A little over a year ago, I took a break from my increasingly unhappy life and went on a long walk. I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly, but I had a good idea that I’d know it when I saw it. As I walked across Spain, falling in love with nature again, learning to trust my body, and meeting new friends from all over the world, the depression and anxiety I’d been suffering for years started to lift away.
It wasn’t a gradual change. It was almost immediate. Within a week of being away from the constant stress of my life as a freelance marketer traveling between Chicago and New Orleans, I started to wake up and spend each day feeling happy, relaxed, and renewed. The walks got longer, my body got stronger, and the stories I allowed myself to share with my new friends on the Camino started to get deeper and more painful. But there was a song in my heart, and I knew down at the core of things that everything was going to be OK, if I could just allow the melody to follow me back to my “real” life.
The first few nights off the Camino were especially tough. I had thought it would be nice to get a nice hotel room all to myself. I hated it. It was hard to sleep, knowing that the guys I now considered family weren’t an arm’s reach away, the next bunk over. I took a side trip to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia, and though I fell in love with the town, I spent most of my time there sleeping in my room, mourning the loss of my friends, my trekking poles, and the joy of knowing your simple purpose – to walk – and fulfilling that goal every day. A few days later, I flew back to the states, and was hit with a new wave of regret and sadness, and something I’d later realize is called “reverse culture shock.” After weeks of feeling very little fear or unease, the stress of walking down a street in New Orleans, constantly watching my back, was breathtaking. I realized that a generous amount of the general anxiety I’d been dealing with was directly related to living in New Orleans. I didn’t know what to do with that information, and still don’t, but I am on a reduced timeline here. I never intended to live here for the rest of my life, and now I’m coming to terms with the thought of leaving in the next year or two.
Over the past year, I’ve readjusted to living in this city that I’ve called home for the last 17 years, and tried to understand what it is that makes it so difficult to leave. At the same time, I’ve resisted writing about my time on the Camino. I thought that I didn’t have the words for it, but in reality, I didn’t have the strength. The two situations are deeply entwined, whether I want to acknowledge that or not. Because the Camino woke me up (or maybe was a direct result of being awoken, but not consciously able to grasp all that I knew?). I’m not sure when I realized this, but the life that I’ve been living off Camino is not the life I want. It’s not just career stuff, or body stuff, or city stuff. I’ve been expressing bits and pieces of this here and in real life conversation for a long time, but always with this concept that there was something wrong with me for not just being able to suck it up and deal. But that’s not it at all, is it? The real lesson, the thing I’m just now starting to soak in and understand as true, is that I can have any life I want. I am allowed to want more, and I am allowed to ask for more. It is OK to dislike things that other people love, and to confess my frustrations with things that other people enjoy. This is MY walk, and I can shape it however I damn well please.
When I got back to New Orleans from Spain, I was tempted to just sink into myself again. It didn’t get back to pre-Camino levels of self-hatred, but there were plenty of days when I just slept all day since there wasn’t anything worth waking up for. Eventually, my finances became dire, and I needed to find another job to supplement my unpredictable freelance earnings. While sorting through job posts on an online employment site, one ad caught my eye, with the phrase: “Join our crew of misfits.” I read through the requirements, thought it sounded fun, and applied for the job as a front desk person at a local boutique hotel. The manager and I clicked immediately, and the job was mine. It only took a few shifts for me to realize that I was meant for hospitality. I love it. It’s like being back on the Camino again. And a glimmer of hope appeared, because not only did I realize I’d found something that I truly loved doing. I realized that I had already known this about myself YEARS ago, back when I was waiting tables to work my way through college. Back then, I truly adored what I did, but people kept telling me that service wasn’t a “real job.” There was this concept that I needed a 9-to-5 job, with a suit and a desk, to be a successful human being. I wish that someone back then had taken a look at what made me tick and showed me that there were other options to crafting a meaningful career. Oh well. That’s what Ctrl+Z is for. Time to start all over.
