was the sort who believed that if you said all the right multisyllabic words, people would hand over their checkbook with a dazed look that resembled idolatry. A man so consumed by his greed that it ended up being his ruin. I’m reminded of what someone told me once — you are what you go after.

When I was made a partner of this company, all of the women stood and applauded and I was happy. It occurs to me now that I should’ve been angry over the fact that all of these brilliant ambitious women reported to a company run by men, men who reported to a holding company and a board filled with white men. And I was the lone woman who stood amongst the gleaming white.

When I was a freshman in college, I switched majors from psychology to finance. There were a lot of reasons for the move but none of them really matter now save for the fact that I grew up poor in Brooklyn and I watchedWall Street one too many times. I was eighteen and I believed that money corrected everything. Money gave you comfort. Money was your shelter. So I took all the required classes, interned at Merrill Lynch and other fancy banks at $15-$20/hour. I remember attending a party a few days before graduation where the man who would be valedictorian, a man who was a fixture in my study group, told me that competing with me made him work harder. He was drunk and so was I, and I couldn’t help but think he was congratulating me on my loss. It didn’t occur to me until years later that I would allow snake oil salesmen to use me to get ahead.

Two years out of college and sick of wearing skirt suits (this was 1999), I started a side business where I re-sold clothing and accessories I purchased from sample sales and outlet stores on eBay. This was a time of dial-up internet service and AOL buddy lists. Few business set up shop online, and women across the country were excited about this eBay business and how it allowed them trespass to the false feeling that you’re important, that you mean something, simply because you have a pair of $300 sandals strapped to your feet. I was 23 and filing LLC paperwork and doing my own accounting at night because I was tired of being told by recruiters, who scanned my paper resume printed on bond paper, that I could only get a job in banking because I’d only worked in banking.

I don’t like being told no.

This side business got big, big for me, and it attracted the attention of the wife of a man who would eventually be my boss, a man who worked for a $10 million dollar venture-back dot.com that aimed to sell Italian designer accessories over the internet. I resigned from my job, trashed my suits, and worked full-time at this company while I attended Columbia University’s MFA program in between work hours. Never did I conceive that owning my own business was something that one did, much less one that was built using the internet. We were taught to crave the creature comforts of big companies. Big companies meant stability.

That sound you hear? It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

There are many things in the span of a two-decade career for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the time I spent working for a man who gave me a much needed attitude adjustment and taught me most of what I know about marketing. He also taught me, by example, how to be kind and compassionate to the people who work for you. I’m grateful for another man, years later, who was my sponsor and champion when the snake oil salesman was content on wreaking havoc on my self-esteem if it meant keeping me in line while he continued to add zeros to his paycheck. If it meant cleaning up his mess after he’d lie to client after client, and set expectations he knew we couldn’t achieve. No matter. As long as the contracts were signed and the cash flowed in. No matter when people caught on to his game, and he hid in his office while I had to fire people who had mortgages and families. It’s a business decision. I’d choke out these words and cry in the bathroom later. Anyone who tells you firing someone gets easier the more you do it isn’t human. But I was deemed “emotional” because I cared about the wellbeing of people. Even if many of them will never know it.

For the three years after I resigned from this job, I thought I would be happier flying solo. No office to go into, no lives to turnover, and fewer hearts to break. I even left New York, my home of 39 years because I grew tired of the velocity, of watching my home devolve into a whitewashed H&M, of no longer wanting the things I thought were important. So I moved to Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life I had unmitigated quiet. So much so that I nearly drowned in it, and I spent the greater part of this year in a very dark and severe depression. A darkness I believed I couldn’t come back from until I did. And that’s another thing I’m grateful for — people online and off who bring you shelter when you least expect it. A kind of shelter that makes money laughable in contrast. A kind of compassion that makes you only want to work harder, be a better person.

I spent the bulk of my career hiding my gender and swallowing my voice. My decks couldn’t be too pretty lest they be deemed feminine. Perhaps we’ve conveniently forgotten study after study that tells us that having diversity and inclusion on boards and in companies is the very definition of a company’s success. I couldn’t be vulnerable when that could be construed as a sign of weakness when countless studies prove otherwise. That vulnerability means you’re human and people will admire you for that. Your humanity.

