Nobody Tells You How Much Your Dreams Will Cost
We were running.
“I think you should do it,” my best friend said. “You have the rest of your life to make money. You only get to do what you love once.”
We stopped to stretch and cool down.
Later that day, I accepted an offer from an MFA program in creative writing, at a top 50 school. They were going to pay me. In addition to a tuition waiver, I’d be making $12,000 a year to teach freshman English. My professors said it was a pretty sweet deal. “It’ll keep you off the street until you publish your novel,” my mentor said. “Don’t get too comfortable.”
I didn’t realize he was joking.
I was 22.
I had to get a second job.
One day after my writing workshop, I went out for coffee with some other writers in the program. That’s when I realized I was paying for practically everything with my credit card.
Tuition. Books. Groceries. Clothes.
“Don’t worry about it,” one of my friends said. “This is what everyone does in grad school. You can pay it back after you win the National Book Award. You’re so talented. Stick with it.”
Instead, I sent my resume around to local newspapers and got a full-time job writing for a free weekly. It paid two hundred bucks a week. They let me work at night. Combined with teaching, it wasn’t long before I was working 12 or 14 hours a day, including weekends. I loved it.
I was making around $24,000 a year.
It felt so adult.
“This is the life,” I told myself. I was doing exactly what I wanted.
I was following my passion.
It was perfect for about six months, until one day the head editor called me. “You’re doing a great job. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay you full-time anymore. Can we keep you on as a freelancer?”
So I became freelancer. That was right around the time the housing market collapsed. My income dropped by half.
I got a third job, and a fourth job.
Freelancing dried up a little as the economy sank deeper. Editors told me they didn’t have as much space as they used to.
“We have to run lots of ads now,” one said. “And there’s just tons and tons of writers out there.” All of them were older. All of them had more experience. Some of them had ivy league degrees. Some of them lived in New York, and they could schmooze over wine.
Even during grad school, I kept looking for work. Full-time. Part-time. Anything. Editors scheduled interviews with me and then canceled them. “We’ve decided to fill the position with an internal candidate,” they said. “Don’t take it personally. You’re talented.”
To keep doing what I loved, I started tutoring online 15 hours a week. I wrote study guides. I wrote entries for encyclopedias. I wrote book and movie reviews. I did this for $30 or $50 a pop.
Sometimes my dad called to ask something like, “You sound tired. Why don’t you just quit and go get a better job?”
“Every job pays the same,” I said. “I can’t find anything above $25,000. That’s what I’m already making. Besides, I’m following my dreams.” I just had to hang in there a little longer and impress the right person. Who needs furniture, when you have passion?
Clearly, not me.
I couldn’t get a real job with my degree.
My professors took me out to dinner. We were celebrating my thesis. It was my first time eating at a four-star restaurant.
“We absolutely adore this place,” my thesis director said. “We were coming here every weekend for a while.”
“Then that tapas bar opened downtown,” another professor said.
At some point I asked, “So what kind of jobs can I get now? I remember something about working in PR?”
One of them said, “I have no idea where you’d find a PR job. Frankly, it sounds soul-crushing. Don’t bother. It’ll kill your writing.” She recommended I keep working part-time jobs until I sold my novel. Another professor said, “Wallace Stevens sold insurance.”
“Am I qualified to do that?”
“Oh, probably not. Not now. That was a different time. You’d have to get a degree in business or finance to do that.”
“So what can I do?”
One of them smiled. “You can always teach for us.” She didn’t mean as a professor. She meant something else…
I finally got a crappy teaching job.
The university advertised a full-time, one year teaching position. I applied. They hired me. It paid $30,000.
I felt rich.
Now I was teaching five classes a semester. My day started at 7 am and ended sometime around midnight, when I finally had to stop grading papers. Then I worked another two or three hours on job applications. After all, I’d be unemployed again in nine months.
Nobody would hire me.
I went to a job fair for high school teachers, five hours away in another state. I handed out my resume to fifty schools. I tried to show them my teaching portfolio. One of them finally felt sorry for me and read through it. He said he was really impressed. “You’ve accomplished an enormous amount. Exactly how old are you, anyway?”
