I was 23 years old, home for the holidays when I shared the news.
Sitting across the kitchen island from my dad I was beaming with pride.
“I got into Columbia and Michigan for social work.”
Two of the top grads programs in the country for the profession. I was expecting his excitement to match my own.
But instead he responded, “Social work. Can you make a living on that salary?”
From that moment on I resolved to prove to everyone that I could make it on my own. I didn’t need any help or reassurance.
Little did I know I was also locking in my fate, holding myself to a future plan that would be hard to shift away from.
I’m Kim Wensel and this is Resentfully Yours, a limited series podcast where we examine, adjust, and reframe the expectations of a creative career.
The topics on this show explore how to avoid resentment when you’re feeling misunderstood, overworked, and undervalued. Because as a working creative the question isn’t IF you’ll feel this way, it’s WHEN.
This series focuses on how to get back to work that’s life giving, not life sucking; making your own definition of “making it;” and ditching the excuses that are keeping us from reaching our true potential.
STOP DOING THINGS YOU HATE
When I was a kid my parents encouraged reading. I have a distinct memory of my dad telling me that the one thing he’d always say yes to was books. He’d limit the amount of toys in the house but never the number of books.
My love for reading has continued. I’m usually reading 2-3 books at a time. One non-fiction and one fiction. The third could fall in either category and is usually one I’m having trouble getting through.
I used to force myself to finish any book I started.
I’d listen to people when they’d say, “It’s a little slow to start but after the first 50 pages it gets really good.”
I never understood this logic but would follow it regardless. Struggle through to get to the good part.
I also didn’t understand it from a writer or publisher’s point of view. Why make it hard to get through the beginning? From what I know about writing, the goal is always to hook the reader from the get-go.
I kept on this way until about a year ago. With kids and work, the grocery runs and after school activities, I didn’t want to struggle through anything. I wanted to enjoy the 10 minutes before bed when I would crack open a spine and make it through maybe 3 more pages.
I remember the moment when I realized this wasn’t just a ME thing.
I was talking to someone … I can’t even remember where. We were sitting in a waiting room and she had a book on her lap. I commented on it and she said she had heard great things but was struggling to get through it. I told her: you don’t HAVE to just get through it. Why not spend your time on something more enjoyable?
This realization hit her like it hit me when it first occurred. “You’re right,” she said.
Her wife joined her back in the waiting area and she proclaimed. “See honey, this woman said I should just stop reading it. I told you.”
Her wife responded with something about just pushing through, perfectually punctuating our society’s obsession with avoiding sunk costs.
WHEN IS IT A LOST CAUSE?
Squeezing every ounce of value out of the things we’ve paid for shows up in so many areas of our lives.
Last fall I was seeing a new jean trend everywhere. Because apparently skinny jeans now scream that you’re old.
Like many people, my body had changed after living through a pandemic for 18 months, mostly at home. I didn’t feel like myself. And jeans seemed like a smart investment if I was going to spruce up my closet.
I headed to Anthropologie, my daughter in tow. I was Christmas shopping — fully embracing the two for me, one for you mindset.
I tried on a bunch of outfits and the jeans from the front display looked okay. They didn’t blow me away but I just thought the dressing room fluorescent lights had something to do with it.
I got home and tried them on again. They weren’t flattering.
It’s the shoes, I thought. So I looked up the shoes that designers were pairing with this style.
Changing the footwear didn’t change how flattering they were. But I took the tags off anyway. If they could work for so many people they had to work for me.
I wore them a few times but every time I did I felt uncomfortable. They’re still in my closet and I wear them out of obligation. I spent good money on them. How could I possibly give them away?
It’s not just personal things we do this with. I see it all the time in business.
Last year I traveled out to Palm Springs for a photoshoot. I had a whole theme in mind and the mountainous backdrop with palm trees and florals were perfect for the vibe.
I got a recommendation for a photographer and even had my designer on site with me for the day. What could go wrong?
Well, apparently a lot.
The photos were terrible. And I mean this as someone who’s had her photo professionally taken 2-3 times a year for the past five years.
There was a weird orange filter plastered on top and my skin had a greyish tint that made me look half dead. He shot from some of the most unflattering angles and I had to narrow down my selects from over 500.
But the quality of photos isn’t the point. How I responded is.
As you can tell, these photos made me feel bad about myself. Every time I saw them I had a visceral reaction. And yet, I felt compelled to share them. Even after I booked another shoot with a different photographer…I felt the innate urge to put them to use.
As irrational as it sounds, we do this.
We buy a course, don’t enjoy it, but continue to go through it because we “want to get the most out of it.”
We start a podcast and ten episodes in we realize it’s definitely not the medium for us. But we’ve hyped it on social media so we keep chugging along.
We’re unhappy in our relationship. But we’ve been in it for five years — no one else would know us from that stage in life. We couldn’t imagine starting over, so we keep trying to make it better, knowing it’s a lost cause.
LETTING YOUR PAST DICTATE YOUR FUTURE
A colleague and I were grabbing sushi at an outdoor bistro in DC after an all staff meeting. It was a beautiful spring day and a rare occurrence that we were together in person. While it was 2016, we had already been working remotely for some time.
Pattern of Purpose was in its infancy and with each passing month it became more evident I wouldn’t find what I was looking for in my 9-5.
I felt like I was doing something wrong. In the five years since graduating from my master’s programs the average tenure of my positions was about 18 months.
I wanted so badly to find a position that aligned with my education — I still had that picture in my mind of what it would look like to be traveling internationally, working on issues of importance like women’s health and development.
And while I had no trouble securing the job, the reality always turned out to be less dreamy than the dream itself. Even though I had this new business, I was locked into the vision I set for myself nearly 10 years earlier.
