Changing the Narrative

podcast_logoI was listening to Anna Sale’s Death, Sex & Money podcast as I walked the dogs today. If you’re not listening yet, add it to your podcast lineup this instant. These are the taboo subjects of polite society, and thank god Anna is blasting them out into the open. Serial may have made a difference in one person’s life, but this podcast has the potential to make a difference in the lives of every single listener by the mere act of talking about the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about.

 

Anyway — in a recent episode, this exchange with a female listener/caller caught my ear (and I do think it’s relevant to men as well).

“I felt like I somehow managed to fall into every trap that’s set for women.” (Anna Sale: And what do you mean by traps?) “I did everything that I think was expected. I gave away my name, we got married, we had two kids, we lived in the right places and did all the right things. To a certain extent, we have been very successful, I don’t want to discount that. When you make all of those very safe choices, you are rewarded for that.”

The caller then goes on to describe a major change in her life that took her away from safe choices. But one specific thing she said in the interview caught my ear:

“You don’t have to follow the narrative that everybody else does. […] You can decide to go a different way.” 

Zen rocks at Surfer's Point, Ventura, CA

Zen rocks at Surfer’s Point, Ventura, CA

I think this one of life’s hardest lessons to learn. Unless you’re one of those people who’s born with the ability to a. tune out the noise of expectation and b. not give a shit what anybody else thinks — it takes years, if not decades, to realize you don’t have to follow the narrative that everyone else is following. And that’s what makes “going a different way” so very difficult for most of us.

The podcast dovetailed with conversations I had last week with two people, both longtime friends, who are both in the midst of changing their narratives, or at least wanting to get on the road to doing so. One recently gave several weeks’ notice at work, will leave his job without having another lined up and has no real idea what’s going to happen next. (So he’s a friend, kindred spirit, and copycat!) He seems happy and satisfied with the decision, and I was thrilled to hear he’d made the leap. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for him. I warned him, in fact, that an emotional roller coaster is in the offing, if his experience is anything like mine and all the people I interviewed for the book. Maybe his identity isn’t as wrapped up in his work as mine was when I quit, but it’s still going to be difficult for him as he realizes that going career-plan-less messes with your head. Hell, it’s still messing with mine and I’m two and a half years into the process. And I’m sure he’ll get the funny looks from people when he says he’s quitting without a backup plan — or at least with a minimal one. Going a different way is anathema to most people who insist on having everything mapped out, and they just don’t understand how you’re possibly going to make it work.

My other friend is miserable in her job, burned out, and longing for a life that will let her spend at least a few hours a day not thinking about work. But she feels enormous pressure to stay in it. She has kids and other family obligations, she worries (of course!) about money and all the attendant issues that go along with leaving a job or career. But beyond that, she feels a pressure to stay on a career track and keep working up the ladder, even though she’s high up on it already. “Sometimes I just want to go teach pilates,” she said. But what would people think of THAT?! The right answer, we all know, is “Who cares what they’d think?” But that’s a very difficult place to get to.  She also worried about leaving her employer in the lurch, even if she gave significant notice. My response was that there are times in our lives, and this is one for her, where you have to do what’s right for you, and for your family. I understand loyalty — though I think it’s a rare commodity from the employer side these days, so why give more than what you get? — but sometimes you have to be selfish, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our lives are far too short NOT to be selfish on important and basic things like, oh, happiness, satisfaction, and quality of life with friends and family. I encouraged her to start thinking about what the next stage might look like, whether it’s as a pilates instructor, or going part-time at her current job, or some hybrid career like so many of us are doing these days. I think she’ll feel better just even allowing herself to think about it, to imagine what else might be available to her in this life that is SO SO SHORT. She can find a new narrative, I know she can.

And that’s something we should encourage in each other. Always. Doing so requires a healthy dose of compassion and empathy for the idea that maybe there is a different way to define career success, maybe there is a new way to think about what that balance is really supposed to be between work and life, maybe we can finally say there is no one right way to crack an egg. It also involves no small amount of self-compassion, allowing yourself to believe that not only are you worthy of a new narrative and a new path, but that you can succeed on it.

It’s so odd that I find myself speaking/writing in these terms… stuff about paths and narratives and happiness. It doesn’t come naturally to me as a formerly cynical-to-the-hilt journalist. I tend to push against anything with the mere whiff of self-help. But after what’s happened in my life since my own leap, it’s clear to me that these things matter, and that they’re worth talking about. They may not be as taboo as death, sex and money, but they’re not easy.

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Going a different way in Oregon

After Peru

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Ollantaytambo, Peru

It’s been about 72 hours since I touched down at LAX after ten days in South America. I still can’t talk about my experience there. Every time I try… tears start rolling down my face and I can’t get the words out. I’m not even sure why or how I’m writing this, because clearly it is all too raw and too deeply emotional for me to have fully absorbed yet. The day after I got home, I spent about four hours in front of the television, just to get away from my own thoughts. ​I went back on the radio this morning, and as the red “on air” light went on, I just hoped that I could focus on the two hours of live broadcasting in front of me. Luckily, at this point in my career, it’s a little like riding a bike — all instinct.

I was in Peru mostly to accompany and report on a medical team from Oregon, including my own father, that travels to South America each year to conduct surgeries on children with bone malformations. In some cases, they make it so these kids can walk for the first time in their lives. I went with no real idea of what kind of story (stories) I’d come back with. One story led to another… and then another… and another. I came home with about 12 hours of audio tape, and more than 1,500 photographs. I knew it might be emotional, and friends told me it sounded like it could be life-changing. I had no idea how right they would be, and how profound an effect this trip would have on my soul. I’m still sorting through all of it, but I know it has changed me. And in so many ways, that’s scary as hell.

As someone who likes to think of herself as a citizen of the world, and relatively well-traveled, I’m ashamed to admit that this was my first real venture into the developing world. I’ve been to Argentina, but it is quickly modernizing, and I didn’t spend a lot of time (ok, I didn’t spend any time) in poverty-striken areas while I was vacationing there. I’ve done plenty of reporting on inner-city America, which is not visited by any of the advantages of this great country, but that did nothing to prepare me for what I saw and experienced in Peru. Clearly, I need to travel much more outside the bubble that is the modern, capitalized West. As of this moment, that’s really all I want to do. How I go about it? Another question altogether.

