A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Career Day at Riverchase Middle School. I cannot tell you the honor I felt at being asked to share the ins and outs of my career with impressionable 8th graders, especially when fashion is such a glamorous but wildly misunderstood industry. Millennials want more than any other generation to love their work, to find joy in their labor, and to have fun while earning a living. Girls in particular look to fashion to fill this need. These good intentions too often turn into disillusionment when work becomes well, work. The issue isn't wanting a job that doesn't stink, but in placing unrealistic expectations on a vocation. A job isn't meant to satisfy us in every way, but it can indeed be satisfying. I've experienced this first hand over the last six years, and have found what I believe to be a happy balance between creativity and vocation. I decided to break my presentation down into two parts: the retail management portion of my job at Madewell, and the creative function of my side hustle tallulah faire.
" A job isn't meant to satisfy us in every way, but it can indeed be satisfying. "
I trust kids with TRUTH. They can handle it. More importantly, trusting a child with a complex issue (essentially the Socratic method, which was the original way children were educated) develops their critical thinking skills and prompts them to ask why. Let me explain:
A vivid memory that remains with me from childhood is a conversation led by one of my favorite elementary school teachers, Mrs. Strong. I was in 4th grade, and she began the day by asking us a rhetorical question. "Why is a heart shaped like this (as she held up an image of the multi-valved organ) but is also shaped like this (the shape of a heart) and called by the same name? Why does one heart pump our blood and keep us alive, while the other represents all of our emotions and feelings? The brain is where we do our thinking -- so why isn't this shape called a brain?" I remember being absolutely stunned by the question, and waited for her to tell us the answer. After all, someone named that shape a heart, so there had to be a good reason. She didn't; she waited for us to tell her the answer. Mind blown.
Grown ups are supposed to tell us the answers, to tell us what to think, right? No one had ever trusted me with that sort of power: the power to come up with my own answers based on my own reasoning and imagination. And no grown up had ever asked me my thoughts on well, any subject really. It changed my life. And since my early twenties, I've tried to treat children that way. I ask them their thoughts on the matter. I trust them with really heavy and deep topics and challenge them. THIS is why I was so excited about Career Day. I was about to walk into that classroom and challenge all of their beliefs about fashion, and more importantly, about the idea of "work".
I made a super shiny Powerpoint with beautiful images of Madewell looks and tallulah goods. I explained how amazing our denim is, what it means to manage people, product, and operations, and the crazy amount of math and critical analysis used to manage my store. Then I dropped the creative hammer. I shared about tallulah -- how I have the wonderful opportunity to make apparel and accessories, wordsmith, create textiles, and fine arts -- and even used the term "multi-discipline artist". I felt like a boss. I also explained how I did my own photography, built and maintain my website, price merchandise and connect with wholesalers, etc. These last parts are the "work" behind the business and are not always my favorite. But they need to be done, so I do them. After explaining everything I do, I asked who the artists were in the room. Who wants to be in fashion? Who wants to draw? There were quite a few.
Then I laid out the TRUTH. They were hearing from several professionals that day, all of whom had interesting and economically relevant careers. My Madewell gig is most assuredly economically relevant and is just a sliver of a massive global industry. tallulah? Well, that's my passion. I make art and fulfill a deep desire to make things, and the income is just a bonus. Art should never be burdened with maintaining a standard of living. If that naturally happens? Hooray! But if not? You're not a failure. Madewell provides me with a stable income that allows me to enjoy a standard of living and be a good citizen, and I actually enjoy it. I really really like my job. But tallulah is where my heart soars. And I've found a way to do both, which is incredibly fulfilling.
Now I don't tell you all of this just to get a pat on the back. In fact, I wasn't going to share this experience with anyone. I received enough satisfaction just talking about my love and encouraging students and that was plenty. But then I received the thank you notes. They read like this:
"I've never known anyone who likes their job. My parents hate theirs. You've given me hope that I can have a career that I really like." - Maddie
"Fashion is something I've always wanted to do, but didn't know anyone in Alabama who did it. Thank you for showing me there is opportunity here." - Isabella
"My mom owns a women's clothing store in Helena and she loves it. I want to run it when I grow up. Maybe I can come work with you to learn things about business so I can be a better boss there in the future." - Madeline
"You were so fun and pretty and seemed to really love what you do. Thank you for sharing your job with us. I don't know what I want to do yet, but I want to like it as much as you like yours." - Charity
Clearly my favorite.
"My parents do not like what they do. I did not believe that you could like your job. It's depressing. You've given me hope that I can find something that is interesting but also pays the bills. Thank you."- Courtney
"I've always liked to draw and really want to be an artist when I grow up, but now I realize I can do that and do other things, too. Your session was my favorite. Thank you for taking time out of your day. I was the girl in the front wearing the yellow hijab." - Jessica
"Your job involves a lot of math." - Every single boy there.
Guys, I broke down in tears. The TRUTH worked. They're thinking, the wheels are turning. They're intelligently processing the introduction of a new way of thinking and working out how it fits into their current perceptions about adulthood and careers. What a privilege to be a part of that.
"I don't know what I want to do yet, but I want to like it as much as you like yours."
Conversely, their notes made me think about how adults (in this case their parents, the ones who play the largest role in their lives right now) talk about our work. We moan. We complain. We sigh deep sighs at the end of the day. Maybe we should pay more attention to who's listening. Maybe we should take care to encourage more, depress less. And I don't mean lying and putting on a fake smile and pretending we love our jobs. I mean holding up the best parts of our work, the parts that make us feel important or proud, productive or creative, the parts where we feel like we contribute to the world. Maybe if we shared more of the good parts, they would have a more realistic idea of what work means. It's not indentured servitude, it's a vocation.
XO - Hezzy