I booked a one-way ticket to New York City a few months after graduating from college. I was a wide-eyed 21-year-old, armed with an English degree, two huge suitcases, and vague plans to stay on the couch at a friend’s apartment until I got a job.
I wasn’t planning to stay for six years. I wasn’t really planning my future at all. I was only focused on the present: getting a job at a magazine, finding an apartment, and having fun. A few weeks later, I’d checked off all of the above, working at a major media company and starting a life in this chaotic place I’ve come to call home.
Suddenly, six years passed. And for now, my time in New York has come to an end. I’m heading back South for a less expensive and much warmer lifestyle.
It’s sad, scary, and exciting, all at the same time. Sure, the city drove me crazy sometimes. There were days I walked home sobbing on the street; mornings I could hardly get out of bed; nights when I made bad decisions.
But more than anything, I feel an immense amount of gratitude toward this city for helping me grow into who I am today at age 28. It’s become part of my identity. And it’s been 100-percent worth all the frustration. While living in New York isn’t easy by any means, I believe that if you can last there long enough so it feels like home, so you can look around and marvel at how far you’ve come, then the city will pay you back for all it put you through — and more. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the big city about work, love, and life in general.
1. Never stop networking.
When I first moved, I cold-emailed tons of people in the media industry (through connections that were tenuous at best, like my college’s alumni network or friends of friends) asking to meet for a quick coffee or drink. Most said yes, and every meeting paid off. In fact, one friend-of-a-friend later ended up hiring me—twice.
Networking didn’t end when I got my first job. I still ask to meet with writers I admire or people who work for interesting brands. And when people ask me to grab coffee now? I try to say yes, when I can. You never know where someone may end up some day.
2. Every job, no matter how monotonous, has value.
My first “job” (a.k.a. paid internship) involved unpacking and re-packing boxes upon boxes of housewares and food products so the editors of O Magazine could decide which made the cut for “Oprah’s Favorite Things.” I also picked up orders from Starbucks and wrapped thousands of presents for a holiday giveaway. Obviously I wasn’t putting my English degree to great use; nor did I take away many marketable skills from that ultra-glamorous gig. But I did meet awesome people whom I still keep in touch with. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s always an opportunity to learn.
3. Treat your colleagues nicely.
Because—shocker!—they’re people too. Bosses included. It’s only natural to become close with your coworkers — you’re sitting next to each other every day, complaining about office politics, going on coffee runs. But if you do it right, you can come away with lifelong friends. I’ve been lucky enough to do so. Regardless, I think it’s always worth building relationships with coworkers that go deeper than surface level. Say good morning. Take up slack at work. Maybe even go out and get drunk together at happy hour sometime. Whatever you do, don’t burn bridges. It’s a big city, but a small world.
4. Trust your first instincts.
Whether it’s about an apartment, a job, or a person, I’ve learned my initial impression is usually spot-on. I’ve signed leases, taken job offers, and accepted (or rejected) dates based on my intuition. When you know, you know. True, I’ll never know for sure what the other option would have brought into my life, but I’ve learned you just have to let go. In New York especially, there will always be a feeling something “better” is out there, which can be paralyzing if you let it get to you. That’s why you have to trust your gut.
5. You can find fulfillment beyond your 9-to-5.
If you’re bored or frustrated by your job, you’re not the only one. It took me a while to realize that I can (and should) put my free time to good use, but finally, I did. A few things I did: read self-help books, got into yoga, trained for a half-marathon, took free or cheap classes, and attelectures and panels. Plus, living in New York made me realize you don’t have to go back to grad school (or go to school at all) to get a good education. It’s the graduate school of life.
6. Always ask questions.
This is one of the primary principals of Dale Carnegie’s legendary book, How to Win Friends & Influence People, but it’s also something my mom drilled into me when I was young: Ask people about themselves! I’ve relied on this approach on job interviews, dates, or whenever I meet anyone new.
People love to talk about themselves, and it will endear you to them. They may not even know a damn thing about you, but they’ll love you! (Promise! It’s been proven by countless one-sided first dates.) Just be curious and open-minded, and the person across from you will make your job easy.
7. Don’t expect people to bail you out.
At one job, I watched two of my bosses get fired. At another, I left right before a huge round of layoffs. I’ve seen friends get evicted with two weeks’ notice. And my own trust in people has been broken again and again.
