I was honored to speak at this year's LIFE Camp, a week-long opportunity for high school students interested in entrepreneurship at my very own alma mater. The following is my story.
There is a lot of irony in me sitting in the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University today. You see, I graduated from Susquehanna back in 2009, but I was a Creative Writing major, and the only time I stepped foot in the Sigmund Weis School of Business was during my first semester, and I can tell you it was very much an accident. I can remember someone of authority noticing my obvious lostness, wandering the neat halls with an aloofness that has always defined me, frazzled hair and unkempt outfit, leather journal in hand. Certainly I must have been lost. This person helped redirect me to where I was supposed to be going, ushering me out the glass doors of the business school in the September heat. Had I known the next time I would step foot in this building almost ten years later I would be giving a talk to high school students about how I've succeeded in my own business, I would have needed at least two minutes to regain my composure from complete hysterics. You see, I was always the wild one, the one who had a hundred thousand unorganized dreams, no pause button, no rational side, no logistical nature. I acted on impulse and had my head in the clouds. I was quick to skip class to lay by the river and slow to understand the importance of square roots. Logistically, rationally, I should never be here across from you today. The beauty of that defiance of odds is not about any luck that I fell into, or knowledge I learned in books, or even a solid business plan; it is in the way I followed the trailings of my own meandering heart, the way I traced its curves and its detours, its unpaved paths, its impulsive nature, and never once questioned it if maybe we should stop and ask for directions.
When you're twenty-two, people like to ask you really intense questions like "what are you going to do with your life?" and "what jobs are you applying to?" and "have you thought about graduate school?" I'm sure many of you are already getting similar ones. These questions always made my skin curl because I didn't really know the answers to any of them. But family, friends, even strangers, all want answers. The answer I'd come up with that I tried for years to believe was that I would go to graduate school after college to get my MFA in writing so I could teach at the college level. An answer like that really shuts people up. They'd nod in approval and I'd sigh in relief to be off the hook, at least until the next person came along. I got really good at saying that sentence with confidence all those years, and I said it so much I began to really believe it myself.
When I think back on these last seven years, there are two pivotal points that I truly believe altered the course of my life. Had these two events not occurred, I would be on a very different path than I am today. Not necessarily a bad path, but a different one. The first was that fall of my senior year of college. I had all of my applications finished for graduate school and I was going to meet with my mentor and advisor, Glen Retief, to ask him to write my recommendation letters. Sitting in his office surrounded by walls of books, he said he would be honored to recommend me, but had I ever read Bob Shacochis' 'The Importance of Living Abroad" ? I had not. Casually, he printed me out a copy and sent me on my way. I read Bob's short essay on my walk back to my dorm twice. When I got inside I walked over to my desk and, with my forearm, slid the stack of applications into the trash can in one swift movement. Shacochis writes:
“When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?
And I don’t mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. ‘Put out,’ as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, ‘into deep water.’ A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT’S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, ‘Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.’"
Somehow, Glen knew even before I did that my neat, practiced response to what I was going to do with my life was inflated with false confidence. Or maybe he didn't. Maybe he had absolutely no idea, and that his reference to Shacochis's essay was by complete chance. Either way, I knew in that moment I needed to listen to the small voice inside of me I'd been stuffing back down into my throat. I didn't know what I wanted to do - that was the absolute truth - and it was the answer I was going to go with. But not knowing at twenty-two is about equal to telling people you have recently been diagnosed with leprosy. Not knowing was terrifying and exhausting and it didn't make people nod their heads in approval. It made them uneasy and uncomfortable and often times judgmental. I know now at twenty-nine that not knowing is a universally scary thing for all human beings; those people quizzing me would have probably froze too if the questions were flipped onto them, even at fifty years old. What I wish people would have asked me was what makes my heart sing, what kinds of things drive me; what are my passions?; this is what I try and ask young adults now, for these questions are much more useful.
And so I graduated without a firm plan. I stood up there on that stage next to rows and rows of my peers ladened with sashes and pins and ribbons, all of them with carefully practiced answers, many with jobs lined up for the Monday after graduation, and I remember feeling so inadequate. If I could pull myself back in time, if I could clamber through the tunnel of years and hold the face of my twenty-two year old self in my hands, I would tell her how proud I am of her. I would tell her she's taking the first step into becoming herself: admitting the things she doesn't know, and having courage to speak those words aloud in an unforgiving sea of sashes and answers and people who were just as afraid as I was but couldn't find their voices to admit it.