This month I returned to 1999, albeit changed and demonstrably older. (Hopefully wiser). I filed paperwork for an LLC; I opened a business banking account and created the credentials I wanted to read. I contracted nearly a dozen women who wanted to collaborate on projects that challenged and excited them. I sent emails, scheduled meetings and made plans. However, there was a moment — a full day of them — when I wondered if I would fail. If there weren’t a place for people who wanted to speak English, not jargon, for people who demanded mutual respect from their partners and people who understood that our best work could be achieved if weren’t tethered to our desks and chained to our chairs. I thought back to a younger version of myself who didn’t question failure because this change, regardless of the outcome, was what I needed to move forward.

So here I am, 40, moving toward what’s next. And I couldn’t be more excited. If you’re interested, here’s what I’m up to. I hope you’ll fist-pump me along. Drop me a follow on Instagram or Twitter if you’re feeling my vibe.


For those who are curious, I plan on taking this space in a markedly different direction. I’m keeping a great deal of my personal life offline, so this space will be filled with books, food, the ins & outs of running my own small business, travel and the like. I hope you’ll stick around. -f

how do I monetize what’s left of my soul?

 

the shady blogging game

On a long enough timeline everyone has a strike price, or so it seems.  Few talk about the cruel irony of the online space–the anti-establishment becoming the establishment, and when they become the thing that they once sought refuge against, they try to convince you that this establishment is different. We’re creatures of order with selective memory, and what was once an idealistic rebellion becomes corporatized, systemized, anything-ized. After the dot.com crash of 2000 (I remember it well because I was one of many who lost their job when my dot.com blew through their VC money), we temporarily returned to the perceived safety of brick and mortar companies until a new generation cropped up, the crash being a distant memory, launching companies that were just as insane and overvalued as the ones that came before. But we’re different, they emphatically insisted. Not really. Maybe they have better haircuts? Fancier footwear? Hoodies?

In 2002, I launched an online literary journal because I was tired of seeing good writing routinely rejected by print publications because the writer wasn’t connected or had the means to attend an exclusive MFA program. Or perhaps the writer didn’t know X famous writer, attend Y reading series. The writer couldn’t work the room because they were denied access to the room’s address. I was tired of a limited few benefitting from privilege and access. Perhaps I was also rallying against my own disappointing experience at the Columbia MFA program, where I felt like a complete outsider.

Back then, no one took online lit mags seriously. Paper lent you legitimacy because who would go to AWP with a laptop? Aesthetically, few could compete with the grandeur of the print establishment with their glossy covers and bold-face contributors, and don’t even think that your work would be considered in any of Best American series let alone win prizes. But I kept on trucking. I invested my own money in a site redesign and ultimately succumbed to the paper peer pressure. I spent thousands of dollars because I loved what I did. Even on the days when I had to haul heavy boxes (slim books are surprisingly heavy when you’re moving a few hundred of them from a taxi up two flights of stairs) or I encountered a snobby writer (or forty) who thought my “little” publication was “adorable”, and sure they’ll deign to submit the story they torched in the trash bin because they’re charitable too. Never did I consider making money off my literary journal because I felt, perhaps too idealistically, that money would taint it as money tends to do. Money would drive editorial decisions. Money would force me to sit in a room with people I didn’t respect much less like because one has to work a room and be part of the scene in order to be taken seriously. Not relying on profitability allowed me to say fuck you, I’ll do my own thing over here whether you like me or it, or not. And then I stopped publishing the magazine because I didn’t love it like I used to, and I walked away and watched as a succession of others took its place. I watched online magazines gain the respect, credibility and authority they deserved. I saw online editors blurbing books and hosting conferences. Part of me was really happy, but a small, growing part of me was sad and it wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered why.

I left three years of working in marketing at a major publishing company because I couldn’t stomach the business of writing. Editorial meetings would make me violently ill with talk of platform and reach trumping the quality of a writer’s work. As long as a book could sell, who cared about the contents of the pages? I witnessed talented friends tirelessly sending out manuscripts that would invariably get rejected while I sat in an editorial meeting pontificating our ceiling bid on the media darling of the moment. I’m not naive. I know publishing isn’t a non-profit, but as someone who writes for the sheer joy of it, it was hard for me to detangle the bitter taste from the business with the sweetness of the art. Some can and do it brilliantly; I couldn’t.

I then spent the best and worst four years of my career building a company that specialized in social media marketing. This was a time when social was relatively free. There existed no algorithms to game or pay-for-plays to consider. Social media was unchartered, messy, and I loved it. I loved experimenting in an era when people didn’t take what we did all that seriously. This was a time when sending someone product was good enough to secure a review.

