*Warning: Adult language.
I knew the big question was coming.
I had met a cute guy at a bar, and I could sense it from a mile away.
We’d exchanged smiles and casual flirtations, and I felt the acid reflux of shame rise into my throat like bile.
The conversation lulled a bit, and that was when I could really see it coming. The question. There would be no avoiding that terrible question.
“What do you do?” he asked casually.
At the time, I felt so embarrassed about my job that I lied to the poor guy. I was a designer, I said, although I hadn’t used Photoshop since high school.
The truth was that I made most of my money tutoring rich kids in China, which seemed like the antithesis of who I really was. Who I was as a person, I mean. I was a published poet, an arts event organizer and a burgeoning online business owner. But at the time, the bulk of my income came from teaching Chinese elementary school students the difference between the words, “I’m bored,” and, “I’m boring.”
Personally, both of those sentences applied to how I felt about tutoring English.
I was deeply ashamed by my behavior that evening, but I understood where it came from. After all, we live in a world where the way we earn our money is supposed to legitimize our work.
In other words, we’re not real writers unless one of our books gets optioned for a film. We’re not real yoga teachers until we’ve quit our jobs as social media managers. And we’re not real musicians unless we’re going at it full-time. It doesn’t count if we need to supplement our income with graphic design contract work.
I didn’t want to be defined by how I made my money. I wanted the world to see me in terms of my passion and gifts.
I felt stuck and confined by my job title. So, I lied about my job.
Obviously, lying came back to bite me in the butt, and I had no choice but to face the double shame of not only explaining my lie, but also disclosing my “real job.”
This all changed for me in November, while I was chopping veggies for an omelet and wallowing in my apartment.
I was also watching a conversation between Marie Forleo and Elizabeth Gilbert, two wildly successful female writers and entrepreneurs. I watch a lot of motivational YouTube videos, and this one really broke through to me.
Both of these women had waited tables, taught fitness classes, cooked French fries and tended bar for seven years while they developed their creative passion projects.
They helped me understand that I couldn’t count on my creativity to pay the bills, and that I shouldn’t expect it to.
My idols explained that every dream job comes with a side of “shit sandwich”—a terrible thing that you must endure in order to realize your dreams. If you’re okay eating that shit sandwich, well then, you’re in the right line of work.
Gilbert’s shit sandwich consisted of seven long years of receiving publisher rejection letters in her mailbox. What’s more, she came home each night reeking of French fries. Even though this completely sucked, Gilbert realized that at the end of the day, making time for her creative work was better than casting it aside completely.
Gilbert had made a promise to never count on her writing as financial support. She would do whatever she needed to do pay her rent, and her writing would be her great love affair on the side.
That was when it became clear to me that my perspective was all wrong. The fact that my creativity hadn’t made me rich had led to so much shame and guilt in my life.
I opened up my journal and jotted down something powerful that Gilbert had said:
“People murder their creativity by insisting they’re not truly creative unless their creativity pays the bills.”
Suddenly, I felt free. I didn’t need money to legitimize my work.
It didn’t matter whether others saw me as a “real writer.” The very fact that I make time to write is what makes me a writer —even if my tutoring gigs are what pay the bills.
Author: K. Lee
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Image: Jazbeck/ Flickr