My life is no longer a giant cloud of possibilities…so how do I make sure it’s all worth it?

Me and my dad, and a big Scarry book.

I never used to make New Year’s resolutions until I moved to San Francisco, away from home. Now I go back for a week or two over Christmas, and when I return, everything feels new and different and refreshed–maybe it has to do with being 40 degrees warmer? I don’t know. But it’s the perfect time to declare a change.

So I started making New Year’s resolutions. Like everyone else, I’ve stuck to some and I never started others. I resolved to read more during my commute, and I did. I resolved to cook one new recipe a week, and I didn’t. New Year’s resolutions are now one of my favorite parts of the holidays. The list-making, the hope, the determination to rise up above your guilt, the decision to be better instead of resigning to sameness.

And I think I have a really good resolution for this year: I’m going to write a book.

Lately I’ve been thinking about an article I read years ago called “A Short Lesson in Perspective” about work and life and death (you know, a light read) by Linds Redding, who worked in Advertising, like I used to, and wrote this before he died of cancer:

Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It wasn’t really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising.”

This notion of worth, which seems to be everywhere lately, from Radiolab podcasts to mustachioed woodworking actors, has me thinking about what it means to live a life that’s worth it to me.

I was recently joking with a friend about how we’re old enough now that there are some things in life we know we’ll never do. I’m never going to be a backup dancer, for example. I’ll never play an ingénue on Broadway. I’ll never become a jazz pianist. Some things I’ll never do because of my age or my looks, and some things I’ll never do because I’m honestly not taking any steps toward doing that thing (intro piano lessons, for example.)

When I was young, nothing was totally off the table. I had been told my whole life that “anything is possible” and “never say never” and “you can be whatever you want if you put your mind to it” (so please stop blaming Millennials for this mindset…we’re just doing what we’re told.) I knew I had time to change my mind, and if I suddenly decided to become an opera singer, I could grab the nearest Viking hat and set off. I allowed my future to be a giant formless cloud of possibilities.

But it’s time I came clean with myself: some things just aren’t going to happen. I’m not going to be a movie actress, because I have no plans toward taking acting lessons or moving to LA or auditioning for roles. And since no one actually gets discovered in grocery stores while singing along to the loudspeaker music (don’t care, still doing it), I’m not going to act with Meryl, I’m not going to thank her in my Oscar acceptance speech, she’s not going to blow a loving two-handed kiss to me from her seat when I look down at her with tears in my eyes, and she has tears, too, because she’s come to see me as a daughter-figure, and she’s just so proud of me.

I'd make a joke and she'd be all

I’d make a joke and she’d be all

It won’t happen. And that’s okay.

Because life is no longer about all the possibilities. I whittled those down for myself, just like everyone in the world does, because no one can really do ALL the things, not even Beyonce (oh I said it. Come and get me, Beygency). It’s no longer about all the possibilities happening some time in the future, it’s about my possibilities, the ones I haven’t whittled down, that could happen now.

Maybe I’m having all these thoughts because I turned 30 and I can already feel my frail, decrepit body crumbling around me. Maybe it’s because I have a coworker who keeps saying she expects me to do something big (I’m starting to suspect she’s in cahoots with my parents and their friends). Maybe it’s because I want to have a kid someday, and according to everyone in the universe, I won’t have free time after that happens. Maybe it’s because of the New Year, and the air of possibilities. Or maybe it’s because, more clearly than ever, I can see my way forward. I can see the things that I want to do that make me feel like my best self.

If I’m not going to win an Oscar, then what am I going to do? Writing a book is something I always saw in my future, but I’ve never taken steps toward doing it. It’s always been a “one day I’ll do that” thing. But, while I don’t have to win an Oscar to declare a worthwhile life, I do feel like I need to write a book.

So all that free time I guess I have, long coveted by new parents and grad students everywhere, which I often spend writing here, will now go toward writing a book. A Young Adult book, to be specific, with a funny female protagonist. That’s all I’ve got. So far so good, I think. Probably should watch 10 seasons of Friends to celebrate my hard work.

Will the book be good? No idea. Will it even get published? Not likely, from what I hear. Do I still envision the New York Times knocking down my door with their bestseller lists and my adoring fans begging me to write the sequel? Obviously.

While I focus my typing fingers on that endeavor, I hope you’ll forgive any lull. I’m not sure what will happen. I imagine I’ll keep writing here, if I find myself with something extra to say. But while I’m taking stock of my life and what I want it to become, I have one clear thing standing in my way, and it appears I need to write myself through it.