I’ve always believed in giving back, and I’ve tried throughout my adult life to volunteer and raise money and provide help wherever I can. But now I feel this deep need and longing to do something so much larger than myself. Journalism is a mighty and noble profession. It is now and always will be my first love. But after two years of soul-searching after leaving my job, I wonder if Peru was trying to tell me something about what needs to happen next. Everything in my life seems so inconsequential and frivolous — even though I know it’s not. Not really. Just because I have things, just because I have advantages, doesn’t mean I’m taking all of that away from someone else’s life. But I do question anew what my priorities are, and how they came to be, and how they need to change.DSC_0509

What I’m afraid of now is that after a few days I’ll slip back into the comfortable skin of my life and let this feeling somehow fade into background noise. I don’t want it to. I want something to happen. I want change. I want to figure out what’s supposed to come next. But it would be a lot easier to let this all ease away and just pick up where I left off about two weeks ago. And part of me feels like it’s awfully silly for all of this to have exploded in my head over a matter of a few days. How is it possible for one very short experience to prompt so much soul-searching? But I can’t answer that, and I’m trying to give myself the benefit of the doubt that this is just part of a long personal journey that started about two and a half years ago. I’ve never been a woo-woo girl, I haven’t believed that the universe bothered to put a plan together for me — that’s just not who I am. And yet.

So to all of you who’ve asked, excitedly, how my trip went and watched as I fell to pieces in front of you — this is why. I can’t explain it. I can’t even really write about it yet — this is a feeble attempt to put a few words down before the moment escapes me. I’ll get on with things soon enough. I’ll tell you about my adventures, about the people I met, about all the beautiful smiles I saw on the faces of children who have nothing, about one of the seven wonders of the world that everyone should see before they die, and about the stories I gathered with a microphone and a camera. But for now, this will have to do. This, and a renewed sense of gratitude for the life I have, and the life that might lie before me. I am so very fortunate.

Finding a Story in Peru

​I’ve written before in these pages about my parents. They have always been, and still are, the most important influence on my life. They’re still young (71) and both hale and hearty — not to mention still together after 50 years — and I know how fortunate I am that all of this is still true.
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I’ve always been fascinated by what my dad does for a living. He’s an orthopedic surgeon — fixes all manner of bones. My younger brother and I used to go with him on some Saturdays when he would make rounds at the hospital, checking on casts, sometimes even cutting them off RIGHT IN FRONT OF US! Ohhhhh that was exciting. I think the patients got a kick out of having us around, and it was fun to see part of what dad did all day. I never wanted to follow in his footsteps, though. Neither my brother nor I went into medicine. I can’t even get blood drawn without lying down so I don’t faint. I wish he’d passed on the doctor gene, because I cannot think of anything more noble than helping people — fixing them when they’re somehow broken. I’ve always looked at what he does with deep respect because I literally can’t imagine doing it myself, rebuilding people with hammers and saws and pins. He’s also just a wonderful person and dad… but all that time he spent in medical school, in residencies, and in operating rooms? It’s pretty impressive.

A few years ago, a friend of Dad’s, also an orthopedist, asked if he’d be interested in joining a team of doctors and other medical personnel that goes to South America twice a year to do surgeries on children who have no access to modern medical care. Since then, he’s joined those medical missions to both Peru and Ecuador, fixing kids with all manner of bone deformities, in some cases, making it so that they can walk for the first time.

Each time he went, I thought to myself, wow, dad is amazing. And each time I also thought to myself, wow, that would be a great story. But the timing and opportunity to go with the team, as a journalist, never worked — until this year. So I’m heading out tonight and will spend several days at a small clinic in Coya, Peru (that’s a photo of my dad about halfway down the web page in blue scrubs, looking at an xray). I’ll have a little bit of touristy time both before and after, to see the World Heritage City of Cusco, and, of course, Machu Picchu. But mostly, I’m working. I have all kinds of radio and photography gear with me. I have no idea what story (stories, hopefully) I’ll come back with, but I know that it will be a truly special time to be with my dad, see the work of this team, and learn about the child patients and their families, including the ones who come to visit years after being treated. I’m bringing a large duffel bag full of stuffed animals IMG_4947 for the kids to have while awaiting surgery, and also in recovery rooms with their parents. It’s the least I can do in exchange for access to the clinic, and I can’t wait to help hand them out.

So… I will be documenting this off and on (as WiFi allows) on Tumblr, as well as posting on Instagram and Facebook, though the Tumblr will have most of the content so I don’t clog peoples’ feeds. Please follow along and share any thoughts.

Embracing leisure — from the newsletter

I have a newsletter — have you subscribed, yet? If not, here’s a sample of what you’re missing. It’s an every-so-often brief compendium of items I’ve read, or written, mostly about quitting/leaping/reinventing, etc., sometimes about other things. Sign up via the link on the homepage — I promise you won’t regret its appearance in your inbox (if you do, you can always cancel). Today’s edition is below.

 

Taking Time to Enjoy… Time

Wine grapes. From Santa Ynez, CA, not the south of France, but close enough! photo credit: Tess

Wine grapes. From Santa Ynez, CA, not the south of France, but close enough! photo credit: Tess

I was watching an episode of The Getaway on Esquire TV last night — the one with Aisha Tyler in Paris. First of all, I love how she puts away food. She’s in Paris, and she eats with gusto. She even comments on that fact, saying while home in LA basically all she eats is salad because she’s on TV. But in the City of Lights, she does it right. No salads. Just all the cheese and dessert and… near-raw pigeon… she can force down her gullet. That’s a dame I want to hang with.

But something else she said struck me as well. She was talking about how the French place such a value on leisure time. I didn’t remember this from my only trip to Paris back in 1999, but everything pretty much closes down on Sundays. It forces everyone to sleep, to read, to take a walk, to have sex, to drink lots of wine (not necessarily in that order) — to do anything but something. Tyler made note of it because Americans will often become frustrated with the pace of life in Europe, instead of embracing it while traveling. If you’re dining out, you won’t get the check until you ask (beg?) for it, because it’s assumed you want to stay and hang out and enjoy the experience. It’s the same in my favorite country in the world, Argentina. They still close up shops in the middle of the day for siesta. Dinner doesn’t start until after 9 pm, and if you leave a restaurant in under three hours there’s something wrong with either the food… or you. It’s an entirely different way of living. And it’s lovely.

Fast-forward to the next day, and I run across two articles that discuss this exact subject: the beauty of slowing down.

A friend on Facebook belatedly posted this article, “Why We Humblebrag About Being Busy,” written by Greg McKeown in June in the Harvard Business Review. In it McKeown talks about what he calls the “more bubble”:

This bubble is being enabled by an unholy alliance between three powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism. The result is not just information overload, but opinion overload. We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we “should” be doing. In the process, we have been sold a bill of goods: that success means being supermen and superwomen who can get it all done.

Santa Barbara carousel. Photo credit: Tess

Santa Barbara carousel. Photo credit: Tess

There’ve been plenty of articles, and entire books, written about why everyone feels the need to tell everyone else how busy they are. This is a compact version of that, and provides good advice on how to become an “essentialist” — someone who unclutters life, not just the closet.

