May 31, 2010

Maybe It's Me: If It Was Easy . . .

“Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” - Orison Swett Marden


I’ve been the marketing specialist for four different companies, including the largest alcohol corporation in the world; I spent the better part of my twenties being a beer model; and I’m an award-winning author of an independently published self-help book.

And I have no college degree.

Yearly, I have the privilege of speaking at a youth leadership seminar on a panel called “Bridging the Gap” where several of us speak to a room filled with the most brilliant sophomores from around the state about what their options might be after high school. There are usually four of us speaking . . . three of which tell them that a college degree is the only way to be successful.

And then I stand up, shrug, and say, “You don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to go to college.”

And then there’s deafening silence as those future movers and shakers drink in what I just said (meanwhile the other panelists – those college elitists – gasp in horror at the blasphemy that just spewed from my mouth). For most of these upstanding teens, it’s something they’ve never heard before. Watching some of their faces, it looks like they’re taking that first gulp of fresh air after holding their breath under water for so long. And so, for dramatic effect, I repeat myself:

“You don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to go to college.”

A college degree (which is really just a piece of paper) isn’t going to hand you success. These days, it isn’t even going to secure you a career. We live in such an unstable economic world, that there are no guarantees with anything anymore. It’s baffling to me, then, that there are people still preaching how important college is when were releasing all of these college grads, already deep in debt, into a jobless market.

Please don’t misunderstand: college is great option, I just don’t think it’s for everyone. Besides, we’re fortunate enough to live in an era where education is always going to be available. Whether it’s now, or in five years, or in fifty years – a college education will always be an option.

But travelling? Trying new and random things? Learning lessons only life and the living of it can teach you? These are things that get harder to do the deeper our roots go. The more we settle in and establish ourselves – whether that’s physically or mentally or emotionally (you’d be stunned at how much easier it gets to psych yourself out of something the older you get) – the harder it is to get up and go.

And explore.

And experience.

And discover.

And be.

To the chagrin of the other panelists, I then get to describe to these sophomores a little about my life and how awesome it’s been without college. As previously mentioned, I consider myself quite successful and I didn’t get to where I am because I went to college after all. A lot of mistakes, late night conversations, burritos, broken hearts, self exploration, adventures, laughter, and a hell of a lot of hard work has gotten me to where I am.

It starts when I was eight years old: I wanted to be a writer.

As the years went by, I discovered I also wanted to be a marine biologist, sports psychologist, environmental activist, apple orchard owner, and competitive eater, but the overwhelming desire to be a writer never left my heart.

When I was in high school I graduated as one of the top students in my class.  I was in National Honor Society, a varsity athlete, and volunteered through my school.  As a result, the expectations from the spectators of my life were high. And when I decided to go the state university instead, there was a massive backlash of outward disappointment and verbal abuse for “not doing more with my life.”

This stunned me. What more could I do with my life when the only option I had was college? Just because I didn’t go to Harvard I was already a failure? And furthermore, what did it matter to them what choices I made? I only went to college because I felt forced to. If I could have had it my way, I would have run-away and become a professional snowboarder, but that didn’t seem like a feasible option.

After a year and a half of college I realized I absolutely hated it. I hated sitting in classes like I had been for the majority of my existence. This wasn’t living. There was a world to be discovered outside those four very containing classroom walls that I was missing out on.

But, I had no money to travel abroad, so I began researching job opportunities. I stumbled upon a website called GreatAuPair.com. It’s sort of like a classifieds site for families looking for nannies. The families usually host their nanny, or au pair, and pay them a weekly wage to work Monday through Friday taking care of their children.

Despite the fact that I hated kids, I ended up taking advantage of this opportunity, because it meant I would be able to travel. So, I moved to Dublin, Ireland to be an au pair for a Spanish woman and her three-year-old Spanish speaking son.

I only had to pay for my flight; all of my other expenses were taken care of. I was given eighty euro a week to basically feed her son breakfast, take him to school, pick him up six hours later, and play with him for an hour or two until she got home. It was, in my opinion, the jackpot of all au pair jobs. I spent most of my days reading and aimlessly exploring Dublin.

While my contract was for ten months, the woman’s ex-husband ended up harassing us, so much so, that she gave up her dream job at IBM and decided to relocate back to the Canary Islands in Spain to live with her parents. While I was no longer needed, they felt bad having broken our contract, and as a result invited me to stay with them in Spain for as long as I wanted free of charge.

How could I say no to that?

I was the only American on the island, and a man who had self-taught himself the basics of English found me and asked if I would give him English lessons. So, every day from around 6 to 9pm, we would walk around the city, eat gelato, and speak in only English. I made twenty euro a week. I spent the rest of my days reading and laying on the topless beaches of Tenerife.

After three months, I missed my mom something fierce, and decided to go home.

(More people need to embrace that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with missing your Momma).

I was more confused than ever about my future, though, so, again I thought maybe college was where I needed to be.

The university I had been attending before I left had promised that upon my return stateside they would re-grant me my financial aid, because I was a) very poor to begin with; and, b) had never had less than a 4.0 in my three semesters. But, when I tried to go back they refused to give me the money (even after reapplying for financial help) they had promised, saying “things had changed” and they no longer could help me.

Nothing had changed.

Except that I had taken a semester off.

And clearly, they weren’t impressed by that.

Can that actually happen? Can college’s actually lie to you like that?

Sure they can.

So, for College Attempt #2, I ended up going to a different university to major in “Culinary Arts.” I didn’t get a great financial offer, but I got a manageable one. After one semester, though, I realized that I really did absolutely hate college. And cooking.

