I Left Behind My Successful Career, And I'm Way Happier Because Of It

 
"I chased my greatest ambitions, not my greatest desires."

"I chased my greatest ambitions, not my greatest desires."

I’m 30 years old and I live in my childhood bedroom. This is not how I envisioned my thirties would begin.

When I was 21, I was ambitious and successful. My first full-time job was as a researcher for then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. I moved through a series of enviable Washington jobs during my twenties, the likes of which I had dreamed of ever since I declared my political science major.

I worked to pass the Affordable Care Act in the US House of Representatives and served as a presidential appointee to the US Environmental Agency (EPA). I was successful in my career of choice and I was on an upward trajectory. The only problem was that I didn’t actually like the work.

By outward appearances, I was succeeding in DC. I worked for important people. I wore a business suit and I was tethered to my government-issued Blackberry.

But I wasn’t happy. I travelled to and from work by DC Metro amongst hundreds of young people all outfitted in similar business attire, all of us quietly tending to work emails.

Just a few years into my political life, I found myself struggling. There were days when I could not summon the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. My day-to-day work of editing press releases and drafting talking points felt rather pointless.

My life up until my time in government had consisted of a series of successes, and I knew very well how to achieve. I received A’s in school, I won prestigious internships and my first job out of college was in the US Congress. I looked great, but I felt empty.

I remember the day I interviewed for my position at EPA. I ran into a former colleague in the elevator. She asked what I was interviewing for, and asked, “Do you want it?”

I hesitated. Then I smiled broadly and responded, “Of course. It’s an amazing opportunity.” It was an amazing opportunity, no doubt, but somehow I knew, even then, that I wasn’t on the right path.

In retrospect, my real failure was one of imagination. I grew up craving affirmation from my father, a former local government official who remains one of the smartest men I know. What better way to impress one’s father than working to elect a president?

The obvious lesson is that while external validation is gratifying, you can’t live on it. I couldn’t, at least. But that’s what I had done most of my life. I chased my greatest ambitions, not my greatest desires. And I didn’t realize something was wrong until I became too depressed to come to work.

One of my solaces came in indulging a dream I had once feared: Acting. Thankfully for me, Washington is home to a potent theater community. Just miles from the White House and the US Capitol, D.C. theaters challenge the very foundations of American culture and society.

I remember watching monologist Mike Daisey perform a work called American Utopias at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The final scene took place outside of the theater.

Daisey pointed to the urban landscape and reminded the audience that we had created all of it—everything from the sidewalks to the office buildings to D.C.’s substantial homeless community. And he suggested that we could remake it all if we chose, if we let our imaginations truly run wild.

D.C.’s creative community invited me to reexamine the ideals I had built my life upon, the personal and the political, and I began to be honest with myself for the first time.

It was on stage in Washington that I expressed the feelings I had been hiding from. I was unfulfilled. I was lonely. I was disenchanted. On stage, I was everything I couldn’t be in my government cubicle.

During the spring of 2014, I felt as though the illusions I had built my identity upon were crumbling. My parents decided to end their 27-year marriage and I realized they too had been deeply unhappy for a long time. They had been keeping up appearances, just as I had. That was a turning point for me.

What’s the point of building a life that feels joyless? What’s the point of tending to a career you don’t find satisfying? So I quit the EPA to pursue acting full-time. It was, admittedly, a completely irresponsible career decision. But it was exactly what I needed.

Theater allowed me to be authentic—something I had never allowed myself before. And the arts showed me how to define success for myself.

However, another one of my "professional failures" was as an actor. After about a year and a half of auditions and acting classes, I was in debt and in need of a lifeline. The realization that I needed to restart my career once again was devastating, but it’s also an experience I’m sincerely thankful for.

At the end of 2015, I moved home to California and my lifeline came in the form of an offer to report for my local newspaper, the Ojai Valley News. Ironically, I left Ojai when I was 18 and I vowed I would never live there again. A decade later, I returned humbled, but emboldened.

At 30, there are plenty of aspects of my life that I’m not crazy about—living with my mother being chief among them. But I have a lot to celebrate, too.

As a reporter for a community newspaper, I’ve found a new way to share stories, a new way to celebrate public service. I'm continually inspired by stories of quiet heroism in my small California community.

I've had the privilege to tell the story of a long-time mail carrier who spent her lunch breaks comforting bereaved widows along her route, a formerly homeless man who now devotes his time to lifting up Ojai's homeless community, and two cancer survivors who have made it their mission to provide free support services to newly diagnosed patients.

These stories are unique, but the commitment to community is not uncommon. They show me that you don't need access to power to wield influence; you don't need a big name to make a difference.

As for what comes next, I’m really not sure. I’ve changed career paths three times in the past 10 years, and I imagine I have a few more changes on the horizon.

One thing I love reporting on is Ojai’s local school system. It strikes me as absurd though, how early the school community begins asking children what career they hope to pursue as adults.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Personally, I just want to be happy. I want to be giving. I want to be of service to my community. And that’s kind of it.

Words: Andra Belknap
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch