I sat across from my friend at the Market Hall in Victoria, warmly sequestered inside brick walls, surrounded by nine-to-five suits on their trendy lunch break, drinking the best latte I’ve had in months, wondering how on earth this beautiful person in front of me could possibly feel incapable.
To me, she had so much to offer. A ceaseless, passionate energy, a way with words that a troubadour would envy – blonde mermaid’s hair and a knack for making any marbled knit sweater drape perfectly from her well-postured shoulders. And I sat there, thinking these things, knowing that she was envious of so much about my life. My career, my stability, my trajectory. She was afraid the way so many of us have been throughout the course of our lives, because she has no idea what’s next or how to get there. As we both sipped our lattes and went about splitting a chocolate muffin between us, I realized I was just as jealous of her.
It struck me like a crack of cold air in that rosy warm space that the both of us thought we were in exactly opposite positions, when really, we were exactly the same. And I can’t help looking around me and feeling strangely like many of the amazing women I know in my life are in this same position and that it is total and complete bull shit.
Waxing poetic about the downsides of capitalism isn’t something I’m generally drawn to. In fact, writing about anything that has a semblance of cultural importance is almost always beyond both my interest and remit. But the past few weeks have been such a trial and filled with instances of questioning what is worth – what is value – why do we do what we do? That even I, Piscean and ENFP and optimistic to a blistering, painful fault, feel compelled to address it. Why is it that we so aggressively measure ourselves against anything other than wellness and happiness? Why are so many careers, about things that so resoundingly do not matter, valued so highly?
I wonder these things, three hours after my latte with my friend, in a different hipster coffee shop, now upgraded to a matcha latte, and realize that there is a very simple reason I don’t often contemplate these kinds of things. It’s fucking terrifying. If I think about it for more than five minutes, it’s like trying to wrap my head around a black hole (or space in general, which to me is not the final frontier: it is a terrifying endless mystery that I have no interest in considering or peering into).
Only this black hole isn’t something I can wilfully ignore (because really, will I ever have to confront SPACE?). I have to participate in and engage with this black hole every day. I have to try and figure out what it’s actually all about so I can decide what my next career move is. I have to measure myself against its fathomless fiscal depths before I can give myself a speck of confidence that I’m on the right path. And that’s what really scares me.
Keeping my nose stuck firmly in the past has long been my defensive tactic. A belief as unshakeable as it is absurd, that not knowing what the future holds validates not planning for it, sits nestled at the base of my spine, and it impractically refuses to dislodge. I focus on the lives of people that lived eight hundred years before me, people who even had we shared the same time would have been worlds away from me, and I can’t stop. I visit the places they lived, see the buildings they built, stand in the churches they prayed in, and feel a sense of connection and belonging, a strength of spirit, that I’ve come to live for. I tell myself that those experiences are the ones that matter, that they’re more important than the big picture – because maybe there is no big picture. And as far as defensive tactics go, it worked really well!
Right up until everything blew up in my face.
In the back of my mind, I always had a deeply underappreciated belief that not only was I great at my (capitalist) job, but that I would always be great at it and that there was nowhere to go but up. It wasn’t until about two months ago that everything changed and suddenly I was sat on my own, looking in the mirror, wondering what I was really good for, and where I could possibly go.
A crisis of career confidence is never a pleasant experience. This was my first. I’ve had them before in the sense that I wished I could be a writer, a novelist, a columnist – anything that involved people loving my writing and paying me to produce it – and that I never was granted said wish. But then, I never really tried that hard. I always knew that the only thing to regret in that regard was that I hadn’t truly bothered. As a manager, though, since the moment one of my first DM’s sat me down and told me I was great, I had the luxury of lacking self-doubt of any kind. I knew I was good at my job, I knew I deserved good things, and I loved that about it. It gave me value and worth and I reaped wonderful rewards from it for years. This crisis of confidence was about that job, the one I was actually doing, not some intangible dream job crisis. It profoundly shook me up and prompted a resounding, excruciating, “WHY?”
