You are what you go after
Three years ago I wrote a story about a job that was slowly killing me. There were weeks during the summer when I’d rarely see daylight and I’d fork food into my mouth I couldn’t remember having eaten. Did I eat lunch ?— I can’t remember, but I must have eaten because my garbage was overflowing with take-out cartons and Seamless Web plastic bags. I’d scroll through pictures of myself taken with my phone and I had to turn away because all of them looked like proof of life photos. I was walking through my sleeping life and I became a version of myself that to this day I still apologize for. My generation was reared to believe that if you worked hard, paid your dues, climbed slowly up an invisible ladder, you’d be handsomely rewarded with a matching 401K, and you’d no longer fear the first of the month when rent was due. You didn’t quit; you kept moving even when you knew that as a woman your work would be harder. You kept working because you hadn’t yet come to the realization that the things you own end up owning you. But that comes later, much later, when you’re so tired you stop rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. You kept waking up in the middle of the night to scan your emails because no one ever slept. Sleep was for amateurs, people who weren’t thirsty. People who didn’t want to make partner.
I worked for a man who peddled his snake oil wrapped in Powerpoint presentations. He was the sort who believed that if you said all the right multisyllabic words, people would hand over their checkbook with a dazed look that resembled idolatry. A man so consumed by his greed that it ended up being his ruin. I’m reminded of what someone told me once — you are what you go after.
When I was made a partner of this company, all of the women stood and applauded and I was happy. It occurs to me now that I should’ve been angry over the fact that all of these brilliant ambitious women reported to a company run by men, men who reported to a holding company and a board filled with white men. And I was the lone woman who stood amongst the gleaming white.
When I was a freshman in college, I switched majors from psychology to finance. There were a lot of reasons for the move but none of them really matter now save for the fact that I grew up poor in Brooklyn and I watched Wall Street one too many times. I was eighteen and I believed that money corrected everything. Money gave you comfort. Money was your shelter. So I took all the required classes, interned at Merrill Lynch and other fancy banks at $15-$20/hour. I remember attending a party a few days before graduation where the man who would be valedictorian, a man who was a fixture in my study group, told me that competing with me made him work harder. He was drunk and so was I, and I couldn’t help but think he was congratulating me on my loss. It didn’t occur to me until years later that I would allow snake oil salesmen to use me to get ahead.
Two years out of college and sick of wearing skirt suits (this was 1999), I started a side business where I re-sold clothing and accessories I purchased from sample sales and outlet stores on eBay. This was a time of dial-up internet service and AOL buddy lists. Few business set up shop online, and women across the country were excited about this eBay business and how it allowed them trespass to the false feeling that you’re important, that you mean something, simply because you have a pair of $300 sandals strapped to your feet. I was 23 and filing LLC paperwork and doing my own accounting at night because I was tired of being told by recruiters, who scanned my paper resume printed on bond paper, that I could only get a job in banking because I’d only worked in banking.
I don’t like being told no.
This side business got big, big for me, and it attracted the attention of the wife of a man who would eventually be my boss, a man who worked for a $10 million dollar venture-back dot.com that aimed to sell Italian designer accessories over the internet. I resigned from my job, trashed my suits, and worked full-time at this company while I attended Columbia University’s MFA program in between work hours. Never did I conceive that owning my own business was something that one did, much less one that was built using the internet. We were taught to crave the creature comforts of big companies. Big companies meant stability.
That sound you hear? It’s the sound of one hand clapping.
There are many things in the span of a two-decade career for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the time I spent working for a man who gave me a much needed attitude adjustment and taught me most of what I know about marketing. He also taught me, by example, how to be kind and compassionate to the people who work for you. I’m grateful for another man, years later, who was my sponsor and champion when the snake oil salesman was content on wreaking havoc on my self-esteem if it meant keeping me in line while he continued to add zeros to his paycheck. If it meant cleaning up his mess after he’d lie to client after client, and set expectations he knew we couldn’t achieve. No matter. As long as the contracts were signed and the cash flowed in. No matter when people caught on to his game, and he hid in his office while I had to fire people who had mortgages and families. It’s a business decision. I’d choke out these words and cry in the bathroom later. Anyone who tells you firing someone gets easier the more you do it isn’t human. But I was deemed “emotional” because I cared about the wellbeing of people. Even if many of them will never know it.
For the three years after I resigned from this job, I thought I would be happier flying solo. No office to go into, no lives to turnover, and fewer hearts to break. I even left New York, my home of 39 years because I grew tired of the velocity, of watching my home devolve into a whitewashed H&M, of no longer wanting the things I thought were important. So I moved to Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life I had unmitigated quiet. So much so that I nearly drowned in it, and I spent the greater part of this year in a very dark and severe depression. A darkness I believed I couldn’t come back from until I did. And that’s another thing I’m grateful for — people online and off who bring you shelter when you least expect it. A kind of shelter that makes money laughable in contrast. A kind of compassion that makes you only want to work harder, be a better person.
I spent the bulk of my career hiding my gender and swallowing my voice. My decks couldn’t be too pretty lest they be deemed feminine. Perhaps we’ve conveniently forgotten study after study that tells us that having diversity and inclusion on boards and in companies is the very definition of a company’s success. I couldn’t be vulnerable when that could be construed as a sign of weakness when countless studies prove otherwise. That vulnerability means you’re human and people will admire you for that. Your humanity.
This month I returned to 1999, albeit changed and demonstrably older. (Hopefully wiser). I filed paperwork for an LLC; I opened a business banking account and created the credentials I wanted to read. I contracted nearly a dozen women who wanted to collaborate on projects that challenged and excited them. I sent emails, scheduled meetings and made plans. However, there was a moment — a full day of them — when I wondered if I would fail. If there weren’t a place for people who wanted to speak English, not jargon, for people who demanded mutual respect from their partners and people who understood that our best work could be achieved if weren’t tethered to our desks and chained to our chairs. I thought back to a younger version of myself who didn’t question failure because this change, regardless of the outcome, was what I needed to move forward.
So here I am, 40, moving toward what’s next. And I couldn’t be more excited. If you’re interested, here’s what I’m up to. I hope you’ll fist-pump me along. Drop me a follow on Instagram or Twitter if you’re feeling my vibe.