Then something happened. So quickly I was nearly bowled over by it. Overnight, the people who were once content with receiving free product were commanding fees equivalent to a month of my income. Fees for a single photo or appearance. Fees for a return (qualitative or otherwise) of which we were uncertain. It was as if the industry moved from 0 to 90, bypassing a cruising speed. The industry shifted from slightly advantageous to grand larceny. Suddenly, I was dealing with agents who acted as if their clients were the modern day Linda Evangelista–refusing to wake up for less than $10,000 a day. And while I believe that people should be compensated well for their work, some of these fees were a laugh riot. I’d pass on proposals to my clients, to which they’d respond: you must be joking.

This was the new era when everyone was an expert and everyone was in the business of brand ME. This was the era when kids became props and sales vehicles, and some bloggers were duplicitous when it came to disclosure or even their true feelings about a product or brand. If I hear one more time: I’ve been using X product for Y months when they signed for the Fedex package yesterday, I’m going to scream. This was the era when several friends were shocked that I didn’t add affiliate links to the cookbooks I posted or for the books I read. Why would I do that? Just because there’s money to be made doesn’t mean I need to make it.

Lately, a lot of my friends who are trained and established in their fields are losing out to the flavors of the moment. They’re losing out to outfit bloggers who have 500K Instagram followers and LikeIttoKnowIt affiliate links that serve as permanent wallpaper on their sites. They’re losing out to bloggers who have little design experience, training, or point-of-view claiming they designed collections that we know they didn’t design. They’re losing out to “social media experts” who undercharge and overdeliver. “Marketers”, who don’t fundamentally understand basic marketing principles or the complexities of a business, are creating challenges and friction for everyone else in the field. Beware of anyone who calls themselves a “growth hacker”.

The establishment had a dam for a reason. No one wanted to drown in the event of a flood.

And while there are incredible writers and artists who’ve found audience and livelihood as a result of social media, most bloggers are pale photocopies of extraordinary originals. New bloggers immediately ask: How can I make money? When can I get free stuff? When can I get a book deal? Since publishing a book these days is as meaningful and disposable as a business card.

How do you explain that nothing is truly free and that making money comes at a cost and the result of hard work? I don’t dismiss the hard work of so many talented people online, but I question and challenge the sea-of-same which has become increasingly ubiquitous. The flood of beige drowning color. I worry when one blogger is completely indistinguishable from another, down to their peony bouquet and Old Navy comped clothing. And the business side of me, the one who has to pay rent and student loans, has to play into this to some degree (hence, why I can never give specifics or name names because I would actually like to pay off my debt while I am still alive) while the other side of me is washing the taste of all of it out of my mouth. Recently, I attempted to negotiate a deal on behalf of one of my clients for a cause campaign and the person on the other end of the correspondence wrote that the influencer could only write about a cause in the context of an outfit post. I paused and re-read the email several times, wondering if the person on the other end didn’t see this as incredibly inappropriate. Can no one take a day off from affiliate links to use their influence for something good? Must every post and moment somehow contribute to brand ME? Must everything bear a price tag? Are people lauded for weekly “coffee talk” posts because our bar for storytelling is set that low? Does that one slightly revelatory, yet highly edited, post elevate one’s perception of authenticity? Is faux-real the new real?

Behind the scenes, in texts and chats, many of us wonder when this bubble will burst. When the next wave of anti-establishment shakes down this Beige New Order, possibly normalizing it or at least alleviating the insanity of it. A time when my friends will actually get work again and not have to side-step those who have unfathomable fan counts. A time when people stop monetizing life’s real moments. A time when people will create for the sake of creating without thinking about ways in which it can be transactional. I don’t want to be sold to, indirectly or directly, every single day. I get enough of that from the world around me. Blogs used to be my refuge, but now most of them are walking advertisements. Maybe the voice is more conversational (although not really because brands are basically in the mimicry game of what’s working with influencers), but the message is still the same. Buy this because I’m obsessed with this thing this week until I become obsessed with that new thing next week. 

Tell me stories. Don’t sell me things.

 

the benefits of reciprocal mentorship: be good to the kids, you need them

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There’s a reason for the peonies, I assure you.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was kind of an asshole. It was 2009, and I’d just accepted a role in an agency after a career on the brand side, a career dominated by companies that recycled old ideas and were frightened of progress, so much so that the state of stagnation had become tragically ubiquitous. I wanted velocity and risk after years of being methodic and measured. Up until 2009 it had been rare for me to work with people who were younger than me unless they were interns or assistants. Most of my coworkers were older and their most beloved word was no. As in, no, this can’t be done. As in, no, who else has done it, first? As in, no, we’ve always done it this way, so why try something new? It became such that I wanted to staple things to their heads and bang my head against my desk while pleading for progress.

