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.