The first time my mom ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was accompanied by an impassioned speech about how girls can be whatever they want when they grow up – ”and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
I was only three or four at the time so, under the weight of such inspiring rhetoric, I replied:
“I want to be a building.”
When I did eventually start thinking about what I really wanted to do when I grew up, I was inspired by my favorite uncle, who was an illustrator. I worshipped him and wanted to be just like him. At the time, I was great at drawing, enjoyed my art classes, and created little comic books. Looking back, I was always a creative kid.
By the time I arrived at college, I just knew I wanted to be a graphic designer.
There was one small problem.
I didn’t have the discipline to be in a studio. I wanted to read and study. I wanted to attend fascinating lectures, take notes, go home and let those new, big ideas turn over in my head. I wanted to go to the library and research. Reflecting on that time now, I simply didn't have the soul of an artist. I wanted to fiddle and make stuff, but I didn't really want to emote through it.
My saving grace was my art history class. Soon, I switched away from design and turned fully toward art history as my focus. After college, I got my master's in museum studies and then landed a position at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Although I didn’t see it at the time, all of this experience dovetailed nicely into knowing how to do user experience (UX) work. Yes, I had moved away from aspirations of being a designer, but I possessed an experimental mind, a design mind.
Years later, a friend of mine was on the hunt for someone to help with accounts and sales at her teeny, tiny web development agency.
Before long, I started hearing things like:
“We need to send an email to clients, or an email to the sales team. You write it, you can make it sound good.”
“Hey, you like to write, don’t you?”
“We don’t want to wait for our client to write this, can you write it and we’ll have them approve it?”
As each opportunity arose, a deeper picture of what I truly loved to do (and was unexpectedly good at) started forming before my eyes.
Some might call copywriting an art form, but I consider it more to be a craft. I have friends who write movies and plays and poetry, and I consider them to be artists. What I do, although there is certainly some level of artistry involved, is technical.
Put more simply, I can’t write you a book about my life or a poem, but I can write you an amazing 30-second radio spot.
Like many others have experienced, this is not what I thought I would be doing. When someone comes to me and says, “We want to come up with this specific thing, we need you to make it happen with words,” I’m great at it. It was my undiscovered superpower.
But in retrospect, I see the seeds being planted early on. Yes, my uncle was a designer, but so much of his work existed within the advertising industry, and I found it fascinating. I’ve been intrigued by advertising throughout my whole life.
I loved the cheek and the brevity of the words. Long before I knew copywriters existed, I was already a ravenous consumer of their wordplay in print ads and on television.
There was even a point in my life where I wrote a blog about hot dogs. It had a point of view and a purpose and a voice, but I thought it too silly to let anyone I knew professionally see it. But then a friend of mine shared it with a creative director at this advertising agency and the creative director was like, "She's got it all. Let's get her in here.”
Even though all of the bits and pieces of who I would become were all there, it took me to my late 30s to become a copywriter myself.
This is the only thing I would change about my story.
When I landed somewhere, I would get comfortable. My personality values loyalty. As a result, I would put my boss up on a pedestal and fall in love with my department. My work would become my social life and my family. To an unhealthy degree, I would intertwine my emotional life and my work life excessively.
I should have been changing my job every three years or so. Instead, I would wait until I hated what I was doing and I simply couldn’t take it anymore, which is not a great mindset to have. Moreover, I would have increased my earning potential if I had been more strategic about when I chose to make my moves.
I would have moved farther, faster. I would have been promoted more quickly. I would have made more money.
Instead, I told myself, “Why would I leave? My best friends are here. I love the parties and the fact that people bring their dogs to work.”
Others around me would come and go, but I would wait too long. I was reactive to situations throughout my career rather than carving my own path.
This is a common thing I’ve seen people talk about in recent years, but it is not a healthy way of thinking. In fact, you should be wary of a company that says, "We're all family here."
Yes, create a social fabric for yourself, have inside jokes, and get to know the people you work with as human beings. Heck, go out and grab beers with your work pals after hours; that’s absolutely OK. But if you’re relying on your work for social connections and emotional support, that’s not good.
That’s when you start feeling indebted to work and you don’t feel comfortable leaving. That’s why you stay in a role for six years when you should have departed after three to continue your growth in a way that makes sense for you.
These boundaries are so easily corrupted by well-meaning individuals and organizations, but they are boundaries worth holding sacred.
Your family – whether by blood relation or one you forged on your own – should exist outside of the office. When you have a healthy relationship with work, it’s a lot easier to know when it’s time to move on.
But knowing, setting, and guarding your boundaries isn’t easy. (I know this from personal experience.) In order to do it well, you have to continually ask yourself:
When your work and your colleagues become your entire life, those last two can easily slide into dangerous territory.
For example, when you’re worried about relationships falling apart at work, you may not push back on ideas that concern you. (Remember the terrible Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner? Think about how many people read the script for that and didn’t have the courage to say that it was terrible.)
I had a roommate who once said, “You’re working a lot. Are you OK?”
She wasn’t wrong, and what she said next stuck with me:
“You need to set your own boundaries because your work's going to keep taking from you as long as you let them. You need to know where you draw the line.”
To those of you who are walking your own path and find some of my story resonates with you, my advice to you is to stay in tune with your emotions. When you find yourself struggling to understand if your boundaries are being crossed, ask yourself questions like, “Am I doing this because I feel guilty? Am I doing this because everyone else is doing it and I feel like I need to be like everyone else?”
For all I say about not letting your work life bleed into your personal life, the great irony here is these questions and challenges are very similar to ones many of you have likely encountered in romantic relationships. Those require work, too. You also need to be able to establish healthy boundaries for yourself, and learn how to tell the difference between meaningful compromises and moments when you’re compromising yourself.
Looking back on my own experiences, I know how hard that can be, especially early on in your career.
Jobs, even the good ones, can be a slog. You’re not always going to be doing work you feel like doing. There’s definitely a line between, “I don’t like doing this and it feels wrong,” and “I don’t like doing this, but I need to suck it up and get it done.”
But when the work is worth it, that’s when you stumble upon exciting surprises like I did. I realized I not only was a great writer, but it was also something I could throw my whole self into as a career.
Would I still love to be a building?
Absolutely. I don’t like to exercise (which is hilarious since I once managed a health club), and I would consider myself a fairly domestic person. I think I’d be good at it, honestly. Maybe I was right all along.