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Take Charge Of Your Own Success

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Feb. 3 2015, Published 2:30 a.m. ET

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I won’t be the first young professional to say the cards are stacked against us. The economic crash of 2007 may be eight years in the past, but the aftershock continues to reverberate all over the country.

It certainly shook my life: my mother was a loan originator in 2006, making enough money to easily pay off my first year’s college tuition by the time I became a sophomore, if not sooner. That job is, of course, long gone, but many tens of thousands of debt remains from that first year alone. Afterward, I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be part of a poor family, and landed financial aid easily; but that debt, closer to a hundred thousand than fifty, will haunt my mother and me many years into the future.

I’m far from the only one with tuition bills to pay. The average 2011 graduate carries $26,600 in debt, a figure of which I am part. It’s the kind of thing that could keep a twenty-something up at night, if we let it.

The loans themselves wouldn’t be so bad if there were jobs out there to help us pay them. I live in Rochester, NY, home to Xerox and Kodak, both companies that used to represent innovation and security, both companies that now signify dramatic layoffs and current or impending bankruptcy. With my Honors BA in English, I landed my first post-graduate job in a Medicare call center, where I worked alongside men and women with Associates degrees or less. Not an ideal situation.

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Even now, after my first promotion, I continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck along with my husband. Two years ago, newly engaged, we made the decision to let our beloved house, The Fort, foreclose; it had come down to either buying groceries or paying the mortgage. Friends of mine live or have lived at home after completing their Bachelors of Masters. My best friend, a brilliant coloratura soprano, is working three part-time jobs just to make ends meet. She’s starred in multiple productions, but has yet to land a decently paying role.

In fact, the only people I know who are doing well are those lucky enough to come from money – like the girl in my high school class with a trust fund – or those who went into the hard sciences. One ex-boyfriend is coding in Silicon Valley. Another is regrettably a successful IT professional (he was emotionally abusive, hence my regret).

I know successful programmers, nurses, engineers, medical researchers, and science teachers, but if you happened to pick a humanities major – may god have mercy on your resume. Without a masters degree or many unpaid internships (again, money talks), good luck finding meaningful and lucrative work.

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All that being said, I’m calling an end to the pity party. While it might feel good to grab a few beers and complain about our ill-fated existences amongst similarly situated friends, it doesn’t do jack for us in the long or short run – when you’re basically broke, booze might seem like a necessary vice, but how’s that savings account looking?

We don’t need help, commiseration, or a change in major. What we need is self-control. Not the sort that keeps you from eating an entire bad of chips in one sitting, but the sort that allows you to evaluate your circumstances, plan a course of action, and go for it with all you’ve got.

A parable:

Once upon a time, three men in their early thirties worked at the same university-based publishing house. After years of dedicated service, the founder decided to create a second branch at another university, nearly 700 miles away. So these three men sold their houses, packed up their belongings and their families, and moved their lives and careers east. Shortly after they were gone, the founder withdrew his offer, canceled the contract with the new university, and left the three men stranded, with no job prospects and no way to return to their previous circumstances.

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Did they cry? Perhaps. Did they rant and rave? Almost certainly. Did they move forward, establish their own independent press, and become one of the most prestigious publishers of translated literature in the country? Absolutely.

One of those men was my husband, so I know this parable well. I think of it often when facing setbacks in my own career, be it when my productivity is sub-par in my office job, when my podcast ratings are down, when the queue of pieces for my online magazine is disturbingly low, or when under the gun for a freelance deadline.

When it comes to success, the truth is that you can either push forward in the face of adversity, or you can be smothered beneath it. There is no middle ground.

Another parable:

Once upon a time, there was a college girl at a top-notch university. She came from a family with little money, but she was smart, and hard working, and was doing well in her studies.

Her senior year of college, she took an honors seminar with a notoriously difficult professor. She didn’t have the money to pay for her books, so she borrowed from the library instead. One day, the library demanded a book be returned before it could be discussed in class; another student had requested it, and it had been renewed multiple times already. She reluctantly gave it back, and showed up to class having done the reading, but without a book in her hand. Upon seeing that she lacked a book, the professor asked her why.

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She admitted to her situation with the library, assuming he would understand. Instead, the professor asked why she had not simply purchased the book like the other students.

She admitted that she didn’t have the funds to purchase it, again assuming that he would understand.

Instead, he replied with a serious of interrogatives about her financial circumstances, insisting she could not be as destitute as she was.

Did his attitude upset her? Of course.

Did his questioning bring her humiliation? Absolutely.

Did she relinquish her pride, her insistence upon academic excellence, or her stance against the injustice that had befallen her? Never.

That girl was me, in the fall of 2010. Instead of allowing such a smarmy professor to tarnish my academic experience, I used him as a source of inspiration, someone to fight against and prove wrong. And I graduated with Distinction and Honors in English.

My point here is this: Yes, the economy and job market are less than ideal. Yes, the degrees that my peers and myself have earned are worth less than ever before. Yes, we are struggling.

But we can either see that struggle as a source of weakness, or a building block on the way to strength and success. I suspect that, apart from the people I mentioned before who happened to find their talents in lucrative fields, the ones who find success do so in spite of, indeed because of, the adversities they faced, not simply through either luck or bequest.

A call to action, then:

My dear peers – Put down the drinks, put away your complaints, and put yourself in a position of success. If opportunities have not been given to you, create them. If there are obstacles in your path, knock them out of your way. If there are people who knowingly inhibit your goals, get fighting mad. In the end, you are the only one who can take charge of your success. Stand up. Take the reigns. And get to it.

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