So, I quit college again.

I had enough college credits to work as a substitute teacher. So, I applied and began immediately subbing at the old high school I went to. Which was both awesome and terrible. Awesome, because I knew the ins and outs of the place; terrible, because all the teachers who expected so much from me were even more disappointed once they had found out that I had quit college twice, and was back at my alma mater as nothing more than a degree-less substitute teacher.

But, the opportunity to travel arose again, and I jumped on it. How could I say no? After all, life is short, and there’s a lot of world to be seen. I would work for a few months as a sub, and then I would take the money I made and travel the Pacific Northwest. Then I would work a another month or so, before leaving to travel the South. Then I would work a few more months and travel Canada.

I eventually stopped travelling (because I had exhausted my refunds), and noticed that I now had loads of free time after getting out of work. Modeling and acting had always intrigued me and it was something I hadn’t tried, so I used that spare time to my advantage.

I found an amazing photographer, and ended up starring in a bunch of student and independent films. I found a classified ad on Craigslist.com (an excellent resource, by the way) for The Jack Daniels Corporation. They were looking for models to go to its annual Adult Spring Break week in Killington, Vermont where events like poker tournaments and winter carnivals all sponsored by Jack Daniels took place. I sent them my picture and resume, and was chosen as one of the girls. It was an all expenses paid trip.

While I was there I met a lady who worked for a marketing and promotional company based out of Boston. She gave me her card, and when I got home from Killington, I immediately emailed her to tell her how lovely it was to meet her and was she currently hiring? She ended up giving me her me a job as a beer spokes model with her company. I traveled New England working with Guinness, Twisted Tea, Smirnoff, Sam Adams, Heineken, Dos Equis, and of course, Jack Daniels being a promo girl.

And I was content! I remained a substitute teacher by day and a beer spokes model by night. It seemed like I had found a groove I fit well into.

But then, the opportunity to move to England arose. My best friend’s family were from there and had invited me to move in with them to work my book. They would take care of all my expenses, with the understanding that I would write every day like it was a job, and when my book was finished I would have to go home.

Again, how could I say no?

When I got back from England, I went back into beer spokes modeling since it paid so well. I had always made sure to be polite and help the alcohol companies in anyway I could (especially with last minute promos), and as a result of that common courtesy I ended up getting a major job offer as the Northern New England marketing specialist for Guinness. And while they originally didn’t want me (because I had no college degree, which clearly meant I was under qualified), the company took a chance anyway since I was one of the best beer spokes model in the region (pretty and smart is a dangerous combination). And in the end, I was the best marketing specialist for Guinness n the country – there were twenty of us nationally.

Because of that opportunity, I got a job as the marketing director of a gelato company (they created the job specifically for me). Because of that opportunity, I got a job as the marketing director and customer service manager of an eco-friendly jewelry company (they created the job specifically or me there, as well). And because of that opportunity, I got a job as the marketing assistant to a technology company that allowed me to have time to continue to market my book.

The book, by the way, was written while I was subbing. Every day I would write while my students were working on their assignments or watching movies. Eventually, I realized, a book was beginning to come together. And, I used the money I made from that job with Guinness (which paid ridiculously well) to publish my book, which has gone on to win a plethora of indie book awards and is opening new doors for me every single day.

And here we are.

I believe everything happens for a reason. In my very young life, so far, one thing has led to another, which has led to another, which has led to another. The key, I think, to being successful no matter if you're travelling or looking for a job or whatever adventure you may find yourself in is just a simple formula of one part networking, one part follow-through, one part being in the right place at the right time, and one part luck.

And I stand by that.

I’m a dreamer. I always have been, and I hope I always will be. I believe, as cliché as it might seem, that nothing is impossible.

If you want to be a vagabonder, be a vagabonder. If you want to be an organic farmer, be an organic farmer. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. But whatever you do, do it with moxie. There are plenty of options after high school, after college, after whatever chapter of life you're in now that you can have or do or be if you’re focused, driven, persistent, passionate, patient, not lazy, not easily frustrated, or not easily stressed.

Of the utmost importance, though, is you gotta have faith in yourself.

I'm thankful I traveled when I did, because I certainly don't travel as much anymore.  And I'm also thankful that I now have the opportunity to satiate the eight year old in me that got what she wanted.  Is following your heart easy?  No.  There are frequently days that I have to force myself to actually sit down to write or research, because I continually want to give up and go outside and play when things don’t go my way.

And things don’t always go my way.

There are days that make me wonder why you I didn’t just do what everybody else did, and went (or stayed) in college. Following the mainstream can’t be that bad if everybody else is doing it. Right? Days that make me want to have a normal, boring job.

But, then, if I keep pushing myself, there are days that make the grind, the extremely hard work, and the abundance of effort entirely worth it. Little victories that remind me why it is I’m trying to do what I’m doing.

After all, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

“Maybe it’s me,” I tell the sophomores, intently listening to the end of my story, “but I consider myself very successful. While I might not be famous, or powerful, and while I certainly don’t have a lot of money, I’m happy. And I’m healthy. And I live a life filled with love. And I became what I always wanted to be: a writer. And if that isn’t successful, then I don’t know what is.”


(Writer's note: this was originally meant to be the introduction to a new book I was working on entitled "If It Was Easy: 101 Options After High School." However, I ended up partnering with a non-profit company called Navigating the Real World, an excellent resource for people in their teens and twenty's deal with important life decisions and challenging circumstances, and basically gave them use of whatever they wanted from the book, which was really a major work-in-progress anyway.  Better to see the work I did be used then sit idly on my hard-drive!).