What I learned from my year of 'doing nothing'
The first thing I did when I graduated college was pack my bags and leave my hometown of Las Vegas for San Francisco. I wanted to be a city girl and I was completely confident in my ability to make a life for myself as a writer. I was ambitious, hardworking, and bright. Who wouldn’t want to hire me?
As it turned out, getting a “real job” was much harder than I thought. The city was teeming with smart, resourceful people—all of whom were also doing whatever it would take to land their dream job.
I attended a few dismal interviews, mostly for unpaid internships. At an interview for a nonprofit, the interviewer said she was impressed by my master’s degree. But a six year education wasn’t enough to cut it—the person who landed the gig had writing credentials at the New York Times. “You should get into a different career,” the interviewer, a Harvard alumni, told me, “I’m 52 and can barely pay my rent.”
After that interview, I spent a lot of time in bed staring out my window and contemplating what a huge failure I had become. I was so depressed about not having a career that my loss of self-confidence swept through every area of my life. I completely lost track of what I wanted out of not just a career, but life itself. Because I hadn’t been able to make it on the job market, I felt that my entire existence was a failure. Why write anything? Who would bother to read it, anyway? I saw a clear line between people who did things and were successful, and people like me, the losers, who weren’t good enough to fulfill their dreams.
Finally, my mom gave me some great advice: give up, at least for the time being.
And so I did. For a year, I stopped applying to jobs. I worked at restaurants, saved money, and made some great friends. I wrote some guest pieces for a few blogs and penned the beginnings of a science fiction novel. I rediscovered my love for reading, attended improv classes, and booked a trip backpacking through South America. And most of all, I tried to re-define my understanding of the word “success.”
When I returned to San Francisco after three months of scuba diving, hiking, ziplining, and cliff diving, I sat down to drinks with a colleague who said that he might be able to land me a position at his marketing firm. He took a look at my resume and paused.
“What have you been doing over the past year?” He asked. “There’s a gap on your resume.” I explained my past year to him and his brows knit together. “So what you’re telling me is that for an entire year, you’ve been doing absolutely nothing.”
Had someone told me this one year earlier, I would have agreed completely. In terms of my career, I “did nothing.” But in terms of my life? I did everything. Leaving the country gave me the chance to clear my head and re-think Western ideas. On my travels, I met some incredible people, who, like me, had decided to “do nothing” for a while. They, too, had given up their apartments, quit their jobs, and left their relationships all in order to see the world. They had gone to great lengths and spent a great deal of money to simply get off the treadmill.
And now, I saw things differently. When I came back to the states, I was excited to order a stack of books on Latin American history, sign up for a comedy writing class, attend Bikram yoga, and take my keyboard out of storage.
My life suddenly felt full and vibrant again. It felt good to be me—a person who had come to terms with not having an important career. Even though society may casually dismiss me as a career waitress, I decided that I didn’t care, because my livelihood, at this point in my life, was not yet worthy of defining me as a person.
What I had begun to realize is the people that I admired the most were also the people who made for the best dinner guests. They were people who could talk not only about their jobs and professional lives, but their personal lives: their hobbies and passions, their adventures and mishaps. The people that I admired in my own life often hadn’t glided gracefully from college to career, either. They too, had challenged the ideas of success that society had so neatly handed down. While their resumés may have been lackluster, their lives were definitely not.
As it turns out, I’m in good company. Many people in my generation value travel over real estate, family and friends over acquaintances, and experiences over money. And I’m proud to be a part of it—because these are the things I’m also realizing are the most important in life. It crucial, sometimes, to do nothing.