What I Learned About The Ad Industry By Leaving It


Dear Younger Emily,

You know what professions should be tough to do? Medicine. The Federal Bureau of Investigations. SEAL Team Six (you don’t know what that is yet, but trust me—they’re good).

Advertising should not be so hard.

You’ll leave Advertising on accident pretty soon—the job you find in San Francisco will broaden your horizons past copywriting and you won’t look back. You’ll have opportunities to go back, and each time it comes up, you’ll feel like Princess Jasmine in that final second before the sand engulfs her. You’ll remember all the jealous put-downs of other people’s work, the disrespect from recruiters, the windowless cubicles, and you’ll wonder why you felt like such a strong person for putting up with it.

Advertising is not the Marine Corps. You shouldn’t have to be tough-as-nails to do it—sure, you should get used to good ideas going nowhere because that’s just what happens as a creative person, but you shouldn’t have to be a certain caliber of toughness, you should just have to be a creative person with good ideas, and the place you work should do the rest to make sure those ideas happen.

You shouldn’t be desperate for attention. You shouldn’t have your emails ignored. You shouldn’t believe your next job will happen as soon as this one gets around to firing you. If your ideas aren’t getting produced but your ideas are good, someone should be wondering what they aren’t giving you, not waiting for the perfect opportunity to get rid of you.

You also shouldn’t be concerned about middle age while you’re in your twenties. If ad agencies want to show respect to their more experienced employees who have put decades of hard work into the company, they could send those people to conferences and classes and help them learn the changing space of Advertising, not work them to the bone to the very end and then fire them.

And for Christ’s sake, if all their employees are asking for a fridge, they should buy a goddamn fridge.

If you feel whiny or entitled for saying any of this, just remember that if the ad industry wants happy, creative people, they should foster happiness and creativity, not fear and self-doubt. Once you’re in tech, you’ll have to retrain yourself to notice bad experiences. When something is buggy or broken, you can’t just refresh or ignore it anymore, you’ll be expected to report the bug and help make the experience better for others. You’ll have meetings where your manager asks you what they can do to make your experience at the company better, and how they can help foster your creativity. Phrases like “just keep your head down and keep working” will no longer serve as acceptable words of encouragement.

Certainly ad agencies don’t need to spend tech-level money to keep their employees happy. I’m not talking indoor slides and swimming pools. I’m just saying: you deserve to be happy at your job, and you should demand more from your employer.

But right now, you’re still putting up with it. And why? To make cat food coupons? No. It’s because, tiny baby Emily, you’re still clinging onto the glimmer of hope that one day you’ll make a good ad—you’ll make “1984” or you’ll teach the world to sing or you’ll meet Jon Hamm. The thing is, spending years being miserable isn’t worth it. It might mean you won’t get laid off this year, but I make no guarantees. Advertising doesn’t value its employees, because there are a dozen other people waiting to take your place—more people, like you, who want mild fame without having to move to LA. So your employers don’t really care how they can help you get better, they’d rather just wait for you to mess up.

Maybe it’s only like this at the “dinosaur agencies” employing you. Maybe the newer, hipper ones have more respect for the people who keep their company running. But the main problem seems to be widespread: negativity is everywhere in that business, because everyone is worried that they’ll never make a good ad again and be laid off, and they’d rather put down other people’s work than admit their own jealousy and fear.

You don’t have to stay. You don’t have to come home crying because some misogynistic ad agency (the one who encouraged men to take back the power from women by wearing khakis) is making you write a sexist ad about cleaning supplies—they’re not making you do anything, because you are in control of your life.

You thought you would like advertising a lot more, and you just don’t. That doesn’t mean your measly years have been wasted—you’ve still learned a lot. You’ve learned about work ethic, about concise writing, about presenting your ideas. So now take that and go where you’re appreciated. Go where you can do something that matters. Go where you aren’t in constant fear for your job, despite all the work you do. Go and make things you can be proud of.

I want to thank this Slate article about women programmers for inspiring my post today. The man who wrote it said this: “One trite retort is ‘Well, your friend should’ve been tougher and not given up so easily. If she wanted it badly enough, she should’ve tried again, even knowing that she might face resistance.’ These sorts of remarks aggravate me. Writing code for a living isn’t like being a Navy SEAL sharpshooter. Programming is seriously not that demanding, so you shouldn’t need to be a tough-as-nails superhero to enter this profession.” Which is a different point than the one I’m making, but still an awesome one.

