How to Start from Scratch and Make It Count

Contributed by: Casey Embert  Twitter: @stoopgirl

In 2011, I was 23, facing an unfathomable amount of student loan debt (spoiler alert: I’m STILL facing an unfathomable amount of student loan debt), and working as a bank teller, a job I totally hated but it paid well, gave me a ton of paid vacation time, and matched my bi-weekly 401K contributions by 100%.  It was cushy, safe, and a goldmine of stability.  As a college graduate, my parents couldn’t have been happier for me, but working for “The Man” was never part of my master life plan. 

Back in 2009, I graduated college with a Bachelor's degree in English and American Studies and wanted to curate museum exhibits for a living – banking was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum on the creativity scale for me.  I had just completed a six month internship in the dusty collections department of a popular museum in Baltimore where I wrote those little informational exhibit plaques you probably never read and did research on mysterious found objects in Maryland.  It was exciting and allowed me to be creative and exploratory in a dynamic learning environment.  It was my dream job.

The museum had a job waiting for me once I graduated, but then in the spring of 2009, The Great Recession reared its ugly head (Wow, I didn’t realize that nightmare had an official name until I just looked it up).  The museum’s budget was sucked dry (even the curator unexpectedly quit!) and here I was officially working full-time for “The Man.”  Seemingly overnight I went from delicately handling fascinating artifacts from the 1800s to begrudgingly handling hundreds of thousands of other people’s dollars in a bank vault.  Snoozefest.  But at least I had good health insurance, right?

This is in no way a diss to anybody who might enjoy the comfort and predictability of a stable 9-to-5 gig.  And later on, you’ll read about how I make that type of lifestyle work for me now.  But in my early twenties, I didn’t want “practical” or “stable.”  I yearned for a more exciting and creative endeavor that I could explore on my own terms (Ugh – millenials, right?!).  I just wanted something that made me feel alive.  I didn’t care about a 401K or “banker’s hours” – I just wanted to contribute something to this world that felt genuine to me.  And banking did not scratch that itch for me.  At all.  Ever.

But on one bitter cold January morning in 2011, I was trudging into work and I see my boss was waiting for me at the entrance.  It was immediately weird to me because I had worked at that location for about a year and that guy had never greeted me at the entrance like that on any other morning.  But on this particular morning, he was standing there waiting for me.  He had this ominous look on his face that resembled a strange mixture of timidity, disappointment, and pure dread.  My stomach sank to my knees like a cinder block and I knew something was about go down.

He took me upstairs to an office I never knew existed where a less-than-sweet woman from HR was waiting for me.  I knew this was gonna be bad.  And in that moment, it felt like the end of the world.

They fired me.  Before now, I had never been fired from a job.  I essentially took the blame for a mistake we all made, but the bottom line was that I messed up.  I stretched the rules for a long-time customer, something we did all the time, but somebody had to take the fall for it this time and I guess it was my lucky day.  Despite nearly five years with the company and glowing performance reviews, I was out the door in the blink of an eye.  Cut from the team just like that.  They handed me an empty box and I packed up all the cute trinkets and photos of my coworkers and I that I had collected over the years.  Then, as I desperately held back the floodgate of tears, they escorted me out of the building for the last time. 

I was mortified, heartbroken, and completely defeated.  Life stopped me dead in my tracks here.  At 23, I was so wildly unprepared for this moment and I had no idea what to do next.  It was terrifying.  What about my paycheck?  What about my health insurance?  What about my 401K?  Suddenly all of these things mattered now that they were gone in one fell swoop.  Cue panic mode.

Here’s the thing, though.  And I bet you already knew I was gonna say this.  But losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I was comfortable – too comfortable – and having that safety net suddenly ripped out from beneath me forced me to reach into the depths of my dejected, twenty-something soul and decide right then and there what kind of woman I wanted to be.  This was my chance to make it count.

I wanted to be formidable.  A force of nature.  Somebody who contributed something meaningful to the world.  Somebody who inspired others to be great.

At 23 and working as a bank teller, I was none of those things.  I was just going through the motions day in and day out.  After the museum gig fell through and I started working full-time as a bank teller, I thought that was it.   I was living in the real world now and your early-twenties must be where dreams go to die, right?  I assumed this is what made adults really cranky.  And, man, at 23 I was already well on my way there.  Every month I swear I physically cringed as I paid back a rent’s payment worth of student loans for an education I worked tirelessly for and could only dream of using.  I felt so ashamed I could barely look at myself in the mirror.  I felt like I failed myself.

But on the day I was fired from my job, I felt a strange sense of relief as if the weight of the world had lifted from my shoulders.  I put myself back together and I promised myself I would never feel that way again.  I would do whatever it took to never feel like a failure again; to never walk into a job I hated ever again; to never let my dreams die again; to never work for a living and instead, make this life work for me.

