Monday, January 23, 2012

Looking at Youth From the Other Side of the Timeline

A 23-year-old writer for the teenage magazine Twist did a phone interview with me the other day.

Hearing her nervous adherence to a list of questions, her earnestness, and the youthful exuberance in her voice made me smile and took me back to a very different time and place.

I remember turning 23 just before finishing graduate school at Northwestern. I walked along the campus lakeshore that birthday and pondered my future. I wondered if I could be happy working at a teenage girls' magazine. It wasn't an idle question: that, in fact, was what was looking like my best job prospect and I was feeling disappointed, anxious and unsure of the future.

My parents had begged me to come back to Los Angeles after I finished my Master's degree instead of heading to New York as I had dreamed. They were aging fast and still had a teenager at home. The teenager, my sister Tai, was depressed, distraught and defiant. They needed help. "Just give us two years," my mother said. "Besides, it's cheaper to live in L.A. You can get a head start in paying off your student loan."

The only female-oriented national consumer magazine edited from Los Angeles at the time was 'TEEN. I had decided, a year in advance, to learn all I could about this magazine and its competitors. I did my final graduate research project on the evolution of teenage girls' magazines post World War II: a comparative analysis of SEVENTEEN, INGENUE and 'TEEN, the biggest circulation leaders at the time. Now, my move back to L.A. looming, I thought and fantasized about how it might be to start my career at 'TEEN, to give advice to young girls, to help smooth the rough spots of these vital growing years -- not to mention giving help and support as well to my distressed teenage sister. I decided that it all might be well worth my time.

And so it was: I spent the first nine years of my career at 'TEEN as Feature Editor, writing self-help articles and columns, giving advice to an uncommonly responsive audience, working with a wonderful staff of peers -- some of whom have become lifelong friends. As jobs go, it was not only my first, but also my best employment experience -- and the best possible beginning for my working life.

Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I wanted more. I aspired to write books. And I did. I aspired to do television -- either as an actress or as a talk show guest. And I did. I thought it might be nice to be rich and famous. Well. I learned to be satisfied being solvent. And sort of semi-famous. But the career dreams that mattered most to me did come true.

And so it was funny, the other day, to time travel back for a moment: to be -- at once -- that 23-year-old grad student imagining a future and the 66-year-old looking back on a career largely in the past while talking with another eager 23- year-old working for a new magazine for teenage girls. This is, to be sure, a very different time to be 23. But some things are simply timeless.

Being on the other side of life's timeline -- beyond the dreams of a great career, beyond the major demands of such a career -- keeps giving me chances to reflect back on lessons learned.

What did I learn from my adventures out into the world of work? If we had been having coffee and talking casually, what advice would I have given that sweet 23-year-old reporter?

I think I would emphasize the following:

What looks like an obstacle may be an opportunity.  It's harder than ever these days for young people to get a career foothold. So many opportunities seem to be tenuous and disappointing financially -- endless internships and low-paying jobs. But going for the experience and living on a sparse budget may be well worth one's time. And good experience, prestige and big money do not invariably go together.

It's hard to overstate how disappointed I was to be returning to L.A. when I was 23 instead of following my dreams to New York. I was mortified to be planning to work at a teenage magazine -- something I wouldn't have been caught dead reading as an intellectually snobbish teenager (but came to enjoy as a more free-spirited twentysomething). My best friend among my journalism school classmates was headed to the Wall Street Journal, where, in just a few years, he began to cover the White House and travel with Presidents. Other classmates landed at The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, McCall's and The New York Times. 'TEEN seemed a singularly unpromising beginning. Except it wasn't. Even though the pay was ridiculously low, even by 1968 standards, and I lived in a one room studio for years, it was worth the financial sacrifices. The staff was young and we were given much more responsibility and editorial freedom than our peers at other publications. In time, I developed the writing specialties -- psychology and health -- that have defined my entire career. I had the opportunity to travel the world on assignment and to write to a wonderfully responsive audience. 'TEEN was exactly where I needed to be.

I guess I would advise a young counterpart to seize an opportunity, even if it isn't your ultimate dream, and make a resolution to learn everything you can from that experience. That is quite often how careers in competitive fields and particularly in these times tend to grow.

You'll discover some of life's greatest adventures and treasures when you're not looking for them.  It's a matter of saying "Yes!" to growth, to learning new skills, to going in a new direction. If the career you thought you had always wanted isn't working out or if fate or changing interests seem to be taking you in a different direction, go with the flow -- and just see what happens.

I learned so much and grew tremendously from taking every assignment the publisher at 'TEEN doled out to me -- and it all led to some memorable life experiences -- spending a week in a wilderness prison camp for young male first time offenders in British Columbia, following a group of aspiring teenage models on a whirlwind trip of the fashion capitals of Europe, interviewing young Native Americans on the reservations and in urban areas just before the historic occupation of Alcatraz, spending a day in a mortuary with a young funeral director in rural Ohio who was co-teaching a high school class in death education. The memories and the growth experiences were endless.