I’ve been working as a front desk person/concierge since February, and really enjoy the job. If you’re a service-minded individual, it’s the kind of job that just comes second nature. My main duty is being really nice to people, which can sometimes be difficult if they’ve had a tough day, but I generally win them over. There are other things – logistics, maintenance, reservations, database coordination, and, being me, a ton of free marketing advice. I love my coworkers, and adore the guest house property. Every now and then I meet a guest who’s so awesome, we end up becoming friends (at least on Facebook), and I’ve had some truly lovely experiences. But it doesn’t pay well at all. To be able to “afford” to do a job that makes me happy, I’ve also been doing some freelance marketing, which does pay well and doesn’t make me unhappy, but leaves me feeling like I’m missing something important. I love my coworkers at the agency, and am happy to be able to work on my own schedule, but it’s not my passion, and it’s wearing me thin, especially when I can’t count on a specific amount or timeline for any paycheck. I was reading this article the other day about the high rate of depression and anxiety in millennials, and how it ties in to many of us working 60 to 80-hour weeks just to be able to pay rent and get by, and I was struck with how I’ve just been constantly plugging away for years, with little to show except for a bad back, a nervous eyelid tic, and the magical ability to go into a full-blown panic attack just from hearing my cell phone ring. Which is why, if you’ve ever tried calling me, you know I don’t answer, but will call you back later. I haven’t had the ringer on for years. Too risky.
So why am I writing all of this? Well, I had a Camino moment a couple of weeks ago, and it gave me some new insights that completely changed my course. The owner of my hotel has always confounded me. He’s a lovely man, but I wouldn’t say that we see eye to eye on hotel best practices. A couple of weeks ago, he sent an email to everyone threatening to fire the entire staff if we couldn’t make certain specific property improvements. Improvements that we’d noted long ago, and had been asking for the money to fix for months. The email didn’t mean anything in the whole scheme of things; he didn’t really want to fire anyone, he’s just from the school of thought that you should terrify your employees to get positive results. I knew this, but it had a strong effect on me. The manager and I were sitting together at the time, and I had to excuse myself to go and have a cry in the bathroom. I was so fed up and frustrated with the situation, and felt hobbled by the lack of change, innovation, and structure. A coworker had warned me months ago that there was a high turnover with people who came in and expected anything to change, but I had thought that maybe I could make a difference. This was the first day that I realized I didn’t have what it took to enforce meaningful solutions in an unhealthy environment.
That night, I went home, and started writing down what it was that I liked about my job, what it is that I was searching for in an ideal workplace, and what it is that I’d like my employer and job to do for me. It wasn’t easy, but I started with things that I have consistently disliked, things that always make me anxious and leave me drained. Then I turned those things around and looked for what would fix them. I ended up with what became a mantra in the job search. In the past, I’d always gone into looking for a job with this idea that I needed to prove myself to my employer. But I’m over that. I am a fantastic employee. My bosses have always loved me; I’ve got a full page of folks who will give me glowing referrals. I’m a good person, I’m honest, I’m kind, I see people for who they are (which can be good and bad), I always give my best, and am always looking for ways to improve. I don’t always have to prove my worth. It’s time to start holding employers accountable, asking, “Why should I work for you? How can you help me be a better person?” The things I realized I needed were as follows:
- an international company that would offer me chances to travel and relocate
- accountability between all levels of coworkers/managers
- educational opportunities
- guaranteed advancement
- great workplace culture, with the ability to be radically kind every single day
I realized that it was time to go corporate. Twenty-year-old me was not pleased. Thirty-four-year-old me breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a plan! Now it was time to make the list mean something.
Two weeks ago, I sat down and applied to about 20 different jobs over the course of two days. This is nothing new; I’ve been sending out resumes to jobs all over the country for so long that it just seemed to be one of those common tasks like washing dishes or sweeping the floor. What was new was that I focused in on making sure that the companies I applied for fit my criteria for what I wanted in a workplace. And of those 20 applications, three called me back. One response was so poorly written that I disregarded it immediately. One response was for a great position with a hotel that I wasn’t sure of. The final response was a phone call from a very friendly-sounding guy from a hotel that I didn’t know much about, but was owned by a company that seemed to fit my criteria: Marriott.