My Battle With Impostor Syndrome

(EDIT: I can’t figure out a better way to show this, so just FYI, this is the post that was featured on Freshly Pressed!)


Dear Younger Emily,

It’s very possible that you’ve always struggled with Impostor Syndrome. According to the Ada Initiative, “Impostor Syndrome is the (incorrect) feeling that you’re a fraud, that you’re not skilled enough for your role, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor eventually.”

You are always bewildered when you get a good part in a play, and nearly every occupation you dream for yourself is eventually disregarded because you can’t imagine yourself being successful at it.

But it’s not until you are laid off twice in your twenties that Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head.

Apparently many (if not most—dare I say almost all?) women struggle with Impostor Syndrome. Maybe for a man, being laid off twice would just be fodder for their determination to make it big. After all, Einstein got Fs in school, right? But for you, being laid off will become your greatest reason to doubt yourself.

Your first layoff will come in early 2009, when there are so many advertising layoffs, the big advertising rumor blog will create a separate Twitter account just to announce them all.

No one will hire you full-time for a while after that. Because no one hires anyone for a while after that. The world is waiting for the storm to pass. When a new agency hires you, you swallow your pride, let your Impostor Syndrome take the reins and decide it’s the best you can do. You accept the pay cut and the boring client.

Your second layoff will come after this new agency loses the boring client (along with its 800 million dollars). Yes, there are 100 people let go from the agency that day. But it will still sting, because they let you go and they don’t let other people go. And there had to be a reason, you decide. It must be because you’re not good enough, and they finally figured it out.

After the second layoff, a friend tells you that the agency is hiring again. You don’t even ask to be taken back because you’ve decided to move to San Francisco. But your friend says they asked for you already anyway. The agency refused to hire anyone back because they wanted fresh blood. You are only 26.

That very night when you get home, you’ll get this email from a Creative Director in San Francisco:

“I’m honestly looking for much stronger executions for someone who’s been in the business for a few years like yourself…My recommendation is to pair up with a strong AD [Art Director] on the side, and do a few really solid spec campaigns before you venture to the west coast.”

It’s not really the Creative Director’s fault. Maybe he’s never had Impostor Syndrome, so he thinks his strong opinions are helpful. But you will look around at your packed boxes and cry. Loudly. You will question nearly every decision you have ever made. You will still tell yourself that the two layoffs are not your fault, but it won’t do any good. You will question whether you will ever get a job again, and you will question whether you really deserve one anyway.

And then in less than a year, you’ll find yourself in San Francisco, doing a different kind of writing (one you like much better) at The Best Place To Work. Literally. It wins awards.

So maybe you aren’t really a fraud after all. Maybe there really is talent there, despite what that one guy said.

You will still struggle with your Impostor Syndrome in San Francisco. Chicago is a great city, but Chicago also made it fairly clear it didn’t want you there. Your success in San Francisco feels undeserved. It feels lucky. It feels like you’ve tricked people into thinking you could do the work, and one day they’ll figure out that you shouldn’t be there, just like the Advertising agencies figured out that you shouldn’t be there. But so far, San Francisco has wrapped you in its arms and quietly shushed you until those worries have quieted to a purr.

Still, every time you don’t get a lot of work done, every day you feel distracted, every time someone comes up with an idea that you hadn’t thought of, you feel like a fraud, one step closer to being found out.

But despite the negative voices, your twenties are full of accomplishments–great stuff that takes work. You land a kickass advertising job right out of undergrad when most people have to go to grad school. You turn an internship into a full-time job when HR says they aren’t hiring. You make things that people love. You write your little writer butt off.

Sure, there is luck involved. You get that first kickass advertising job after you pull the right name from a hat. But you create the life you live. You still move to San Francisco, despite the soul-crushing email. And a lot of people since then will be very happy with the work you do for them. So, while it takes you a long time to learn to just say “thank you” and accept the praise that other people give, you will do it. It will feel uncomfortable to smile and nod instead of shaking your head and protesting that you really didn’t do that much. But you will do it, because you realize it’s important to stick up for the things you do accomplish. It’s you who waded through all the negativity to a place that makes you happy. And the guy who wrote that email is stuck hocking other people’s lame products for a living.