And I found my career in psychotherapy in the course of one of the most horrible job experiences I've ever had. During a low period in my writing career, I took a day job as a research co-ordinator at a psychiatric hospital where the top administrator arbitrarily fired people depending on the hospital census. Pink slips were issued with paychecks every week. There was little team spirit and lots of back-biting. One of my supervisors made cruel comments daily about my weight. There were days when I cried throughout my 68-mile commute home.

But, in the midst of all this misery, I made an interesting discovery: I seemed to have a knack for connecting with and calming seriously mentally ill patients -- even though I wasn't a therapist at the time. Several of the doctors noticed and urged me to go back to school for a clinical degree. They wrote recommendations for my applications to graduate school. And within a year, I was on my way - working full-time during the day, going to school at night -- to a graduate degree in clinical psychology -- something I might never have pursued if not for the experience with patients at this hospital -- and the encouragement of some wonderful psychiatrists and psychologists whom I remember with gratitude to this day.  So, even when things look unpromising, you never know.

Life can have many other surprises in store for us. I have seen friends -- or clients -- so desperate to meet that one special person only to have the prize elude them time after time. It happened to me, too,  at least once or twice. And then, when I least expected it, when I went half-heartedly to a conference at USC, I met Bob, now my husband of nearly 35 years. I was burned out on love at the time. I was sick of dating. I couldn't bear the possibility of more heart-break. My hair was a mess. I was in a bad mood. I had a prominent pimple on my nose. And yet, there he was. And he noticed and came to love the imperfect, all-too-human person I happened to be. And I bounced back from my romantic burn-out to share his feelings.

So I guess I would tell the 23-year-old something like this: It makes sense to have a plan and goals and a direction for your life. But be prepared to be surprised, to have some plans replaced by new ones, to have completely unexpected adventures and experiences, friendships and love enrich your life as the years go by.

You can learn even more from failure than from success. At 23, I would have had a hard time hearing and truly believing this. I so feared failure then, feeling one wrong step would send me into an endless spiral down to professional oblivion. It took time and maturity to realize that challenges and failures are as much a part of life's rhythm as success.

I've certainly enjoyed success when it has happened. One can become quickly accustomed to the attention and acclaim that come with a well-reviewed or best-selling or award-winning book -- and my first book (and several others later on) was all that. I can look at old video-tapes of me talking with Oprah, Matt Lauer, Deborah Norville, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, Richard Simmons or Bryant Gumbel and recall that I accepted such attention simply as my due. I enjoyed the perks of success a lot, but I don't remember learning much from all the hoopla.

I learned much more from my books that didn't sell, from the times I didn't get a role as an actress or was passed over as a talk show guest. I learned a tremendous amount from failed romantic relationships and friendships -- lessons about the value of authenticity, of embracing a setback instead of being devastated by it, of accepting another person as is instead of trying to change him, of not losing my self in the thrill of a new relationship or in what I came to see as the temporary high of a moment of success.

And my failures have taught me that I'm not entitled to an easy life -- even if I'm talented and even if I've worked hard. I've learned during the rough times that success isn't a given or an endless loop, that life offers no guarantees -- only challenges and as much happiness as one decides to have.

You find your greatest triumphs not by chasing success, but by following your heart.  I realized this with new clarity some years ago during a conversation with a very wise young editor/publisher in New York. Gene Brissie was the editor of my very successful first book at Simon and Schuster and was later editor or publisher of five of my books for Simon and Schuster and Putnam's. One day, when I was experiencing one of the low points in my career, when some of my book ideas had crashed and burned and I was feeling discouraged, Gene asked me one question: "Of all the books you've written, which ones did you have to write? Which ones came from your heart?"

I thought for a moment about the eight books I had written and had published at that time. "There were two," I replied.

"And how did those two do?" he asked.

"They did the best," I said, the realization dawning. "Those two books have been my most successful."

"So ask yourself what else you really have to write," he said gently. "Listen to your heart."

Gene followed his own heart into a career change not long ago and is now a literary agent -- my literary agent -- and he is still encouraging me to write from the heart.

Following your heart in pursuing a career or a passion can keep you motivated through the tough times --   through some disappointments or some crummy day jobs that sustain you financially on the way to making your dream reality or experiences with cranky supervisors or people who are only too happy to tell you that you can't do what you want to do or the setbacks that come to everyone. If you love what you're doing or what you hope to do eventually, if you have a sustaining dream for your life, you'll find success. It may be somewhat different from the success you originally envisioned. The dream may change over time. But when you're living life congruent with your passions, success will happen in so many ways for you.