And in the Los Angeles Times this past Monday, an op-ed by Sara Horowitz, “America, Say Goodbye to the Era of Big Work.” This is mostly about the rise of the freelance economy, but she points out that this is happening not just because people can’t find jobs… but because people want to get off the hamster wheel.

For the past century, in other words, remuneration defined success. For many workers, it still does. However, among the growing ranks of independent workers, labor itself is increasingly its own reward, as is the opportunity to establish a work-life balance that was unthinkable during the Era of Big Work. Millions of freelancers are working when they want and how they want. They’re building gratifying careers but also happy lives. 

When I quit my job, it was NOT because I wanted to simplify my life, get off the hamster wheel, and live with less. I never would have imagined I’d want, or enjoy, ANY of those changes. In fact, I’ve felt bad at many points over the last two years for the fact that those three things have happened. But oddly enough… when you’ve lived with that change for two years… it starts to become normal. And you start to enjoy it. Maybe someday I’ll want to go back to permanent 9-5 work, maybe someday soon, even.

My pups: Kiara on the left (border collie), Ronan on the right (lab). Photo taken at Ventura pier.

My pups: Kiara on the left (border collie), Ronan on the right (lab). Photo taken at Ventura pier.

But for now, I’m really starting to embrace the fact that I can take the dogs to the beach in the middle of the morning when there’s no traffic and nobody else there. I’ve stopped trying to make excuses for myself when people ask me what I do all day with all my “free time” now that I don’t have an employer (and yes, people ask me that, even though, yes, I have work).

I know how profoundly fortunate I am to be in a position to take this time away from the hamster wheel. I’ve worried on and off if I’ll get too used to it, lose my ambition. But then I get out my camera and go for a shoot on an overlook above the city while everyone else is commuting. I’ve given up a lot, including money and prestige, vacations and dinners out. Still — I think maybe I’m finally starting to think more like a Parisian. My life is likely more than half over, and I’m really, really glad that I’ve discovered before it’s too late that leisure and down time are just as important, if not more so, than than the pursuit of Big Work.

I’d love to hear from you if you have anything you think readers might find interesting or enlightening. You can share any thoughts and links over at my website or on Facebook or Twitter.

If you like what you’re reading so far, please do pass it along via your favorite social media!

 

Post-(manu)script

I went to the Ventura County Fair last weekend. Haven’t been to a fair or carnival or amusement park in probably 20 years, if not longer — never been my thing. But I’m staying in Ventura and the fair was in town, so that’s what you do.

Ventura County Fair, photo by Tess Vigeland

photo credit: Tess

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photo credit: Tess

I rode the Ferris wheel and watched eight-year-olds, who were braver than I, ride things that shot them up into the air and then dropped them back down again. I pet a goat and watched two prize-winning pigs – Spanky and Oreo –  loll in their pen. I ate a caramel apple and a deep-fried bacon-wrapped pickle. I would eat the former every day if my teeth wouldn’t fall out… the latter, I don’t recommend anyone eat, ever. Never. It is a salt-lick that tastes delicious and terrible at the same time and you will pay for it the next day. But that’s what happens after the fair.

This month marks two years since I left my job without knowing what to do next. I’ve described that period as a roller coaster. I lurched from project to project, emotion to emotion, feeling unmoored and scared and freed and delighted, sometimes all within the same day. I let go and raised my hands in the air every once in a while, only to grab onto the safety bar as soon as the ride started to feel a little too swervy.

At the fair, I realized I’ve finally gotten off the roller coaster. Now I’m on the Ferris wheel. I’m not lurching anymore, and it feels like things have slowed down, calmed down, somewhat.

But on a Ferris wheel, the highs are even higher, and the lows are lower.

Just in the last few months, I’ve been at the top… several times. I returned to the national airwaves, backup anchoring Weekend All things Considered, the show I didn’t get last year; I had applause and great success at an event in New Orleans where I put old talents to a new use; I finished writing a book (!!!); and just this past week, I wrote a post for The Guardian about feminism and money that seems to have struck a chord on social media. These were all so exciting! They were all things I most likely would never have done were I still in my old job. They were the proof I crave — almost daily — that I did the right thing two years ago.

photo by Tess Vigeland

photo credit: Tess

The lows, though? They’re awful.

And they mostly come now when someone asks me “So, now that you’re done with the book, what’s next?” First of all, that process is just beginning. The editing could be brutal — I have no idea what to expect. And it turns out that when a book contract says your second advance payment is “upon manuscript acceptance,” that doesn’t mean the day you hand it in and they accept it into their email inbox. No, “acceptance” means something else in publishing, which is when it’s been through the entire editing process and they decide it is, after all, good enough to publish. That could be six months from now. No one explained this to me ahead of time, so it was a big and nasty surprise to our budget.

People also seem to think that now that the book is “done” — promoting it will become my career. Except it isn’t out for another year. And I’m not even sure I want to become the “quitting” lady — make this whole leaping thing into The Thing That I Do with online classes and handbooks and speeches and all that. I really don’t want to become The Industry of Me.

“Oh you’ll just get another book contract!” goes the other response. Yes, in fact they were handing them out at the fair! I’m not even sure I’ll want to write another one. One tilt-a-whirl was probably enough.

Photo by Tess Vigeland

photo credit: Tess

So the worst part is that I still don’t know what I want to do next. The book was a long respite from having to figure it out. But now I have to get a job. I’ve had two years to think about it and I still can’t get my shit together. I try not to be too hard on myself about that, but the inner critic is loud.

What I do know is that absence has made my heart grow fonder, and I miss the microphone every time I’m away from it. I miss the newsroom. But I’m very picky about what I want on that front, and my expectations are probably unrealistic. I have to figure out what I’m willing to settle for after hosting my own national show. I talked about doing a podcast, but I’m having second thoughts because a. as already noted, I don’t want to become The Industry of Me and do something that focuses on one subject like quitting and careers (I’m much more of a covering-the-waterfront gal who needs variety in her work diet), and b. pushing through the noise of the podcasting world is next to impossible. Yes, a lot of people know who I am, but a lot of people don’t know who I am. Plus… working for free is something I’ve tried to swear off doing. And a good podcast is pretty much all work and no pay.

Do I leave journalism? Every time I go on air or see my byline it seems absurd to take that joy away from myself. Do I go to law school? After all the interviews I conducted with lawyer-quitters in the process of writing the book — that answer is NO, even I’ve always been interested in the law, and have thought many times about switching to that path. Do I teach? Maybe. Do I go work for a nonprofit? It’s appealing. Why can’t I figure this out? What the hell is the problem, woman? Just go after something!

