By all standards, I was leading a successful life in New York City: I worked in fashion, lived in the city, went to exclusive parties and clinked wine glasses with other ambitious, career-oriented people.
Inside, though, I wanted to scream. I was deeply unhappy and didn’t know what to do, but quitting a full-time job didn’t seem like an option because I didn’t know what I would be quitting for. Being unhappy wasn’t reason enough: I wanted to leave because I was moving on to something else.
The decision to leave it all behind to follow a childhood passion happened when I least expected it. I was sitting at my desk one day, working on research for an upcoming campaign and one of the people involved was in a creative field I had dabbled in as a kid. As I stared at his website for a full five minutes as everything around me went black, voices faded to the background, I developed tunnel-vision and I realized in that moment what I needed to do with my life. The revelation hit me with total clarity: This is what I need to do. I have to go back to my first love or I’ll still be doing this when I’m thirty and be miserable.
Accepting it was hard at first, though. This was my first job out of college and it filled all the metrics for being an amazing one: great people, a first rung on the career ladder, good salary, a resume-builder with even better perks (free clothing, a gym discount and Italian language classes, to name a few), health insurance and best of all it had let me move out of my parents’ home. I had financial freedom and career and social mobility in one of the most popular cities in the United States and I was debating giving some, or all of it, up to pursue something I didn’t know much about beyond enjoying it as a kid.
I thought long and hard about whether this was something I really wanted to do or if it was just a phase, so I took a refresher course at a nearby university.
Any doubts or hesitations I had were washed away within the first five minutes of class. It was as though some part of my brain had woken up from a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber while listening to the professor and when I talked to other students and took notes. Neurons fired all over the place and I felt inspired, alive. The air around me crackled with energy and I practically skipped out of class. Yes, I thought as I swiped my subway card at the station. This IS it. I’m doing this.
In those following few weeks, Stage One of My New Career came into fruition: take more classes, bulk up my savings account while slowly working my way into this newly chosen field, then leave. I ruled out graduate school at the time because I knew experience was the best teacher. While I enjoyed taking classes, taking a full two years off to only study would not only be prohibitively expensive (I wanted to stay in New York City, which I naïvely considered the center of the universe at the time) but also didn’t satisfy my raging thirst to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty as soon as possible.
It was a fool-proof plan and I wound up quitting in less than two years. I hadn’t hit my savings goal of $10,000, but between mounting job frustration and an eagerness to drive forward, everything came to a head and some time in the fall, I gave one month’s notice.
I was relieved, excited and a little scared for the future but knew with absolutely certainty I made the right move. I landed an internship with the very person whose website I had been staring at when I had my eureka moment and picked up a part-time hostessing gig at a popular and touristy restaurant downtown (while I had a safety net, I didn’t want to drain it in three months, either). Everything was falling into place.
I was genuinely happy for the first time in two-and-a-half years even though juggling work, classes and the internship ran me ragged. I worked seven very long days every week for almost a year. Sneakers replaced the high heels. I no longer had my gym membership and didn’t see a doctor for six years. I put on a few pounds (ok, ten) and chugged beer. But I had found something I loved doing – and still love doing – and wouldn’t have traded places with my previous self for all the free things and health insurance in the world.