"the discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen." if you've ever read a self-help book or received advice from a manager, guidance counselor, career coach or even friend, you've probably heard some iteration of this saying.
whether early on in your career or many years (and jobs) down the line, many of us struggle with feelings of frustration, lack of fulfillment or inspiration—the nagging sense that we're stagnating, failing to move forward, or worse yet, moving terrifyingly in the wrong direction.
i actually faced this crisis at the beginning of my professional life. in college, i was an english major, a few credits shy of a philosophy minor, and a consummate liberal arts student who embraced the opportunity to "study" art history, film and modern lit to balance the finite math and intro to accounting classes i needed to complete my degree.
as graduation neared, i had marketing-major friends preparing for interviews with some of the big ad agencies that had come to campus to recruit. they'd return excited, though sometimes traumatized, by the interviews that generally started with straightforward questions and ended with them having to give a sales pitch on how to sell a pencil or come up with a creative campaign to help a company get rid of excess floppy disc inventory.
though the experience of jumping through hoops for a cocky leo burnett creative a like a monkey doing tricks for a banana sounded less than appealing, i remember uttering, even back then, "wouldn't it be so cool to work at an ad agency?"
and then i went off to law school.
my reasons for choosing this path might sound familiar. it was part genuine interest (i loved writing...and LA law was a popular TV series at the time and presented just enough smarts and glamour to make the profession seem actually desirable) and part family pressure ("you're either going to become a doctor or lawyer, right?") that led me to pursue a career as a lawyer.
the only problem was: once i got there, i was miserable. sure i loved the writing part: being assigned a side to defend, assembling the facts just so—to support my position and discredit the opponents, using my command over the written word to craft a winning argument. but the other stuff was pure drudgery (for me). i was creatively unfulfilled, surrounded by cutthroat "gunners" whose mission in life was to argue about everything and anything, and i found that the epic courtroom battles of TV were a drop in the bucket compared to the procedural rigmarole seemingly design not to get to the truth, but to obscure it with all your might.
note: my caveat to this whole tirade about law school is not to say that it's a terrible profession—on the contrary, it may be perfect, intellectually stimulating and, in fact, exciting for some. it's just on my journey, through the course of living it, i realized it was not for me.
not exactly the ideal epiphany when you're about to graduate from law school...
after spending 3 grueling years of my life, clerking for a law firm and a judge, writing for law journals and burning through thousands of my parents' money, i was more than conflicted about the realization that i could be spending the rest of my life in a profession that i despised. i knew in my heart i couldn't do it: mentally, physically, emotionally. i could not spend my life on this path.
many of us, when we've set off on a direction, feel like we must stick to it, must trudge on, must not quit. and to a large extent, that's true—especially when you're first starting out. but somewhere down the line, when you've slogged through for a year or 3 or 5 or even 10, you owe it to yourself to ask: is this really the path i chose? or is this a direction i somehow fell into and now find myself stuck in, trapped by circumstance, finances or simply indecision—lack of a better option.
when i decided that i was not going to pursue law, i was faced with an even scarier question: what did i want to do my life? with my future in the balance, i decided this time, it was going to be a decision that i alone made—with intent, with no outside pressure, with the resolve to do something i was truly passionate about....
now to find out what that was. i spent 6 months immersing myself in career resources: reading job guides and scanning the classifieds in the paper (yes that's right, the newspaper). ironically, my "research" yielded the exact same conclusion that i arrived at during interview season at notre dame: "wouldn't it be so cool to work at an ad agency?" this was the direction that beckoned me and that i longed to pursue: working in a creative environment where i could apply my passion for writing, not to crank out boring motions and briefs, but rather, to bring brands to life.
thanks to the career guides, the path was starting to emerge. but it all crystallized from a very unlikely source. my boyfriend (now husband) was in sales and he knew how much I was struggling to find my way.
"open it." he said
i unwrapped the box and found a black leather-bound franklin planner, complete with calendar inserts, contact pages and a goals section. in the front was a clear bookmark with a pressed purple flower inside.
"this is beautiful. thank you...but what am i supposed to do with it?" i said, in a half serious and half dejected tone. "it's not like i have any contacts or appointments to fill in since i don't exactly have a job yet."
he flipped to the section entitled "goals". "one of the most powerful things you can do if you're at a crossroads in life is write down your goals—like a mission statement for what you want to accomplish."
"right..." my eyes scanned the room to see what could possibly have inspired such a corny piece of advice. there were stacks of paper, piles of magazines, and then the two obvious sources for this message: a tattered paperback copy of "seven habits of highly successful people" and a box set of audiotapes by tony robbins.
now i am writer. i've written 30-page term papers, short stories, oral arguments, legal briefs, even a federal court habeas corpus decision for the northern district of illinois, but the thought of writing out my own personal mission statement eluded me. it felt awkward, self-help-y, like a gimmick that you'd have to complete as an icebreaker for a class in building self-esteem.
so i neatly lined up the 3-hole punched pages and put them in my new franklin, with the flower bookmark stuck in the "goals" section...and then put the planner away.
after a few weeks of sending out random resumes and getting rejected for either being "overqualified" or "under-experienced," i picked up the covey book and started perusing.
"there's a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation of all things. you have to make sure that the blueprint, the first creation, is really what you want. then you put it into bricks and mortar...you begin with the end in mind."
interesting... i opened the desk drawer.
"you know what. it can't hurt. no one needs to see this but me. and if i fail, no one will ever be the wiser."
i pulled out the pen that my man had so sweetly inserted into the pen holder.
"no, no, pen is way too definite, too concrete," i thought. back went the pen into its placeholder.
"ok pencil is much better. that way i can totally change it if i'm way off base."
i put the pencil to the paper.
"my goal is to use my writing skills and creativity to get a job at an advertising agency in downtown chicago."
there. it wasn't an earth-shattering revelation. yet it was nonetheless clear, specific and (i was hoping) attainable. only time would tell.
once the words were written, it all felt so final...little did i know it was just the beginning...
[next up: part 2: "when opportunity knocks"]