After a career of being the youngest person in the room, I was excited about being one of the OLDS. I was proud of my tenure and believed I had a thing or two to teach the youngsters who’d taken up residence on my lawn. Little did I know that after a career working for people who believed that one spent decades paying their dues, and junior employees didn’t speak until spoken to, that I would adopt this dangerous way of thinking. I’d come to this new role with a five-piece luggage set of baggage. While I was initially excited to work with kids in their 20s, I quickly became astonished. Are you telling me you want a pay raise and a title change after 2 years while I waited FIVE YEARS to be promoted to manager? How do you not see the benefits of slaving over excel sheets and doing those staid, repetitive tasks because I had to endure daily paper cuts filing papers in cabinets back when one used paper–a time when everyone used a fax machine.

You want purpose, mentorship, and a clear path for advancement? Surely, you jest.

For a time, I grumbled with the OLDS I once admonished. Who do these kids think they are? They’re in diapers and they want to run companies and enjoy their work? My generation never enjoyed their work, rather we were told that work afforded you money for the life you were supposed to have: kids, the car, the house and the fence–all aging remnants, an eyesore from a generation where women swallowed voice and served frozen dinners to the men who came home from the office secretly frightened that the best they could ever be was second-rate. I never wanted that life and here I was clinging to it. Here I was telling people who wanted progress! change! to swallow their voice. To speak unless spoken to.

It took a few years to undo the damage inflicted by my previous generation, and when I left the fancy job it occurred to me that I had much to learn from those who were younger than me. Never would anyone in my generation leave a good job for uncertainty. We would never be consultants. We would never pursue a life of purpose and professional fulfillment. We took what was given and swallowed our medicine with tepid glee, like the good children we were raised to be.

Why not design a life you want to live since we have so few years in this life to live? Why not buck complacency? Why not question that which has always been done? Why not view failure as a means of inevitable success?

Now, the great majority of my friends are under 30. And I’ve so much to learn. When I first left my job years ago and considered going back to full-time, a friend suggested that I stay the course and go out on my own. What’s the worse that can happen? You try and fail? So then you know. A few weeks ago, my friend Jenna gave me a refresher course on the more sophisticated ways one could target consumers on Facebook. She spent an hour of her time on Skype answering all my dumb questions. My other friend Jennifer, an insanely smart and passionate marketer who once reported to me, patiently showed me how to use Snapchat. This may all seem small, insignificant, but I owe much of my success to the fact that I’m humble enough to learn what I do know. I’ve become smart enough to see the value in reciprocal mentorship, the hey, I’ll teach you how to lead teams and grow a business and you’ll explain every nuance of every new technology and how people are shopping today. You’ll inspire me to want more, to question everything and think differently. This is what has kept me fresh and competitive while some of my peers continue to struggle.

I really hate the sound of my own voice. 

For every project I take on, I usually partner with a subcontractor, and it’s rarely a peer. Granted, I’ll punt things with one of my two mentors. I’ll gut-check a strategy or an approach with those who’ve done what I’m trying to do before and have done it successfully. However, I have SO MUCH FUN with smart people who are younger than me. I’m working with my friend Jennifer on a beauty project and we spend a few hours each Friday (or Saturday) brainstorming ideas, staging photo shoots (like the peonies business above), and talking about trends, and I always leave those afternoons smarter and inspired.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years, it’s this: be good to people. Not because you never know if they’ll be your boss, client, or a decision maker, but because you should want to be a good human. Being humble and receptive to learning from the younger set has made me smarter, kind and patient, and nearly all of my projects this year have come as a result of referrals from my millennial friends.

I loathe the word expert because I firmly believe that one is constantly a student and a teacher. We always have more to learn, and the more you open yourself up to alternative sources of knowledge, the more you grow professionally and personally.

And you end up taking really nice snaps of your client’s product for social media. So there’s that.

