I was in eighth grade when my dad looked over from behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 and said, "You know you're going to college, right?" Even then, I had every intention of getting a higher education — but I understood why he was double-checking. For many reasons, both of my parents didn't pursue college. And for many reasons, my father wanted to ensure that I did.
I'm from a small town in rural Ohio, where the high school graduating classes are small, and often, so are future plans. That was the case for my parents, as well as their parents and grandparents. Most of them got married right after graduating, started a family, and stayed close to home to raise it. Aside from trade school, no one pursued further education. Money was never an obvious issue, but we also lived relatively frugally. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.
Early on, though, it was clear that things were going to be different for me. By nature, I was an over-achiever — the goody-two-shoes of the family. I expected honor roll from myself far more than my parents did. My C in second grade math might as well have been an F. Crying when I read that report card is my first real memory of failure. The strangest part? I never wanted a superior reputation or gold star. I just wanted to follow the rules — to do what I thought was right. At that age, for me, right and wrong were that black and white.
My parents got divorced when I was very young, and they each instilled in me unique ideas about success. My dad wanted me to go to college because he regretted missing the opportunity. My mom was always very confident in my organic initiative to succeed, regardless of how I did it. In their own ways, each of them fueled my early independence and drive.
Those influences, as well as my inherent ambition, made me decide that I would not fail — even if I didn't fully understand what failing meant. So I did what I do best. I wrote a list — a theoretical one titled "How Not To Fail" and I began checking boxes with fervor.
Although the tasks would eventually grow much more arduous, when I was in high school, they were mostly college-related. Attending college was at the top of my totally fool-proof, this-is-how-to-succeed checklist.
Sure, between letters in the mail, informational assemblies, and the social stir about our futures whirring among my peers, "GO TO COLLEGE," might as well have been in neon lights. But it had also become increasingly clear to me that attending college would help me get a good job with decent pay. This was always a concern of mine — even though I was always provided for, and my parents never told me to focus on it. However, at some point, I picked up on the fact that some of my family members were struggling behind closed doors. I wanted to take the steps I could to avoid that.
"I don't want to be rich," I would say to myself. "I just want to be comfortable." Then, I would have proof that I hadn't failed.
In reality, I had no idea what avoiding that would really entail. But I found solace in the statistics. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor's degree was nearly half that of those with only a high school diploma, and that their average weekly pay was higher than the U.S. median weekly wage. That was enough for me.
Armed with that information, I applied to my three preferred colleges as advised by my guidance counselor — no more, no less — and blindly chose to major in journalism (I wasn't fulfilling a childhood dream; I just knew I kind of liked writing.). I pored over scholarship applications. "I don't want to be rich," I would say to myself. "I just want to be comfortable." Then, I would have proof that I hadn't failed.
I became so focused on succeeding that happiness — my passions, my interests, the kind of job or future I'd most enjoy — wasn't even on my mind. I thought being "comfortable," fulfilling that version of "success," was all I would need to be happy. Back then, not failing and happiness felt one and the same.
At college, terrified, I stepped into a profession I knew virtually nothing about and continued checking the prescribed boxes. Admission to the state's best journalism school? Check. Dean's List? Check. One internship? How about three — two of which were underpaid? That was fine with me, as long as I didn't fail, even though I still didn't really understand what that meant. I was too busy keeping my head down, overachieving at full-speed and hoping for the best.
Around that time, I also began studying women, gender, and sexuality studies, which taught me the importance of my success as a woman; that generally, we have to do twice the work to earn the credit we deserve. That revelation intensified the very fire that was already lit inside me.
I completed the last of my internships in the three months following my graduation, working at the publication of my dreams. This particular company's intern retention rate was high, so I was sure I had a good chance of landing something full-time. I felt like I had crossed the finish line — all of the box-checking had paid off.
And then, the CEO announced that they were selling the company. Massive layoffs followed. I watched the chaos unfold around me, wondering if I'd last the summer. Amidst the hubbub, one of my editors said something to me I'll never forget: "You're probably going to get laid off at least once in your career." What? No. Not me. I refused to hear it.
Instead, after I got home from work, I continued plugging my name, graduation date, and resumé into dozens of job applications each day. Discouraged by the summer's events, I didn't solely focus on journalism; I applied to anything and everything I thought would give me the stability I craved. If I didn't land a 9 to 5 with a nice salary and benefits, I had failed. No exceptions.
In vicious pursuit of "comfort," I had fully neglected my happiness.
The process continued until I got hired — not as a writer, but as a marketing professional for a home health care agency. Is it what I wanted to do? Not particularly. I really wanted to write and work more creatively. But with this job, I could check the final box on my list. I would be "comfortable."
After a few months at my new job, I quickly learned that "comfort" isn't everything, especially if it means spending eight hours a day in cubicle prison. However, my cube's grey confinement taught me a lot about myself and my desired work environment — i.e. that I definitely wasn't in it. My talents were underutilized, my creativity stifled. It's amazing how quickly the ambition I had worn on my sleeve for so long faded to resentment. In vicious pursuit of "comfort," I had fully neglected my happiness.
I could feel myself deteriorating, mentally and physically, during the seven months I spent at that job. I developed lingering anxieties about my past, present, and future that quickly escalated. Feeling lost and confused, I hesitantly signed up for therapy.
Over the course of a year, my therapist helped me redefine happiness, and more importantly, redefine failure. She walked me through re-prioritizing my goals, and learning to live in the moment instead of the future. She even helped me figure out how to resign from my job, the very thought of which made me want to throw up — but I did it.
At the time, it felt like I was relinquishing the control I worked so hard to achieve. But in retrospect, it was liberating.
My therapist, friends, and family helped me accept the fact that I needed more time for myself, and that I'm not, nor was I ever, chained to societal or familial expectations of success. Most importantly, they helped me realize that quitting my full-time job in exchange for two part-timers (freelance writing and a gleeful return to my barista roots) was in no way giving up or "failing."
Now, I understand that college isn't everything. It's not accessible for everyone, nor does it determine or define success. I chose that path because I respected my family's wishes and because, at the time, it seemed like the conventional thing to do. Mostly, I thought it was my guaranteed escape from failure. But in a way, it became my direct route.
Failure no longer means to me what it meant in my dad's truck that day. Failure is being unhappy by succumbing to expectations of all kinds, including my own. I ended up failing without even realizing it — but it checked a box I didn't know was necessary on a new ongoing list of mine. This one's called "How To Be Happy."