I decided to spend a year doing AmeriCorps - the domestic Peace Corps - primarily because it wasn't permanent. Because I didn't know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life at age twenty-two (really, who does?) I yearned for a place to be for the year so I could buy myself more time to figure it all out. My position was in Lewisburg, a town just down the road from here, at a small nonprofit that specialized in outdoor recreation. They had a tiny office in an old barn building, three full time employees, no dress code, and an extremely overweight office cat named Kitty Mow Mow. If I were to work in any kind of office, I remember thinking, this was the one for me.
And so I did. The year went quick. I lived in a second story walk-up studio apartment and ate a lot of canned tuna. And soon the time came and went for graduate school applications. I filled most of them out but never could muster up the Send button once again, and the time came when my neat year of AmeriCorps ended. I had always been hungry for travel - Jack Kerouac's On the Road was my most precious possession - and so I decided I would take to the road and live, for a time, a nomadic life. Maybe a year of that would cure me of my inability to sit still, to be happy with what everyone else had, I thought. Knowing these dreams of mine, my boss bought me a book as a parting gift that August. It was called - get ready for this - Delaying the Real World. I read it in one gulping mouthful, in the span of six or so hours, and again, for the second time, my life was launched down another path, and I spun like a rodeo bull just freed into the beautiful unknown.
I could recite the whole book to you, but the passage that sums up what drove me the most to follow my yearnings for travel was this:
"I take issue with this notion that leaving the conventional path to follow some personal dreams and adventures is somehow a 'a year off.' Doing something you'd always wanted to do is actually a 'year on.' And I think many people who are brave enough to start doing it for a year, end up leading a 'life on' instead of a 'life off.' This is not 'delaying' the path. This is the path. This IS the real world."
I bought a one way ticket to the Big Island of Hawaii that September. I had a three month stint lined up in a work exchange program at a rustic yoga retreat center. I would work twenty five hours a week in their housekeeping department in exchange for food and housing. I was twenty-four years old with a Bachelor's degree, living in a tent and cleaning toilets. I was never happier.
Run almost entirely by volunteers, Kalani was a place plucked from my daydreams. I spent those months eating too much macadamia nut ice cream, snorkeling in warm ponds, watching whales migrate, dancing barefoot. I got staph and ringworm from kissing feral kittens and three months turned into four and then five and then six. I turned twenty-five. For the first time in my entire life, I was completely surrounded by over one hundred kindred spirits: twenty-somethings who also had no interest in entering the "real world," thirty-somethings stopping on the island in between summering in Alaska and spending spring picking the fruit trail in New Zealand, fifty-somethings who'd spent their lives traveling, collecting stories like precious stones, who never once asked in a condescending tone what my plan was. There, in the jungle, in my damp tent, I bloomed. My heart was, finally, home.
But I knew I couldn't stay cooped up in that utopia forever. I missed the Pennsylvania forests and the fall, my family and my friends. My time at Kalani served me well, and I left knowing I would bring that mindset of individuality with me. I learned, most importantly, that when we are driven by what we love, we can never go wrong. By this time I had fallen hard and fast for photography; I ached for capturing people in their raw, unposed environments and I was eager to pursue it back in Pennsylvania. Kalani's on staff photographer, Karen, spent many nights with me in the staff lounge teaching me everything she knew about how to start a business. I had a crumpled, well-loved spiral-bound notebook with her handwritten words of wisdom, and I felt like I could conquer anything. But like bubble wrap, that confidence and assurance popped little by little over the course of the next few years. I was no longer surrounded by the love and compassion of other like-minded souls; the condescending questions of jobs and graduate school took no time at all to begin to haunt me again. Most people don't understand entrepreneurs - there is too much unpinned, up in the air, in the clouds, and it makes them nervous. But I trekked on. After Kalani, full of confidence and excitement, I moved back to Lewisburg and took a job as a nanny in order to fund my new business. For the next several years, I changed diapers by day and built my business by night.
Now, please let me clarify that I am not encouraging each one of you today to live in a jungle and turn your nose up at business plans. I'm simply telling you my story, exactly how it went, precisely my struggles and my successes. I don't believe they were neither wrong nor right. They just were, and I would not be honest with you if I told you anything different. Would it have been easier if I had sought out help? Yes. Would I be more successful now if I took night classes in marketing and finance? Absolutely. For you to understand me as a human, you must know that I'm very stubborn, and I've always done things the hard way. My mother maybe says it best: slowly, and in your own way, you are finding yourself.
