It’s like a knife through my heart whenever I read an article that’s so poignant or funny or eloquent that I think bitterly to myself, “I wish I’d written that.” And then I cry into some cookies and eat my feelings of inadequacy.
Okay, kidding on the last part, sort of. It’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that magnificent in my entire life, and I have trouble coming to terms with the fact that maybe I never will.
I’d decided young that I wanted to grow up and pursue writing. I felt like it was something that came easy to me, and something I enjoyed doing – whether or not I was good at it was another story entirely.
Since I was a child, however, I’d been told that I’d someday go on to do something great. My teachers would tell me they could see me doing something wonderful, that I was impressive and sophisticated beyond my years. (They did not know I played with Barbies until I was 13.)
At my first job, one of my co-workers found out I wanted to someday write for a national magazine and gushed about how I would and they’d frame my first article and say, “I knew you when.”
In college and during my internships, people would tell me they couldn’t wait to see what I’d go on to do.
Meanwhile, I was buckling under the pressure.
I felt guilty for not being uplifted and inspired by the praise, and began to wonder if I even really deserved the praise. I spent my time doubting I was any good at all at writing, or anything else. I didn’t feel wonderful. I didn’t even feel great. What had I ever done to make these people think that I could go on and do big things? Why did they have such high expectations of me?
And what if I could never reach them?
It wasn’t until my first journalism job that I started to feel like I’d “made it” or, at the very least, that I was well on my way to doing so. I was working as a features writer at one of the most prominent newspapers in the state and I was making good money. I was paying off my student loans. I had a really amazing loft apartment. I was living with my boyfriend of five years.
I’d told myself it was fine if I never worked for a national magazine, and that I was happy if I never achieved so-called “greatness” because I loved where I was working and felt good about myself.
Then I got laid off. At 23. After just seven short months in the position.
It was July 2011, and I was completely crushed. I realized I was only “fine” with not making it because I had already found a job I felt proud of. (Does this remind anyone else of that episode of “Boy Meets World” where Topanga cuts off her hair to prove beauty is only skin-deep, but then realizes she only thought that because she was comfortable with her appearance? I love a good ‘90s reference.)
While I thought I’d let go of the fantasies I’d concocted for myself when I was just 14, deep down, I still harbored dreams of becoming a sought-after magazine journalist amid the hustle and bustle of NYC and marrying a celebrity. Never mind that I was living in rural Connecticut where there essentially are no national magazines and had a very serious boyfriend.
Once I got laid off, I was embarrassed, ashamed, and felt like all those people who’d encouraged me to go and “be great” had been wrong. I convinced myself that the only way I could ever “be great” was if my next job was even better than the last.
The thing is: there were no jobs better than my last writing position at the time. Because there were, like, no jobs at all.
Things started to feel grim. My standards started to lower. I began applying for jobs where I wrote about insurance and refrigerators and the copy for doctor’s office literature – not my ideal jobs, but perfectly good jobs that would let me write – and I felt bad, man.
At my lowest point, I interviewed at a position for a small (very small) newspaper in my hometown, which I kinda hated and regularly made fun of. And I got the job.
What should have been a soaring moment in my life – I was climbing out of the black hole that is being laid off during a recession, and I’d landed a paying job, in my field, to boot – ended up just filling me with embarrassment. I didn’t even want to tell people where I was working because I didn’t feel like it lived up to the grandiose expectations I’d created for myself.
I just kept thinking, what if all of my teachers and the people around me who said I was destined for greatness, who assured me I’d do something “wonderful” with my life one day, who praised me for being talented and beamed at me and told me I was going places — what if all of those people were just completely wrong?
But then that job turned out to be great. Fun. Fulfilling. It was exactly what I had needed to pull myself back from the edge of despair. I was good at it, and I felt ashamed of how I’d reacted when I first got the position.
Suddenly I realized that when people told me I could be great, they weren’t saying that I needed to rise to the top of some Fortune 500 company (because that’s so not me, anyway). They were saying I could be great at the things that made me happy; I just had to figure out what it was.
Once I understood that my obsession with being “great” to other people was all wrong, and that all I really had to do was be “great” for me, things finally started to make sense.
So I may not be on the same level of “great” as the editor of The New Yorker – but if I ask the lady in the mirror, she thinks I’m pretty great, and that’s good enough for me.