This past weekend, I hung out with a terrific couple: a Shakespeare professor and an Art History professor, both in their 60s, both very successful. They have a beautiful home, great careers, an intellectually stimulating life, and disposable cash. They bet their livelihood on their own creative minds and they won. They are happy, healthy, and completely set for retirement.

I was undone by them.

When they were in their twenties, they chose career paths.

When I was in my twenties, I avoided choosing a career path as though it would give me an intestinal infection. I lived paycheck to paycheck. I never got ahead. It was uncomfortable, but I fooled myself into thinking it was better to live on hot dogs for a week than “sell out.” I wanted to be a wildly successful artist, and if I couldn’t be that, I’d be a starving artist, which had its own glamour. New York supported that choice. My actor and journalist roommates supported that choice. We didn’t want to slave, we wanted to LIVE.

But the truth was that I was a slave. I was a slave to my two-week paycheck. I was a slave to my “short-term-solution” job. I was doing nothing to empower myself for the long haul.

This is what I did in my twenties. This was my career track:

• Assistant editor at Departures magazine
• Flee to Mexico, live off credit card, buy 100 mesh bags to start “boutique bag business” with roommate, which consisted of playing Manu Chao music outside of apartment on a piece of blue Astroturf with bags on clothesline
• Sell 80 bags, become daunted by what it would actually take to run a business
• Waitress at sushi restaurant and local bar
• Boyfriend at the time says I would enjoy the intellectual challenge of working in a high-powered law firm as a paralegal; I agree to do it; I work for three years, averaging 4 hours of sleep a night, everyone else I’m working with is intending to go to law school, I could give a shit about law school, eventually resign because am exhausted
• Begin temping as a legal assistant and go back to cocktail waitressing at local bar
• Start a writers’ group that ends up being covered on ABC News, but never get my novel finished
• While waitressing at local bar, interview characters with roommate that will eventually become a play about the gentrification of our neighborhood in Brooklyn; the play is a success and garners two stories in The New York Times, I get a literary agent and two TV agents out of this
• Think fame will just come knocking at my door and so live off credit cards waiting for knock. Fame does not come.
• Crawl back to temping at law firm for same people who thought I was going to become famous
• Take job as assistant to head of Lower East Side Tenement Museum
• Stay at Museum nearly three years, start own freelance business which is a hodgepodge of 1) running a dialogue series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; 2) helping produce a series of launch parties for a German multimedia event called TRIP; 3) transcribing reality show transcripts for VH1; 4) writing about CFOs of independent schools for an association based in Boulder
• Take a “month off” to visit Boulder, end up falling in love here and keeping CFO gig as sole client

This looks like the resume of a schizophrenic person! It’s a resume of beginnings and loose ends. It’s not a resume I can walk into a “real” career job with. I picked up terrific skills along the way, but I’m still carrying them in a basket, and I don’t know where to set it down.

However, it’s also a resume of stories. And there are great stories in there. There were awesome moments, phenomenal friendships, incredible experiences, and fabulous Friday nights. In so many ways, I LOVED my twenties in New York.

But they came with a price. I am just now realizing the price, and it is sobering as hell.

Did I waste my twenties?

Views: 151

Comment by Susan Kirby-Smith on November 10, 2009 at 9:25pm

I especially liked:

"Crawl back to temping at law firm for same people who thought I was going to become famous"

Because everyone has a story of this in their own life, don't they?