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don’t be funny about asking for money: I’m answering your questions

freelance money questions resolved

Years ago, ages it seems, I had a job where I had a great deal of control over how much people were paid. I conducted performance reviews, sat in on budget meetings, and fought for comp increases for valuable employees. Even though money in and of itself isn’t the only way to retain employees, it doesn’t hurt to recognize and reward hard work. However, what I started to notice was that the talented women on my team weren’t raising their hand and asking for what I thought they deserved. Their anxiety in broaching the question of title changes and quarterly increases was palpable and I remember at the end of one review me saying, that’s it? That’s all you’re going to ask for? From then on, I made a point of mentoring women to fight for what they deserved. It seems counterintuitive, right? Companies want to keep costs down (especially salary + benefits), and here I was teaching my team how to ask for more. However, it was important to me because only one person in my career taught me how to fight for myself. He taught me to ASK for what was my due. My mentor coached me on salary and benefit negotiations (and contract negotiations, in general). From him I learned about BATNA, and more importantly, I learned how to be assertive and bet on myself. Because, quite honestly, in enrages me that men–when acumen and experience are leveled–make more money than I do.

After my recent Great Depression, I made it my mission to give the people I care about more of the kindness I’d received during those dark months. I passed around resumes, reviewed Statements of Work, and even though I’m not a lawyer I explained the importance of IP and indemnification. I told several of my friends they were underpricing themselves, that they should ask for 50% of the project fee, up front, that they should bill project with an hourly cap because hourly doesn’t always cut it especially for those who have tenure and years of experience.

I scanned Facebook group posts where women were trepidatious when it came to asking for more. After sharing one of my contracts with a few of my friends for reference, it put me to thinking that it behooves all of us to share information and be helpful where we can. It behooves us to price right for the work we do so that we don’t get taken advantage of.

So…I’m here to help. Here’s what I know:

  • How to create air-tight Statements of Work/MSAs (Master Service Agreements)
  • How to price for marketing and writing projects
  • When to use hourly vs. project fee
  • How to negotiate (I’m pretty ruthless)
  • How/when to renegotiate and ask for more

If you have any questions related to the above, drop them in the comments (you can leave a comment anonymously), and I’ll do my best to answer all of them in an upcoming post (or point you to the right resources), and if you see questions and you think you can help, chime in!

Meanwhile, here are some great resources:

 

guest post: alexis farah, random acts of lipstick

AlexisFarah

My friend Alexis is the epitome of awesome. She’s the kind of person you simply just want to be around. I knew Alexis in a former life as we worked together at an agency in New York, and we both found ourselves on the west coast, living by the beach and cultivating quiet and perspective. It’s wonderful to see your friends bloom, and Alexis is finally merging her two passions: beauty and philanthropy. 

Recently, she launched her incredible venture, Random Acts of Lipstick focused on forward beauty and giving back. I asked her to write about the impetus of her venture and how she balances RAOL with her freelance life. I hope you love Alexis’s post as much as I adore her. –FS

 

After 10 years of working as a beauty editor in New York City, I began to explore different avenues for starting my own business. That venture, I decided, would be different than anything else that currently existed in the market. It would fuse my life experiences and passions in a unique way. But the when and the how remained question marks.

What I learned very quickly is that sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see your best self, and to identify the traits and strengths that define your character, ultimately leading to the most fitting business opportunity. And as this site’s founder helped to so beautifully pinpoint, in addition to having beauty expertise, I’ve made it a life’s mission to give back. Because as the great Dalai Lama XIV once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” And yes, charity work delivers a unique dose of fulfillment and perspective, so why not make that a part of my work focus, too?

It became a natural next step to tap the experience I’d acquired as an online editor to craft a site that combined my two passions, beauty and giving back. There I’d spotlight hair care, skin care, makeup, fragrance and nail polish brands that are doing really incredible things to change the world. Stories that often go untold from brands that many of us have stashed in our makeup bag right now. After much back and forth about the name (which was surprisingly hard to choose), I landed on Random Acts of Lipstick during a road trip with my parents. It was perfect for a site that’s bottom line was to encourage random acts of kindness through tangible beauty experiences.

Once the site was up and running the editorial direction became clearer and in a way built itself. Each week, I cover a “Product with Purpose.” It’s a single product that is in some way positively impacting communities. A portion of the proceeds could be donated to a charity or it could help raise awareness about an important cause in other ways. On Fridays, I’ll offer a “Feel Good Friday” post that recognizes influencers, brands, or entire product lines for their superpower efforts, too. To appeal to a retail audience, the shop sells a signature tote with the site’s logo emblazoned on the front. In keeping with my own mission, a portion of the proceeds from sales of the bag will go to an organization I’ve worked closely with for years, New Alternatives for Children.

In many ways I hope the site creates it’s own path and grows in directions based on user feedback, trends in the market, and new solutions to promote compassion. But as far as concrete plans go, I aspire to be the go-to spokesperson for beauty and caused-based partnerships and campaigns. I also want to be the go-to source for the best beauty brands that give back. And as I grow my feel-good marketplace, I want to be the go-to shopping experience for all buying needs that also have a giveback component.

