In 2002 I was asked to write an essay for an Atlanta creative journal about finding my dream job. Actually, I was asked to write an essay about not finding my dream job. I had graduated from the hot Atlanta ad school the Portfolio Center just as the dot-com bubble burst. All my classmates who graduated in June of 2000 were flown to San Francisco and Manhattan, where they got corner offices, shiny pink iMacs and beautiful engraved business cards so thick they could cut cheese. We who graduated in December wandered the country aimlessly for months until we settled for ill-paying gigs in places like Birmingham and, for me, Sacramento.
My entire life I had wanted to be in advertising. I wanted to get paid to write clever sentences that made people laugh. In fact, my vision of my grown-up self for most of my life is pretty much identical to what we now know as the show Mad Men. I wanted to be Peggy Olson. Not the secret pregnancy part. But winning Maidenform and Popsicle accounts in smart wool suits, living in Manhattan and drinking Manhattans, on the 30th floor of a glass high rise with a gold plaque on my office door that proclaimed: COPYWRITER.
Instead I was writing bad marketing copy for a garlic-themed amusement park in a town that prided itself on how far away it was from San Francisco. With people who wore socks under their Tevas.
Eventually, I moved to LA and kept looking for my dream job. I looked for it for years. But while I did, I took another job that had nothing to do with advertising, and slowly gave up on my career as a writer.
But after two years I saved enough money for a trip to Europe. And that was where, on a quiet square in Italy, I realized that nothing was really stopping me from writing clever sentences that made people laugh. The only thing that was stopping me was that I didn’t have, well, a business card that said as much.
This moment was so sudden and so earth-shattering, I named my new freelance writing company after what I was eating at that moment, Gelatobaby. (Luckily I wasn’t in Paris or it would have been Snailbaby.) I built a website, put only the work up there that I really loved and promoted the hell out of it. People started hiring me for all kinds of writing, not just advertising.
And the funny thing about that dream job? It no longer exists. Sure, the ad industry ended up recovering. But it looks nothing like it did back then. Agencies consolidated under holding companies, cut back production budgets and incorporated smart interactive departments. Because I got left out of it means I was actually the one with the narrow, Sterling Cooper-ized vision of what advertising was supposed to be.
We talk a lot about entire industries needing to change in the face of adversity. The auto industry goes belly up and we’re like, you know, it’s their fault, they really should’ve made more hybrids. Newspapers declare bankruptcy and we whisper to each other, well, didn’t they get the memo that print is dead? But what we don’t realize is that the only thing that really needs to change is us.
We can’t go on being the same advertising copywriters, the same graphic designers, the same magazine editors we always dreamed of being. We probably won’t have a desk and parking spot or even health insurance. But that’s the beauty of it. A recession can make a corporation cut those things called jobs but it can’t stop really talented people from making a name for themselves. Especially now since we have things like Facebook to meet collaborators and WordPress to publish our rants and Flickr to show off our design work. We can be whatever we want. You can be famous without leaving your house. I dare you to be. But sometimes it’s good to go outside.
We get it drilled into our heads at an early age: “Follow your dream. Follow your dream!” But no one ever told us to be willing to make drastic and necessary changes to that dream as technology and people and the world changed around us. So follow your dream. But whatever you do, don’t you dare waste another minute looking for your dream job.
I can call myself a writer now, but it’s something no door plaque has certainly ever proclaimed for me. And it turned out that I didn’t need those fancy business cards at all, either. All I needed was a gelato spoon printed with my email, which serves as a way for people to remember me. So forget about those ancient relics of a world that no longer exists, and start working on your own dream life.
Thanks to Edie for asking me to speak today, and also to the wonderful Jen, Jessica and Caroline for such a fun morning. All LA creatives, whether “freshly freelance” or not, should check out what they’re doing at The Uncompany. It was great to see everyone!