He busted out laughing. “No wonder you can’t get a job.” He handed my portfolio back. “What you really need is to get a PhD. It’s the only way anyone’s going to take you seriously.”
So I applied to PhD programs.
I got a PhD, and then a real job.
Three years later…
My new professors took me to another nice restaurant. We were celebrating my comprehensive exams. Basically, you spend a year reading a hundred incomprehensible books. Then they lock you in a room for three days, and you have to prove how much you remember. You write 30 or 40 pages, then your professors read it and interrogate you.
I only remember one thing from that dinner. One of my professors smiled at me and said, “You know what I love about you?” She sipped her wine. “You would stay here forever, even if you had to take out more loans.” Then she said I should really take two years to write my dissertation. “Staying in the program longer will make you more competitive.”
They said I needed to go to more conferences. So I went to four in one year. Each one cost a thousand dollars, after you included plane tickets and hotels — and registration fees.
They told me to subscribe to more journals. They told me to start building my own personal library. So I did.
I did it all.
After exams, I did nothing but teach classes and work on my dissertation. Then I spent almost every weekend for two months flying to different campuses for job interviews. I went to a job conference to interview with major universities, and that cost a thousand dollars.
The final job interview for a professor lasts about 36 hours. They give you a little break for sleep.
Otherwise, your time belongs to them. Lunch is an interview. Dinner is an interview. Drinks are an interview. So I did all that. A year and $40,000 dollars of debt later, I finally got a job.
It was so exciting…
I had to get a second job again.
The phone call came in the morning.
“We’d like to offer you a position,” the dean said. He went though the details. They were going to pay me a $48,000 salary. After four years I’d be eligible for a promotion and a raise. All I had to do was write and publish a book. The raise would bring me up to about $54,000.
I almost squealed.
Now all I had to do was pay off those pesky student loans.
All $70,000 of them.
It felt doable.
I was going to pay off my debt and then get married and then buy a house.
Indeed, I met someone. We fell in love. That’s when we learned how expensive wedding photographers are.
“Do we even need one?” I asked my fiance. He said his parents would be pretty disappointed if we didn’t get nice photos. So we hired the cheapest one we could find, for about $1,500.
We paid for our wedding ourselves. At about $3,000 total, it ate up all of our extra income that year. Our honeymoon was a weekend in a hotel. After that, my new husband’s car broke down.
I started freelancing again.
Your dream job is never enough.
After 24 pretty rough hours, I held my baby.
A few weeks later, we got a bill for the C-section. It was somewhere in the neighborhood $4,000.
I remember a few things about those post-delivery days. I remember knowing it was going to be expensive, and I remember sitting up in bed working on my laptop while my newborn slept a few feet away.
There was only one way forward. Keep hustling. That’s how millennials solve their problems. We work ourselves down to nothing. We tell ourselves everything’s fine as long as we have our dream jobs.
Sometimes people ask us why we’re always working. They’re usually older, or Republican. Most people our age get it, though.
The dream job is never enough.
It’s not enough because your car breaks down. The sink stops working. The roof leaks. Your spouse feels a weird lump on his shoulder blade. Your kid has to go to the emergency room on a Sunday.
It adds up.
Let’s stop trading our rights for dreams.
We used to have protections against the kind of manipulation I spent my 20s falling for. Things like collective bargaining and labor laws used to ensure we could find a job we liked, and make a decent living off it.
At some point, we were tricked into giving up on unions and job security, all in favor of the ever illusive dream job, which gave us access to the dream home and the dream vacation.
It hasn’t worked out very well.
Dream jobs are overrated. They’re expensive investments. Sometimes they pay off. A lot of times, they don’t. Sometimes what we call a dream job is just an excuse to pay us less.
Don’t fall for it.
We’ve been trading our rights for dreams for decades now. Maybe we should stop chasing fantasies, and start advocating for ourselves again. While we’re at it, we can advocate for each other.
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