Friends: gather around, now. I’m going to tell you a story about the value of taking yourself seriously.
When I was in seventh grade, I had the worst health teacher in the entire world. I find it important, at this juncture, to tell you his actual name, which was Mr. Dusenbury. Because here is the truth about Mr. Dusenbury: he was mean and sexist, and during every single class, he would launch into a tirade about how women were worse than men.* We were smaller, we were weaker, we had terrible hormones that made us crazy, and we would never be able to compete with men professionally, because we were all going to get pregnant and stop working to raise our babies, which was what nature intended us to do, and, and, and…
I tried to fight him on it. But he would just tell me to DO SOME ONE-ARMED PUSH-UPS THEN IF I WAS SO EQUAL TO MEN; HE COULD DO ONE-ARMED PUSH-UPS, COULD I??? So I just started tuning him out. I don’t recommend this strategy, generally; I believe you should always pay attention, in every class, unless “paying attention” means dealing with one more second of Mr. Dusenbury. And, in my case, it did. So I would show up for the part where he told me how intestines worked, and when the “Ladies: Actually Terrible at Having Intestines” portion began, I would start writing in my notebook or reading a novel.
When Mr. Dusenbury caught me, he took the book I was reading, held it up in front of the class, and ripped it in half. I told him he had no right to do that; he did the one-armed push-ups speech; I told him that maybe he should have spent some time learning to teach instead of perfecting his one-armed push-up skills; he sent me to the principal.
The principal asked me why I had this terrible habit of writing instead of listening to misogynist rants. And I told him that I wrote because I was going to be a writer, in New York, and I was probably specifically going to write about how sexism was wrong. And he said this:
“The thing is, that’s just extremely unlikely to happen. And you’re going to have a really hard life, if you just decide not to listen to people that you personally feel are sexist.”
“When it happens,” I said, “I’ll send you the story about Mr. Dusenbury.”
Which: What a ridiculous thing for a fourteen-year-old to say! So immature! So grandiose! Such a typical, adolescent fantasy! I am sure my principal laughed himself to sleep that night. Yes, yes, you’re going to become a writer, and tell everyone how awful this school was, and then we’ll be sorry. Good luck, little girl. I am quaking in my sensible shoes, right now!
Dear Mr. Dusenbury and the principal: My mother will be mailing the school a printed copy of this article, along with my C.V. and a list of the awards and recognition I have won for (a) writing, and (b) writing specifically about sexism, and (c) not listening to sexist authorities when I wrote about sexism. I will be happy to accept either your signed apology, or the school’s apology on your behalf. You may also consider making me a big, festive banner, reading “OK, You Win.” Although, should you wish to send this victory banner to me directly, you will need to ask my mother for my precise address. BECAUSE IT IS IN NEW YORK CITY, THAT IS WHY.
There is a point to all this, besides the fact that no competent professional would ever hire someone like Mr. Dusenbury and put him alone in a room with small children. The point is that, for anyone—but especially for girls—it can be very hard to hold on to your ambition. Even now, when it’s pretty much taken for granted that most girls will grow up to have jobs, girls are still discouraged from taking their desires for accomplishment too seriously.
Because accomplishment is hard. And accomplishment, on some basic level, is pretty selfish. To really devote yourself to achieving something—anything: becoming a writer, becoming a lawyer, becoming the world’s best mini-golf player—you have to have a vision of what you want, and you have to want it fiercely, and you have to be able to throw your whole weight behind getting it. But girls aren’t supposed to care that much about what they want for themselves. Like my awful, awful health teacher used to say: we’re supposed to put our own ambitions aside, and focus on other people. And those other people don’t even have to be babies! Consider the difference between a guy who stays in every weekend to practice guitar, and a girl who does the same thing. The guy is a brooding, intense, passionate musician. The girl is just unpopular.
That’s all a load of crap. Ambition is great. Wanting things is great. Being willing to work hard to get what you want, being willing to make sacrifices in order to fulfill your own dreams: that is all super great, and admirable, and you are going to need it. Because here’s the thing: your ambitions and desires for accomplishment are what allow you to have a sense of self. If you don’t have a sense of what you want from life, it’s easy to just define yourself around other people, and to do whatever they seem to want from you. And other people can take away their approval, at any time. But when you provide your own approval— when you know what you want, and know you have what it takes to get it—you have a basis for feeling good about yourself that doesn’t go away.
Right now, you are in one of the world’s most enviable positions. You are a teenager. What that means is that you are smart enough and mature enough to start thinking about what you want to do with your life, but you are also young enough to consider many different possibilities. You don’t have to commit to anything on a permanent level right now. Everything is about exploration.
But, while you’re exploring, it’s a really good idea to get in touch with what makes you the happiest. Take a look at everything you really enjoy doing, and every future you sometimes like to think you’ll have. Try to envision yourself actually occupying those futures; ask yourself what would fulfill you about each one. Or what fulfills you the most, right now: which hobby or action or mode of operation gives you something that nothing else can.
It doesn’t have to be a big, grand, noble answer. I didn’t decide I wanted to be a writer, and to write about sexism, because I wanted to Change The World. I decided that I wanted to write about sexism because I was shy and weird and wanted to find a way to communicate with people—a way to show them how I saw the world. And one of the ways I felt most misunderstood was around being female—I didn’t line up easily with what people expected girls to do or be, so I figured unpacking the world’s expectations about being a girl might be a good place to start.
