"Do Not Follow Where the Path May Lead:" My Longwood University Speech

Some of you very sweetly asked me to post the speech I gave at Longwood University last week, so today I'm sharing an abridged version.

To give a bit of background information, I was speaking to English and Modern Language majors at the department's 33rd Annual Spring Social and Awards Ceremony. My speech was supposed to cover life after graduation and all the things you can do with a degree in English or Modern Languages.

I hope you might find some inspiration from it, no matter what you studied in school (or didn't).

I suppose I should begin with a little more about myself--I graduated from Longwood University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Creative Writing. Since graduating from Longwood, I have assembled an odd collection of job titles that include barista, used car salesperson, and mobile apps designer; all before finally settling into a strange but fun career as a self-employed blogger.

I write a lifestyle blog called Freckled Italian that I started as a hobby in late 2008 and was able to turn into my full-time job in 2013. The majority of the things I share on my blog are recipes, style posts, personal essays, and some content sponsored by the brands I work with. I’m also a bit of a freelancer--sometimes I write recipes for other websites or companies like Relay Foods in Charlottesville, and I started a digital magazine called The Eighty Twenty and a podcast called Hello, Butter with one of my best friends whom I met through blogging. She lives in Boston and bizarrely enough, we have only seen each other in person five times. 

Actually, four of my very best friends are women whom I met through the magic of the Internet. Blogging has changed my life in a lot more ways than just paying the bills. I’ve gained a lot of freedom through my blog. I work from home, make my own schedule, and was able to move from Virginia to Minnesota to North Carolina within the past two years for my husband’s job without disrupting my own career.

My relationships, my dog, the clothes I wear, the food I eat, the things I think about when I go running--I write about all of it, and the craziest part is that there are people out there who actually care to read it. Writing a blog has made the world so much smaller for me and I love that--when we moved to Minneapolis last year, I had a reader send me an email and say “Oh my gosh, you’re here! I’ve been reading your blog for years. Do you want to meet up for dinner or drinks sometime soon?” Fast forward a year and a few months later, and my husband and I getting on a plane to spend the weekend in Minneapolis for her baby shower. 

Blogging for a living is a bit of an emotional roller coaster--on good days I feel like a self-starting entrepreneur who connects with people all over the world--I read Sophia Amoruso’s Girl Boss last year and was like yeah, she’s basically talking to me, but on bad days I feel like a narcissistic stay-at-home wife, Instagramming my thoughts and styled pictures of lattes as I sit in my apartment watching way too many episodes of Gilmore Girls. Five years ago I had no idea that this is what my future would look like. Five years ago I didn't even know what Twitter was all about, but sure enough, here we are today. 

I also have a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Hollins University that I guess you could say I don’t really “use” in any traditional sense, but that’s what I want to talk about today--the thought of what it means to use a degree or not. I’m probably going to stand here and tell you a lot of things that you already know, and the first one is this: everything happens for a reason. Graduating from Longwood and starting a job selling used cars, believe it or not, was not my dream. But I hated it enough that it pushed me to go to grad school because even though I knew that car sales wasn’t my passion, I still didn’t know what else I might want to do with my time. I loved being a student and I really loved Children’s Literature, so it seemed like a good move. And then, halfway through my master’s program--which I entered because I thought that maybe I wanted to teach--I realized that I really didn’t want to be a teacher either.

But by that time my blog was starting to gain an audience, and a lot of the readers were there because they were interested in what I was writing about at Hollins. And then I finished my master's and started looking for basically any job, and my blog impressed my future boss at NetVentures, a small company in Roanoke that built software for YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers. So I spent a year heading up their social media division and designing a mobile application for YMCA members, which gave me time to grow my blog, bulk up my savings account, and make the leap to full-time blogging, which is what turned out to be my passion.

It meant so much to me when I was asked to speak to you about life after graduation and my experience using a degree in a different way, because as fun as it is, my day-to-day is a little unusual sometimes, and to tell you the truth there are still days where I daydream about what my life might look like when I finally find a way to “use” my degree. I wonder constantly if I’m writing or reading enough. Sometimes, usually when I’m making a student loan payment, I wonder if I should have even gone to graduate school in the first place. When you know you want to be an accountant or a doctor or a police officer, there’s usually a clear path set in front of you of what steps you need to take to reach your goals. But if you don’t know what you want to do, it gets a little tricky. How do you get there if you don’t know what the goal is? What do you study? Once you figure out what you’re going to study and take those classes and earn the degree, what do you do after you graduate?

There’s a lot of pressure to know what you want to do or who you want to be or how to find find the perfect job after school, and it happens before you really even know too many things about yourself. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was in highschool because I had this vision of myself living on a boat in Australia or somewhere equally exotic, but the reality is that I get seasick and I’m terrified of the ocean, so at this point I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than be a marine biologist.

Because I never really knew what I wanted to “do” with my life, it was really hard to pick a major. I always assumed that I’d work for my parents, who own their own business, but I didn’t really even know what that meant or what it might look like. It felt safe and promising, so I went with it.The only thing I really cared about was writing, but an English degree didn’t seem practical to me at the time. I started my freshman year as a Psychology major before switching to Spanish for a few semesters. Finally, late in my sophomore year I decided to just go with my gut and declare English as my major, and then things started to feel like they were really falling into place for me for the first time.

And, while I’ve never graded a paper or taught a class or worked for a newspaper, I do use my degree at work. Every time I make a business decision or connect with a new reader or even just spend half an hour sitting on my couch, feeling nostalgic while I flip through a Norton Anthology, I'm channeling my time at Longwood and infusing it into my life and career.

Here’s something else you probably already know: almost everything good in life takes hard work, determination, and an element of letting go. You might not always be going in the order, or down the path, that you thought you would. That’s okay. There is so much to learn by simply keeping the faith and putting one foot in front of the other. When I was writing my master’s thesis I would get overwhelmed with what was next--what was I going to do after graduating to make all of this worth it in some way? What job was I going to get, what was I going to say when people asked me about my plans?

But people’s opinions about your course of study don’t matter. Here’s what matters: Are you happy? Are you making enough money to get by? Are you reading enough, writing enough, even if it’s not at work? If the answer to all of these is yes, then don’t worry so much about the details--focus on the big picture. And one day, an opportunity or an experience will present itself, and how you got there won’t matter as much. Maybe you’ll even start to understand why you had to go where you went to get where you are.

So whether you have a job lined up for after graduation, or have absolutely no idea what’s next for you, I have a few pieces of advice I’d love to close with that I hope will be relevant in some way to each of you:

  • Don’t be afraid to say yes first and figure the rest of it out later. Sometimes you have to hustle to make it happen. Get outside of what you know and learn something new.

  • Let go of guilt if you have to abandon something that isn’t working anymore—sometimes going in a different direction is the best thing you can do. Some of the most amazing decisions I’ve ever made involved saying no to something.

  • There will always be challenges, no matter what you’re doing. They evolve as you do. First you have exams, then you have bosses that you hate, and then you have your own standards to compete with as you get better. A year ago I was totally thrilled with everything I put out on my blog, but today I practically obsess over everything I do, convinced it’s not good enough in some way.

    • I had the pleasure of hearing the artist Lisa Congdon speak in Salt Lake City this winter, and she said something that really stuck with me--”I will never feel like I’ve arrived.” Obviously she is a huge success, but I think it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t always believe it, either.

    • I also like what Steve Jobs said: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

  • It’s also okay to not know what you love. Be patient, it’ll show up. Just because the job you have isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t right. Things don’t always line up on the first try. Keep working, never stop trying, and always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Congratulations to each and every one of you as you continue on your journey.