I really, really hate that I don’t have an answer to these questions, yet. It feels like I should. Especially since I’ve been so very fortunate all the way along. Maybe I just keep assuming that the right thing will present itself. I’ll wander the midway until I win the coke bottle ring toss and the perfect prize appears. Maybe I’m just not listening closely enough to what this indecision is telling me.

So… what’s next? Um…

Ok what’s next is that I’m trying to give myself a 10-day sabbatical from having to think about it. I’m back on Weekend All Things Considered for a week starting Aug 20th, and until then, I get a break. A break from the future. A break from mental self-flagellation. A break from having to feel productive. I’m doing nothing. Except going to the fair and walking on the beach and wandering through farmers markets. That’s it.

I gently chastised a friend this week for being too hard on himself when he was feeling lazy and unproductive. Fer pete’s sake, I said, you just finished and published a book! “I say there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few days… weeks… hell, even months… to decompress and enjoy your accomplishments without worrying about having something to do,” I told him.

I’m going to write that same note to myself… and then I’m going to get back on the Ferris wheel and enjoy the view. Without the pickles.

 

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photo credit: Tess

It. Is. Done. I am an Author!

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The manuscript for my book. I can’t believe I wrote that sentence.

 

73,000 words, 15 chapters, 11 months, 76 interviews, 269 iced coffees, 1 laid off editor, 5,732,495 iterations of “I can’t do this.”

And yet — it is done. 

I no longer have an excuse to eat two cookies each night because IT IS DONE. I sent in my manuscript today.

I’m neither the first person to write a book nor the last, I know, but I feel special today. The feeling of accomplishment is real and intense. Those pages will be in the Library of Congress. Forever. I love my radio stories, but they are ethereal. The Library of Congress, though, is forever. I’ll be in there with The Great Ones of American and world literature. Forever. Which reminds me of something I said recently that I’d like to take back. 

My mom forwarded me an article a couple of weeks ago titled The 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet. Above the link she wrote:

“Interesting and pertinent. Given your social media activity you should be on this list next year!-;)” (smiley face included)

My response: “Yeah I saw that. That’s for REAL writers. :)” (smiley face included)

Her reply: “You ARE a real writer.  Hey, Sweetie, you’re writing a book for a major publisher!!!”

Other people have made this same point when I say I’m not a Writer. They also note that my byline has appeared in The New York Times. Several times. And that every broadcast script I read on air, I almost always … wrote! 

The thing is I don’t dream of writing, and never have. I’m not that tortured soul burning to put my thoughts on a page and share them. I’m not that person who always had a novel languishing in the back of the closet, or a bit of non-fiction or anything else for that matter. But I suppose that’s a romantic idea of what a Writer is. I think 73,000 words in a row qualifies. So although I’m pretty sure my name won’t be on next year’s list of The 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet (I don’t like Twitter enough for that to happen anyway)I’m going to stop saying I’m not a Writer. 

I AM a Writer.

And even if I don’t run the literary Internet, right at this moment it sure as hell feels like I could run the world!creative 033

Whew. Wow.

 

Ok. A few other completely random thoughts before I go for my first post-submission drink:

1. If you happened to see me on the rare occasion I left my house this week, thank you for not saying anything about my slovenly appearance.
2. I ate a ridiculous amount of comfort food over the last 48 hours before I hit “send” on my manuscript (flash back to college papers written in the wee hours the day they were due?). If I never see another bowl of instant ramen, it will be too soon.
3. 20 years’ worth of daily and hourly deadlines do not prepare you for a year-long deadline. IF I ever write another book, I will suggest that they give me, say, two months to get it done, and I’ll think of it as a long series of top-of-the-hour newscasts.
4. I have had an astonishingly full and interesting work life. I always knew I had a cool job, but I never truly considered just HOW cool it was until I went through this exercise of reviewing my career — all the stories I’ve covered, people I’ve interviewed, and places I’ve been in the name of work. Even if it all stops right now, I am, and have been, fortunate in the extreme.
5. At some point it will hit me that I’ve written in large part about my own life and that, in about a year, that life will be on display for public judgment. For now, I’m pretending no one will ever read it.
6. At some point it will also hit me that since the heavy lifting of this part of the process is over, I have to grow up and get a job. For now, I’m pretending I have a secret safe filled with $100 bills in the attic.
7. The book won’t be out for a year, but I’ll be blogging and sharing stories here, at tessvigeland.com, up until then, and subscribers to my newsletter will have access to special content and pricing. So go sign up!
8. Two summers ago I wrote my resignation letter from Marketplace. One summer ago I wrote a speech that changed my life. And now I’ve written a book. I AM A WRITER. Damn. SMH.

 

A Lesson From Dad, and the Shadow of Regret

I’ve been swaddled in a blanket of regret for about a week now. It’s a not-pretty pity party wherein I smack around my psyche for leaving The Best Job I Will Ever Have. Never mind that I did so 14 months ago, and really should get over myself at this point.

For now, I’m laying responsibility for this newfound regret squarely at the feet of my father. Because he found the only job he ever loved, and he never left it.

I interviewed my parents the last weekend of January. Flew up to Portland, where I grew up and where they still live. My mom just turned 70, dad’s turning 71 this year, and in August they’ll celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary. They are the greatest people I have ever known. It would not be possible to love them more than I already do.

I’ve been working on a book about career choices, ambition, the pressure to have a linear, upward trajectory in your work life. The first question I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed for that book has been “Tell me a little bit about your childhood, and specifically, how your notions were formed of what success looks like.” So I figured if I was asking that question of everyone else, I should probably ask it of myself. And then I decided I should ask my parents for their perspective not just on me and my career choices, but on their own working lives.

It felt SUPER WEIRD sitting in their living room, pointing a microphone at them. I’ve done that tens of thousands of times to all manner of famous and not-famous people – it’s what I do for a living. But this felt strange, and I was kind of nervous. I’m not sure why because it’s not like I was asking about anything controversial or difficult. But there you have it.

I talked first with my mom about being an English teacher (she wanted to teach history, but was told, back in the early 60s, that that job was reserved for male athletic coaches). After having me and my younger brother, she didn’t go back to work… at least not for pay. She’s been a full-time volunteer for decades with all manner of nonprofits, and in the last 25 years she’s been a trustee for two major foundations, raised more than 30 million dollars for a new theater in Portland, and now serves as chair of the Oregon Arts Commission.

We talked about some of her regrets, and about how much she still loves teaching. She’s had a remarkable, if unorthodox and unremunerated, career.

Dad is an orthopedic surgeon, and that has been his life’s work. Some of it was in private practice, some of it was medical school teaching, and now he fixes the knees, hips and other bones of current and former service members at the Portland VA. He loves the job so much that he holds his nose and proceeds past the unending paperwork hassles of government work, and so far has yet to retire.