Your life has been exceptionally interesting.
Comment by Ellen Kochansky on November 10, 2009 at 11:42pm
Dear power-sprite. Nothing is EVER wasted. You are assembling the raw materials, and you will chop them up and rearrange the parts, and discover new miracles, and then wear them out and keep all but the worn-through knees and elbows, and make another quilt of the fragments. Then you will do it again, especially cherishing the ugliest bits. You are magnetic, and potent, and they keep giving you more chances. Trust this. There's your thirties, and forties, and then it gets good, after you finally (occasionally) quit worrying. You won't starve. Tell the stories. We're listening!
Comment by Jens Geisemeyer on November 11, 2009 at 5:13am
Mari - you are wasting your time having such thoughts. How could you?
You have done more exciting things in your young life than most people get done in a lifetime. And, trust me - that resumee looks great. You are right, it does not reflect a person that has laid out her entire life right after high school. It does reflect a character obviously highly creative, highly capable of setting her mind to something entirely new to her. Someone who copes well with new teams and environments, great social skill, someone who enjoys a new challenge. Trust me - this is what makes a great career. Go apply for jobs out of the range - you will see some responses will be a lot better than you expect. Don't underestimate what you have done, others definitely don't. Go for it.
Comment by Zoe Sullivan on November 11, 2009 at 12:07pm
I appreciate the angst behind this, having dropped out of college and spent most of my twenties in Italy doing community organizing. This was one of the best decisions of my life. My own angst comes from deciding what the rest of my life will look like and how I´ll make a living, so I can relate to your post. Chin up. We´re going to be fine.
Comment by Mari Brown on November 11, 2009 at 12:45pm
Thank you, everybody, for all of your great feedback. I feel like I need to clarify that I am not feeling depressed. I actually feel empowered by my realization that I regret some of the choices I made in my twenties. I am glad I am questioning my choices--I feel like I didn't question them for years, and that was part of the problem. Looking with such a hard mirror at the last decade feels like getting real--in a good way. I am now looking forward to my thirties more than ever. Thank you again for reading and responding--I love hearing everyone's take and their own stories, too...
Comment by elise miller on November 11, 2009 at 5:42pm
Well I for one am glad you started that writing group! I also think that it's biologically/emotionally impossible to have the ability to look into the hard mirror in our twenties... for a LOT of people (I sure couldn't. I was right there with you striving to be HUGE creatively). Now it's about striving to be true. The fact that you're looking in it now speaks of a healthy self-awareness that you seem to also temper with self-love. Go you. Inspiring. xo
Comment by Alexa Scott-Flaherty on November 12, 2009 at 2:51pm
You know part of what sticks out for me about this is how much the time we are living in plays into all this. The baby boomers did the same thing as us, the only difference is that there were JOBS for them to get into when they were finally ready that had FABULOUS retirement plans. They didn't even have to have chosen cushy jobs to get those plans. They could be teachers and own homes and retire very well. No one talks about this side of it. Those boomers were just as crazy as us in their youth and then they entered a VERY prosperous time and thrived when they finally settled down. We are in a very different time. We are also in a time when people do not stay in their jobs. even when they are on tracks. They bounce around mostly from place to place. Jobs as we understand them with a company are changing. We are LIVING through the change. Office buildings-how much longer will they last? The overhead is insane when people can work from anywhere now. so much is becoming intangible rather than product oriented... I think this is as much of what you are struggling with. These are really unique times.
Comment by Anna on November 16, 2009 at 8:35pm
Recently read this post by Penelope Trunk, about how you should focus on getting married, instead of working on your career, when you're in your 20s. (While this sounds like an absurd premise, she makes a pretty good argument, from a biological perspective.) But what it made me think was that in my 20s, I did neither! I had a couple long-term jobs and gained some salable skills, but never really developed a career. Likewise, I had a couple long-term relationships, but didn't settle down. So... what were my 20s for? I think they were for growing up, trying things on, figuring out what I do and don't like. And I think growing up is more fun to do in NYC. Especially the way someone with your energy and creativity did it!
Comment by Elizabeth Witmer on November 17, 2009 at 12:56am
what i love about this post is its universality. in many ways i had a more path-driven decade in my 20s in terms of going to college and then graduate school. but i still ask myself the question 'did i waste my 20s?' but i think it is because we have so many dreams for ourselves and there's just no way to accomplish all of those dreams in one decade! (and mari--just for the record, i am still convinced that you will be famous some day, i never doubt it. i have no idea what project it is that will make you famous, but my faith never falters. i am like babe ruth, but i am calling your shot for you.)
Comment by Ted Rose on November 17, 2009 at 1:52am
Alexa, I think you are dead on. When I'm spending all of my time walking on one set of legs, looking through one set of eyes, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that I have a lot more control over my fate than I really do. I always like to give thanks for my American passport which more than any other item I own has unlocked so much education, wealth, and ease, for me. Of all of the causes and conditions that determine our fate, however, none is more determinant than timing. This world is changing in front of our eyes. Industries are crumbling and new ones are being created. My dad always talks about how fortunate he was to become a professor and about how he never wanted me to become a professor. It's not the same now, he says, not as secure, not as interesting. Different times.


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