One Woman’s Career Choices

A colleague asked me years ago why I (and other women) appeared to be leaving aerospace. It’s a career that takes some dedication. We all survived at least four years of engineering college and a few internships. Yet we were disappearing in droves 5 – 10 years into our careers.

I left aerospace after three years.

I had a friend that spent nearly ten years in aerospace before quitting to travel the world. She amassed nearly two years worth of expenses and seems in no hurry to return to work.

I also had a female friend join aerospace and triple her previous income.

For the first two scenarios, I started to understand this phenomenon thanks to an article in The Atlantic. It appears when women have the choice to do STEM or not, many choose not. Yet, in countries where engineering or science is the ticket to a better life, more women stick with it.

I’ll admit that the salary was, in part, what drew to me to engineering. It’s essentially the biggest bang for your college tuition. Not many other careers offer $50,000 per year after only four years of schooling. But I always had a choice, which is why I chose to major in writing too.

I liked the article because it backed up my decision to leave engineering. However, sometimes I miss the complex problems that I used to solve. Loving writing doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to entirely leave STEM behind.

This is where I run into trouble because I’m not sure what I believe about the role a job should play in my life. If I believe that my work should be my passion, I should obviously spend all my day writing article queries and editing my book. Yet, if I focus on a job as a way to simply pay the bills, many other opportunities open up for me. Trying to match your passion is a high bar that few jobs meet.

Thanks to another Atlantic article, I’m thinking about this question in a new way, and my third friend’s decision to join aerospace makes more sense. In a survey of college-educated women, two researchers found that those who wanted passion in their work were more likely to leave work for motherhood or other desires. However, those that saw work as means to support themselves were more likely to stick with their jobs and cultivate some interest in them.

I find myself straddling these two ideas awkwardly. I do want to spend the majority of my time pursuing my passions, particularly writing. It would be excellent if I got paid for it, but experience has taught me that passion projects are more soul-fulfilling than coffer filling. Pursuing my passion in the face of monetary obstacles has landed me with credit card debt and a long list of IOUs. So, at the same time, I also want to support myself. I hate relying on others to help pay the bills.

So I’m also trying to straddle these two ideas in reality. I want to have a well-paying job that, while possibly not soul-fulfilling, pays the bills (hopefully at a rate where I can work 20-30 hours per week). Then I want to have enough time and energy left over to pursue my writing.

While that conclusion seems crystal clear, it’s not.

I’ve spent days deliberating with myself whether it’s the right choice. The publications that extol being your authentic-self seem to tell me to just trust that the writing will work out and keep going (even as I fall further into debt). And I just can’t bring myself to do that. Supporting myself is too important to me. However, I am also loathe to chase a full-time job because having time for my passions is also important to me.

Not picking a side makes me feel like I’m walking the edge of a knife. I’m constantly trying to balance passion and energy expended for money. Even now, I wonder whether my time would be better spent working rather than writing.

It’s a confusing gray area, but I’m unwilling to leap into a full-time job or to trust that I can be a full-time writer. The middle ground is hard to walk, but I can’t seem to find a more appropriate place for me.

Learning from Rejections (#2)

I have entered a new perspective where I no longer run from rejections.

Even a few weeks ago, when I pitched a publication, my pitch was based around avoiding rejection. I would research thoroughly to make sure it was aligned with the magazine. I would submit my ideas with utmost care. I would wait in tortured silence, hoping the rejection would never come.

It’s not that I did anything wrong. It’s just that fear motivated everything that I did. I did all the right things (research etc.) for the sole purpose of avoiding rejection. I was afraid of being ignored or having my creative work criticized.

Today I felt a switch.

I’ve been working on a pitch for a feature story in the Sierra Club magazine, Sierra. Two hours of researching forest fires and building my backstory went into this pitch. I even drafted it twice before sending it. I waited until Monday because I believe sending it in on Friday is a recipe for disaster. When I submitted it this morning, I felt joyous. Can I do that again? I thought. Building a story like this is fun.

This feeling persisted despite immediate obstacles.

Buoyed by my joy, I continued researching places to publish. While scrolling through Backpacker Magazine’s contributor guidelines, I noticed my “error.” Holding no punches, the magazine authors stated in unambiguous terms that new and emerging writers would rarely be considered for a feature story. The same had to apply for the Sierra magazine. There was little to no chance that my pitch would land anywhere.

I smiled and continued my research.

