Public Service Announcement: It’s Okay. Whatever “it” is, it will be fine. You are smart, powerful, and driven. Your life may not be working out the way you envisioned right now, or it may feel like the world has betrayed you and left you untethered, or you may just feel stuck. The most dangerous word in the world is “should” - with it comes so many expectations and responsibilities that we decide we owe someone or something else.
Let’s take a step back and look inward. Assess your priorities and what you feel you owe yourself, and remember: you don't need a cohesive narrative right this very moment. That will come later when you look back. Make the choices that feel right to you, and the rest will come. Your life does not have to have to follow a set path. I’m not even talking about the multi-billionaires who had multiple failed startups before figuring out the big money-making idea. I’m talking about quieter, everyday lives. Post-Great Recession, very few people believe in job security. Once upon a time, in our parents’ generation, you took a job, climbed the corporate ladder, and retired with a pension. You began traveling the world at 65 with all the money you had saved in your 40-year career. In 2008, we saw those faithful employees’ pensions wiped right out. That dream was gone, and as the generation graduating college and entering the workforce during that time, we had to scramble to write a new playbook. Nearly 10 years later, let’s check in on how things have changed.
Many millennials now have full- or part-time jobs as well as side hustles. Others may design what are called portfolio careers, defined as one “usually built around a collection of skills and interests, though the only consistent theme is one of career self-management. With a portfolio career you no longer have one job, one employer, but multiple jobs and employers within one or more professions.” The principle of self-determination is becoming more and more prevalent with every new wave of graduates who enter the workforce.
One group of people who have been working portfolio careers forever is actors. Rarely anymore do you see someone in Hollywood defined solely as an actor. More often, they are an actor/writer/producer/director/model/clothing designer/spokesperson/philanthropist/ musician/author/tv host/restaurateur...the list goes on. What other lessons can we take from those who have risen to the top of their fields?
1. Be flexible.
Michelle Pfeiffer: “I was pretty careful about where I shot, how long I was away, whether or not it worked out with the kids’ schedule. And I got so picky that I was unhirable.” She prioritized her family when she felt it was important to her. Now, her children are grown, and she says, “I’m a more balanced person honestly when I’m working. I really want to work now, because I can.” The point is, it’s okay to take a break. Michelle Pfeiffer has been nominated for 44 acting awards and won 24 of them. No one would argue against her talent and depth, but the last film she worked on was in 2013. Many actors would feel that taking a 4-year hiatus would be the end of their careers, yet Michelle Pfeiffer is in 4 projects this year. She is being hailed as the MVP of Mother!, a film packed with talented, award-winning actors. She was able to craft this path because she made decisions from her own value system, and was flexible when reentering the workforce.
2. No one else gets to determine how you live your life.
Author Anne-Marie Slaughter: “This crisis had forced me to confront what was most important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” In her book “Unfinished Business,” she argues for tapping into your own values and making decisions from there for yourself, your family, and your needs. She left a high-powered career in the State Department when she felt her family needed her more. She did not feel like a failure personally, but was met with critical opinions from nearly everyone she shared her decision with. Those opinions ranged from feelings of disappointment that she had let other women down, pity that being a mother had ruined her career prospects, and defensiveness from those trying to justify their own life choices to her.
3. You are allowed to change your mind.
Martha Stewart: “Defend your ideas, but be flexible. Success seldom comes in exactly the form you imagine it will.” You don’t have to be the one thing you told everyone you were. Just because at one point you were a lawyer does not mean you can’t work in healthcare. Going to school for graphic design does not prohibit you from working in education. No one else needs to approve your life plan. The only things your decisions need are to meet these 5 criteria, designed to help you make your most fulfilling choices for that moment in your life.
4. Being strong does not mean never asking for help.
Reese Witherspoon: “If you are one of those people who has that little voice in the back of her mind saying, ‘Maybe I could do [fill in the blank],’ don’t tell it to be quiet. Give it a little room to grow, and try to find an environment it can grow in.” She brings up an important, oft-overlooked point: It’s not just about having the desire. It’s also about finding the environment where you can thrive. For some people, that means creating it themselves. For others, it means finding a workplace whose culture fits with what they want for themselves. Maybe you need to find a true 9-5 that never expects overtime so that you can consistently work on your side hustle in the evenings. Maybe you need a more time-intensive yet more flexible position that allows you to take off during the day to handle projects, as long as your deadlines are met. Maybe you need to work from home so that you can be the primary childcare provider as well as a breadwinner.
One of the outcomes of the Great Recession was the necessity to revise our vision of what we thought our careers would look like. While it has been a devastating experience for millions, it has also been a time to revisit our own value systems and understand how we might design our lives on purpose, rather than following a set path. With freedom comes fear, of course, as well as exciting opportunities.