The fact that I still had student loan payments debited out of my account every month – yeah, that probably / very much weighed on my career decisions.
In the middle of discussing my unhappiness in my current situation, my colleague looked at me across the table with knowing eyes. She said, “Kim, grad school is a sunk cost. It’s already done. Making decisions based on that won’t change what you’ve already invested in. So you can stay tied to it or accept it and move on with what you want.”
For some reason that was the first time I opened up the possibilities for the road ahead. I falsely believed I was indebted to the decisions I had already made — tied to a future that my past self had desired, regardless of how I’d evolved.
When we think about the cost of decisions we tend to only think about the financial costs. Those are the tangible things we can see on a balance sheet or bank statement. But there are other costs that weigh as much, if not more heavily on us.
I’ve coached several people making mid-career pivots who dream of working outside of the sector they’re in, but commit to staying for five more years because in five years they’ll be eligible for loan forgiveness.
I’ve witnessed (and lately at that) entrepreneurs who have become successful at becoming successfully miserable in their business. They’ve reached a level of success they dreamed of only to find themselves trapped doing work that no longer fuels them.
What’s the emotional cost, the energetic cost of living this way?
How does it affect our quality of life and vigor for activities outside of work?
Research shows that when we’re unhappy at work we’re more likely to be anxious, depressed, and have low self-esteem.
The workplace has changed. Pensions are a thing of the past. Retirement at age 65, not for many of us. So if we’re going to work — and work a long while at that — shouldn’t we commit to making it work for us?
PIVOTING YOUR CAREER PATH
Imagine what it would be like to stick to the course we set for ourselves.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a ballerina. If you knew me today, I can nearly guarantee that gracefulness is not a term you’d reach for when describing me to others.
As an entrepreneur I’m grateful I worked within other companies for a decade. The jobs taught me lessons about teamwork, industry norms, and mentorship that I would have missed had I dove straight into self-employment. As I look back I can clearly see the lessons I was learning, especially in the times that felt the most difficult.
But hindsight is, of course, 20/20.
There’s a graphic that’s been popularized over the years. It’s the one that’s titled, “It’s Never Too Late To Start.” I prefer the title, “You’ve Already Started, Keep Going.”
The graphic depicts the age that founders were when they started the business or career path they’re known for today.
For example, while Bill Gates was 20, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn was 36.
Christian Dior was 41.
And Estee Lauder was 54.
I think the reason this was so widely popularized is because we’ve celebrated the 20 under 20 and 30 under 30 lists. In recent years, these have expanded to include the 50 over 50. We’re signaling, as a society, that lasting success can only come with experience — with the winding path?
As impatient as I am with my own unfolding, these are my favorite stories. The interviews, narratives, and cover stories of ordinary people with extraordinary vision.
One of my favorite books is In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney.
100 interviews, coupled by crisp photography, the premise of this book is simple. To share interviews with women creators and artists on lessons learned, mistakes made, and traits they’re proud of.
Bonney recently came out with a second in this series titled Collective Wisdom: lessons, inspiration, and advice for women over 50.
While I haven’t had the chance to sit with it yet, I imagine few of these women took the straight and narrow path. Where’s the depth in that? How do you develop courage when you don’t have to face something new?
During the last month of 2021 I hosted a workshop titled: Year in Review. As we prepared to reflect on our own years, I shared my driving purpose behind the workshop. It was a single quote by American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey.
He said, “We do not learn from an experience…we learn from reflecting on an experience.”
YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND AND YOUR DIRECTION
If you could go back on your life, is there anything you’d change? Or can you believe that everywhere you’ve been has made you into the person you are today?
When we’re constantly in a state of moving, focusing on what’s urgent and not important, how can we see what we truly want?
If you’re asking, “What would it mean about me to change my mind and my direction?” you might be onto something.
And I’d ask this not to be a rhetorical question. What would it actually mean? Would it mean anything at all?
You want to know what I believe? I believe if you’re a creative you’re multipassionate.
This is why you start to get that itch when you’re been doing something for some time. It’s why you see opportunity in ideas.
Looking back on the last 15 years I know that I didn’t stay in one place because I hadn’t yet seen enough places. The yearning to be just one thing has never stopped. And maybe it never will.
Just this past year I was talking to my COO, soliciting her advice on a service structure that would make my work more understandable and compact.
Knowing me, and having heard this request before, she said, “Kim, I think we’re going to need to make peace with the fact that your work might always be a bit fluid. You might never be able to pin down your process into a tidy framework and that’s what makes it powerful.”
Maybe you’re dreaming of something new right now but rationalizing, “I can’t change because I just made a change.”
First – is this true? Are you really being impatient or indecisive?
Or are you really more concerned what others will think about your change?
If it’s the latter, I can tell you: People aren’t paying as much attention to us as we think they are.
They won’t call you out. They won’t hold your feet to the fire for something you proclaimed a year ago. They’re too busy worrying about themselves.
We must commit to constantly asking ourselves: Can I afford to stay where I am? Financially, emotionally, and energetically?
When I was in the depths of reconsidering who I wanted to be and what role I wanted work to play in my life, journaling became my go-to practice. I had to start with some straightforward questions:
- What’s exciting me right now?
- What scares me?
- What keeps me up at night?
- What did I used to do that I don’t want to do moving forward?
It almost looks like the beginnings of a creative brief, the customer persona section. And if you need to think of it that way, there’s no harm in doing so.
The insights that I came up with:
I’ve been clawing my way here for years.
Breathing room is what I’m craving.
I want to allow for possibility without clinging to the outcome.
You are many things — far beyond what your job title is today. Once we can accept that — embrace it — it makes it easier to focus on the future version of ourselves and appreciate the past enough to be able to break ties with it.