Balancing a startup and a freelance/consulting career can be a challenge, but I’ve found that it’s important to stick to a routine and remain consistent in my workflow to get it all done. Surprisingly, my best work takes place at night and on the weekends so I get all my administrative work, meetings, and events out of the way during the day.

And since I never know when a new idea for a pitch or opening sentence for a story will strike, I keep a notebook or something to write on with me at all times. That goes for in my shower as well, where you’ll find waterproof AquaNotes to write down any ideas that arise while sudsing up.

The goal is to make Random Acts of Lipstick my primary job, but the bottom line is that if what I’ve built can put a smile on just one person’s face, can help one child avoid hunger, can help one family have access to clean water, my business plan will have succeeded.

Connect with Random Acts of Lipstick on Twitter and Instagram.

my captain obvious moment as a freelancer: play nice with all aspects of yourself in the sandbox

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

When I started my career in finance, I learned about the power and peril of diversification. Creating a diversified portfolio carries with it an element of calculated risk–too much and you lose focus and expertise, too little rendered you a specialist tattooed with an expiration date. Your work lies in cultivating balance in the extreme so that in the event the ground opens up and gives way, your fall won’t be precipitous, bottomless. A strategic, well-rounded portfolio is the hedge you need to weather industry downturns and personal catastrophe. When I started my career in digital marketing in 2001, many of my peers were recalcitrant–they considered online commerce a blip, a fad that would inevitably fade and their marketing prowess, experience, and education would prevail. They resisted social networks and failed to learn the language of a seismic behavioral and cultural shift that would become omnipresent, ubiquitous. A Darwinian marketplace rallied against them, rendering smart, albeit stubborn marketers, obsolete because they didn’t diversify–they failed to keep up. On the flipside, you’ve seen what happens when one company or person tries to be all things to all people: they end up being nothing to no one. They end up broken, a whole that would never equate to the sum of its parts. They’re reduced to a spin-off, a division excised from the whole, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For much of my career, I drew a fine line between work and art. Never have the two played peacefully in the sandbox because one was always kicking sand in the other’s face. Work colleagues were hardly aware that I wrote lyrical, dark books and writer friends were always shocked when I used words like “brand positioning” and “customer segmentation”. One part of me made money and the other derived purpose from writing the small stories that rarely registered on the cultural radar. One part of me paid for the other; for much of my own career, I served as my own patron. I had become my own benefactor. For a while, this strange symphony worked. I wrote my first book and published a successful literary magazine while working in marketing at Time Warner Cable and HarperCollins. I started (and subsequently sold) my second book while juggling brand strategy and digital marketing projects as a consultant. But money sometimes gets tricky and soon I regarded my “work” with mounting annoyance. I was beholden to marketing in order to create the kind of stories that bolted me out of bed in the morning instead of looking at it for what it was: another vehicle that allowed for storytelling.

To use an anti-feminist, subjugating turn-of-phrase: I had become my own bitch. And I didn’t like it.

This week my therapist and I talked about how I fell so hard, so fast when I moved to Los Angeles. Part of it was prolonged grief from not adequating mourning the death of my mother (sound familiar?), for sure, but, more importantly, I had spent the year prior to my move in a state of persistent acceleration. There was a cross-country move to plan, projects to land and conquer, a book to revise with my agent and sell, and the subways, the frenetic rush of people, the axiom of living in New York: do it faster! and it was only after I unpacked all the boxes did I realize I had been running on empty. I’d been forced to settle in quiet and I didn’t exactly like what I saw. I told my therapist that I wanted physical and geographic space, to which he responded: from what, your friends? I laughed, shook my head no, then shook my head yes and then said I don’t know. Maybe all of it? Maybe I’d built my life defined as one thing, stuck in that thing, and moving offered the promise of not being the thing people knew, or expected you, to be. I arrived and wrote a good book in two months and then fell apart.

During the journey back, I created a portfolio–you know, your resume in narrative form with pretty pictures and colorful slide dividers because everyone craves the elevated, derivative state. We want our stories beautifully told. We want our personal brands to be luminous, yet accessible, yet aspirational, but still inspiring and achievable. Yet in creating the outline which would morph into the final presentation, I found it difficult to tell the story of me without including the whole side of my life devoted to storytelling. Suddenly, it felt strange to not talk about the dual nature of my life and the value that it brings to bear. I took on a small project for a successful blogger (and dear friend) where I helped her tell her story in professional form. Gone are the media kits and capes decks–I wanted to create something that started the conversation but wasn’t the whole of it, and I found tremendous joy in using my two loves: marketing and lyrical storytelling and profiting from those lives lived without needing to take a long shower.

