I’m Improbable? No, You’re Improbable!

My current life is highly improbable. Maybe that’s why I find it so beautiful. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how I got here. But, yet, here I am.

From the time I was 8 years old, adults constantly nudged and prodded me toward leadership roles. But I was having none of that. I had no intention of leading anyone anywhere. Because, not only did I not think I was capable, I also didn’t want to be seen. Other kids, they were smarter, more popular, more stylish, more together… I just wanted to settle into being (relatively) smart, blending into the background. Leadership takes confidence. And all I was confident of was that I was the world’s biggest dork.

Even in college, I chose the path of least resistance–for my studies at least. I opted to major in literature, with the idea that I’d teach high school English. Not because I really wanted to teach. I just couldn’t think of anything else I might be good at. Which is about the world’s worst reason to be a teacher. But it seemed accessible and didn’t require much vision on my part. (It would’ve been a disaster, by the way. Teaching really is a calling. And I did not have it. They would’ve eaten me alive).

But somehow a few of my undergraduate professors convinced me that grad school was a good idea (my parents seemed less sure. They though perhaps I should just go on and get a job). Grad school was both a good idea and all kinds of humbling. And, concurrently, I was navigating my path toward addiction at breakneck speed. It took me 6 years in total to get my Masters degree. It’s supposed to take 2. It took me a hella long time to pull my shit together enough to write that thesis. But I did it.

And then I quit. Without perusing my doctorate. Not because I didn’t want it. I still want the damn thing. But because I knew I’d have to contend with folks smarter than me in my classes and later compete with said smart people for a job.

Path of least resistance.

I took various communication jobs I hated. They paid the bills. I was okay at them. I didn’t really want to do any of them.

Then I taught writing at the University of South Florida. I was pretty good at it. But more importantly to me, I loved it. I loved the students. Loved my colleagues. Loved mentoring and working on the textbook. I felt totally alive.

But, when the director encouraged me to get my PhD so I could move beyond adjuncting (which is a ton of work for an itty bitty amount of pay, and virtually zero professional recognition), I said no. Because I didn’t think I was worth the investment. It would’ve cost too much (even though I was spending thousands and thousands of dollars a year to drink myself into oblivion). I didn’t want to move where the tenure track job might take me. But really, I just didn’t believe I deserved more than I had.

After I got sober, after I gave birth to our daughter, when I was ready to remake myself (career wise), I knew I wanted to write. Not teach people how to write. But actually write words on a page, which ideally folks would pay me for.

The problem?

I hadn’t worked in the field in a decade.

So, I took a contract job writing about hangers. Luxury hangers, to be exact. No, not airplane hangers. You’re thinking too exotic there. Hangers to hang one’s clothes upon.

I was writing SEO content, so I had to carefully consider words to describe and refer to hangers–but I couldn’t use the same word too often or the search engines would flag the content. It was like a game: a thousand ways to describe a hanger.

No one said it was an exciting game.

For these efforts, I earned approximately $2 an hour.

But, I’m nothing if not stubborn. So I kept at these weird contract gigs, earning about $50 a week until I had some writing samples collected. Which was a crucial part of the plan. Because, when a friend called with a potential gig with a multinational client, I had writing samples to send her–even if they were about those godforsaken hangers.

I got the gig.

To be clear, the only reason I got this gig, which in turn led to another friend offering me a gig with her agency–thus kicking off my writing career–is because my friend took a chance on me.

Every writing job I got after that fell into my lap. Someone would refer a friend or a client to me. Or hand me a lead to pitch. I brought approximately zero percent of my business in on my own.

Let’s be real clear here: this is not a humble brag. This is me telling you that even when I was doing something I was good at, I did not have the confidence to market myself or my craft. At all.

After 3 years or so, I’d collected enough steady clients providing me with ongoing work and leads for new work that I finally started making some decent money writing.

Just in time for me to decide I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Which sounds bananas, right?

But, even though I was good at writing and I generally enjoyed doing it, I just couldn’t see this being my long-term path. It just didn’t resonate and bring me joy the way I’d thought it would. I suppose, ultimately, I didn’t feel fulfilled. Which turned out just fine, because then I got this wild bookstore idea.

Let’s review real quickly, so we’re all on the same page: I’m the same kid that refused any sort of stab at leadership (informal or otherwise) because I believed I was too dorky to be effective. If I was going to put myself out there at all, I relegated myself to runner-up position, not the spotlight. I quit grad school without pursuing a PhD, not because I wasn’t interested but because I might fail if I had to compete. I’d carved out a niche for myself as a writer, but could’t ever find the confidence to market myself.

Obviously, I’ve got some real risk aversion going on here.

And yet. I knew.

When I told my partner, Simon, that I wanted to open a used bookstore in EAV, and he responded with enthusiasm instead of taking my temperature and tucking me in for a long nap, I knew. I knew this, this was the right thing.

I had no zero clue how I’d get from the inception of the idea to an actual brick and mortar store. I didn’t have any business or retail experience to speak of.

And still.

I’d finish one step in the process, look around, and ascertain the next right thing. And then I’d do that.

All the toxic things I’d always believed about myself, all the reasons I’d fabricated about why I couldn’t do whatever… I just kind of said fuck it and did exactly what I wanted to do. Exactly what felt right.

It was like a switch flipped.

I definitely got pushback from some grown-folk I respected who I thought would support me. They did not. In fact, they actively discouraged me. I did it anyway.

Not because I am strong. But because I was tired of limiting myself. Tired of being afraid of failure. I was tired of a half-ass stab at life.

And so.

I opened myself to all the encouragement I received–from people I knew and people I didn’t (yet). I let myself believe that my little contribution to our southeast Atlanta community would be met with goodness and support (it has been). And I finally tuned out the inner voice that tells me I am not enough–and listened to the Universe as things fell into place one at a time and I received confirmation after confirmation that YES. This is right. This is what you are called to do. Now go the hell forth and do the damn thing.

And so, with the help of so many good souls who sent money, and good vibes, and donated books and helped in huge and small ways, I now have this bookstore–that is so much bigger than me. That brings joy–and books!–to other people. That is the calling I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Because I got out of my own way and opened myself up to the possiblities.

It’s improbable that this risk-adverse human would own her own bookstore. But the improbable has turned out to be just what I needed.

Which is to say, if I can do this thing, anyone can do anything.

Note: I saw Glennon Doyle’s post (linked above) come across Facebook last night, and it made me laugh–but it also made me think about the ways in which my story is a bit improbable, too. Maybe we’re all improbable–and that’s the magic of it all.

Author: Kendra Lee

I am smitten with Atlanta. I believe Black Lives Matter. I care deeply about housing justice, education, and transportation. I am a huge MARTA fan. I've got the most adorable second grader, an incorrigible Boxer named Delilah, and a pretty amazing husband named Simon. I've been sober for 9+ years. I heart coffee. On any given day I may write about all--or none--of those things.

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