I’m at a coffee shop, and a woman is trying to push a newborn in a stroller out of a heavy door while balancing a very full ceramic mug of coffee in a saucer.
A guy in shorts and a t-shirt slides behind her to hold the door open. She’s immensely grateful. The guy says, “I have a nine-month-old at home,” and nods at her understandingly.
Before I had kids I would have either ignored this transaction or, if I happened to notice it, thought, “Why does that woman even bother leaving the house?” Now I want to jump up and hug both people and say, “I have a kid, too!”
This is because I’m part of this tribe of people called “parents.” To outsiders, we’re just people who have kids. But internally, we identify as individuals who are having every part of our lives ritualistically stripped away by an entity (or entities) that will not leave us alone. Ever.
The day I decided to quit drinking wasn’t particularly dramatic. I had been to a couple of low-key holiday parties the night before, and aside from drinking too much wine, I hadn’t done anything I regretted. But in the wee morning hours I woke up with a splitting headache, and by noon I still felt queasy on the way to brunch. “This is enough,” I thought.
Eleven months earlier I had scribbled out a list of goals for 2016, one of which was sheepishly penned in at the very end: no hangovers. When I wrote it, I thought sticking to the resolution would mean moderating my drinking. By the end of 2016, I realized the only way to achieve my goal would be to quit drinking altogether.
I joke sometimes that I want to be “internet famous.” Not famous-famous, I don’t want to be recognized on the street. I just want to be popular in a niche. When I write something, I want thousands of people to read it. I want to be invited to speak at conferences and be interviewed on podcasts.
Really I just want to be known for something.
But I have a problem. Every time I come close to some sort of professional recognition, to having people understand what I do and know me as someone who’s pretty competent in it, I quit.
This is hard to admit publicly because saying it exposes me to a certain professional vulnerability. Who wants to hire a surefire quitter? But I’ve come to a point where I’m tired of convincing myself and those around me that whatever I’m working on now is the answer, the endpoint, the culmination it all. I don’t want to keep struggling to fit everything I’ve ever worked on into a tidy forward-moving trajectory because, to be totally honest, that high wire act is exhausting. After a 15-year career history that includes some notable nonlinear explorations such as running a home design blog, dog walking, theater marketing and working at a web design company, I’ve come to recognize some patterns in my professional life that I can no longer ignore.
I am proud to say that I have spent a considerable amount of the last two years sober. I went full months (January, July and October of 2015 and January of 2016) without alcohol, and in June of 2016, I stopped drinking for what I thought would be “for good.” That lasted about three months, but by December I stopped again and this time sought support by going to a handful of AA meetings. I also read a lot of books and listened to a lot of podcasts about sobriety, which is why I recently went back and listened to Sarah Hepola, author of the drinking and sobriety memoir Blackout, interviewed on the Home podcast. The hosts, Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker, asked Hepola about how she quit, and Hepola explained it was a process that took her about 10 years.
“I quit for a year and a half when I was 25,” she explained, then she went back to drinking. Later, she sought the help of an alcohol therapist rather than submit herself to an AA meeting. Finally, she bounced in and out of AA until making a final commitment to it and getting sober for good five years ago.
My chiropractor started his own practice when he was 30. He never wanted to do anything else with his life. He finished chiropractic school, then worked for someone else, then opened his own shop. That was 19 years ago.
I’ve been going to him for 17 years. I’ve seen his business evolve from its rocky beginnings into a thriving practice. Our small talk has evolved from weather and weekend plans to deeper topics: I like asking him about the crazy stuff that happens, like has anyone ever had a sobbing meltdown in here? Or, have you ever treated patients that knew they were terminal? I’m curious what it’s like to work on people in such an intimate way.
I’m also curious about something else. Yesterday at my appointment I asked, “Do you have any friends who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives?”
Hah, yes, he says. He does. One of his friends is 58, lives rent-free in a building his parents own, and is currently helping the Indian couple who moved in down the hall expand their waterproof lotion business. Which, my chiropractor estimates, he’ll probably do for two years until he finds something else that interests him.
If a startup pivots in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?
No. That’s why, when you decide to move your business in a different direction, you need a handy template to explain that thought process to your total addressable market via your company blog.
It looks something like this.
A couple of months after I read Adam Davidson’s article What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work, I quit my job. I realized that how I wanted to work in tech and in entrepreneurship was how my friend Meena works on film: she finds projects she likes, she attaches herself to them, those projects go out into the universe, she puts them into a portfolio, and she continues to call herself a director of photography. No affiliation.
I grew up loving film and wanting to do film. I think 8th grade me understood that I didn’t have the ability to focus on one project for the rest of my life and I wanted to work on giant collaborative projects that had the potential to make people (me) famous.
Two years ago this week I was working at a tech company at 1871, Chicago’s tech co-working space, and I commented on a post about the lack of women in tech on the Built in Chicago forum. An editor from Crain’s Chicago Business reached out to me to see if I would expand on my ideas and write an editorial for the magazine about why I thought there weren’t more women working in Chicago tech. Why they didn’t ask the original post author, Reva Minkoff, I don’t know, but I think the editors were specifically interested in my somewhat unbridled remarks that 1871 was filled with dudes. If technology was going to be the next big industry in Chicago, they prompted me, wouldn’t it be a pity if it turned out to be just another white boys’ club like so many industries that have come before it?
I come up with business ideas in the shower. On the airplane. Wherever. Each one seems really great when it occurs to me but I eventually get tired of mulling it over and when it loses steam, I add it to the dreams deferred pile.
I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Probably be a business owner. The problem is, I have so many business ideas, I can’t decide which idea to start. Which idea defines me as a person? Which one marries my skills with my passions, but also make sense financially? Should I launch a line of practical, colorful children’s clothing? Or open a co-working coffee shop?
In 1993, I had a seventh grade English class essay assignment to “Invent a New Product.” The product I invented was Netflix.
My teacher didn’t think this was brilliant. She gave me a ‘B’ because what I’d invented “was a good idea, but not a product.” Without the proper encouragement, I diligently completed the rest of the year’s worth of assignments in the Mead notebook, wrote some sophomore’s name in hearts on the teal front cover, and never thought about it again until twenty years later when I was working as a marketing manager for a tech startup and I happened upon it when cleaning my apartment.
Holy shit, I thought. I invented Netflix.