He talked about how and why he became a doctor – some of the stories even my mom had never heard. His grandfather was a physician, as was his father, and he just always knew that’s what he would be.

So after a couple of questions, I asked him “When you looked at the career that you were going to have, did you think about how you would define success? Like, how you would know whether you were successful in what you were doing…”

“Sure,” he said. “Well it was very easy in medicine because you define success every day, you know…”

And then he stopped talking.

He stared at his hands.

I went into reporter mode, letting silence consume all the oxygen in the room. My mom looked at her lap. I could not fathom where this was going.

I’ve gone back through the tape and we sat there for 19 seconds.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen my dad struggle with his composure. It’s not that he’s unemotional – he’s a warm, loving father and husband who never hesitates to say “I love you.” But he’s also a super-rational, beyond-smart, even-keeled guy who doesn’t do a whole lot of navel-gazing about himself – or anything else for that matter. (In this way, I wish I could be more my father’s daughter.)

So we sat. He swallowed hard, tried to speak, and couldn’t. He pointed at my microphone, gesturing for me to turn it off. It was one wordless, fatherly order I did not obey.

“I mean every day you have experiences that are successful. And if you have a rare, occasional failure, then you suffer for it. But on the whole every day is…”

He stopped again.

I filled that silence. “You have a reward.”

“Right.”

He fixes people. The reward is right there on the operating table, and in the recovery room.

We moved on. A little bit later I was asking if he’d ever considered leaving medicine for something else, if there was ever anything he wanted to do outside of being a doctor.

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Nope.”

“So you ended up totally in the right place.”

“Absolutely in the right place.”

We moved on again, with me asking both of them questions about my own ambition and motivations. If you’re an adult who’s lucky enough to still have your parents around, and you can find the time, sit down and ask them some day about how THEY think you became who you are, and how they interpret your successes, failures, and decisions. It’s nothing short of fascinating, and the answers are probably nothing like you think they will be.

But eventually I turned back to Dad and as gently as possible, asked if he knew why he’d gotten emotional earlier, in talking about his career.

Silence. He motioned again toward my recorder and shook his finger.

And then through the cracks in his voice, “Oh I think it’s just I’ve been fortunate…”

He stopped again.

“It’s just been real fortunate to be able to do the things I’ve done and accomplish things and… no complaints.”

He found what he loved. First thing. There were times when he didn’t like some of the stuff that went with the job, the usual office crap that even surgeons have to put up with. But he never quit. He never left. Because he loved it that much, and he was confident nothing else would make him as happy and fulfilled.

I had that job, too, for the most part. In my speech last year, I talked about how I was lucky to strike gold with the first job I got, and that not everyone can say that their first gig turned out to be the only thing they ever wanted to do. And yet I walked away. And now I wonder if I will ever feel that way again. Watching my father express, in no uncertain terms, how lucky he was to strike gold with the first and only job he ever had, I have to wonder anew what I’ve done, even though leaving has brought me other opportunities for which I’m grateful.

I know part of my own emotional turmoil is that I am about to end one phase of writing the book – the social part, where I get to interview people – and enter the solitary phase where I have to put words on a page. It’s intimidating and although my heart knows better, my head says I’m gonna suck.

It would be so much easier to go back to what I used to do – assuming someone would want me to do so. Just give me a microphone and a studio. I’m really good at it and… I loved it. Thoreau said to never look back unless you’re planning to go that way. Right now… that way seems like it’d be comforting.

When I’m 50 years into my career (as opposed to just half that), I want to answer all these questions the same way my dad did. I want to be that invested. I want to still feel that lucky… so lucky that I can’t get the words out. And I’m so, so worried that I’ve given up that chance.

For me, at this moment, the silence is of an entirely different nature.

My Leap Year

I’ve been trying for a few months now to figure out what happened to me on the morning of July 7. It was one of those glorious summer days that people like to brag about in Portland. If you’re seeking temperate perfection, visit the Pacific Northwest in July and August. The rest of the year it rains, but during those two months, it’s hard to say anything bad about the place. So I know the sun was out. I was in my hometown to give a speech to about 3,000 people I didn’t know, and who I was pretty sure didn’t know, much less care about, me. But I was about to place my heart and soul on a platter and offer it up to them from a stage at the city’s performing arts center.

I was doing this pretty much as a favor to a friend. Earlier in the year I’d said no, I do not want to talk about walking away from my job and what it’s been like since then. Because I have no idea what I’m doing and I feel like a dope for leaving the best job I’ve ever had. Why would I want to talk about that? But he insisted it would be good for the audience, and maybe even good for me. Eventually I said fine, whatever, sure, it’s an excuse to visit my folks. Besides, I spent 20 years talking for a living as a news reporter and anchor on public radio. Stage fright was not a thing for me. Microphones were my friend. Whatever, sure, I’ll do it. I’d never heard of this event, the “World Domination Summit,” but I trusted my friend and figured hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Because you always go to the worst.

(Here’s the speech written and audio is here)

I got to the theater around 9 a.m., just as the final day of the weekend conference was getting underway. There were a couple of other speakers before me, and some testimonials from audience members about the cool stuff they’d done after being inspired by last year’s conference. Its ongoing theme is “How to be remarkable in a conventional world.” I wouldn’t be doing much inspiring, and I certainly didn’t feel remarkable at that point, but I’d written a speech, and I couldn’t change it now. I sat backstage in a green room with mirrors and bad lighting, fretting about whether my hair looked full enough and whether my heels were too tall to walk down the stairs I’d arranged to have so I could wander out into the audience with my microphone.

I tried to listen to the other speakers, but was too focused on not throwing up. My friend made an appearance in the green room, and took some photos of me focusing on not throwing up, though I imagine he assumed I was just gathering myself for a performance. As one does. That’s what I’d usually be doing before giving a speech –about the 2008 economic collapse or about the housing market or about other aspects of business and personal finance. I’d done that dozens of times, no problem. But I’d never really talked about myself. In front of almost 3,000 strangers. No, I had not done that before.

I honestly wondered why I was there. I wondered why anyone would give a shit about my story. It was just my story – it didn’t, it couldn’t, mean anything to anyone but me. I knew I’d get polite applause and then the crowd would move on to more pressing, and relevant, matters. So when it was my turn, I walked out to the wings of the stage, and as my friend gave his introduction, I thought ok, this will be fine, you have nothing to lose anymore. Nothing. Just tell it.