Last Thursday, I went to an interview for a marketing position at a luxury hotel that is technically part of a chain but doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to the rest of the brand. It was a bad interview. I knew right away that it wasn’t for me. The person interviewing me would have been my boss, and she seemed unhappy. As we talked, I checked things off of my mental checklist – will this place allow me the ability to relocate? Doesn’t seem likely. Is there structure? Meh. What about educational opportunities? The interviewer seemed confused about what I was asking. Could I advance within the company from here? There wasn’t anywhere else to go. The interviewer was kind, but at the end of the day, I walked out feeling like I’d dislike working there. It would be one more place without defined needs or goals in place, that would stress me out and make me hate going to work. So no.
On Friday, I suited back up to head to the Marriott interview. The interview the day before had been rather demoralizing, and I had to dig deep to paste on a smile. It didn’t help that this interview was for an entry level position, also not ideal, but sometimes you have to take a step down to get in the door. Once I got into the hotel, I felt right away that this place was different. It was comfy and modern, with a great color scheme. The interviewer was really pleasant, and easy to talk to. The interview was mostly scripted, but the non-scripted parts were entertaining, so I was immediately at ease. One of the first things the interviewer said to me after finding out that I’d walked the Camino was, “We’ve got hotels in Spain, too, if you want to go work there some day.” (Will this place allow me to relocate? Check!) He took his time and answered all of my questions, and every answer reinforced that this was the right choice. Then I headed to my second interview, meeting the woman that I’d be replacing. We had a coffee and a nice, long chat about what we were looking for in life. She explained advancement opportunities (ample), educational opportunities (tons), and the basics of the job (fun). I walked out of there knowing that I REALLY wanted this job…but there were more interviews to go.
On Monday, I met the GM and the sales manager, this time for two very relaxed interviews. I got a little teary-eyed while speaking with the GM; I just dug him as a human being. He was efficient and eagle-eyed, and obviously cares about his employees. That visit ended with a job offer, conditional upon passing a drug test and background check. I’ve spent the last week on pins and needles about the background check, hoping they wouldn’t fault me for my insane student loan debt, or find something in my past that didn’t fit the brand. Of course, this is ridiculous, since I’m a terribly lame human being with minimal adventures or wild stories, and no criminal past. But I do so love to invent things to worry about! My poor boyfriend has spent the last few days reassuring me that I’d probably know if I was a criminal, and I’d definitely be getting the job. Luckily, I was wrong and he was right – this morning I got the call that I passed the final hurdles, and can start next week. I’m going to be working as an Event Specialist, handling the needs of large groups who reserve blocks of hotel rooms in conjunction with an event (weddings, trade shows, reunions, that kind of thing). It’s going to be challenging, but rewarding, and there are multiple route options for advancing to the next rung on the ladder, when the time comes.
So I’m backtracking a little bit, career-wise, but it won’t be for long. I’m still going to have to work some crazy hours, probably at both hotels and the marketing agency, to stay afloat for awhile as I stock up on office apparel, get some medical and dental treatments that I’ve been putting off, and pay off debts that I couldn’t put much of a dent in over the last year. It’s going to be hard for awhile, but much easier in the long run. In a sense, I’m hitting “undo” on a big chunk of my professional life, but I’ve learned a lot of things that will still come in handy. I know what kind of boss I respect, and what I’d never do to a coworker or employee. I know how much I adore being helpful and kind, and that I can enrich my personal life by way of my professional life if I so choose (I do). I know that I am nimble, a problem solver, a fixer, a “can do”-er. I know that I’ve finally started a real career, and that I’m joining a company with which I’ll be able to continue on until I retire, if all works out. And if I play my cards right, at the end of that career I’ll have traveled the world, and be getting ready to start a new adventure with my own B&B somewhere. Who knows? I’ll keep you posted 🙂