At 42, I’ve found my second act
One morning I woke up and said this can’t continue.
I’d been sleeping through my waking life and that slumber had slowly morphed into a night terror, the kind where you find yourself paralyzed in bed, clawing at your body and begging yourself to wake up. When you wake, you promise yourself that things will be different — you make bargains with yourself. I will change. But then the emails flood in, you spill coffee on your white sweater, a cruel reminder that you’re not a woman who can gracefully wear white. You spend your day shouting expletives at your computer screen and you respond to emails with happy face emoticons because you are nothing if not a positive team player. You sit in conference rooms and poke at stale crumble muffins. You wonder why someone keeps stealing your lunch — who wants a peanut butter sandwich that badly? After ten hours of cubicle torture, you drag yourself to the gym, to the food delivery service app, to the television, back to the phone, to the shower and the toothbrush and the emails that can’t wait until morning. Then you crawl into bed and fall back into the nightmare you can’t quite shake.
Things will be different! There go ten years, then twenty. Then you come to the realization that time hasn’t passed you by — you’ve squandered it. You’ve wasted it by enduring life rather than living it. Seneca delivers the cold truth we all need to hear:
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
Five years ago, I wrote about leaving a job that was slowly killing me. I never imagined that I would lose my way in the years that followed.
You know you’re getting older when you start sentences with “when I was young,” but allow me this brief trespass into nostalgia because it’ll serve as a point of reference for the woman I am becoming. When I was young, I was a hot mess but I had moxie. Even though I spent years getting blackout drunk, I published a successful and critically acclaimed literary magazine, I started a non-profit, and I built a resale clothing business. I was a woman who had BIG sweeping ideas and I wasn’t afraid to pursue them even if they ended up as failures. The pursuit was the juice and all the random passion projects became a vehicle that would invariably point me in the right direction. I didn’t know it back then — I was a walking wound coloring outside the lines. In fact, I wanted my own coloring book. However, at the time all I knew was let’s try this and what if we did that???
Who gives a fuck if we fail?
Last week, someone told me that women professionally peak at 38 and I told this person they were crazy. At 38 I was just getting started. I had confidence, experience, and even though the world was intent on telling me that I was approaching my best-buy date, I kept moving. Two years ago, I moved to Los Angeles because I no longer wanted to be the nutcase in an office screaming at her screen. Instead, I became the woman in her home office screaming at her screen. For the most part, I had wonderful clients but I wasn’t fulfilled. I’d lost that heat, that pursuit, and I wondered if this is what happens as you age — all the lights in you flare, flicker, and burn out. After sixteen years in an office, I learned I wasn’t built for that life but I wasn’t content in my current one either. A friend of mine passed along the name of a psychic who performed readings via email and I laughed and told my friend that I’m from New York, and no way was I going to PayPal some random person to tell me things I already knew. I have therapy for that, and at least that’s partially (emphasis on partially) covered by insurance. However, after a rough month where I resigned a client and my book agent, I acquiesced and waited for my future to be foretold. Crystal ball, healing crystals, et al.
The psychic was pleasant and sent me a long email response to the three questions I had — one of which was about my career. She said I would take on a project over the summer that would be a complete departure from the work I’d been doing. She wrote that I’d be using my business knowledge to teach a new audience. That seemed ridiculous until I received an offer to teach brand marketing and business plan development to a group of writers and visual artists at USC. These were the kind of people who thought marketing was evil, capitalistic, creepy, etc., etc., and I suspected I wasn’t going to be the most popular instructor in the program. What I had going for me (and why I was hired) was the fact that I was one of them. Even though I’ve spent my career building businesses and brands, I’ve been writing bleak, experimental fiction since I was a child. I’ve two books published, short stories in some fancy magazines, and a great deal of essays here on medium. Here I was straddling these two disparate worlds. I knew their language, but the tricky part was translating my business-speak into something that would be palatable. Something with which they could personally connect, and tools they could use to build their career.
And I couldn’t put them to sleep. That was going to be a tough one.
While I was up in front of the classroom cracking jokes at my expense, something happened. When I was meeting students for lunch and office hours, something happened. I felt like a semblance of the person I used to be, but I felt I still wasn’t quite in the frame — my life was out of focus. I didn’t want to teach in an academic setting, but I really loved the idea of reshaping the way marketing is taught so that one could enjoy the process. In my line of work, there’s a fair amount of having to endure bullshit; webinars promoted by “marketing gurus” accompanied by course descriptions that vaguely resembled the English language. I work in a industry where people use the word “innovate” without irony. I’ve taken a fair amount of practical courses, some of which have been useful, but it felt as if I was in a vacuum where no one outside of the vacuum could understand (or appreciate) the lessons imparted.
I tried to be a writer full-time and that didn’t work. I tried being a marketing executive and my hair nearly went white. I wanted a way where my left and right brain could play harmoniously in the sandbox. Then something happened two weeks ago.
I share a lot of random, stream-of-conscious nonsense on Instagram stories. I talked about wanting to teach marketing but using a different format and delivery mechanism. I wanted people to have a good time with the course while picking up tools, tips, and information that made their investment worthwhile. I wanted to be in a virtual classroom and feel what I had felt over the summer with those kids. My old colleague, Lucia, DM’d me and we talked about teaching online. She had a side venture that was starting to cook and she sent me all the research she’d accumulated. Back in the day, I used to be Lucia’s boss and we hadn’t quite made the transition from boss to friend because we both moved, at the same time, out of New York. I’d forgotten that Lucia is a lot like me — in a former life she was an actor and now she’s a writer. We eye-rolled at the same things and we wanted to find ways in which we could merge the art and commerce of our two worlds into one.
When we Skyped, shit started to happen. We got excited. We talked over one another. We had ideas. We talked about how we’d be different (we are marketers, after all) We wanted this to be boy band big. We talked podcasts, conferences, and diversity. We talked about how we as women are having an incredible moment that’s become a movement. I started to sketch out what the program could look like and we got on the Skype last night and the vibe was infectious. We did that awkward dance of do you want be partners in this? until we decided we did want to do this together.
Naturally, I hung up and danced to 90s hip hop in my apartment. I was that excited. Here I was partnering with another woman who was smart, bold, fearless, and she came to the table with a different mindset and a generational point-of-view (she’s a millennial, but she’ll argue that she’s an OLD millennial).
We don’t have a name for what we’re doing. Our product isn’t defined. We don’t yet know our pricing scheme, budget, or roadmap, but we’re excited. For a moment, I had all the normal pragmatic nightmares — how I was going to pay my bills after my lucrative project ends this month? Is this really happening? Am I starting a new business? What if I fail? I’m 42. What. If. I. Fail.?
Then I remembered the woman I used to be and she would’ve said: Who gives a fuck if we fail?
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