The Year of No

Since my earliest memories, I’ve been afraid of being passive. Staying still = being powerless. I suspect this is shared by many kids whose ambition outstripped their resources. To this day, I hold a deep belief that achievement and safety are somehow correlated, that if I become successful I’ll also be safe.  

This obsession began well before I entered professional life. Immediately after high school, I left for college. Not the perfectly adequate university situated literally across the street. Instead I accepted a scholarship to attend a highly selective liberal arts college five states away. While there I landed on the dean’s list every semester, served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, played intramural sports, and made appearances at parties thrown by the brothers of Chi Phi. I also had an off-campus job at a Starbucks two miles away, which I walked to unless I was lucky enough to bum a ride from a friend.

Following my summa cum laude graduation I took out loans to attend graduate school in England. (At the time, international fees cost significantly less than schools in the U.S., thanks to the way the British government set tuition rates.) I hustled a series of part-time jobs to keep myself fed. 

Upon returning to the U.S., I knew it was time to get to work. For real. Rather than heading back to my small Pennsylvania hometown, I moved to Washington, D.C.  I spent my first months in one of the world’s most powerful cities living off an $10/hour (pre-tax) temp gig. I had no car, and I ate whatever I could buy at CVS. I lived in a cold basement apartment in a dodgy part of the city. Over a series of weeks, during my walks back and forth from the subway, I monitored the progress of a discarded condom’s slow decay as it withered on the sidewalk. I worried about getting mugged. One of my coworkers at my temp job gave me a pair of socks for Christmas. I wore them until they developed a hole near the toes; then I found some thread and a needle and darned the hole. 

A serendipitous conversation at an alumni event resulted in an office job with a tiny salary – but a salary nevertheless – and benefits. I started freelance writing at about the same time. Not only was the extra income welcome, but it led to making vital connections, one of which resulted in a position within the PR office of a world-renowned research library. 

Things were looking up. But as I discovered over the next several years, working in the non-profit realm is not very profitable. At least not in a place with a cost of living like Washington, D.C. At a downtown conference I stopped by a booth for a consulting firm located just north of the city. I struck up a conversation with a pair of recruiters. Business cards exchanged hands, I sent over my resume, and at the conclusion of the interview process I had a new job that put me in a new industry. And for the first time in my life, I was earning a salary that let me buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store.

The point is, it all underscored my sense that opportunities are not given. They are made. 

And opportunities cannot be waited for; they must be pursued. The moment I stop striving towards the next thing is the moment I fail.

Saying yes has gotten me far.

It has also become unsustainable. Which is why I’ve decided on a radical experiment: I will make 2020 the year of saying no. 

No to believing that I still need to “prove myself.”

No to taking responsibility for making everyone around me feel comfortable, regardless of what it costs. 

No to anything that requires me to be at a gym at 5:30am.

No to anxiety-provoking family expectations.

No to devoting myself to professional pursuits that require exceptional commitments of time and energy, yet yield diminishing returns.

And finally, no to green tea and butternut squash – I never liked ‘em. Never will. 

The hope, of course, is that in time no will lead to yes. Yes to new pursuits. Yes to what makes me excited. Yes to cherished relationships. Yes to solidarity, and pilates classes, and passion. 

And yes, naturally, to myself. To the woman I was, to the woman I am, and to the woman that I will become. 

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2 Comments

  1. Kids “whose ambition outstripped their resources.” Check! I always find such wisdom in your writing, Amy, as well as hints of having led parallel lives. Your early experience in D.C. sounds exactly like mine in the 1970s, when I wore the same black pair of pants to work three days a week and sometimes ate popcorn for supper. And do we ever really outgrow the feeling we need to prove ourselves? I haven’t–though I’ve definitely improved late in life. I love your resolution to make 2020 a year of being gentler on yourself and embracing/discovering who you are and what’s important to you.

    1. Parallel lives indeed! I, too, had a pair of trusty black pants. And your point on always having that inner voice saying to keep proving, and proving again, rings very true. Maybe we don’t ever silence it – but we can make it quieter.

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