Just nine days before, I’d been rejected for the job of a lifetime. A job I was sure I would get. A job I thought I desperately wanted and that if I didn’t get it, it signaled abject failure on my part because I’d trained my entire career for that job. One week before the speech, I found out I didn’t get it. That was the capstone of half a year of wondering what I’d done with my life when I quit my other job, which was also the gig of a lifetime, back in fall of 2012. Every day I’d been alternately beating myself up for leaving, and telling lies to myself about how it was all meant to happen like this and that something would come of it. Something. Someday. Hopefully soon because uncertainty is not anyone’s friend. It is a pitch black cloud.

But then I did not get the one thing that I knew would rid my life of that cloud. And here I was about to tell a bunch of strangers about my failure, about my self-doubt and recriminations, about my discomfort with uncertainty, about my sad lack of a life dream, about how I no longer knew who I was because I could no longer describe what I do.

Do not throw up. Do not throw up. Do not throw up.

I walked on stage and told the oldest joke in the radio book: “Hey! You all don’t look a thing like I thought you would!” When people find out you’re a radio person they know, it’s what they say. Guaranteed. So I told the joke. I know… it’s lame. A few people laughed. And I started to tell my story.

And I started to feel something in the room – in that huge performance hall. To this day, I can’t describe it. They were listening. Really listening. They laughed in places I didn’t expect them to laugh. They shouted out from the audience, answering my rhetorical questions with actual answers.

“Will anyone want to listen to me now that I’m not some famous national correspondent anymore?”

“YES!!! Woooooo!!!”

At one point in the speech I talked about the rollercoaster I’d been experiencing, the ups and downs of leaving a career to strike out alone, feeling successful one day and like a complete fraud and unmoored the next. They hopped right on that ride and joined me from one moment to the next. I was no longer afraid of throwing up. What I was afraid of was that I’d burst into tears right there on stage, because of this overwhelming sense of support, this indescribable empathy that I felt from the audience.

Plus I saw a couple of people crying in the second row, and that’s a sure way to set me off.

I cannot explain it. I cannot define it. I cannot adequately put into words what it was like to stand and tell my story, and have a bunch of strangers – through some sort of electrical force in that auditorium – say hey, you’re remarkable. You. You, Tess, are remarkable. Because you told us your story.

After 35 minutes, I finished. They jumped to their feet. And, finally, I cried. Right there on stage. I’d been fighting it. And I realized there was no reason to. They were cool with it. In fact they cheered even louder. I felt dazed. I walked off the stage and sobbed into my friend’s shirtcollar.

I know there are really big problems in the world that need solving. But my little wish is that everyone could have a moment like that just once in their lifetime. Just once. It is life-changing. And I could not be more grateful.

For the rest of the afternoon, as I walked around downtown Portland, people came up and asked if they could hug me. I sat on a park bench and at least a dozen people asked if they could sit and talk about their own attempts, desires, hopes, to leap from their careers. I found my tribe. And they wanted to hear more.

A few hours later, I got an email from a top editor at a major publishing house who said he was in the audience and might I be interested in expanding on my speech. Eleven days later I had a book deal. This doesn’t happen to people.

The literary website Medium picked up my speech, and while it was no Harlem Shake, it certainly qualified as viral compared to anything else I’d ever done as a broadcaster and public figure.

The last half of this year was so different from the first. So very different. I’m different. The power of nearly 3,000 strangers to tell you that — in the words of social scholar Brene Brown — you are enough? That power is awesome, in the purest sense of the word. They didn’t validate me, so much as they validated my decision to be vulnerable, and to tell my story honestly. Apparently there isn’t a lot of that going on in the world, and when people see it, they sit up and take notice.

Every week since then, I’ve heard from people around the world who read or saw or heard my talk and wanted to share their own stories of leaving, of wanting to leave, of trying to figure out who they are outside of what they do. I’ve interviewed several dozen of them, and the stories just keep coming. Many have become friends in the process. All these new people have come into my life who never otherwise would have – I get to hear their stories, and in the book I’ll get to share them. And what they all have in common is a vulnerability, a compassion, a caring. You know what? They give a shit. And in an era of self-aggrandizement, a time in which we entertain ourselves by pointing at other people, an age where compromise is a bad word – giving a shit? It means everything.

This is my job now. I can’t believe how lucky I am.

I’ve been trying for a few months now to figure out what happened to me on the morning of July 7. What I’ve decided is that I don’t need to figure it out. It’s kind of fun to have something in your life that you can’t really describe – you know it’s a good thing, an amazing thing, a thing that changed you, but you have no idea how to put it into words. So I’ll leave it at that. What I do know is that I no longer question my own sanity, I believe that uncertainty can be powerful and constructive, and I’m glad to report that most normal people want those around them to succeed, and they want to help make that happen.

They want to hear stories. They want to be unique, they want to be like no one else on the planet, but they also want to know that others have been in exactly the difficult places they’ve been but don’t think they should talk about. I’ve learned that we should talk about it. So I will.

And I will admit it’s still not easy. I still wonder what’s coming, after the book is done. I still worry that I’ve already had the best job I will ever have, and that nothing I do from here on out will measure up to the words I said back in July. (The same words I thought nobody would be interested in hearing before I said them.) I still worry about a steady paycheck, and I still worry about how I’ll feel if I don’t top myself in whatever comes after all this.

To that end, recently I was telling friends that I didn’t want one more person to say to me “I can’t wait to see what you do next!” I knew it was well-meaning, but that phrase felt loaded with great, weighty expectations. And I wasn’t sure I needed or wanted those expectations, or that I could even hope to meet them.

But you know what? I’ve changed my mind. Gratitude will do that to a person.

This has been my leap year. And I can’t wait to see what I do next.

Departures

Speech for the Edison Talks at Chicago Ideas Week
Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago, IL
October 17, 2013

Audio on SoundCloud

Good morning. I’m Tess Vigeland. I am delighted to welcome you to one of the signature events at Chicago Ideas Week – Edison Talks.

In 1876, Thomas Edison opened the world’s first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. His goal was to bring the world’s best scientific and creative minds together under one roof to see what transpired. Many — if not most — of Edison’s experiments worked — and this was no exception. His lab was a place of creativity, collaboration, and new discoveries that literally changed the world.

Edison Talks draws its inspiration from that experiment. Today we’re going foster that same spirit of cooperation. The hope and plan is for YOU to forge unlikely connections… and spark new ideas that can one day — maybe even TODAY! — change the world.

I cannot even begin to express how lucky we are to have this slate of speakers today. Talk about fuel for inspiration! Some of them you’ve heard of. Others you’ll meet for the first time. MY job today — as your host — is to explain why each of them was so perfect for the topic we’re addressing today. I’ll also be your — spirit guide? sherpa? — throughout today’s conversation. We’ll have some videos and live performances as well as talks and interviews. The day is broken into three distinct sessions — and following each of those, we’ll take a break and recharge with coffee and other treats.