When I was living in San Jose before I moved back to England, I had everything going for me. If there was a time to be complacent, that was it. Stellar roommate, great job, ace colleagues, and my family close by. But I knew I was missing something and it was that sensation that brought me back over here. In attempting to answer that big old “WHY”, I’ve realized that maybe I had reached a level of stability that was endangering my life’s path, leaving me complacent when that wasn’t in the cards yet. Because let’s be real – would I be out here, asking these big questions, reconsidering a path I long since thought was sorted out, if the past two months hadn’t happened? No fucking way!
Wasn’t this supposed to be about other women too, though, you ask? And capitalism in general? You’re right. Selfishly, my own turn in fortune has brought to light a bigger picture conversation about valuing a bottom line over the hard work of the people you employ. Customer service and retail are the absolute bowels of that aspect of capitalism. Where else can you work your ass off and yet everyone you work for – customers and big wig bosses – have a free pass to shit on you over PRODUCT?
I have long been in this career for two reasons: people and their development. I am actively looking out for the people the brands I work for employ, trying to help them find what drives them, making sure they have a good thing going and that work isn’t just a place they come to pick up a pay check. My teams drive great service because they are supported and validated. It’s certainly not because they’re being paid exceedingly well or feel like they’re changing the world. But every day, we’re doing our job, and doing it well. If people can’t see that – or if they can, but they don’t think it’s enough – then maybe I am in the wrong field. And maybe I did need a kick in the teeth to realize I need to do this somewhere else.
Which brings me to today’s coffee with my friend. That moment where we spent hours talking about the endless spread of opportunities in this world of simple rules – work for the man, get your money, do your thing on your own time – that starting from scratch is just as inspiring as it is terrifying. And I wondered at the ridiculousness of being able to preach that so confidently to her when I knew that I as soon as she got on her train and I went my separate way, that I would do anything but give myself the same advice. If she has endless choice, why don’t I?
The answer is, I do. We all do. If we really want to take the advice that (particularly when you’re inordinately privileged by birth) the only thing stopping you is you, we can. But it feels real fucking impossible right now even though nothing is really that bad. So the next step is to get myself to believe it.
How am I going to do that? Start with small truths, the ones that are easiest to swallow. I’ll begin with the illusive bright side, the mercurial silver lining of essentially getting demoted. Maybe the universe realized I didn’t so much need a job that was stressing me out beyond all belief, but that I needed the friendship of all of my amazing colleagues, something I’d denied myself due to a rigorous belief in drawing professional lines as a manager. Maybe I needed that kick to dislodge that feeling at the base of my spine – that not planning for the future is an okay life policy – and create a long game strategy. Maybe I needed the spare brain space that having less responsibility leaves me with to wrap my head around the exhilaration (and terror) of a fresh start.
I genuinely have no idea where I’m going to go from here. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about my life. But slowly, one day at a time, I’m going to indoctrinate that philosophy deep in my bones until I breathe its truth every day. Because the world IS filled with opportunities – I do believe that – and it’s up to me to grab them. And sure, there’s a lot of really shitty shit out there too, but if I can’t be one of the people out there turning it around, helping to give value to those amazing women that feel like they don’t have anything to offer, then what else am I gonna do?
Time to get out there, to motivate, to encourage, to make them laugh and smile and get inspired. I may not yet drink my Koolaid, but I’ve got a tepid matcha latte, and that’s kind of the same thing, right? It’s time to do something bigger and be part of a solution. Retail isn’t shitty because it’s unworthy and filled with people that never tried hard. It’s shitty because all too often it thrives on the ceaseless and thankless work of countless people all for the glory of capitalism. While I’m in it, I’m going to continue to fight for those people and the struggles they face every day. But big picture, it’s time to figure out how I can do that in a bigger way.
The unknown I’m about to face while I try and figure that out is not like space because it is terrifying (it is).
It is like space because it is limitless.