You made it / by Steph Stepan

The other week I spotted an old university friend in Vogue Living. Her textile work had been featured and I wrote her a message to say holy smokes, you made it! She had nailedVogue pages asideone of the toughest gigs in the world: making a living as an artist.

Soon after we caught up for lunch. We filled one another in on the past few years: the oh-no-I'm-unemployable feeling after completing our degree and the awkward steps toward feeling like we had our shit together—a milestone neither of us felt we’d reached.

When my friend is finished I look her in the eye and tell how proud I am of her. We had studied a course that gave us pretty good dinner conversation skills but in no way prepared us to run our own business. And here she was doing such a darn good job of it she was being commissioned by hotels and appearing in Vogue Living.

My friend looks at me as though I’ve just told her she’s done an outstanding job of cleaning the dishes. Me? But you made it in Amsterdam! You set up your life in a whole other country!

Now it’s my turn to shrug. I then roll off a series of yes buts. Yes, but there were times (a whole year in fact) where I couldn’t pay the rent. My boyfriend did. Yes, but I had to first intern doing the kind of work I had already done for five years. Yes, but it took me years to feel like I had lucked on to something I was both good at and enjoyed. And, I still use the word luck. As though it had nothing to do with me at all.

Yes. But.  I was adamant that she not see someone who wasn’t really there.

We look at one another, at a loss.

Why did we feel less accomplished than what the other person perceived? And that what the other saw was not real?

As if to help me understand how underwhelming her life actually is, my friend adds, “I don’t really do as much making as I’d like. There’s a lot of admin to do and I work from home.” I nod in understanding. The emptying of the dishwasher and filing of quarterly tax have a way of diminishing the sparkle of the creative life.

It’s my turn to dispel the shimmery overseas life. I tell my friend it’s possible to live overseas and not really feel like you’ve crossed a sea at all. Expats hang out with other expats, office buildings are the same the world over and if you don’t look out the window in between dinner and Netflix you could very well be anywhere.

Somehow, we have come to believe that our struggles and ordinary moments make our accomplishments less so, when they simply exist alongside.

There’s also something to be said for scrapping the ‘making it’ mindset altogether. I have often thought, would I have felt any less successful had I not been able to get paid work in Amsterdam?  What if I was just dog walking the whole time? Could I say I lived overseas then? And drop the just?

As I write these things down the answer seems obvious to me.

Yes. Of course. Yes.

Yes, because I’m living whichever way I choose to go about it—how I pay the bills is just a little slice of the whole. And yes, because I am no less real when I am unable to pay my rent than when I’m earning a living as a freelance writer. One reality just happens to make me more sheepish than the other.

And herein lies the problem with the whole ‘making it’ label. It implies you will come into being in a way that you weren’t before, when actually you were there all along.

Instead of cleverly holding this in my mind all the time I keep running off at a gallop. I act like the more I do, the more legit I’ll be. Goodness knows where I’m in such a rush to get to. The truth is that if in five years I am doing exactly what I am doing now–writing and drawing every day—I’ll be pretty happy.

And then I see those bloody 30 under 30 lists and think, good god I am 31. Have I done enough? How much exactly is a 31-year-old meant to have done?

Who are these smiling people in bright, airy studios making a fortune in their 20s? Do their dishwashers demand to be emptied too?

Probably. They probably have that less-than-shiny feeling too.

When our coffees arrive my friend tells me she’s four months pregnant. This is the next milestone for her and she doesn’t know how to grow her business and look after a baby at the same time. We both puzzle over this for a little while. It's not something our essays on Post Modernism prepared us for.

We decide we don’t know. In fact, I’m fairly certain no one knows for sure; they just know what worked for them. So, my friend will wing it. She’ll ask others for advice but when it comes down to it she’ll just have to make it up in her own way and she’ll do just fine.

I know this because there is no reason why she shouldn’t—in between emptying the dishwasher and filing her tax. And I’ll keep telling her so because it turns out we’re not so good at noticing the shinier version of ourselves.