The One About Life, Love, and the Tasering of Happiness

First, please read this most excellent post by Libba Bray. The entry is a response to a reader (a senior in high school) who asked for some advice on whether or not she could actually live the life she wanted to live. Libba’s response, as usual, is honest and incredibly true. I know that many of my readers are in their final years of high school or college, and are struggling with the same issues (what do I want vs. what my parents want for me and what do I want to be vs. what is actually viable come to mind). Many upon many of you are writers and hope to make your living as a published author one day, or are aiming to work full time in a creative field. Some of you have even emailed to ask about how I ended up working in publishing, or how I got started writing novels in college. I’ve been pondering happiness recently—about how to define it, what it’s worth, and how to obtain it. I think because I’ve always (in one form or another) struggled with depression and my own vicious sense of perfectionism, happiness, to me, has always been something I’ve believed I’ve needed to seek out or fight for. This manifested itself in me being incredibly goal-driven. I spent most of high school and college trying to convince myself that if I could just get X, or if I could just be Y, I would be happy. Like, buying that dress or working my butt off to get that "A" were ever going to to be able to "fix" me. Temporarily lift my mood, maybe, but let me tell you--there are no easy fixes for dark, angsty feelings. There are still days that I feel like I have to chase happiness down Fifth Avenue and taser it into submission just to get through the rest of the week.

I think the worst summer of my life was probably the summer between Junior and Senior year of college. I was studying to take the LSATs, even though I knew—knew in a very deep, real way—that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I hadn’t even taken the thing yet, and I was already making escape plans for myself. Like, “Oh, well, I can just work as a lawyer long enough to pay off my school loans, and, maybe by then, I’ll have published enough books to support myself as a full-time author.” Do you see the danger in that? Making concessions for your life, even though you know you’ll be miserable? I was only entertaining the idea of going to law school because I thought it would make my parents happy and proud of me. Well, guess what? They were already happy and proud of me, they just wanted to make sure I was going to be able to provide for myself.

See, something else I’ve been thinking about lately is this: there is a HUGE disconnect between the thinking of my generation and my parents’. My dad’s view has always been summed up as, do something that makes you a lot of money, then retire and do what you really want to do. While there are many, many people my age that have internalized that line of thinking, there’s also a huge portion of us who really believe, I want to do what makes me happy, and the rest of it will fall into place. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That the former ideal raise the latter one? A part of me wonders if I had that mentality because my parents worked so hard to provide for us and I had the freedom to entertain the idea of working for love and not the dinero.

I was on my second to last section of the LSAT when—out of nowhere—this single thought screamed through my head: I DO NOT WANT TO BE A LAWYER. To be a little cliché about the whole thing, it was suddenly like breaking the surface of an ocean I didn’t realize I was drowning in. I sat back and looked around me, and I couldn’t even remember how I got to that point, only that I didn’t want to go any further.

But the summer between Junior and Senior year wasn’t the worst because my head steered me clear of a J.D., it was the worst because suddenly I was drowning in indecision and uncertainty. I’m not one for surprises—I never have been, and I never will be. I hated that I didn’t have a plan, that I couldn’t come up with some equally lofty future career that might potentially ease my worried dad’s heart. Because, the thing is, I wanted to be a writer, and very few people can make solid careers of their writing. Writing is one of the most uncertain, punishing careers you can choose for yourself. It’s filled with long hours, stress, agonized waiting, rejection, bad pay, bad reviews, and absolutely no guarantee you’ll be able to keep doing it in ten, twenty years. Some have asked me why I didn’t write full time out of school—well, yeah, that would have been amazing, but how could I do that to myself? To graduate and spend a year or two hoping to sell another book and then enter the work force with a gap on my resume? That didn’t seem smart to me, either.

Let me tell you, it was some kind of divine intervention that I discovered my school offered a scholarship to the Columbia Publishing Course. Things fell into place for me. I hadn’t ever really considered working on the other side of publishing before, but the universe seemed to be nudging me in that direction, and I decided to just open myself to it. That’s not to say I didn’t make concessions (life, in its worst moments, sometimes boils down to one concession after another). For instance, you all know how I feel about New York City. You know that (or maybe you don’t?) the starting salaries in the publishing industry are, in a word, laughable. I was just given a small raise, but I’m about 99% sure most of that raise was to account for the increased costs of living in NYC this year and next. (The monthly subway fare jumped from $89 to $104 and my rent for this year went from $920 to $940 or so—and I share that apartment with two other girls!)

But… I’m happy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still super nervy about the state of the industry and whether or not book piracy and ebooks will destroy publishing and I miss my family all the time, but I think listening to myself was the only way I was ever going to be able to step off of the dark, gnarly roller coaster I let myself be strapped into. My dad loves to remind me (not in a mean way, I should add) that I’m in the bottom 10% of earners in the entire United States and living in its most expensive city, but it’s worth it, for me, because as bad as things get, I still have this small sliver of happiness in knowing that I made the right decision for myself.

This is the thing I told my younger brother when he was trying to decide between continuing to pursue a business degree or make the switch to education (aka, what he really wants to do): there are many different ways of measuring success, but you are the only one that can really determine what will make you happy. If there’s something you want to do, and you want it badly enough, you will find a way to make it work. Money always makes things easier, of course—you learn that pretty fast when you suddenly find yourself in the position of supporting yourself—but there are so many other worthwhile forms of currency.

There is really no one else out there that knows you as well as you do—listen to yourself.