So my journey involved a lot of dirty diapers. It is what it is. I hope to God yours does not. What I do hope yours involves, though, is a willingness to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to pursue your heart's innermost desire. At twenty-nine, I know that I certainly mastered what my friend Rachel calls "the gritty life." I was able to forgo a large paycheck in order to pursue my dream. I went without internet and cable, a new car, new clothes in order to save my money for my business. I continually had to tell people "I work as a nanny," when they asked what I was up to these days. I thought people looked at me funny when I responded with "I don't actually know what I'm going to do with my life," well imagine their faces when they find out you're changing diapers for a living with a Bachelor's degree, after you've recently returned from a yoga center where you cleaned toilets and lived in a leaky tent for half a year. If you desire to get a good reaction out of people, try that. I can tell you honestly that most days I felt humiliated, but so many think I must have been completely unbothered by those reactions from strangers, friends, and even family, that I never felt embarrassed or inadequate or worried, but I can tell you that I felt all of those things, and in an overwhelming abundance. The difference was that I continued on in spite of it. I was able to swallow my ego and choke out the words "I work as a nanny" than become overwhelmed with it all and cave in, taking a nine to five at some magazine where I would be using my degree, pleasing the pressing people with questions. The latter would have gotten me nods of approval; nine to five jobs make people feel really secure. But if there was one thing Hawaii taught me, it was that I was done feeling like I needed to appease everyone else. After all, I didn't want to be the type of person who impressed the people in tight suits, who never ran barefoot in a field or took the long way home, who thought it was a waste of time to spend six months living in a jungle. Those were never my people, and I didn't need their acceptance. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was going to make it in my business, and it didn't matter to me what anyone else thought, or how many diapers I needed to change in order to get there. By this point I was learning, too, that the people after those kinds of questions were usually discontent in their own jobs and life. I had friends who chased paychecks, friends who worked endless hours in offices they hated, friends who bypassed gritty jobs they loved for ones much more accepted by society. By this point, the tables were being turned and wisdom set in: I was starting to feel sorry for them.
About two years ago, I got my big break. We tend to hear this in the business world: that moment that the successes start to outweigh the struggles and you can see the light. I decided I wanted to focus on photographing weddings, so I booked my first bridal show. The banquet hall was busy and bustling, full of every vendor in the wedding industry you could think of. There were tables upon tables of overflowing bouquets, travel agents eager to plan honeymoons, models flaunting the latest styles in wedding gowns, cocktail waitresses running around with trays of cake samples, sugaring everyone up. I had a dinky six foot fold-up table next to the bathrooms, away from all of the activity, and absolutely no sales pitch. I had my photographs strung with twine that I truly believed in, and a passion for photography that I could feel pumping through my veins. The woman in the booth next to me - a veteran in the wedding industry - took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. She took a photo of me in front of my table and posted it to her social media account with a very large following. I looked awkward and uncomfortable and unprepared, but there was fire in that heart. I booked a dozen weddings that year. People praised me for my honesty and my vulnerability, my ability to tell visual stories and my laid-back demeanor that did wonders for brides on their big day. For a long time I thought I had to be this marketing guru in order to make it, this sales-y woman in a black blazer. I learned quickly that I could be myself, that honesty is refreshing in the business world. I learned that I was trustworthy, that I could be exactly who I was and still be successful. Today, I have 26 weddings booked for the 2016 year, and seven so far already for 2017. I went full time a year and a half ago, quitting my nanny job once I was able to support myself solely on my photography income. In a lot of ways, I have a long way to go. But in a lot of other ways, I've made it.
Please know this income is nothing to write home about. I still don't have cable and I still drive an old car. My apartment is full of secondhand furniture and I buy most of my clothing from the thrift store. I probably always will. But the life I live today is tailored to exactly how I want it to be. I can't remember the last time I felt like I actually went to "work." Sometimes I play hooky on Wednesdays, just because I can. I opened a brick and mortar office on Market Street in Lewisburg this past January, teach photography classes on the side, and am planning retreats for other women entrepreneurs this coming fall. I still can't spell the word "entrepreneur." In fact, I never thought myself as one until Lauren Elsasser asked me to speak to you a few months back. I never woke up one day and decided I wanted to be a business owner. Rather, I remember recognizing a few distinct facts about myself and completely committed my loyalty to them: I knew I was wild and didn't want to be tamed, I knew I couldn't clock in somewhere every day, and I knew I needed flexibility in my work. Most importantly, though, I remember recognizing that I needed to completely blur the line between work and play. I wasn't ever interested in making a living, in having a job to fund my life. I wanted it to be all life, all thoroughly enjoyable, all one beautiful mess.