The fact that you are here in this beautiful theater means you’re a big thinker, too — someone working to change the world. And that includes a very special group of Chicago public high school students who are here as part of the CIW YOU(th) Program. We welcome all of you to Edison Talks.

For the adults who are taking part in the CIW YOU(th) networking game — you received some bracelets when you came in this morning. During the morning break and lunch break, please find some students and interact with them! If you’ve had a meaningful conversation, exchange bracelets. At the end of the breaks, students and adults please turn in your new bracelets to the Ideosphere table in the lobby where we’ll tally them up. The YOU(th) organization and adult participants with the most meaningful interactions at the end of the day get super special prizes!

So with that, let’s get right to it.

Our theme today is departure.

Robert Frost once said, “the only certain freedom’s in departure.” We’ve all experienced moments of departure in our lives. But what did those moments mean for you? How have those moments shaped your work? Those are just some of the questions we will be exploring today. Our speakers will discuss their own moments of departure, what inspired those departures, and how departure can inspire us ALL to create, to draw strength, and find new possibilities.

And to start, let me first tell you about one of my own moments of departure…

How many of you are familiar with public radio? How many of you know and listen to Marketplace? Alright well as noted in my introduction — I was what we call a host… an anchor… at Marketplace for 11 years. It’s a national show based in LA, heard on public radio stations across the country, with some nine million listeners a week.

I hosted the personal finance program called Marketplace Money, which means I know more than I ever thought I would or wanted to about 401ks, college savings plans, CD ladders, HSAs, FSAs, CDOs, HMOs, credit card debt, Obamacare, the housing market, corporate welfare, welfare for the poor, Wall Street and the financial struggles of Main Street. Before all that I was a sports reporter for a couple of years, and before that, general assignment covering whatever was happening THAT DAY… in both Portland, Oregon and Boston.

My job at Marketplace was the job I’d always dreamed of having. I started listening to public radio while studying journalism just up the road at Northwestern (GO CATS!!). I filed my first-ever national story for Marketplace right after I started my career back in 1990 — a story about the first-ever Niketown. And from there on out, I knew that’s where I wanted to work someday. SOMEDAY!! It wasn’t that I was particularly enamored of business and finance — hell, I got a C in Econ 101 in college. What I loved was the way they told stories. They had fun with a subject most people find utterly boring and irrelevant to their daily lives. There’s a reason they call economics “the dismal science.”

But I wanted to work there in the worst way. And in 2001, it happened. They called me while I was living in Boston and said come and audition — which I did — and I got the job of hosting the Marketplace Morning Report, a series of short newscasts that my colleague and I did at oh-dark-thirty each weekday – you may know him as the host of the Marketplace afternoon show… Kai Ryssdal.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe I got to work there. I couldn’t believe I got one of the most coveted jobs in broadcasting. I had a nice salary. I had fans across the country — around the world, in fact. At the ripe old age of 32, I was in a place that I thought would take me at least another decade to achieve. It was wondrous. And for more than a decade, I worked at this job I couldn’t believe I had. And one year ago… I walked away.

I departed from 20-plus years in journalism. I departed from the only skills I’ve ever really known or had. I departed from what I thought was my identity.

The details aren’t terribly important… they involve office politics that didn’t sit well with me, and they involve my longing to branch out to something other than personal finance, which gets really old, really fast, when you’re talking about the same six subjects over and over and over again.

SO I jumped… without a net. I left in mid-November of last year without any inkling of what I was going to do next. Friends asked me what the hell I was doing. People were sure I was either fired or that I had some secret new job that I couldn’t tell them about — yeah, I’m taking my personal finance expertise to… the CIA… they can’t figure out their retirement portfolios!!

In reality, it was all me, and that was something most people just couldn’t understand. You left your fancy national broadcasting job for… nothing?! No way. People don’t do that! The other reaction was oh hey that’s awesome! Good for you! Who DOESN’T want to quit their job?! But even that reaction was tempered by the fact that I didn’t know what I was quitting… to do. My departure did not have an arrival destination.

Now before I go any further — I want to look at this word. Departure. If you think about that word, what’s striking is how many different interpretations of it you can come up with. And to get a sense of that breadth… I turned to today’s equivalent of the Magic 8-ball… also known as Facebook. I asked my friends and fans there what’s the FIRST thing you think of when you hear that word: departures. Here’s a sampling:

“O’Hare airport” — that was the first one, and one of several to cite airports, runways, and gates marked – duh – departure — and this is what pops into my mind as well — airports, airplanes, suitcases

“On the way to a new adventure” — another common refrain — the idea that departure signals the start of new adventure

“Segue” — the idea that I’m deviating from a path

“A great movie about a man who played at a crematorium” — that’s a new one for me, and not the only movie reference… also got “Up In the Air” and “Big Trouble”

“Firing” — departure as a euphemism for someone leaving a company

On a more somber note that I think shows how different our perceptions are of this word… “Funerals” … “The dearly departed” — departures from this life, this world we share and inhabit for such a short time

And a couple of people mentioned that American Express has a magazine called “Departures.” They should be a sponsor of today’s event!

The response that resonated the most with me — aside from airports — was the word “change.” A departure always… ALWAYS… signals a change. And change, of course, comes in all colors, shapes, sizes and emotions.

My departure was like that. Part of me was SO excited to just get out and do something new, see what the world had on offer, CHANGE things up. I might as well have been boarding a flight… arrival destination unknown, we’re just gonna fly around until we have to land. But another part of me felt like a piece of my soul was ripped from my being. That a part of me — a HUGE part of my identity — was dead, or at least on its way there. For me, departure encompassed the vast emotional spectrum — and that uneasy feeling, lurching from man, this is awesome! to aw crap what have I done?! … well, it’s pretty awful.

And that feeling lasted for MONTHS. I had days where I was sure all was going to be fine… that I’d find that next thing I wanted to do — because we all have that next thing we want to do, right? we just have to figure out what color our parachute is! — and I kept freelancing for public radio and the New York Times. Those were great days when I was busy. And I was so proud of getting work on my own, figuring out how to be my own boss. DRAGON-SLAYER!

But the other days… when I didn’t have a project? Or an article? Or a gig hosting some other show? Those were deeply, deeply sad. And full of self-recrimination and doubt. What the hell have you done? You idiot. You ruined your life. You, alone, ruined your life, with no one else to blame.