Today I had a wonderful chat with an acquaintance who served as my editor on a short essay I’d written about going to Ireland with my pop. I’d be referred to her by a friend and she was curious about my background. Could I edit books? Could I develop projects with authors? Could I help authors structure their books and tell their stories in a compelling way?

Of course, I can.

I started talking about all the work that wasn’t on my resume. Editing at Scholastic, working closely with editors in book publishing, editing and publishing a literary journal, butchering my friend’s novels and helping them create structure and refine their voice in their work. I even trotted out the Columbia MFA, although I’m fairly ambivalent about the degree now, and regret the debt that accrued as a result of it. I’ll be paying for my writing to the grave and so on.

As a freelancer coming out of a long hiatus and finally back in the proverbial saddle, I realized that I’d been myopic about consulting. I failed to create a portfolio that spanned my strengths: marketing, digital, social, editing, brand architecture, organizational design/process, writing, editing, brand development, project management and development. I hadn’t mined a network that would account for my diverse skill set. I hadn’t positioned myself as someone who could create, distribute, analyze and refine. It was only this morning did I see the need to have all the kids playing nice in the sandbox because right now I need all the kids to rally.

Now I position myself as a creator, someone who builds things and tells stories, and what distinguishes me is my range, breadth, and depth. What sets me apart is the fact that I color outside the lines and I also create new books in which to color.

This is why I want to remain here. I want to feel the new, uninhabited and unconquered. I want the space to be able to see.

forget mass-market. why not play small?

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What we are is a set of walking contradictions. Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly, our souls are shadowed places; we live at the border where dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places…We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins. — From Lewis Smedes’ Shame and Grace

We always want more — even if we don’t want it, even if we never needed it. When we were children our eyes roved over the things we saw–the pink light that filtered in through the trees (dusk), machines that raced down streets (cars), furry things that licked their paws (cats, dogs–this could get complicated), and in those experiences we cultivated memory — the first of our many acquisitions. Everything used to be a puzzle; images and words played Lego, and we leaned on others for definition, interpretation, and perspective. We were taught to believe that everything in the diminutive represented an unfinished state, something not yet realized and far from its potential. That cute wobbly puppy will grow into a dog that can sprint. That infant who once smelled of clean cotton sheets will become someone who will build houses, fly planes, cure diseases. Our memory of the miniature plays out in sepia, it’s hazy and often romanticized — we only fixate on what we’ll become, leaving our previous states aside.

We always dismiss our smaller, unfinished states in favor of the large and seemingly complete.

I’ve been thinking about children lately. Not having them, but observing them. I’ve also been thinking about death and making connections between the two. Our destination varies depending upon what you believe, but I wonder if the place we’ll go vaguely resembles the one from which we’ve come, and the space we occupy between the two, our holding pen called life, will be spent trying to make sense of our journey from one place to the other.

Or maybe that’s my life.

We cry coming out and we weep slouching home, because isn’t that what death is? Our final stop, a story, a home that can’t be torched or torn down? Our tears come from fear of the unknown, of what’s to come. I assume babies scream-cry because they consider everything an assault. What are these shapes, colors, and lights? Who are you? What is this, what am I, and so on. Over time, the answers are revealed in degrees, and for a brief time, we are comforted by these certainties. Life becomes a slow conquering of sorts, a means to ferret out truth from the unknown, and our death is a surrender. We lay down our armaments because we’ve no idea which tools we’ll need for the next battle. Come our twilight years, I suppose we’ll weep because we’re left with a life where most riddles have been resolved, loves have been felt, truths have been revealed — to what? A fugue state that morphs into the eternal black? Or do feel sorrow because we’ve spent our lives trying to know what we’ll never know. Have we wasted time in this single, temporary waking life?

“I greatly fear my hidden parts”–From Augustine’s Confessions

It occurs to me that these moments, life and death, are monumental, yet we’re small when confronting them. We’re small in the beginning (literally), and, in the end, we become small in ways that are more complicated. In both states we don’t consider the notion of wanting more; we can’t even comprehend acquisition, and isn’t it funny that we face our two greatest moments being valiant and great in our smallness, in our need for nothing?