Living in New York has taught me that you’ve got to be able stand on your own two feet. It may sound cynical, but I’ve learned you can’t necessarily expect anyone—a boss, a friend, a building superintendent—to be there for you when you’re fired, dumped, or locked out of your apartment. No matter how amazing people are, sometimes they’re just looking out for number 1. So look out for yourself too. By getting through some tough stuff on my own, both in my work and personal life, I know I’ve become a stronger person.
8. It’s not personal.
In dating, when someone doesn’t ever text or call back again with no explanation whatsoever, it’s called “ghosting.” Go on enough dates in New York, and it’s guaranteed to happen. I’ve also experienced “ghosting,” work-wise. I can’t count the number of job interviews I’ve been on—second and third rounds too—without ever hearing another word.
This was a tough lesson for me to learn, but it’s one of the most important: Don’t take it personally. That guy I never heard from again? He wasn’t right for me. Ditto for the job.
Being “rejected” doesn’t mean you’re unworthy, or that you did something wrong. The right person, the right role, the right opportunity will come along. Just remember: Nothing ever comes easy in New York—you just have to try not to take it personally.
9. A little kindness goes a long way.
I admit I’m not the most outgoing person—it’s tough for me to make small talk with strangers. But I’ve realized what a huge difference it makes in someone’s day to simply ask how they’re doing. I started to chat to with my dry cleaners, gym greeter, barista. Plus, in New York, you stand around in enough lines. Strike up a conversation with the person behind you in the endless line at Sweetgreen. One of the coolest things about New York is that you never know who you may meet. You just have to say hello.
10. There are other things to do on weekends than boozing and brunching.
My first couple years in the city, I spent weekends staying out late and sleeping until noon. It was like college, continued. Sure, dancing in clubs and drinking in bars can be a lot of fun. But losing control—and feeling like sh*t the next day—isn’t.
New York’s social scene is very alcohol-centric, so it’s tempting to drink often and a lot. While it took me a little while to realize it, there are better ways to spend your weekends—so many that I don’t even need to list them. And one day I suddenly understood that getting up at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings feels way better than going out until 2 a.m. on Saturday night.
11. Giving back rocks.
One of the few things I regret is not getting involved earlier with an amazing organization called New York Cares. (If you live in New York, sign up now. It’s super easy.)
I’ve worked on a few projects—at a girls’ club, a homeless shelter, an old folks’ home. Each experience was incredibly rewarding, and the good vibes were endless. Everyone I met volunteering was so kind and grateful. I heard a lot of “God bless you” and “Thank you for your help.” Working with those less fortunate can be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but soon you get into a groove with it, and it’s actually really fun. And when you walk away—back to your cushy, air-conditioned life—you realize (1) how good you really have it and (2) those people you see on the streets aren’t scary at all. In fact, they’re pretty nice.
12. Life isn’t linear, and that’s OK.
Growing up, I was totally type-A. I followed the rules (mostly), I did my homework, I aced my classes, I landed a good job. But after a few months in New York, I started to realize there are no guidelines explaining what you should do next — or even if what you’re doing right now is the right thing.
Now, I’ve learned to accept that life doesn’t follow a pre-determined plan. It’s not a set series of “steps” to be taken, or rungs to climb on a corporate ladder. But somehow I trust it’ll all make sense in the end. And I kind of like it that way. It wouldn’t be quite as much fun to know exactly what I’ll be doing in 10 years.
13. People enter—and leave—your life for a reason.
This was probably the hardest lesson for me to realize, and something I still struggle with. From friends to boyfriends, a lot of people have drifted in and out of my life these past six years. I’ve had to understand that it’s OK to let old, stale friendships go. That not everything is meant to last. That it’s OK to end a relationship with someone you thought you’d be with forever. That people change—and you change too.
I’ve learned it’s so much worse to obsess over what went wrong and chase the ghosts of relationships past, trying desperately to get them back. I’ve learned every relationship teaches you—and the other person—something important about life. I know it’s difficult, but if you step back and think about it, you’ll realize that every relationship—no matter how brief—taught you a lesson that somehow changed you for the better.
Originally published at medium.com