It was a good start, but it was also something that other people could use. And that’s the way it is for most people: if you examine your own needs, you’re going to find that somewhere, somehow, somebody else needs you to fulfill them. Do you personally need to help people who are hurting? Good—the world needs therapists, doctors, and human-rights advocates. Do you need to explore, to figure out something new about how the world works? Good—the world needs scientists and investigative journalists. We still don’t totally know what’s at the bottom of the ocean! You can find out what the Bloop was, and then I can sleep at night! (Unless it is actually a sea monster. Please, God, tell me it is not actually a sea monster.) Do you need attention? Yeah, well, so did I, and the world needs loudmouths in every single creative field. Do you need to prove yourself through competition? Good. Find a place where you can compete, and start winning. If I ever need a lawyer, I may end up calling you.
I recommend that you start here—with what you want—because the rest of it is pretty hard, and requires a lot of strategy. Once you’ve figured out what you want, you have to figure out what you need, and that can be a good deal more complicated. Fantasies are good, and so are goals, but to move forward, you’re going to actually need a plan.
The first step is actually not that hard. To realize a dream, you only have to break it down into its most basic components. To be a writer, you need (a) the ability to write, (b) somewhere to publish your writing, and (c) people to read it. Here you go; you’re a writer now. To become an activist, you need (a) a cause to rally your community around, (b) a community to rally with, and (c) a way to communicate your concerns to the public, and especially to people with the power to change whatever you’re concerned about. Start talking to people, find out what they think the problems are with your school or with the world, and start figuring out how you can ally with them to make an impact. Simple. Other ambitions are more complex, and harder to realize. To become a therapist, or a scientist, or a lawyer, you need many years of specialized training. To become an athlete, you need a lot of physical conditioning, and, often, a team to join. But still, in order to do any of those things, you need to break them down to basics. What are the core resources that you need to do this job? What can’t you ignore or skip, if you’re going to do this right? And where can you locate those resources? Answering those questions is your first step.
The second step is actually locating the resources. This is key. It doesn’t take much to be a published writer, but to be a good writer, you actually will need some training—people to give you feedback, and guidance. It’s pretty simple to be an activist, but to be a good one, you have to be able to educate yourself on the issues, and understand which tactics work, or don’t. But this is where the whole “girls are supposed to make people like them” thing actually comes in handy. The simplest and easiest way to locate resources, to be directed toward the sorts of education or training you need, or to learn about a field, is to ask people. Somewhere, someone is doing what you want to be doing. You need to talk to that person.
Obviously, in the age of internet, it’s pretty easy to find people with your dream job. But it’s usually better to start with the people in your own community. If you want to be a musician, for example, you don’t necessarily want to send a letter to every musician on your iPod. “Dear Kanye West, please teach me how to produce records??? Love, [YOUR NAME HERE].” Even if Kanye does write back, you’re going to get a pretty weird answer. And people who get a lot of attention are far less likely to respond personally—or at all—to attention from people they don’t know. It’s a volume thing; when you get five emails a day, you can respond to them all, but when you get 50, or 500, you might not even have time to read them. You’re better off looking for local musicians and producers whose work you admire: people who are nearby, and accessible, and far more likely to appreciate a girl who wants to listen to them talk about how they make their art, and how they learned to make it. (Oh, and by the way: try to actually admire their work. They can tell if you don’t, and it makes them a lot less friendly.)
Ideally, you will find someone who can really guide you through the field, and promote you within it—a good, close, one-on-one relationship. A mentor. This is the part that every “career guide” for girls stresses—find a mentor, love your mentor, learn from your mentor—but the fact is, if you don’t find one, it isn’t the end of the world. I, for example, never had one special mentor. I’ve had about 15 mentors. My friend who ran a feminist blog full-time taught me how to make a sustainable wage from blogging, and told me about the importance of reader donations, and where to find feminist-friendly ad support. My friend who has extensive experience in political reporting taught me how to report a story responsibly, and gave me reporting assignments when I’d had very few of them, so that I could learn under her guidance. Even now, when I have a tricky question about a piece, I go to her. My friend who writes a lot about how the internet works, and how it relates to the publishing industry, told me how to transition from blogging to writing for other people, and introduced me to other people who knew a lot about it. All of these people were mentors. And that’s why it’s important for you to have done the breakdown: there are about a thousand things you need to know, in order to really pursue your ambitions, and there are about a thousand people who can teach you. Your job is to keep your eyes open—to notice the gifts in the people around you, what they’re great at, and learn how they got to be so great.
Because here’s the thing: while you’re looking around for people who share your passions, and noticing what makes them great, you’re going to discover a few other things. You’re going to discover what you are great at—what makes you unique, what you can contribute that no one else can. And that’s how you find out who you are, and what gives you the basis to care about yourself and your ambitions. You also discover that pursuing your ambitions doesn’t have to be lonely. You don’t just find yourself, when you take yourself seriously. You find your community. And that can be the greatest feeling in the world.
Well. Second-greatest. Because here’s the other thing: Your personal Mr. Dusenburys? The people who told you that you couldn’t, you can’t, you won’t, you have to settle? If you really go for this—take yourself seriously enough to put your whole weight behind what you want—you are going to be able to prove them wrong. Not just say they’re wrong, not just think they’re wrong: get the proof, and know that they were wrong. It might take a while. But it can happen. And it probably will. And even 15 years later, that feels pretty awesome. ♦
* As you might imagine, when we fact-checked this article with Mr. Dusenbury, he disputed a lot of what I say in this article. But I stand by my memory.