Meanwhile people around me keep saying things like “This is so cool! I can’t wait to see what you do next!” If that’s not a loaded sentiment, I don’t know what is! I mean think about that… the expectations baked into that phrase — I can’t wait to see what you do next! Because it means you’re going to go on and do something even MORE AWESOME than you were doing! But I already did something pretty damn awesome, so no, I’m never going to match what I’ve already done and I will never, ever top myself, which is what everyone is expecting me to do! I know we’re in mixed company here so put your earmuffs on, kids, but… OH SHIT!

Luckily, over those same months, I was a candidate — and a finalist — for a huge job. HUGE. Host of NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. And guess what the finalists got to do. They got to host the show. For an entire weekend. Which I did in early June of this year. Want to know how I did?? Nailed it. That seemed to be the consensus of everyone who heard me… friends and strangers alike. Mom and Dad were over the moon. And so was I. I finally realized that this was why the universe told me to leave Marketplace. Because this job opened up just two weeks after I left. And the universe is very invested in us as individuals, and is looking out for and speaking in the ears of all 7.1 billion of us on planet earth.

I didn’t get the job. I cried in the shower after I got the official phone call saying I was runner-up. I went over and over the whole interview and audition process in my head trying to figure out what else I could have done, what I did wrong. It was rejection on a scale I’d never experienced before. Each job I’ve had came easy to me — most of them I was recruited for. This was new. And huge. And what it meant to me was that public radio did not love me… as much as I loved it for more than two decades. To me, it meant the complete loss of self-identity, because if I didn’t get this job, the job I was made for, then I was done.

A week later, and this is now early July of this year, I gave a speech to a gathering like this one… the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. I told my story — including all the ugly bits — the feelings of desperation, self-doubt, the bouts of elation tempered by the reality of being just Tess Vigeland… no longer “Marketplace’s Tess Vigeland.” At that point I figured I had nothing more to lose. So I offered my heart and soul on a platter to an audience of three thousand strangers. But in the end… I told them that I believe I am still remarkable… and that my story, though not wrapped up with a happy ending, was still in progress and that I am still searching.

When I finished, those three thousand strangers gave me a gift. They jumped to their feet and applauded and with that applause told me that my departure from an old identity didn’t mean I no longer had one. They didn’t give a crap that I was no longer “Marketplace’s Tess Vigeland.” They thought I was pretty cool just as me.

And that night I got an email from an executive editor at Random House who said he was in the audience for my talk and would I consider expanding on what I’d said. 11 days later I had a very generous book deal. My speech went viral on the Interwebs. I was asked to write a column about career transition for AOL. And I’ve heard from people around the world who’ve shared their stories of leaping without a net, and all the good and the bad and the ugly that goes along with that particular image of departure.

So…….. does that mean I’ve arrived somewhere? I’m not sure. My life now consists of interviews with people for the book, writing the book, telling those stories in a book — and that’s just journalism. It’s what I’ve always done. And I think there just may be something else out there that I’m going to do — though I have no idea what that might be. Now because of the book I have an extra year or so to figure it out… a year-long reprieve from figuring out what I want to do when I grow up. I think I’m still in the departure lounge awaiting my flight — but I have a lot to do while I’m there. And I like being there, because it gives me the time to think about where I want to go and anticipate what the journey could be like. I say could, because even with all the planning in the world, we never REALLY know how the trip will turn out. We just know that the departure means change. And I guess the best part of all this, at least for me, is that I am finally – FINALLY – comfortable with not knowing exactly what to expect when I land.

Two Weeks of Getting Back to Remarkable

So I gave this speech a couple of weeks ago. You may have read it, you may not have. If not, you can find it over on the “Speaking” page of this site. It’s a speech I delivered at the World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland, OR, about what my life has been like since leaving the public radio show Marketplace in fall of 2012. This post is what my life has been like in the 2-1/2 weeks since the speech.

First of all, let me just say that I had no idea — NO IDEA — that this speech would resonate with so many people. I wrote it over a span of two days, less than a week before delivering it (even though I had about six months to write it – I’m the world’s worst procrastinator). In fact, my biggest fear was that it would come off sounding self-important. After all, it was just my story. 35 minutes or so about… me. Who wants to listen to THAT? But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I wrote from the dark depths of my gut — maybe even my soul. I cried a few times as I wrote it. You can’t write the sentence “I don’t feel very remarkable anymore” without swallowing really hard and wondering if you’re crazy for admitting it to an audience of 3,000 total strangers. But I said it anyway. And lots of other really personal stuff. And I guess it didn’t come off as self-important, because all I got back from that audience was love and support. And that is nothing if not remarkable.

From that moment on — Sunday, July 7, 2013, around noon Pacific time — I’m tempted to say my life has been candy and unicorns. In truth, though, it’s been the same roller-coaster that I described in the speech, veering from “I AM AWESOME I AM TALENTED PEOPLE LOVE ME!!” to “OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE I STILL WILL NEVER WORK AGAIN!!” Only it’s happened on an even faster scale… from one day to another. Mostly because I can’t seem to see myself and my life the way others do… and anyone watching from the outside would say I’m nuts to think its been anything but a — bathtub full of kittens.

The good parts: all kinds of wonderful new friends both in real life and on social media; nearly 10,000 views of my speech after it was republished on the new literary website Medium; plaudits from fellow journalists; oh… and a book deal. See — I buried the lead. Yes, a top editor from Random House was in the audience at WDS and less than two weeks later I had a book deal. Those are the good parts. And they are slammin’ good parts. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

But the days in between those good parts have been filled with the same questions that filled the un-busy days since I left my job. The days I didn’t have a literary website wanting to republish my speech. The days I remembered I don’t have a full-time job anymore. Oh — and the day less than 48 hours after getting a book deal where I started to tell myself that there’s no way I’ll be able to top the speech, that I will disappoint friends new and old because the book won’t be as good as the speech, that some day soon someone will realize there’s been a mistake, and that I’ve already peaked. I couldn’t even give myself 48 hours of being remarkable.

But I guess that’s who I am and hopefully I’ll keep learning from that kind of mistake — because it is a mistake to not revel in the good.

I talked about all this today with my friend J.D. Roth, who wrote about our conversation here, and summed it up really well: “We’re afraid of failing to live up to the expectations of others, but we’re also afraid of failing to live up to our own expectations. That’s quite a trap.” Indeed. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. Read his piece — it’s excellent. We both wonder what it would be like to just go and work at Starbucks for a while. Hmm.

So there it is — WDS plus two weeks. Remarkable? Yes. Life-changing? Yes. Am I grateful? Undeniably. Am I fortunate? More than. But believe me… I’m still working on an answer to the question: What the Hell Are You Doing?!

(How’s that for my first-ever blog post? Maybe I should just delete it and start over…)

 

ADDENDUM July 26, 2013 — This morning Arianna Huffington tweeted and posted the speech on her Facebook page. I’ll put today in the win column.