I grew up in a household that didn't have much. My grandparents, whom my mother and I lived with, had an amazing work ethic. They made sure I had everything I needed and sometimes even the things I wanted. Every summer of elementary school I accompanied my grandfather to his government job. We got up at 4 AM and took the local bus from upper Manhattan down to the financial district.
It was my earliest indication of how money was earned. I spent ten-hour days typing up fake paperwork to fill out and running made-up businesses on one-sided phone calls. I relished having my own cubicle to occupy. At home I had two imaginary friends (hey, only child here) whom I contacted via toy fax machine. I referred to them as my business partners. Just the other day as I sorted through old photos and papers, I found a tax return sheet that I had filled out with made up numbers. At the bottom I had signed the name of a grade school alter-ego I don't remember: Amy Win, meteorologist.
Largely due to my family's relationship with money, I always aspired first and foremost to a lucrative, full-time career. Now that I am living that reality, I wonder how I can feel so unsatisfied.
When I was twelve, my grandfather retired and moved 5,000 miles away. The household faltered without his presence and his paycheck. By my teens it was obvious that money was at the crux of all of my family's problems. If we had just had more money we would have been able to go on vacations to visit family in Puerto Rico and decompress on island time. If we had just had more money there wouldn't have been fighting over bills, or recent purchases, or working extra shifts. If my grandfather hadn't needed to work so much and my grandmother hadn't needed to work at all, they could have been happier. He wouldn't have left.
The other kids at school didn't seem to be suffering the same way, and money was what their families had that mine didn't. Looking back, I know that money isn't the cure for all or even most family problems, but socioeconomic gaps have a way of standing out in high school, when wealth or lack thereof, is an easy thing to resent.
On the positive side, I can credit the work ethic I have now to my experience then. I committed to not subjecting myself or my future family to the woes of living check to check. It didn't enter my mind how much my grandfather's job may have factored into his escape.
My true passions became clear in college. Literature and writing gave me an addicting buzz. The realization made me feel hopeless. Where is the stability in novel writing? Obtaining a Ph.D. and becoming a literature professor seemed like a way to maintain a career, make a sufficient amount of money and manage to be close to the things that make me happiest. I set graduate school as my goal, powered through college courses, joined a pre-graduate fellowship, prepared a sample, solicited recommendations and, ultimately, didn't apply. I was double-majoring, working in marketing and I needed a little time to breathe.
The fall after graduation I took a job in media advertising thinking I would build a safety net. Doctoral programs are trying and the job market for professors is shrinking. Better have a plan B. Years later I spend about forty hours a week working for a media colossus, under a respectable title, and for a wage ten times what I imagined Amy Win, meteorologist, would make in a year. My family is proud. My friends keep asking me how I managed to find such a good job in this market. I struggle to communicate that it isn't everything it's cracked up to be without minimizing the effort it took me to get to this point or sounding ungrateful. It's not the job. It's me.
Money isn't a struggle anymore and I am even able to sock some away in an emergency fund and a 401k. I have earned the luxury of being dissatisfied with my career. I realize now that the platonic ideal of a good job is qualitative. The quantitative elements of a career -- hours, dollars, the size of a raise, the number of promotions -- are the particulars that distract from awareness of what we value. We can only get at that when we strip away exterior notions of success and the bare necessities of getting by.
I'm inclined to think that in households that struggle financially the bar is lower -- a "good" job puts food on the table and clothes on the kids' backs -- than among families that are well off and have been for generations. That doesn't mean children from low income households aren't encouraged to dream, but what feels most valuable in a career might be tied to stability, as opposed to excitement.
At this point in time, my bar for success has shifted, but only vertically, up the corporate ladder. Now I am coming to terms with the fact the "dream job" is a nightmare to some, myself included. Even my aim to become a professor might qualify as a rationalized solution or compromise.
I no longer feel compelled to compromise. I can now afford, literally and figuratively, to dream. My work life may not be ideal in this nascent phase of exploring my potential. But I relish the new privilege to entertain that age-old question: "What do I want to be when I grow up?"