My life today came in tiny, meandering decisions. I decided to push the graduate school applications into the trash can. I decided to live in a retreat center in Hawaii and clean toilets. I decided to change diapers so I could learn photography. Had I not mustered up the courage to make those risky choices I very well may be sitting at a desk somewhere in dress pants working for someone else. I would have seven vacation days a year, a comfortable salary that comes in the mail each week, a predictable, stable life. Please know that it's not that there is anything wrong with dress pants and predictability, but that there would have been something very wrong with me living that life knowing what I always knew deep inside. What I hope you can take away most from my story today is this root of my successes: I never strayed away from my own desires, no matter how hard my ego wanted to cling to steady jobs and steady paychecks. And if business and entrepreneurship is what makes your heart beat fast, then I hope you will not let anyone or anything stop you from pursuing it. If you decide it is not the thing that makes your heart beat fast, then I hope you have the courage to turn your face toward the things that do, even if society thinks they are weird or unprofitable. I hope that you have the courage to say "I really don't know," to someone who asks you about the rest of your life, because it’s really okay, and I hope you are able to take a job you might not love in order to fund your daydreams that you should never, ever quit. Know that there will be great highs and deep lows, but that neither the peaks or the valleys will be the end of it all. Trust that there will be people along that way that will help guide you - your own Karens and Katies, Glens and Bobs - and that someday when you've made it - which you will - you will be a guiding light unto someone else.
And have the courage and the grit to change your mind, because someday, your heart may expand. My job as a wedding photographer is something I thoroughly enjoy. I get this physical excited feeling in my stomach when I see a photograph happening before my eyes, I love being so intimately involved in a stranger's day. I think that I am good at it, that it's fitting for me, and I'm so very grateful to finally see all of my hard work pay off. For so many years, all I knew was struggle. To see the inquiries for 2017 and even 2018 coming into my email completely organically each week is absolutely priceless; some days I do feel like I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. I could do this every day for the rest of my life and I know I would be happy. However, another business venture has been brewing inside of my head and my heart and my gut for a few years now and I know with every molecule of my being it is the thing I want most, more than anything. Because of my past experiences, I feel confident that I could make this dream a reality, too. I know that it's going to be difficult, but I have learned to trust in the path and know that it will all one day be worth it, just as it is now. It’s been a good lesson to see that I'm met with the same hesitant support and skeptical questions I was when I was twenty-two. Many people cannot understand why I would desire to abandon a comfortable life - a life I crafted with my own hands - and start all over again. The same types of people who scoffed at my daydreams of being a wedding photographer are also rolling their eyes at my burning, wild ideas of someday owning my own retreat center in the mountains. But they don't bother me anymore, as I have lived through it and seen the fruits of the other side. Know that when you are met with resistance instead of unconditional support it has nothing to do with you but everything to do with them. Feel empathetic for these people, for they cannot dare to dream or lust for something impossible or feed the quiet fires in their own hearts. They have spent their whole lives stifling their inner voices, and so of course they're going to try and stifle yours, probably not even intentionally, for this is all they know. My point is, resistance is always going to be there, whether you're seventeen or twenty-two, twenty-nine or sixty, so imagine how small our lives would be if we shrunk at every negative voice. My point is, do not ever shrink your own dreams so that they conform to someone else's idea of reality. I broke every odd, every predicted failure, and all I had was a spiral-bound notebook of scribbled business notes and a stubborn grit the size of Texas. And I am here in front of you today because of it.
Anticipate the discouragement, the raised eyebrows, the jealousy from your peers, but be prepared to act despite of it. Be prepared to look at yourself in the mirror at night and feel confident you did not shrink in the presence of their cowardice. Nobody becomes an entrepreneur because it's easy; you all must already be, to some extent, prepared for a difficult path. For that I admire each and every one of you very much. I did not contain that kind of courage at your age.
So go out into the world, into the glorious decade that is your twenties, follow your every piercing obsession, be kind, and don't forget to look around at the world outside of the classroom and explore. My hopes for you today are the simple words of my favorite poet, Rumi. It is the same I hope for everyone I love, for every one of those people who rolls their eyes at my daydreams, for my own heart that still feels the white knuckles of fear and that always will because, after all, I am human: “Let yourself be drawn to the strange pull of what you love. It will not lead you astray.”