“You may have seen the book “All My Friends Are Dead” floating around your local bookshop. I personally haven’t read it, but the cover explains itself, with an illustration of a wide-eyed and dazed Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Don’t worry. My friends are still alive (thankfully). But I feel like Mr. T-Rex and I share the sentiment of loneliness and/or isolation. Only, my book would probably be titled, “All My Friends Are Working at Nice Companies Whilst I Bumble Around in France.”
Last year I finished my studies and decided I wasn’t sure if journalism was right for me. So, contrary to all my friends who were either looking for or found jobs, some with nice, well-known companies, I packed two suitcases and a carry-on (all of which were overweight) and went to live in Paris for a year.
I’m still here, finishing out this année sabbatique — rather, a year and a half — and I’ll be going back to the States in July. Was Paris everything I wanted? Yes. Was it everything I never expected? Yes. Was it everything I didn’t want? Yes, too.
A sabbatical does not connote struggle, but that is what this past year and a half has been at times. I have dreamt of Paris since I was 8 years old, with the same starry eyes of probably everyone who is not Parisian. I first loved Paris as a tourist. Now, I love her as a resident. While I may be leaving, what I’ve learnt here will always stay.
I suppose we are all on a quest for identity. Identity tells us to whom and to what we belong. Belonging, in turn, is a universal human desire. I do not actually believe that everyone wants to be famous, nor rich. We want to be famous because we want acceptance. We want money because it can shallowly buy us that.
When I arrived to Paris, I didn’t know exactly who I was, with only the trepidation to squeak out, “I’m a photographer!” I came, principally, to practice art, but wouldn’t have called myself an artist.
Glance at me, and you might make some assumptions. Perhaps that I am quiet and won’t speak up for myself. (That was/is true, but one of my words is “bold” this year, so hopefully that changes.) Maybe you presume that I am mildly intelligent in the sciences, or, if you’re being generous, gifted in the sciences. My whole life, until I was 21, I let my community tell me what I am. I didn’t have a notion of who I was.
Here’s the secret I’ve learnt: You might not have a choice in what you are by way of profession, etc. You do, however, have a say in who you are.
There’s a wagon going around right now, and maybe you’ve hopped on or off. You must be “doing what you love” to be happy and fulfilled. By “doing what you love,” this means that “you’ll never work a day in your life,” and anyone who is not in love with their job and isn’t side hustling to make it is destined for unhappy corporate slavery.
Two years ago, I read a book that started this journey of learning who I am. It’s called Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Even if you do not practice Christianity.
The premise of the book is simple. All work is good work. And rest is important. We have gifts and talents. And no job is “too small” or “unimportant.”
I’d say I grew up with adequate peer pressure to be something “important.” The arts were not heavily encouraged. “Artists are poor,” they always said. “They don’t make any money.” And, oh la la, quelle horreur when my brother decided he wanted to be a garbage man. At the very least, he had to aspire to be the CEO of the garbage company.
This was my warped view about work. That only some work mattered, but also on the other hand, if I didn’t love what I was doing, my career was pointless. So what happened when I found myself in Paris, wanting to practice art, but having the “knowledge” that it wouldn’t amount me to anything? Was I a mistake? Was my love for art of a mistake? Did I matter? Were my dreams valid? Why did I exist, if, in the end, I would just go find a nice job at a nice company and save art for something I did in secret?
In Paris I learnt that no one decides who I am except me. No one needs to call me an artist. I give that title to myself. And if I don’t want to be a full-time artist, that doesn’t make me any less of one, or a less successful one. Success looks different on every person, and I believe that you can have a fulfilling office career and be an amazing person outside of work, too.
We are many things. The whats can sometimes out-pile the who. But that’s when it also comes to being intentional with our identity. We all have personal brands. It’s the way that people perceive us. The only catch is to know who is in charge of your narrative. Are you? Or are you allowing others to tell you what you are?
I am an artist. I am a film photographer, a writer, an occasional poet. But I am also a jeune fille au pair for a French family, and my visa says that I am a student.
I could let you look at my papers and tell me what I am. A nanny. A student. A babysitter. Or, I can take control of my narrative, share art that I am passionate about, and talk about WHO I am and want to be.
It’s not untrue that I am everything listed above. But I can choose what defines me, and what does not..”
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