A little piece of paper with the number “sixty-eight” written on it has been taped above the screen of my laptop for over three years now. The ink it was written with is so faded that it’s basically illegible at this point. It’s there to remind me to keep doing what I’m doing, to remind me to be patient.
The significance of that number dates back to one of the scarier moments of my writing career. I had just left a second interview for an editing position at a magazine. I knew the role wasn’t what I wanted for myself; it didn’t require writing or editing as much as it required organizing “branded content.” In other words, the job was to make advertisements look like stories. More importantly, it would have prevented me from writing elsewhere. My freelancing career wasn’t thriving, but I had made some strides. I had successfully pitched some good stories, but I was rarely offered work.
I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t see out my freelance career, so I found myself taking my name out of the running for the position in the middle of the interview. I returned to my apartment a bit nervous but ultimately confident in the logic behind my decision. Less than an hour later, I sat down to check my bank account—something I didn’t make a regular habit of in those days. I had $68 available to draw from. I don’t think I have to editorialize my reaction to you; it felt about exactly how you might imagine it felt. Rent was due in 11 days. I calmly closed my laptop, walked down the street, and bought myself a beer to hopefully ward off a panic attack. $65.
They say that failure is easier to accept when you know you gave your best effort. I don’t know if that rings true in the moments after you turned down what could have been your Plan B. For me, it hurt knowing I tried that hard. I’d put in the work. I’d written every day for five years at that point, in between shifts serving tables or after shifts managing a food truck park. I never took a weekend or a holiday off. I wasn’t difficult to work with. A lot of effort had been put in, and reality seemed to be suggesting it was all for naught.
The proof otherwise didn’t all happen at once, but it started to trickle in soon after. I had already been owed money from a few invoices, enough to cover my most immediate bills. Some pitches were accepted. An editor who had recently rejected my pitch reached out asking me to write about a different topic. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to keep my head above water. More importantly, I could trace it all back to specific efforts, actions or overtures that had felt like a waste of time until then. I could finally see that hard work as something other than feeling around in the dark. I was starting to see a foundation, and I just kept building it.
Now, I write about subjects I want to write about for publications I’d always wanted to write for. Few careers, goals or long-term projects come with step-by-step instructions. You’re not always going to see your foundation, but you can’t build anything without one. Here are a few things to try:
1. Create a broader definition of “productivity.”
One of the hardest things about not being able to see your foundation is struggling with the concept of wanting to be productive but not knowing how. It would be convenient if every career was made up of a to-do list that coincided perfectly with the ladder of success, but that’s rarely the case. The lull of not knowing whether your day’s work is going to pay off in any tangible way can lead to throwing your hands up and giving up on productivity altogether.
Combat this feeling by finding the productive things in your life and career that you legitimately enjoy. I love to read the work of great writers, and I also know that reading great writing can make me a better writer. Obviously writing makes me a better writer. So I don’t feel guilty when I’m reading a great story in the middle of the weekday. Or if I’m writing something that never gets published. Or if I’m exercising or meditating or do any number of things that keep me feeling good and resisting burnout.
I’m almost never doing anything I don’t consider productive, not because I’m hyper-ambitious or addicted to work, but because I’ve broadened my definition of what’s productive to include anything that inches me toward the things I want out of life.
2. Pump the breaks on “efficiency.”
You need to make good use of your time. You need to know how to prioritize deadlines. But ultimately you need ideas to stand out. Sometimes it’s fine to opt for the scenic route over the most direct one. A task-oriented lifestyle buys you time to do more, but setting a foundation can require being OK with the possibility that what you work on today might not benefit you in any financial or tangible ways.
I’m always working on five to six projects, pitching new ideas, hearing out other people’s ideas, and wondering what seemingly “unrealistic” goal might be the most realistic and worth giving a try. It took years for my foundation of drafts, emails and experiences to reap some money, more opportunities and more rewarding experiences. I still spend days working on stuff that might not lead to anything, but I cast a wide net. I can’t know for sure what’s going to lead to something great, but the best chance of getting lucky is treating everything you could possibly be excited to work on with the same energy and enthusiasm. It’s not a sunk cost to me. It’s just how I spend my workdays.
3. Kindness is a long-term investment.
Most of this advice amounts to trusting the process. Nowhere is that more important than with your relationships. The static nature of working toward a career leads to professional jealousy and frustration toward seemingly less talented people getting opportunities before you. It’s fine to feel those feelings. You can’t help it. But acting on them isn’t going to get you far.
I’ve worked with dozens of editors and some of those experiences weren’t great. But I’ve tried to only ever express gratitude toward my editors for the time and effort they committed to my writing. I send emails of congratulations when someone I’ve worked with gets a promotion or emails of support when they get laid off. I try to give advice to any young writer who asks for it.
Something that’s helped my career in an immeasurable way is being someone who doesn’t count favors. I don’t owe anyone any favors and no one owes me any favors. I just try to do right by people, and I can trace back nearly every opportunity to someone doing right by me.
4. The only way a foundation will fall down is if you walk away from it.
My father spent 40 years as a modern art curator, a job that he loved and excelled at. The only career advice he’s given me was very simple: “If you do something long enough, eventually you’ll get good at it, and someone will pay you for it.”
There hasn’t been a stage in my life where I seemed like the most likely person to achieve the thing that I wanted to achieve. I wasn’t the best writer at my high school. I couldn’t land the cool internships in college. If the career you want is a popular one, then you’ll always be crowded by peers. When I was 23, there were so many 23-year-olds trying to be writers. I don’t know how many I was better than, but that wasn’t really the difference. At 26, a lot of them had given up on writing, and I was still at it. It might not sound romantic to say that you just need to outlast your competition, but remember that you’ll be getting better in the time you’re trying to outlast them. I always thought my talents were being overlooked, but looking back, I think the time that I finally got my opportunities just so happened to coincide with the time when I was ready to handle them.
Photo by @MichaelModePhotag / Twenty20