Girls came into my life when I needed and connected to it the most: right after I had graduated from college, with no job, dwindling savings, and a writing degree.
Although I never named myself the voice of a generation, I felt deeply connected to the struggle to figure everything out: your passion, your social life, your friend circle, your dating efforts, your budding career, your student loans. I applied far and wide and had nibbles from places in Richmond, Va., and Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Laughlin, Nev. But nothing felt right. So I stayed in Tucson, freelanced my way into a publishing company job, and hung out with friends in their senior years of college. It was a blast.
But part of me couldn’t shake the fact that it felt like arrested development. Why wasn’t I successful yet?
So I pulled up my big girl pants and moved for a host of adult reasons, some personal and others to achieve a greater level of success. But it took me on a path that was both leaning out of where I thought I was going and diversifying to try out new things. Cool, yes, but in some ways, not success in the way I envisioned it a couple years ago. But it wasn’t the “knock down the doors until you get what you need” and the “overcome the female confidence gap” training that pop culture has seen as en vogue.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been told that I should be “meaner” in order to be “successful” in a field, to move up the ranks. So these more aggressive tactics just didn’t seem like me. Am I confident in my skills? Of course. Am I the type to stab people in the back to sit at the top of the heap? Not so much. (Mostly because I’ve been the recipient of said stabbing by a person who would later be the mean person that job needed to be on top and it felt just awful.)
Then I started to question whether or not I made the right choice as far as what the job meant for my career and what my career should be in, whether or not I should go to grad school, what people would think about me if I shifted paths … and what “success” is supposed to be. This is where Zosia comes in.
In Mad Men, Zosia (gosh, I love her name) plays Joyce Ramsay, an assistant photo editor at Life magazine, who is in charge of app parts of her career, social, and personal life. She is a woman with an editor position at a major magazine in the ‘60s. The feat would be impressive now, but in the context of the times, it is even more so. She’s by every metric pretty successful. In Girls, Zosia plays Shoshanna Shapiro who at times during the series has been critical of her friend’s lack of motivation and achievement (read: lack of success), but then when she falters at the finish line of her degree and sees a future where her plans for success have been disrupted, she starts to try and put her life back together, starting with a last ditch effort to mend her broken relationship. By most metrics, not as successful. But both women are young and enjoying their life, making mistakes along the way. From an outside perspective, either one could hear the line “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you so make mistakes now” and yet still be lumped into today’s version of what we believe a young person is: a lazy, entitled millennial.
Either woman’s success, however different she maybe, is measured by the same rigid outside monetary, prestigious, and societal metrics.
Even in real life, Zosia the actress says she “ha[s] been incredibly blessed with success in my chosen career.” Success by someone else’s metrics.
But then she asks herself a line of questioning in a Glamour column recently that I’ve been circling around lately myself, a line that ends in this revelation: “We are so obsessed with ‘making it’ these days we’ve lost sight of what it means to be successful on our own terms. … You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime.”
I say this is a revelation for a reason. I had a deep conversation with a bunch of smart women about work/life balance recently. We discussed how much of yourself you should be comfortable committing to a job, where to draw lines, how career affects a personal life, the ultimate goal of “Do I want a husband/wife and kids?” and what does that mean for my career, all of it. The conversation alone was exhausting. So trying to make these strategic choices seems daunting in so many different ways. Plus, with all the gendered discussion over the firing of Jill Abramson (who I have had the pleasure to meet, along with the new executive editor Dean Baquet because of my involvement with the New York Times Student Journalism Institute back in 2011) from The New York Times, leaning in seems like even a slightly dangerous proposition.
At the end of this vigorous discussion, though, we all had a different feeling about what balanced even was and what would make us happy in the pursuit of success. We all had different opinions about what “having it all” meant, too.
Zosia goes on to say, “The solution, I think, is to ask ourselves what we actually want—each of us personally—and stop putting so much pressure on one another. Success isn’t about winning everything; it’s about achieving your dream, be that teaching middle school or flying jets. And no matter what we as individual women want, no matter what our goals, we have to support one another.”
That seems much less daunting. Focusing not on what you lack, or what different person you should become to get what you want, but taking what you have and striving for what you want. Achieving a dream, whatever it is, in the best way you know how. To me, if that’s the goal, I’ll lean in and thrive for that all day long.