Every dinner party started with this question, and for far too long, I allowed it to dictate the decisions in my life. I was too afraid to figure out what I wanted or who I wanted to be, because I didn’t want to have to go through the “difficult” stage of stumbling through my answer to the dreaded, “What Do You Do?”
It was the reason I went to college, and also the reason behind my beaming smile while reciting, “I go to Howard”. For five years, those four words defined me. I was a student, and my answer explaining “what I did” was widely accepted. I wasn’t exactly successful yet, but I was working towards it in a respectable way. As graduation approached I began to feel anxious, partly because my grades were in question up until the last minute, and also because I had no idea what I would be doing after graduation.
So many of my peers who’d graduated on time a year earlier were still jobless, and I could see the depression setting in. I could see their beam fading, as they struggled to find a new way to define themselves. It was as if the obstacle course had ended, and we were all looking around at graduation, curious as to what the hell we were supposed to do next.
We’d all been jumping through hoops, building resumes for over a decade, in preparation of college. And now that it was over, none of us seemed to really know what we wanted to do. Up until that point, I’d wanted to graduate college, and being a student had been sufficient proof of my ambition. Now what?
I was one of the lucky ones. I landed a job, which required a college degree, within weeks of graduation. Even better, it was in Los Angeles, so I was set. I was so ready for dinner parties, as my definition of myself was reinforced, and this time it was even more acceptable. My years of resume writing allowed me to easily upgrade my career as a glorified supervisor to a handful of employees at Target to “an executive in retail” in a matter of minutes.
I still hadn’t done the work to figure out what I wanted, but I knew that in order to do that, I’d have to give up my professional security. I’d have to be anxious anytime I met people and feared them asking what I did, as I stumbled through explaining how I was trying to find myself. Every time I imagined myself saying that, I was wearing beads in my frizzy, unkempt hair and my tie-dye shirt was beginning to fade. Just thinking about it made me insecure.
I was Amirah, who had left her small hometown in Ohio to live in DC and go to Howard. I moved to Los Angeles, and was quickly approaching a 6-figure salary. I lived in a beautiful apartment on Wilshire Blvd with a rooftop Jacuzzi and view of the Hollywood sign. I partied on Tuesday nights, hit the beach every weekend, and vacationed every other month. Who was I without it?
I’d love to tell you that I was courageous enough to walk away from it all, but that wasn’t really the case. I was kind of pushed into it. My career was ruining my life. The fabulous life I had created was fading by the day, as I exchanged my time for a paycheck. I’d become the best at doing the least at work, mastering getting in later than everyone to tell a lie about working late, only to race to my Honda Accord as soon as every other executive left for the day. I spent hours on the phone in my tiny office, plotting my escape from work, and planning just how much fun I’d have once I got out of there. The crazy thing is, if this is not you, I’m sure you know someone that does this. It’s actually more normal than crazy to live your life this way.
I couldn’t see myself doing that for 30 years. And if you’re not going to reach the top, what’s the point in climbing the ladder at all? Still afraid, I made myself a promise. Instead of living such an unbalanced life, I’d dedicate my off time to the things I really enjoyed, rather than just trying to over compensate for exchanging my weekdays for money. Have you ever seen the person that over plans their vacation because it’s the only free time they get? They book a tour everyday, have a list of things they must see, and foods they must eat. By the time they’re heading home, they need a vacation, because they’ve completely overdone it. I see it so much that I’ve actually begun to understand it. Because they’re unhappy with their life, they want to make their vacation so amazing, so exciting, so eventful, that it makes up for the other 50 weeks of the year. That was my regular life. I tried to do so much on my two days of freedom, to make up for the 5 days I’d traded in to have them. It was exhausting.
So rather than raging on my days off, I started bike riding and exploring. I started to feed my interests in writing and traveling until they were full-blown passions. Before I knew it, I was shifting. I was so into the positivity in my life that the negativity at my job began to make me sick, as if my body were rejecting it. I was diagnosed with situational anxiety, and told that the only way to relieve it was to quit my job. Seriously. It was either quit my job, or lose my sanity.
That began my journey to where I am now, the Amirah you know – the world traveler, and digital entrepreneur. And my newfound freedom (thanks to the 8-weeks of paid leave my doctor requested, and my job agreed to) did not eliminate my fear or necessary work. In fact, it made it more difficult, because I was also dealing with the idea that something was wrong with me. We’ll leave that for another blog post about how the thought of living in a housing development makes cringe. For now, let’s focus on me answering “What do you do?” after eliminating my titles and professional definitions.
In short, people looked at me like I was crazy. I was officially going against the grain, and everyone’s jerk reaction was to help me get back on schedule. It was as if I had fallen off the success boat, and everyone was reaching overboard to assist me with job referrals and recommendations. It took a while to admit that I didn’t want another job, even if it was in another city. I didn’t want to confuse change or fun with happiness or fulfillment. I didn’t want to exchange my time for money. It was that simple.
Truthfully, I didn’t really know what I did want, but I felt that identifying what I didn’t want was just as valuable. Without yet knowing the ‘how’, I found confidence in knowing that I was going to branch out on my own, whatever that meant. I remember being at a dinner party and being encouraged by a girlfriend to send over my resume for assistance in my job hunt. For the first time I found the courage to tell my truth, “No, I’m not looking for a job. I’m going to bet on myself.”
If you can imagine someone reaching down from a life boat to help someone that has jumped overboard, only to be told, “No, I’m fine out here”, then you can imagine her face after hearing me say I was going to bet on myself. She was completely baffled, and I found a weird sense of pride and confidence in that. It felt right, and from that moment on, I began to make fun of the “what do you do?” plague.
“I bike ride.”
“I help people.”
I pretended I didn’t know they were asking me what I did for money, and instead answered their question quite literally. It was amusing to me. Not only was I making light of a serious issue that once caused me anxiety, but I was also awarded with the look of bafflement that my answers always produced.
The truth is, there is no comfortable way to go against the grain. There is no safe zone, or way around it. You simply have to find comfort outside of your comfort zone, and confidence in living your truth. There is no reward for choosing to make your own path. There will be no parades. So you have to restructure your value system, and instead of finding joy and approval through others, you must give it to yourself.
For so long, I depended on my peers, family, and friends, to validate my success. Without ever questioning their scale or plans, I decided they were best for me, and jumped through every hoop to be the best at everything, regardless of the satisfaction it rewarded me. Now, I define success specifically for me. I am aware that living on an island in Cambodia is not every person’s definition of success. But as I rode in a tuk-tuk around Silk Island today, I felt calm, and genuinely at peace.
I’m writing this article from a hammock along the Mekong River, and when I told my Airbnb host that “I travel, while writing a blog, riding bikes, loving myself (and my husband), and helping people”, I wasn’t joking. And I wasn’t afraid or insecure. That’s literally what I do, not who I am.
There is a difference.