Lately, I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better term, colonized. Colonized in terms of defining a home, colonized in reference to how I live my life. We all have a reference point. I came from a home that had nothing and spent my 20s and early 30s in the business of hyperaccumulation in hopes that it would satiate a need that could never be truly filled by the things bought in legal tender. I hailed from a generation that believed in the beauty of size. We measured our self-worth in width, height, and weight, and our homes made us feel like dwarves, our Italian leather handbags threatened to swallow us whole. We became bound to this title, to those letters after our name, as if ascension equates to human greatness or a rich character.

The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry souffle. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.” — Julia Child

A friend and I talk about the avalanche of e-books and articles we read: how to build your newsletter, how to achieve a million readers, how to grow at scale — apparently you cease to matter if the world doesn’t read you (that tree in the forest metaphor). I’m a difficult woman who writes often about the darker aspects of life, so I know I’ll never be fit for the masses. I’m not someone who colors in the lines, rather I’d rather create new books in which to color. I know I’ll never be “big” or widely read, or deeply connected or nominated for the fancy awards, and I’m okay with this. I’m okay with playing small and accumulating a wonderful, compassionate tribe.

I think about my dad. For a time, I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t want more from life — why he didn’t demand the world and everything in it just I had. His home and closets are spare, he has only what he needs. He cleaves to his rituals: coffee in the morning, coffee as a means to connect, and long drives to clear his head. He holds few photographs. Luckily, I’m in some of them. He doesn’t speak about the past often, but what he remembers are the moments I sometimes struggle to recall: they’re small, but we explode into laughter when he recounts them. The day he drove down a one-way street. The day we made a point to eat one meal from every fast food joint in a five-mile radius (I don’t recommend this). He has the ability to say one string of words and we’re immediately transported back and I can feel everything. He has a way of making the world simple, clean and neat–even when he’s engulfed in sadness, loss, heartbreak.

I admire him this, his quiet nobility. I admire a man who’s lived a great, small life–who loves every minute of it. You feel everything so hard, he once joked. When I look at him or when I think about children, I’m reminded of the beauty of playing small. Of not needing to puff up my chest, resume, byline or biography. Life is still worth loving even if I don’t win prizes, or reach financial and professional heights. Last year I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character and in the final chapter, he underscored the dangers of a society focused solely on meritocracy, on the accumulation of desires and the constant cult of “big me”. He writes,

The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself–to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it’s good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority–if with a thousand gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward that the people around you. It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.

We covet the largess of life, yet we end up feeling silly and small. What if we revered the reverse? What if we came from a place of curiosity, humility, self-acceptance, and honesty? What if we formed our character based on how we loved, what we built as an extension of that love versus blasting out what we’ve acquired, the weight of objects we carry? I think about this tension a lot, especially when I read that I have to make a ruckus in order to break ranks. What if I ceased wanting all the things? What if I burned the measuring tape and scales, and stopped equating large and more with joy and greatness? Fewer, better. Quality reigns over quantity. I’ve done this in nearly all aspects of my life, but not completely. I wonder if that’s even possible. I’m not sure that it is, so perhaps that’s part of the journey, too.

Why are we defining success by a metric, a site visit, or a number of comments? Why is mass suddenly the marker of achievement? A blog with a book deal and a stylish lifestyle show and a line at a fancy department store — are these the new markers of success? Have we updated the old playbook where we were told as children that a good life meant having a career, getting married, having kids, buying a house, having a summer house, and retiring? Shouldn’t success and happiness be the achievement of what we love to its own end, knowing that end might be private and personal? That we should strive to create depth, complexity, difficulty, meaning and devotion in everything we do instead of optimizing our content for search or being “social” because that’s the sort of thing we ought to be doing?

The idea of working a room makes me want to gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch.

A boss once we told me that we have to think about content in the context of its distribution. For nearly four years I clung to this fiction, repeated it to a litany of clients, left an indelible mark on those whom I mentored, and it occurred to me that this statement was wrong. Of course, we don’t create something to simply leave it there to gather dust, but if I start to fixate on the end game, the thing I’m creating suddenly loses meaning. It becomes airless, soulless, a pretty picture worth pinning with nothing beneath the surface.

Fuck being big. Fuck scale. Fuck viral. Have integrity. Because when you achieve the largeness, it never is what we wanted it to be, and we end up just wanting more. Instead, create that which bolts you out of bed. Build and be everything that gives you heart and purpose, a big life lived small squeezed between our beginning and inevitable end.

Why not play small?

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