Fun fact: being unemployed gets boring fast.  After a month of sitting around in sweatpants and eating my feelings, I started a simple blog on Tumblr and started writing every day.  I named it Cool Breezy and wrote about all the great music I found on the Internet that day.  And much to my surprise, Cool Breezy quickly evolved into a go-to source for underground dance music in Baltimore and beyond.  Through Cool Breezy, I met some of my best friends, interviewed international artists, curated my own dance parties in Baltimore, and created a unique presence so renowned that people knew me before I knew them.  And quite frankly, I never intended for any of that to happen – I simply felt compelled to do something that made me feel alive.  Now, five years later, I have writing gigs with the Baltimore City Paper and Washington City Paper where they actually pay me to do what I love, opportunities I’m so unbelievably grateful to have.

So maybe it’s not dead end jobs or your early twenties where your wildest dreams go to die.  It’s your comfort zone – a place you can find yourself at any age.  As I approach 30 next year (yeesh), I think back on that cold day in January when I was 23 and realize that in that moment, life was demanding I take it by the reins.  I finally took a chance on myself and that has made all the difference.  With 30 on the horizon, I can honestly say I now avoid my comfort zone like the plague.  If I’m not unreasonably ecstatic or scared out of my wits, I’m not doing the right thing.  

Dating in Your Early 30s vs. Your Early 20s

Contributed by: Ashley Davidson. Twitter: @missashuhlee

I met my (soon-to-be-ex) husband when I was 23 and figured I’d never have to date again. Seven years later … I now have to date again. As I've mentally prepared myself to enter that horrible world of awkward small talk, bad first dates, and being terrified to be seen without makeup on, I’ve begun to think about the stark — and often hilarious — differences in what my priorities will be and what I find attractive now that I’m in my early 30s.


In Your 20s… Single and searching for a guy who likes to party.

In Your 30s… Single and searching for a guy who knows how to load a dishwasher effectively.


In Your 20s… “Sure, I can do a dinner reservation at 9 p.m. Maybe grab drinks after?”

In Your 30s… “Do you mind if we move up our dinner reservation to 6:30? I’d like to be home and in bed by 10.”


In Your 20s… You have long discussions debating who has the craziest black-out-drunk story.

In Your 30s… You have long discussions about whose joints crack/pop more often when you move, bend over, sit, get up…


In Your 20s… “Wanna go to da club?”

In Your 30s… “Wanna binge Netflix?”


In Your 20s… Must dress impressively and do hair/makeup every day.

In Your 30s… Sets the bar low by wearing yoga pants most days, so he’s super impressed when you put on a dress for date night.


In Your 20s… “Can I buy you a shot?”

In Your 30s… “Would you like to accompany me to a casual wine tasting?”


In Your 20s… “Cool futon. IKEA?”

In Your 30s… “Yes, I absolutely understand why you spent several thousand dollars on a king size Tempur-Pedic.”


In Your 20s… “This guy I’m dating really has his shit together. He has a savings account. With money in it.”

In Your 30s… “This guy I’m dating really has his shit together. He got a mortgage with an amazing interest rate.” 

I Inadvertently Chose a Career over Kids

Contributed by: Ashley Davidson. Twitter: @missashuhlee

I’ve always wanted kids. But somehow, I accidentally chose my job over everything.

Let’s for a second forget that I am, in fact, in the middle of a divorce. When I was happily married, my husband and I would often look at each other and ask, “What would we do if we had kids?!” That was in regard to how much we worked and how it was even remotely feasible to have both successful careers and children.

He was (is… he’s still alive and kickin’) a busy sommelier, juggling a job that took him all over Washington, D.C., during the week, with late nights, weekend events, and a bit of international travel. Meanwhile, I work for a public relations agency, where I’m the day-to-day contact and manage the PR strategy for at least half a dozen brands, and a freelance writer on top of it all. It became our usual routine to start early, finish late, eat dinner, and then keep right on working.

Our careers grew quickly — I more than doubled my salary in less than five years — but we constantly used our careers as an excuse not to have kids. It seemed like every year we were pushing things off, waiting for that moment where we would be more financially stable, living in a bigger place, more mentally mature to handle everything that kids meant.

But we loved our DINK — Dual Income No Kids — life. We worked hard, reaped the rewards in the form of raises and promotions, and celebrated the milestones with champagne and decadent dinners.

Then I blinked and I was 30.

Don’t get me wrong… 30 is by no means old. It’s not too old to have children. But considering we had been talking about it throughout the five years we had been married, it suddenly dawned on me. His career was a priority. And I had inadvertently followed his lead and made my career a priority. I had gotten caught up in it all. I loved being asked to represent my company at industry and client conferences around the country. I loved flying to our Florida office (I’ve worked remotely since January 2013) to hang out with my coworkers. I loved accompanying my husband to his work functions on weekday evenings and over long weekends. All the while not having to think about our responsibilities at home except for my very independent cat (whom we honestly thought had a party every time we left for more than 24 hours).

It got me thinking about how it would have been possible for either of us to accomplish everything we had in such a short amount of time if we had had children. I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as I have the last few years. He wouldn’t have been able to work such late nights, more often than not coming home well after midnight. Our careers most certainly wouldn’t be where they are today. One of our careers — or both of our careers — would have had to take a backseat. I recall one of my execs at a former company telling me, “I may never be Mom of the Year, but my husband certainly will be.” She was a C-suite executive at a global corporation — and someone had to stay home to take care of their two young children.