And, from the vantage point of 66, I think back on my life and see a timeline filled with hard work, wonderful people and experiences, heartbreak and challenges, many tears and enormous good fortune. Overall, I look with wonder at the joy I've had in following my heart, living my passions and encountering success and happiness and love -- sometimes when I least expected.

And what would I say to that 23-year-old reporter today? "Use times of trouble, frustration and disappointment to grow and enjoy your life as it unfolds, day by day, moment by moment. Don't miss the joy of today by focusing only on the next step. Follow your heart and your passions -- and be open to all of life's surprises!"

Would she listen? Could she understand? Perhaps she simply has to live her own dreams and disappointments in the unique rhythm of her own life.  I can only quietly wish her much happiness and wisdom and great adventures along the way.


  1. I love this! I'm going to send it to my 25 year old daughter who's in a career that follows her talent but not her heart.

    It's also helped me, who started out as a journalism major only to end up with 29 years in the middle school classroom and a huge passion for teaching. Perhaps the journalism can be something of a second career for me when I retire after next school year.

    But you're right. Our lives may not always follow the paths we've scripted, but if we look carefully, glorious adventures await.

  2. Wonderful advice as always. I so agree we learn more from our failures than our successes. You really managed to carve quite a career for your self.
    Let us know when your interview is published and hope I won't look too silly buying Twist with my white hair and gimpy gate.

  3. What a fantastic post, Kathy! Such wise advice and helpful reflection on your own life, while always remembering that we are each unique and have our own path to follow.

  4. Dear Kathy,
    Like Perpetua, I find this posting "fantastic." You lay out before our eyes the whole of what life offers us. Thank you.

    The two lines that just stayed on with me as I read were the following: "that life offers no guarantees -- only challenges and as much happiness as one decides to have." The idea of choice here is so essential. We can choose to be happy.

    The second line that is replete with wisdom for me is "But when you're living life congruent with your passions, success will happen in so many ways for you."

    Right now I want to move back to Minnesota but because of finances that may not happen. And so I feel some fear. Last night, a friend suggested that I let go of the fear and instead feel patience. That I patiently wait for positive change in my life. Whatever that change might be and that I be open to it. Such good advice and it reflects what you are saying here.

    Your wisdom comes I think from all these years of choosing happiness and welcoming adventure.


  5. Ah, to have clarity that comes from living a full life!
    Yes, wonderful advice!
    But, at 23, is she going to trust herself to see beyond what's just in front of her?

  6. This post has left me breathless with admiration. There is so much wisdom and love in what you say and I am so grateful to have discovered your blog and most of all you...

  7. This was great advice for a 23 year old. I wish I could have heard it when I was 23, but by then, I already was married and had two children.

    Life teaches us many lessons that we just aren't ready to learn at 23. I wonder if we even think we need advice at 23.

    I love reading your perspective on life's events.

  8. Wonderful advice. I loved Teen when I was a kid...all that advice that my mother never shared with me. I graduated from high school the year you started at Teen. I wish I'd had your advice back then!

  9. Gosh I have missed your writing. It seems like I have been gone from here more than a week. lol
    Great advice for all of us no matter what age.
    Like the others I am so grateful to have found you

  10. I can relate to your post tonight with all the things that have happen in my life. The biggest was when my hubby got sick and I became the bread winner of the family. I am thankful that our children were all adults living on their own. You roll with the punches you are handed as I like to say. I shed many a tear when we didn't know what was coming next, but we have made it through twelve years. We have been married for 48 years. The last twelve I have been his primary caregiver, making decisions for his life, and doing things that I never thought I would have to do. I agree with your advice, but some of the younger generation think they know everything. I always told my kids that you do your job to the best of your ability and be patient for you never know what tomorrow will bring. I enjoyed your post very much. Your Missouri Friend.

  11. Wonderful post, Kathy... Your posts are always filled with great information and you say it with so much love. Thanks so much.

    Would you like to go back to age 23 and do it all again???? I would NOT... ha (Been there--done that)... BUT--I certainly would do some things differently if I could go back. Guess we all would.... (It's easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback!!! ha)...

    Think I've gotten much wiser as I've aged... BUT--then again, the 23-year-olders certainly have me BEAT when it comes to technology.... ha ha

    Thanks for a great post, Kathy.

  12. This is good advice. And these days our young people need it more than ever.

  13. As usual I loved your post. I can hardly remember the 23 year old that I was (just a few more than a couple of years ago :-)but I don't think I would have listened to much advice about the future! My life has taken a bunch of turns that I couldn't even have anticipated and I feel I have ended right where I should be, even though none of it involved fame or fortune!

  14. P.S. Cathy,
    I didn't know you were famous :-)

  15. I needed to have time to read and re-read your blog post. such important thoughts no matter what age! now for the pondering!