I’M FOR SALE
Creative ambition is lovely, but what happens when you need real money?
BY GENEVIEVE SMITH
When I was 26, my then roommate was a great scavenger of furniture. One day, she came home with a daybed frame: a twin-size wooden box with only three legs, which is likely why someone had left it on a curb in the first place. The frame sat propped against our dining room wall for the next year, until I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband), and she let us take it. My husband made a fourth leg out of salvaged wood, and we found a cushion that more or less fit the frame in the “as is” section of IKEA. The back was constructed from a mattress pad rolled up and stuffed into a homemade pillowcase, and the whole ensemble was eventually covered with some black corduroy fabric that we bought for $10. All told, I think we spent about $40 on the “couch.” That was six years ago. At the time, I thought of our jury-rigged furniture as a temporary arrangement, a way station on the path to adulthood. Now it serves as a reminder of how slow and grueling the road to financial security can be.
Which brings me to a second anecdote, one that occurred about a year ago. Over a plate of pasta one night, my husband told me that I needed to make more money. I don’t remember what prompted it, whether we were discussing saving for a down payment or planning a vacation, but regardless of the topic, it was hard to argue with his point. If I really wanted the things I said I did, we’d need more than we were bringing in, than I was bringing in, because, as he implied, I was the one who wasn’t really holding up my end.
My husband and I both chose careers in so-called creative professions—he in architecture, I in magazines. Both are fields in which the prestige often outstrips the financial rewards, but for years that was fine by me. Beyond the fact of having a paycheck, I’d never really thought it mattered how much I actually brought home. Instead, every major career decision I made I’d decided with my heart, not my bank account. My first job, at a nonprofit, paid $23,000 a year. When I decided to pursue journalism, I got a job at a glossy financial magazine, but a year and a half later, I happily left it to work at my favorite publication, accepting a $31,000 salary—and a $20,000 pay cut in the process. Four-plus years passed, and, at 30, I still hadn’t closed the gap on those lost wages. Still, I had no doubt that I’d made the right decision. I loved the work and my colleagues, and I thought of my relative poverty as the price I had to pay. As a friend said of her own professional choices, “I cared about career success. I didn’t care about security.”
But then something began to shift: My thin resources started to bump against some serious pent-up consumptive desire. I wanted to buy things, mostly shoes, but also vacations, a dog, organic produce, dinners out, drinks. Eventually, I grew tired of our used furniture, IKEA shelving, Chinatown bus tickets—the couch. I didn’t want to feel this abject guilt every time I swiped the credit card, a sense that I was pushing our dreams of children and a home further away with every discretionary purchase. What I didn’t understand when I graduated college was that following your passions wouldn’t always be enough. Sometimes you’d want those other things, too.
Occasionally when I look at my spotty financial history, I wonder if there isn’t something self-defeating in my attraction to underpaid work, if perhaps all the talk of fulfillment is just masking a deep-seated unease with being in the driver’s seat. Even if I can’t always identify it, I can sense there’s some insecurity that would be left untouched as long as my income never reached an actionable amount. “Maybe I don’t like money on some deep subliminal level. I’m really bad at getting paid to do what I do,” was how the 31-year-old writer Emily Gould put it to me over dinner one evening this past fall. Gould had written candidly about going broke after publishing her book of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, at 28. “I spent a lot of the past year trying to figure out what, besides writing, I could do to make money,” she wrote on her blog. “I had lunches and informational interviews. I found out about the viability of selling my eggs (I have one more year!)…. Mostly, though, I wrote things no one paid me to write and borrowed lots of money just to be able to live.”
She scraped by with temping and occasionally teaching yoga. “I was really rolling the dice,” she said of her failed experiments to reinvent herself. “People are loath to hire a 30-year-old who has to be an assistant.” Eventually, she came up with an idea for an independent e-bookstore, which she launched in 2011 with the help of her best friend. It might be only slightly more lucrative than being an essayist, but, as she wrote at its announcement, “just realizing that there was something I am capable of doing besides writing was enough to give me hope that I will, piece by piece, begin to figure out the rest of my life.” She’s also suggested a recasting of the adage “Do what you love and the money will follow,” which, she writes, “is great advice for people who love neurosurgery or filing briefs. ‘Do what you love 70 percent of the time and spend the rest of the time doing various things you hate, or that are difficult for you, and see what happens’ might be better advice.” But it was also clear as we talked that she still held fast to the idea that if she kept writing, the money would somehow follow. “I’m aware that my plan, which is to be an exception, is a bad plan,” she said. “That’s my dream. I can’t make it not my dream. I want to own a brownstone and have a baby, and right now I have $12,000 in credit-card debt and haven’t had a paycheck larger than $100 since July.”
