I went to college at Auburn University. It feels a little funny to say that because if you know me now, it’s a bit laughable to picture me in a highly conservative, cookie cutter environment.
So it makes sense that by the time my four years were up, I was miserable and ready to get out. I graduated with so much grit and only a little grace. I was mostly pissed off so deep down inside walking across that stage built on racism, suppression, and ignorance. The grace came as I walked off the stage because I knew I was free.
I was free to go wherever the hell I wanted.
I chose Denver off the map and set my sights on it. I loved the mountains, the four seasons, the liberals, the hippies, hipsters, and the adventure based activities.
There was so much to do, so much to learn, and so many things to see.
I set my sights on landing a job in the Denver/Boulder area and when I got a job at an Advertising firm in Boulder, I packed up a U-Haul, hitched it to my car, Nancy, and moved across the country to what felt like freedom: Colorado.
Arriving in Colorado felt like arriving home to myself. I knew that I could be whoever and whatever I wanted in this place. No one knew me and I could already see all the weirdos on the streets that looked like what I felt on the inside. I was so fucking excited.
While Colorado was the best experience for me, I soon realized that the position I took was not.
I became part of the Media Advertising team at a highly creative agency. However, the team I was on was a more traditional team (given the forward-thinking majority of the company) and they largely believed that grunt work was still necessary. (And guess who was just hired to do it all).
They accepted a way of doing things that was inefficient and lacked reasoning. The ideal person for this position had to be comfortable with micro-management, detail oriented work, and outdated office politics.
This, I quickly found out, was not me.
There was no room to express any sort of creativity, uniqueness or new and unconventional thinking. My managers and supervisors were far from rebels and they enjoyed following and making rules and procedures. They were for sure the “structure loving” types.
I, on the other hand, am a highly creative person and enjoy flexible boundaries and I thrive when given guidelines and direction that creates a basic structure and makes sense. And, in line with the millennial majority, I value being given freedom and independence to operate.
I like to find problems that I can solve that will help reform methods into better working procedures, instead of accepting the norm and repeating the same process until it’s already outdated.
My all-female team was incredibly orderly, organized, conservative and well mannered. While I possess these qualities, it became hard for me to use only these qualities in an effort to flex to their way of working every day. I was suffocating much of myself in order to please them; to be more like them.
Their teaching styles made it hard for me to learn. They chose to tell me only exactly what I needed to know in order to do the exact task I was assigned to do. But they did not understand that I didn’t comprehend things well that way. I needed to learn the entire process so that I could understand why the small task needed to be done or how it fit into the big picture, how it helped the team be successful or assist in building the company. Without a complete understanding, it was hard for me to register the specific information.
I was often mocked for wanting to learn the “big picture” and was called lofty more than once. They became frustrated when I constantly asked the question “Why?” because all they wanted me to ask was “How?”
I was seen as defiant, unwilling, and perhaps even lazy. . . But if they couldn’t give me a reason for doing such a menial task, then why was it being done at all? This I did not understand.
Prior to this position, I had always been a model example in the jobs and internships I held. I quickly rose to the top and became an obvious leader. I was often looked to for advice or suggestions and given projects in which I could use my creative thinking to find the problem and implement a solution on my own.
My bosses favored me and quickly became my mentors. I was fantastic at networking and landed many job interviews, opportunities and offers due to my genuine likeability and focused work ethic.
But now, in my first ever “real” job, I was lost, confused and felt like I was flailing. I did not understand why I couldn’t grasp procedures, methods, or ways of doing things. The detail-oriented work I was assigned to do was often subpar and always needed a second eye to check for accuracy.
I abhorred the constant hovering from my managers.
I was not well liked by my team and they did not see me as an exemplary employee. I always figured that I could do any job well. I had been told all my life that I was incredibly talented and smart and would go far at anything I chose to do. So why did this seem to not be the case now?
Eventhough I almost immediately knew that the job was not for me, I “stuck it out” like my Dad encouraged. To justify the misery, I would often compare my work environment to those of my friends who held more corporate jobs. We had Ping-Pong tables, office parties and free food so I figured I was doing better than most.
