22 Apr 2021 Lost in the Woods: Six Lessons From My Career Path
For most of my life, navigating my career path has felt like being lost in the woods.
Although my passion for writing was evident at a young age, the idea that I could be a creative writer never crossed my mind. In college I majored in History because I loved writing essays, and then complemented with a major in Economics for the promise of a financially solvent future. Two summers into a High Yield Research analyst stint at Goldman Sachs, my boss Andy took me out to dinner and said: “Monica, when you go home tonight take a good, long look in the mirror. Soon you’ll be a different person.” In his own jaded way, Andy was trying to tell me what I couldn’t see for myself: I was a closeted creative person, and the banking world was no place for me.
Post Goldman I landed a job in Consumer Marketing at Time Inc, a better fit industry-wise, though I was still mindlessly crunching numbers. I jazzed up my days by networking, occasionally rubbing shoulders with the maxi-skirted, dangling-earring-wearing creatives I didn’t know I longed to be. Still, the prospect of selling magazines my whole life was making me gray. When a close friend asked if I’d like to save the world by empowering women through microfinance, I scheduled the interview. One conversation with her boss, Susan Davis (a guru in the social entrepreneurship space) and I was sold. Goodbye growth projections, hello meaningful life I’ve been waiting for.
Six months later, my husband was transferred to Geneva. Jobless for the first time, I filled up my days writing a blog. The process felt lonely and awkward, and I dismissed the writing thing as a hobby. Quickly I crowded my agenda again with more worthy pursuits: a Masters in History and International Development at the prestigious Graduate Institute and a Research Assistant gig in UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education.
Two years later, we moved to Miami and I became pregnant with our daughter. With a baby in my belly, I finally gave myself permission to pursue the thing I loved. I got accepted into a Creative Writing program at FIU and decided to go independent, starting Gala Consulting, a college counseling business specialized in helping students with the college essay. Looking back, this was a huge milestone. At the time, however, I still felt my attention waning. I loved helping students with their writing, but I didn’t like the college counseling part. By piling on tasks outside the college essay, my company’s vision became misaligned with my passion. I see that now: I was always deeply invested in my students, but never in the actual business. This is why my students always came to me through referrals; I never once reached out to prospects or thought about a marketing plan (not a bad thing, but not a business). In 2017, when my website was hacked, I took the content down and abandoned the URL. What was the point of having a website when no one (including me) was using it?
Fast forward to 2020-2021. All of us are living in a time of disruption, at every level. For me, the past year and a half has given me the opportunity to look at myself in the mirror, the way my Goldman boss Andy asked me to 17 years ago. It hasn’t been an easy process, but I’ve finally begun asking myself the right questions. This is why I started Gala Creative Writing, a business where I get to do what I love, which is to help students, job-seekers, businesses, and individuals write the stories that live within them.
All of us are living a time of disruption, at every level.
Has this long, winding, often tortuous career been a mistake? Quite the contrary: I believe that everything happened exactly as it needed to. I may have been lost in the woods, but along the way I filled my pockets with all kinds of seeds. These seeds are the skills, connections, and experiences that make me the open-minded, authentic, and compassionate person I am today.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:
Lesson #1. Being really good at your job is not enough. You have to love it too.
This might sound weird, but excellence can sometimes be a double-edged sword. When you’re talented and hard-working, people want to keep you around. Accolades, promotions, and comradery in the work-place can give you a superficial sense of accomplishment. Being able to differentiate between achievement and passion was one of the hardest lessons for me.
Lesson #2. If the thought of leaving your job doesn’t absolutely crush you, you’re not doing the thing you love.
This is a really great test for figuring out whether you’re passionate about what you’re doing. If you had to leave your current job tomorrow, how disappointed would you be? How does it feel to get up and start work on Monday mornings? By Wednesday, are you eager for it to be Friday?
Many of us are conditioned to stay in a particular job because it’s what’s expected of us. We forget the importance of experiencing joy in everything we do.
Lesson #3. Doing the thing you love usually isn’t easy.
The first time I started writing in Geneva, the process was anything but magical. In fact, it was excruciating. I thought about giving up every day, but something kept me going. I wasn’t super satisfied with the work I produced at that time, but it helped me get into the writing program at FIU.
I really can’t say enough positive things about the structure and support a good creative writing program offers. Having a network of writers and mentors offered me a “safe space” where I could discover my voice and style of writing.
Writing in solitude is extremely difficult. In fact, my experience in Geneva is a big part of what fueled me to want to help people navigate the writing process.
Lesson #4. What other people want for you doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what you want for yourself.
When you’re lost, it’s natural to look to others for advice. The key is knowing who to ask (or who to listen to, as many times feedback is unsolicited). It’s a bit like being lost in a new city and asking another tourist for direction. They’re not quite sure where you’re headed, but they point you down a specific road anyway.
A good mentor doesn’t give you answers; they ask questions. Ultimately, you’re the only person that truly knows what’s best for you.
Effective mentorship guides people to their own inner truth. Story-telling has the same effect. This is what I most love about my job; I get to guide people inwards without them being too self-conscious during the process.
Lesson #5. There are growth opportunities in every experience.
Every work experience I’ve had has contributed to my growth. As much as I disliked crunching numbers, the analytical skills I developed at Goldman and Time Inc. now help me discern information very quickly. When I joined BRAC USA and visited BRAC’S microfinance programs in Bangladesh, it confirmed my suspicion that I needed to pursue something meaningful. And working at UNESCO triggered me to go independent so I could establish my own rules.
In addition, these work experiences gave me insight into various industries, companies, and personalities. Armed with this knowledge, I can very efficiently help businesses find the right angle for their content.
Lesson #6. The best part about being lost is finding your own way out.
After so many years of cloudiness and confusion, there’s a deep satisfaction in finally figuring out what you want. When I work with young people who feel uncertain about their future, I can really empathize. What’s more, I can help them transform some of that nervousness into excitement. If I made it this far despite all the twists and turns on my path, I know it’s only a matter of time until they find their way too.
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