I vividly remember the day I called my friend Kirsten on my lunch break from the sunny steps of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, crying like a baby and struggling to get enough air into my lungs.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” I gasped. “I just feel like I can’t breathe at work, my chest is so tight—I just can’t breathe.”
I’d been working for a publishing company for about a year, and on paper the job was my best yet—I had a great salary, great benefits and—the coveted cherry-on-top in an overcrowded industry—a straight path to promotion. The job required travel and chic clothes. Basically, I had it made.
The only problem? I was in therapy, my relationship was in trouble, I’d started doing yoga as a stop-gap solution for my total inability to relax—and I’d apparently forgotten how to breathe.
It wasn’t just the fact that I had to get up at 6 a.m. to commute to work by 8, and never got home before 6 p.m., and I worked in a windowless office just far enough away from my colleagues to come within slipping range of daily oil spills of gossip every time I went to refresh my coffee. It was the fact that, in tiny but significant ways, the job required me to compromise my values nearly every day.
I’m pretty sure you know me: I’m the girl who sat in the back of your first-year politics or literature or philosophy class at university and called the professor out on every statement that admitted to a less-than-idealistic worldview. Over time I’ve learned to admit the reality of brokenness in the political and economic systems, and the need for graceful dialogue at all levels of public life.
But in this job, I had no voice. I’m all for doing a task without questioning my boss, if it means I can put my heart into it and be proud of the results. But daily, surrounded on three sides by grey walls, my principles were slowly winnowed away until my output mainly consisted of propaganda disguised as balanced journalism.
And daily, I’d be sitting at that dim desk when terror would steal over me and some mysterious vice would grip my chest: I can’t breathe.
Let’s get real: if your daily commute home involves you clutching a handrail, pressed on all sides by bodies in sweat-stained suits and ties and fighting panic, until you inevitably start breathing faster and faster and finally burst off the bus 10 stops too soon and are forced to walk the rest of the way, trying to slow your heartbeat, measure your breaths—something in your life has got to change.
I knew this. My friends and family knew it. But I’d been sending out resumes and applications discretely for months, with no result. I’d even joined LinkedIn, creating my profile guiltily at work, solely in hopes that I’d be (as a colleague promised in an undertone) head-hunted. My fellow foxes: I wasn’t. My foxy noggin remained firmly attached to my neck and shoulders, rock-solid with tension—and my clogged-up larynx.
My then-boyfriend tried to convince me that quitting wasn’t the right solution. “How do you know you won’t be just as unhappy in the next job?” he’d ask me after my latest (literal) sob-story. “Wait and see if you can last another 3 months. The longer you stay the better it will look on your CV.”
In the end, I couldn’t do it. In the winter, I finally quit, with absolutely no job lined up. I flew to Vancouver Island and lived for a month with an aunt. For a month, I sat in a café and wrote short stories a la Lorrie Moore (I fondly imagined) and drank fair-trade Americanos, the money for which flowed straight out of my line-of-credit, and walked for miles in the lemony January sunshine. At the end of that month, I flew home and started freelancing.
A year-and-a-half later, I am not more “successful” in the conventional sense than I was during my month of detox at Victoria’s Fernwood Café. I do about a million “jobs” to pay the bills. But I have hand-chosen those jobs, and I love the work. I live in an office with an ever-shifting view. I won’t pretend that it’s always easy—and freelancing has its own set of challenges that aren’t for everyone—but it turns out that wearing so many hats is good for my complexion.
My fellow foxes, why do we give in so easily to life’s narrowest definitions of professional success? Success is—has to—allow for beauty as we see it. And we are not successful if we can’t breathe.
How can I count the ways that I am successful on the happiness meter? “Happy people make my ass twitch,” Kevin Klyne famously sneers in French Kiss. I’m not trying to be a jerk about this happiness thing. But here’s something I know for sure: every morning I wake up and look forward to my day. I no longer give a fuck for success as they see it. I am writing my life as I go. I’m living my own story.