My fear of failure and refusal to be a quitter is what kept me there for almost two years. I felt I owed the people that hired me something. I felt I owed my parents something. My team was so impressed in my interview and referenced it so often, that I felt I needed to live up to the expectations they had of me and I couldn’t leave until I did. I felt that I couldn’t leave until I showed them my full potential that I knew was inside me. But, given my environment and incompatible working conditions, it was impossible. I was struggling, I was miserable, and I wanted out.
I was given that out when my manager fired me.
They called me into a conference room early one Friday morning and I knew what was coming. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw an HR person sitting at the head of the table.
I cried, but mainly I was relieved.
We decided that it was for the best and this would give me some severance pay to work with. They said I could finish the day or leave immediately. I could not wait to get out of there.
I packed up the few things I had at my desk, made my rounds to say my good-byes (most people congratulated me; they knew I didn’t belong there either) and I skipped out. I was free! And now I had time to figure out what I really wanted to do… Because whatever I was doing was not it.
I remembered in one of my on-boarding exercises, I took the MBTI test. I was very familiar with this test because we took it in college and when I became a teaching assistant, I helped teach it to the incoming freshman.
However, I did not take the results as seriously as I should have.
I am an INTJ and should have taken this into consideration when choosing my first job. Here are some things I read:
“INTJs are independent people, and they quickly become frustrated if they find themselves pushed into tightly defined roles that limit their freedom.”
“INTJs require and appreciate firm, logical managers who are able to direct efforts with competence, deliver criticism when necessary, and back up those decisions with sound reason.”
“INTJs make natural leaders”
“INTJs value innovation and effectiveness more than just about any other quality, and they will gladly cast aside hierarchy, protocol and even their own beliefs if they are presented with rational arguments about why things should change.”
I also learned that INTJ’s are the rarest of all personality types (making up only .8% of the population). This helped explain why I have always felt so alone and misunderstood in my methods and modes of working.
The position as a Media Assistant was completely fulfilling all the aspects that I despised and satisfying none of the conditions in which I thrive.
Knowing this helped lessen the blow of being fired. It was not due to lack of competence or hard work, it was simply the wrong fit.
So what was the right fit?
This is when the hard part came.
What did I really want to do?
I majored in Marketing in college, but by my senior year I was in full gear to get a consulting position at a large consulting firm. When that did not happen, I fell back on my Marketing degree and chose life/location over position/company.
I thought about diving back into the consulting world and going after my original plan once more, but it seemed like the opposite direction I wanted to take.
It would mean more work hours than my 50 hours I had already been putting in and although it’d be much more pay, I was no longer motivated by money. Colorado had opened my eyes to beautiful scenery and an adventurous lifestyle that I wanted more of, not less of.
I remembered the office views I was just in every day and thinking about seeing the mountains only through large glass windows felt so unbearable. It pained me to stare at the snow-capped mountains and know that I had only two out of seven days to explore them (and even so, those two days were generally spent catching up on sleep from long hours working /commuting or running errands that I lost time for during the week, etc). I hated being indoors while such an adventurous world was a walk or drive away.
Needless to say, I was not living the life I had hoped for when I moved to Colorado.
So, again, I asked myself: what do I want to do?
In that particular moment, my answer was absolutely nothing. I really and truly did not want to do anything. I did not want to go back into the workforce yet or just jump immediately into applying for jobs. My whole body tightened thinking about the stress I might have to put myself under again.
I did not want to go into consulting. I certainly did not want to go anywhere near Marketing. I did not want to do anything that required me to sit at a desk all day calcifying my hip flexors and staring at a screen that gave me chronic headaches with little to no reward for myself.
I didn’t know what my other options were. My severance would pay me a regular salary for the next two months so I figured I had plenty of time to figure it out. So, in the meantime, I slept.
I slept for three days straight. I did not realize how mentally and physically exhausted I was from that job. I looked awful too. Due to the hours that were being asked of me, the stress that was being put on me and the two and a half hour round-trip commute I did every day, my body had become less of a priority.
I had stopped exercising, gained weight, and overall my body lacked energy and looked lifeless. I was not the vibrant, energetic, excited and healthy person I was when I first moved to Denver.
Looking in the mirror, I knew I needed to make some serious changes.
The stress was the first thing I needed to manage.
My mental state was so worked up and anxiety-filled that I didn’t know how to relax anymore. Every minute of my day was spent worrying about mistakes I made or will make at work, what my co-workers thought of my performance, how I was going to do better, how I didn’t know how to do any better, how I didn’t know what I was doing at all, and why no one would teach me how to do things correctly.
