Like many of you, I had a lot of romantic notions about my career; and like a lot of things about romance, the granting of a Masters degree did not suddenly grant these wishes. I enrolled in grad school as a way to make myself more ‘employable’ while also pursuing a field I found deeply fascinating. I used to think that the jobs I wanted were largely traditional 9-5s, and I longed for an office, salary & benefits, and PTO. My education largely reinforced this fantasy, as my field deeply is entrenched in the belief of an office culture with structured career paths, trajectories that involve a lot of ladder climbing, and management. For me, this mindset was dangerous and disastrous, as it reinforced a very narrow view of what constituted worthwhile work, and actively discouraged me from getting more involved in start-ups and taking on new non-office opportunities.
I chose to pursue what I thought constituted a ‘real’ planning job and the constant stress of trying to land one was taking an increasingly extreme toll on my quality of life. I got heart-broken after second and third round interviews, after meeting the executive directors, and after completing trial projects only to be turned down for more competitive candidates with 10-15 years more experience than I. I was unprepared for it at the time, but being 23 with an M.s. and little practical office experience makes you a gamble against candidates with the same graduate skills, but much more comprehensive management ones.
My mentors have told me that this is ‘the nature of the beast’ as if I should accept this reality and continue to struggle and obsess; continue to turn down other work that I want to be doing but had previously written off as somehow lesser in order to go home and fill out online applications. I didn’t get exhausted by the effort required to pursue things I love, or by the challenges that a competitive economy and tight job market present. I didn’t even get tired of finding jobs to apply to, my field is vast and interesting. The honest truth is that I got tired of trying to achieve something without stopping to consider why I wanted it.
I sat down and thought about why I really wanted a certain kind of job, and then began to list all of my priorities in life alongside my goals for employment. Money is hardly at the top of the list for me right now, but with student loan debt and an NYC apartment I need a certain level of income. With careful planning and tools to help manage my time and contracts, and the ability to balance both (and this is crucial) monthly and longer term budgeting, a stable income is not unattainable for freelancers. When my contracts are low, I have a client I consult with on food and beverage education who wants as many hours as I am willing to give. Though it is not directly related to urban planning, this is a blessing when I need to balance my budget or handle a large unforeseen expense. I am learning that life is a balancing act of choices and priorities: I want a certain level of freedom in employment, so sometimes I work in ways I might not usually.
After a stable income, there are many more priorities that work beyond a 9-5 gives me. I like flexibility: I enjoy having the freedom to travel, to rearrange my schedule if I need to, and to be able to get to my family in an emergency. I enjoy dynamism, too. I have long said I am worried that a traditional ‘desk job’ would bore me, and when I am bored the quality of my work is atrocious. I want to feel as if I am doing something worthwhile with the degrees I have, and something that makes some kind of difference on the world around me.
Despite the growing number of people turning to self-employment, there are plenty who don’t think I am making worthwhile decisions on how to spend my time or energy, and are dubious about my ability to support myself. My family asks about how I am, curiosity comingled with what I can tell is a small measure of concern for their girl who did things the way she was taught but is starting to reinvent them for herself now. I am advancing my career, I have started my own business, and I am doing it on my terms. I would be lying if I said I never took what anyone else has said about my choices personally, but eventually I have accepted that I cannot force anyone else to understand my reasons and I am not required to justify my happiness with them either.
You may find yourself without a choice if the people you really want to work for and the work that you want to do are no longer predominantly salaried or secure options. I am here because I decided that struggling for two years aspiring to something that wasn’t working out just wasn’t worth the pain and stress of constantly feeling professionally unfulfilled and inadequate.
People who strike out on their own take a lot of risk, but I have experienced tremendous satisfaction in having a direct impact on others as a result of pursuing targeted writing, consulting and teaching posts. The more time I spend with clients, in communities doing planning work, developing and refining my teaching pedagogy, researching, and writing on urban environments, the more enriched and enlivened I feel about the diverse work that I do. Not everything I do is specifically ‘planning’ related, and not everything I do for money is glamorous. I am learning about the professional world in leaps and bounds, partially because of the great risk I am taking starting a business. I am confident in the knowledge that my successes and failures are my own, and that the things I am learning will help me in all of my future employment.
There are endless discussions about the way the world values different kinds of employment, about who is doing it, and how we can ensure that everyone feels valued and fairly treated in the work that they do. I have done work I did not want to, and I do work now that others would not wish for. The further away I get from the notion that there is one kind of real or valuable work, and instead many options that are as flexible and varied as the billions of people working in them, the more I am convinced that there are no real jobs, just real people working them.