Women’s working lives have long been shaped by their attempts to navigate these conflicting aspirations. And yet, it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that the main tension isn’t a two-way tug-of-war between work and family so much as a pile-on of family, money, and ambition. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist who studies female career trajectories, women are stretched in even more directions than that; she and her collaborators at the Center for Talent Innovation studied the motivations of men and women at work and found that while men’s primary incentives are relatively simple—money and power—women are motivated by seven discrete factors. “It’s not just time for family. Women want meaning and purpose in their work. They value great colleagues. They also like to give back to society in terms of the work they do, some healing of the planet, and they want flexibility, which is not the same as family stuff—it’s so that they can have a life,” said Hewlett. “Women have much more complex goals, but they also do want money and power. They recognize you’re likely to have much more control over your life if you have those.”
Hewlett herself is evidence of women’s complicated calculus; she’s written 11 books and founded a think tank, all while raising five children. “There’s been a lot of failure along the way,” she told me. “The most difficult period for me—I was a professor up for tenure and lost twins in the sixth month of pregnancy.” In the months that followed, she failed to get tenure, lost her job, and was forced to reinvent her career. “Dig hard into any woman who appears to have done it all and you’ll find some of those stories,” she said, before adding, “I’m very glad I’ve stuck with an ambitious career.” Sometimes when I’m wrestling with these issues, I’m reminded of my dad, who had a noble if not particularly glamorous career as a public servant for the federal government.
When I was 12 or so, I was snooping through my mother’s drawers looking for I don’t know what, secrets I guess, and found a small green leather journal. Inside, I recognized my father’s neat, blocky script. A date at the corner said 1971. The entries were from a hitchhiking trip he had taken from DC, where my parents lived, to New Orleans, where his brother was living. (My parents’ car was stolen during a road trip they’d taken and turned up in New Orleans a few weeks later, so my dad was heading down to retrieve it, or so the family story goes.) Some of the entries described the people who picked him up, many were about missing my mom, but the thing I remember most vividly 18 years later is an entry in which my dad wrestled with whether to become an artist. At 12, I had only ever known him to get up early, wear a suit to work every day, come home at six. I had never imagined him another way, despite the weekend trips to art museums, the watercoloring, the etching classes he sometimes took. A few of his friends had gone more bohemian, but my dad was the first person in his family to go to college, and I think he probably felt the weight of that. Whatever the reason, at some point he gave up the dream and, as far as I knew, never looked back.
I recently asked my dad if he ever regretted not following those early ambitions. No, he told me. Even though he’d toyed with doing a more commercial craft like silversmithing or pottery, he realized how hard a life that would be, always having to scramble to keep the money coming. So instead, he found a career that drew on something else he cared about—helping others—and that would also, in later years, allow him to support a family and have enough time to be active in raising them. “I was never out to make a whole lot of money. My whole goal was balance,” he said.
Since that reckoning at the dinner table a year ago, I’ve struggled with how to find that balance in my own life. Like Emily, I’m not quite ready to give up on the dream or to scale back my ambition, but I’m learning to be less dogmatic in how I define success for myself and to stop thinking of low-paid work as a badge of authenticity. In fact, I even took a new job at another magazine, one that finally freed me from my gnawing fiscal anxiety.
When I saw my dad at Christmas, he handed me a photocopy of his journal. It wasn’t the same one I remembered. This one was from the original road trip, which wove through the western United States. He even included photocopies of pictures from their travels, he in a wide-brimmed hat and Fu Manchu mustache, my mom in red bell-bottoms and a red poncho, staring out into the desert. Between artistic notes (“Remember to let the sky show through on paintings of trees”) and hippie meditations (“I think that when stoned in the wilds it is best to be in costume”), there was much consternation over what to do with his life. “I would like to develop a skill in which I could use my artistic abilities (meager as they are) to earn a living,” he wrote. “I’d like to sell some of my paintings on the side, but I don’t think I could rely on them as bread and butter articles. Maybe I could try pottery. The whole idea is very titillating, but also scary. I hope I have the balls to go through with it.” Later he decided that developing a craft skill should be “a medium range goal,” which he thought should be attainable in “two or three years.”
Now in retirement, my dad paints almost every day, and I think often of that dream deferred, or at least set aside, for the practicality of making a living. Looking at his decision, I realize that the trade-off that women now face isn’t all that new. It’s one men have always shouldered, and so in some ways, our own struggle to redefine fulfillment is just another sign that we’re inching further toward equality, just not quite in the way we expected.
Posted from my Android ~ Ami