I was expected to be online and responsive even when I went home. By the time I got to bed, I’d lay there sleepless stressing about having to wake up and do it all again the next day. I had unadulterated anxiety every day of the week and it was a worry-ridden cycle that needed to be broken.
So in efforts to reverse these effects, I decided to try meditating. I figured I had nothing else to do with my time and I desperately needed to do some soul searching, so it seemed like the perfect thing to do.
Meditating helped to get my body healthy again. I was able to bring my body into a full state of relaxation and let go of all the pressures I had so recently been immersed in. I felt my body, slowly, but surely, become happy again.
As my body became happier and healthier, I started turning my attention to the idea of happiness.
“What makes me happy?” I’d ask myself every day.
I figured the answer to this would be the answer to what I wanted to do next. The problem was, I wasn’t really sure what made me happy.
I spent so much of my life’s efforts fulfilling a plan that was not really created by me. I wasn’t living my life for me, I was living it for others. I was living it to meet my own impossible expectations. When I made it to college, I never even stopped to ask why I was going this direction and if it really made me happy.
I went to Auburn because I went to a high school in the South that funneled students mostly to SEC schools. So I applied to eight of them. Auburn seemed like the most unique choice of my peers so I chose to go there. But I never looked outside of big, state, southern schools. Why did I never consider going to CU Boulder or NYU? Or even a culinary arts school?
When I arrived at Auburn, I spent my first semester majoring in Nutrition, but soon decided the science classes were too hard given my honest lack in interest. I became incredibly interested in my Psychology course and considered switching to that, but I was told I would never get a job with that degree outside of becoming a teacher in it, so I chose the College of Business because people said it was the best degree for getting hired post-grad.
But what was wrong with becoming a Psychology professor or studying something you were actually interested in? Why was everything focused on getting a job and making money? What happened to doing what you love?
I chose Marketing because I wasn’t interested in the other Business majors offered and I was told it was the easiest route for an all-encompassing Business degree. So, I spent four years taking business classes and studying a subject I barely cared for.
These decisions seemed to be made somewhat logically, but never were these decisions made with my happiness in mind. Never did I ask myself: does this fill you with excitement and joy and passion? And if I did, the answer would have been no. I, instead, tried to be logical, pragmatic, and do what others expected me to do; what I thought would give me the most desirable outcome in life.
Realizing all this filled me with great regret. I wasted so much time doing things that I had no true interest in doing. It seemed like everything led me to this dead end. I became angry and frustrated. Why are we allowed to make such huge and EXPENSIVE decisions when we are so young and naïve at eighteen years old?
Why didn’t I ever even have the choice of going to college? (Yes, I mean in this in the white privilege way that it sounds). Why is going to college so engrained in our brains as the “correct” path to take? I believe in education… but at what cost?
Why did I declare Marketing as my major versus Art or Psychology? Why did I even go to college? All of the answers to these questions were decisions that, at the time, seemed like my choice, but in hindsight were wholly influenced by outside perspectives and conditional expectations from society and my particular environment.
I started considering a life in which I didn’t use my degree or college education. What if I wanted to become a full time dog walker? Will I be throwing away time, money, and knowledge to do something that makes me happier than any business office ever could?
I was so confused and no one seemed to have answers for me. My friends couldn’t relate and my father (the wisest person I knew at the time) had a baby-boomer attitude of “Well, Emily, that’s life. Sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up and work hard.” He, like many other preceding generations, believed in hard work. But what I did not understand was what we are all working so hard for. Where does it get us? What’s the happy ending? Retirement and then death?
That seems pretty unsatisfactory.
Retirement made absolutely no sense to me. So what you’re telling me, I thought, was that we have to wait until we are sixty-five and our bodies have started degenerating and we are less able to do things we enjoy in order to live the life that we want?
That seemed so incredibly stupid to me. Who made these rules? There has to be another way. I didn’t accept what I was being told and I didn’t agree with anything I was hearing.
I started to realize that it did not matter how hard I worked or networked or educated myself or made all the right moves, it wouldn’t matter because we are so conditioned to want all the wrong things. Society feeds us new stuff, more stuff and all stuff, that if you live in this reality, is stuff you want to spend money on.