What? I can hear my self of a weeks ago saying. Didn’t that feel like a crushing blow to know your article would probably never see the light of day? You wasted hours of your time on something that would never be published.¬†

A brave new voice answers, But it was fun. And that’s my unvarnished truth. Some of the most fun that I’ve had during the last week (outside of hiking and obvious fun events) was creating that pitch. I enjoyed researching the forest fires that I hiked through. I devoured maps, stats, and articles in a search for the right angle. And it was fun! Possibly more fun than actually writing the article. The act of looking for a story for Sierra was in itself very rewarding.

Realizing that I enjoy this aspect of the work has been a powerful acknowledgment of this path for me. If I’m not focused on the anxiety of rejection, being a writer feels good. It feels right. It fits like an awesome glove.

Honestly, what a relief. If there were no more to being a writer than being able to face down the demons of criticism, it would have been hard to continue. It’s a big obstacle to climb and a constant battle. How pleasant to know that I can ignore the¬†fears (note: I have been working on this skill for a LONG time). And even better to know that, freed of the fear, pitching and creating stories makes me happy.


To read more about my current transformational period, check out my article on Elephant Journal.

Learning from Rejections (#1)

Every writer lives in dread of the rejection letter. Those of us who have struggled with tying our self-worth to our successes are doubly terrified. While I’ve worked to extricate my self-worth from my actions, I still hate rejection letters. However, the more astute writers that I have heard from have told me that rejection letters have a purpose – to tell us what we missed and where we need to improve.

I got this rejection from a travel site called The Expeditioner. Reviewing the site, I saw that the writers had a great sense of humor. Therefore, I chose to write about some funny exchanges between a tour guide and my friend at a dolphin watching tour.

I read the article at my writing group in Capitol Hill. While I was secretly hoping for rolling belly laughs, I did get a few chuckles from people. The feedback was mostly positive. They recommended that I add a few more details about the boat.

After collecting pictures from my fellow adventurers, I submitted the photos and copy to The Expeditioner.

Within 48 hours, it was rejected.

I spent about an hour being mad. Then I reassured myself that it wasn’t my skills. It was probably just a poor fit for the publication. Looking deeper at that realization, I understood that I missed a large part of travel writing.

Like an essay or memoir, travel writing has to have a higher purpose than entertainment. There has to be an underlying truth, a discovery about the self, or something universally human. Otherwise, it’s just an amusing anecdote.

I wrote an amusing anecdote, a lovely scene. It served no cause. I can see why others might not find it interesting.

A writer friend of mine had gotten a harsh critique at the circle. One person asked him the point of his memoir scene. This person reiterated that every passage has to have a point, even in a memoir.

The same thing could have been said of my travel writing. I suspect I narrowly avoided the criticism because my story was funny.

Going forward, I am trying to keep in mind that travel writing is still essay writing. There has to be a point and journey. Being someone who describes people and places well is not enough.


In an attempt to come to terms with the idea that I will be rejected, I am hoping to post more of these realizations. That’s why I called this one #1.

Freelance Failure Experiment – Introduction

I am going to finally “take freelance writing seriously” by courting failure. In the past, I have taken sure things – low paying content mill jobs. I get paid less than 5 cents per word, but my chances of rejection are low. I have realized this is unsustainable, but I also understand that the world of better writing is full of failure. My work will get rejected, multiple times, and I will have to learn to deal with it. That is the point of this experiment.

What does courting failure entail? In my case, it means that I commit to submitting $5000 worth of pitches per week. But I know that I will earn maybe $100 to $500.

The purposes of this experiment are numerous

  1. Even with a 90% failure rate, I should be able to pay rent.
  2. I anticipate failure and continue to work anyway. (Big one!)
  3. To make $5000, I have to take big shots that would otherwise scare me senseless.

The setup is quite simple too.

I will blog every Monday about my plans to make $5000 – where I plan to submit etc. On Friday, I will blog again to demonstrate what I’ve accomplished. I even have a small bar scribbled in my planner so I can track visually how close to $5000 I get. Note: I will only be working on weekdays because I want to be a person with weekends. The regular blogs will help keep me honest even when I’m not sure that anyone is listening.

It starts now.

This experiment is a small piece of building the lifestyle that I want. My larger goal is to be able to indulge my love of researching and writing about it. This experiment should help me build some of the skills and connections that I need to make the larger goal a reality.