That was eight years ago and it still resonates with me because I realized the immense sacrifices required of people who have kids. And the almost ridiculous expectations employers have of those of us who don't. We're expected to work more, travel more, commit more of ourselves to our professional lives. Fortunately, I don't work for a company like that, but so many do. Every time I board a flight at 5:40 a.m. (like I did this morning and like I will in three weeks) or I'm out well past what is an acceptable bedtime for a 30 year old, I wonder where I would be if I had had children two, three, four years go.

I'm grateful for the professional success that I've had, but still somewhat shocked that I somehow, completely by accident, chose my career over kids. 

Life passes by quickly — too quickly — and sooner or later we realize we need to take things as they come and stop thinking so damn much.

Thirty Hit Me Hard

Contributed by: Ashley Davidson. Twitter: @missashuhlee

When I turned 30 earlier this year, it hit me hard and fast. It was far from what I had expected it to be — that turning point where suddenly my life would be in order. I assumed everything would fall into place, both personally and professionally. I’d be older and wiser, with a better career, more financial stability, a house, and ready to start talking about kids. 

I was married two days shy of my 25th birthday, so 30 seemed like the right time for all those things to happen. At least according to the perception I’ve always had about how things should happen.

Four months after turning 30, my life flipped upside down. Actually, it was first punched in the gut, then flipped upside down and shaken a bit so that everything was scattered across the floor. Then it was dropped, then kicked in the gut once more — just to make sure I felt every bit of it. My husband admitted that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be married anymore... and that he needed some time to be alone. We had been together for over seven years, married for nearly 5.5 years. And this was the first time I heard he was even remotely unhappy.

I’m sure if someone had taken a picture of my face, it would’ve been a sight. Some contorted expression of incredible confusion, sadness and anger. I was speechless.

For the sake of abbreviating a much longer story — and because I’m not the type to throw my soon-to-be ex-husband under the bus so publicly — he was gone six weeks later. All the while, my Facebook feed continued to be overrun with photos of engagements and weddings, newborns, and toddlers going off to preschool, while I was Googling Virginia divorce laws and attorneys. This was not even remotely where I thought I would be at 30. But there I was.

A few days later during a spur-of-the-moment decision to get a minor makeover — basically, chopping off my hair and getting blonde highlights as part of some desperate attempt to get my husband to change his mind — my stylist broke the news that I had “three, really long grey hairs.”

This time, sitting in front of a mirror, I could see my face. I was red, mouth agape, sort of awkwardly laughing, but with tears in my eyes. I demanded she rip them out. She said, “You didn’t know?”

There I was, 30, getting divorced and, now, turning grey.

Fast forward a few weeks. As I pulled into the parking lot of my marriage counselor’s office, my GYN called. My lab work had come back showing a high level of god-knows-what and they wanted me to schedule an ultrasound. When I asked what they thought the problem was, they said it was potentially PCOS.

Having spent the last few years doing some freelance work for an infertility doctor, I was somewhat familiar with PCOS. When it came time for the ultrasound I couldn’t help but think, “Wow. So this is 30.” Six months ago people were mistaking me for a college student and suddenly I’m lying on a table while a stranger scans my empty uterus, pointing at my oversized ovaries on the screen and telling me that I ‘probably’ can’t get pregnant without medication. Well, it’s a good thing my marriage crashed and burned, lady, because I have zero reason to be pregnant right now anyway! That’s what I wanted to scream, except with way more profanity.

Like I said, 30 hit me hard and fast. But while my 30-year-old self wasn't surrounded by the things I always thought I would have — a husband, house and kids — I realized turning 30 had given me the wisdom to understand that this too shall pass. I realized life never turns out the way you plan, so you might as well take it as it comes and, most importantly, find the humor in things no matter how difficult it may be to laugh.

I now laugh at my broken ovaries (PCOS is entirely treatable, thank goodness), swear that if I ever find those grey hairs (they’re pretty hidden in the back of my head under my new blonde hair) I will tear them out and burn them, and I'm having a blast living the sort-of-single life with the village of people that has gotten me through the most difficult period of my life.

Thirty may have hit me hard, but I came out stronger on the other end.

"So This is 30" - a True Conversations Series


"So This is 30" ™

About the Authors

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Ashley Davidson:

Freelance writer Ashley Davidson, a 30-year-old living near Washington, D.C., gives us a humorous, transparent, realistic view of what being 30 today is like. The ups, the downs, the dogs, the divorce, the marathons, the gluten-free diet. 

Ashley Davidson has written for The Washington Post Magazine, Runner's World, Wine Enthusiast, RunWashington, and Gannett GET Creative branded content studio.

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Casey Embert:

Creator of the Cool Breezy blog and a freelance writer in the music scene of Baltimore and DC, Casey gives us the inside scoop at what it is like being an almost-30 year old. You will relate and understand this generation better as she covers everything from student loan debt, a passion for creativity, and what happens when life doesn't quite go as planned.

Casey Embert writes for the Washington City Paper and the Baltimore City Paper.

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