There would always be trips to take, tickets to buy, and clothes to have. It didn’t matter if I made $34,000 or $150,000 a year, I would somehow find a way to spend every paycheck on things that made me “happy.”
This cycle suddenly seemed exhausting and empty to me. The more I thought about it, the more I detested my plan and the path I had laid out for myself.
Knowing that Marketing was not what I wanted to do, I threw everything out the window. My degree, my preconceived notions, my “plan”, my parents plan for me, society’s plan for me, everyone’s judgements, everything.
It seemed so clear to me that I was only doing things that I thought made me happy. Things that others said I’d love, or things my Mom had forced on me growing up, or things that made my friends happy.
I wasn’t actually living my life for me. And I knew that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I’d have to start living my own life.
So, with this new found wisdom and determination to live a life for me, I asked the question again: what next?
In desperation for a new perspective, different answers, and an alternative form of guidance, I turned to Buddha. Reading his quotes have always filled me with an understanding that no other person or book has ever been able to provide. I went to the library and checked out a stack of books on Buddhism. Among this anthology, I discovered a quote in the Dhammapada that spoke to me. It says this: “There is no path to happiness, happiness is the path.”
At first, this didn’t fully make sense to me, and rightly so, because I was living out the exact opposite of this truth. But as I meditated on it, it finally clicked and I was elated.
I must start being happy now!
Happiness doesn’t come after you’ve finished furnishing your cute little apartment and spent money you don’t have on cute little apartment things. Happiness doesn’t come after you get a promotion or become fantastic at your job. Happiness doesn’t come after you’ve made all the friends in the world and Snapchat all the cool things you are doing with your life. Happiness does not even happen if you achieve every single goal you have ever set for yourself. And happiness is not something that can be achieved by following a path or plan you have so perfectly laid out. Happiness comes from within and happiness is now.
I must start being happy now!
I needed to stop planning my happiness and instead start living it, start being it.
It took me a while to realize exactly how to act on what I was learning. I knew I had to ditch my “life plan” and start over and this time with no plan.
The problem with a plan is that it doesn’t account for life. I thought that if I achieved my plan and stuck to my path, then at the end would be the reward. If I met all the goals I had set for myself and accelerated my life to this ideal state, then I’d finally be living in happiness. My plan seemed reasonable, but it also seemed unreachable.
But, there is no reward at the end. The reward if anything, is death. Ever-lasting peace. So if death is the ultimate destination, then life is the rewarding journey.
I felt this urgency like never before to start LIVING. To start going after things that lit me up, made my heart beat faster, and maybe even scared me a little.
I realized that living according to a plan keeps me living in fear. Although I wanted to be world traveler and knock things off my bucket list with ease, I never was actually able to take action on doing the things I loved, I stayed stuck inside planning. It was time to start doing.
Planning only set up expectations and crushed me when they fell. I spent so much time planning trips and adventures, budgeting out my money, trying so hard to figure out my life that I was not actually doing anything. I was stuck inside my apartment sitting on go, while never actually going out and doing things. So the decision was made: no more planning.
I now knew I was going to have to start doing everything in my power to live a happy life, whatever that may be. And whatever it happened to be, I knew that it had to be fully my decision.
Every action I took, every event or outing I went to, every penny I spent had to be done with purpose and it had to be meaningful and fill me with joy and happiness. If it didn’t, I would not do it; no matter the cost or repercussions.
I started questioning everything. Things as simple as breakfast, lunch, and dinner were doubted. Who created this trichotomy and why does it still exist? Or why are “normal business hours” 9-5? Who created that rule and in this age of technology and efficiency, why does it still exist?
I started seeing the world with a heightened sense of awareness. I realized that life has no rules. So much of what we do as humans, we do because someone told us to do it that way because someone told them to do it that way and so on and so forth. The cycle is never broken. The rules of society that exist are man-made and most of the time the average human can’t tell you why they exist or let alone are still in place.
Many of our daily actions happen because at some point in history, someone (or many people) (who are just like you and just like me) decided to do it and kept doing it and so then it became a way of life. Well, if this is how the world is made, then why can’t I create new rules and new ways of doing things? Why can’t I forge my own way of life?
I no longer wanted to live in a reality that was defined by our predecessors. I wanted to live in a reality that is defined by me, by my actions, and by what makes me happy. I was ready to break the cycle.
About this time is when I shaved my head. (You can read more about that here).
I never planned to shave my head, I just did it. And it is the best decision I have made in my twenty-three years of life. Shaving my head helped to give me the fresh, clean start I was wanting and symbolized me taking control of my life. It broke the cycle of me living a life defined by others and represented me choosing to live a life of discovery and greater understanding.
It helped me gain a new perspective on life that I desperately needed; a perspective independent of anyone else (especially society); a perspective created by me, for me, which made sense to me.
Now that I had realized all these things, I knew that it did not matter what I did next because happiness comes from within and can be carried with me anywhere. It did not matter if I picked up poop for a living or made a home in a mud puddle, I had found a way to channel my source of happiness anywhere and in any circumstance. Nothing could penetrate my soul or hamper my energy within.
I could of course become a dog walker. I could also become a tattoo artist in Australia, run a bed and breakfast in Maine, operate ski lifts in Colorado, train service dogs in Oregon, teach English in Guatemala, be a beach bum in Hawai’i, work on a farm in Costa Rica, or even join the Peace Corps. The possibilities were endless. This was unbelievably freeing, but it also became incredibly overwhelming; all of my options became paralyzing.
I learned a great deal from scrutinizing my past decisions and while I believe we must fully live in the present, I also believe we must learn from our past.
So, I decided to look back again, but this time instead of looking at where I went wrong, I decided I would look at the times that felt right. I thought of the times when I was most happy. I thought about my childhood, I thought about my teenage years, high school, and college.
Here is what I came up with: animals, art, cooking, writing, and traveling.
Since I was young I have always had a profound love for and willingness to care for animals. I have always tremendously enjoyed cooking and have fond memories of my Dad teaching me to cook ever since I could hold a wooden spoon.
I remember being in a dream-like or thoughtless state when creating art from childhood to college and my favorite highschool class was art class with Mrs. Staples.
I always cherished my English and Literature classes throughout the entirety of my education and have written in journals since I was five years old.
I tremendously enjoy reading and writing essays, novels, poems and short stories. And, lastly, traveling. Traveling is what has given me the most inspirational memories to date. From living in NYC for a summer to working in Italy and exploring Europe to long camping trips in Colorado and the surrounding Western states… I knew that I was my happiest in these times and my saddest when they were over.
I wanted to feel what these activities made me feel all the time. I knew that whatever I chose to do next, it needed to incorporate one or all of these things.
Holding a mirror to my life during these months of unemployment completely changed me as a person. Once you start asking Why? So many things arise. You realize that most people don’t have the answer and become frustrated with you asking it. I learned that I must push past these people and find people who understand my insatiable desire to look deeper and ask the tough, deep, underlying questions.
By doing more of the things that felt true to my nature, things that filled me with joy, I slowly made less and less time for the things that brought me pain, angst, anxiety, depression, and grief.
I decluttered my life, weeded out the negative influences, and chose to do things that made me genuinely happy. Making these changes helped me to become the best version of myself. Living this more meaningful life helped to accelerate me toward a greater understanding of the world within.
As an American society, we often fill our days with activities and “stuff” that have little or no real value or true meaning. Or, perhaps even worse, work has become our only purpose. I no longer accept this way of living. I no longer strive to be what society tells me I should be, have, or do. I want to do things that bring me unadulterated joy instead of anxiety. I want to create things that inspire and live a life that awakens and energizes me. I want to do and be whatever I choose to do and be. I want to be a person that lives with unfaltering purpose and meaning, a person that is proud of every action and interaction I make; someone who challenges the norm and finds the best path, not just someone who follows the most accepted path.
I want to live a beautiful life.
I want to bring beauty back into the world. I want to make a difference, make a change in the world, be it small or large, but most importantly, I want to be me.
I have chosen to renounce all conditional and societal expectations of me and I have abandoned all expectations and plans I had for myself. I refuse to simply become a product of my environment or a product of my own mind.
I, instead, will let my life mold into what it is supposed to be and let the Universe guide me.
I will live a life of love and use my inner source of happiness to fill me with strength to be the best person I can be in every moment in every day. No matter what I choose to do next, it will be done with purpose, meaning, joy, and happiness.
I vow to keep removing the clouds that blocked the sunshine within me. The eternal sunshine within us all that is our true happiness and our most genuine and authentic selves.