On Saying No Without A Safety Net

by Kimberly Lew

When I transferred to NYU in the winter of 2008, I put myself on a strict schedule: I had a year and a half to get enough credits to graduate. In that time I also needed to secure a side job to support my expenses, and find at least one internship in publishing so that I would have the work experience necessary to secure a full-time job right after graduation and start paying off my student loans. The side job, luckily, came easily: the day I arrived in the city, I walked across the street from my dorm room in Union Square and filled out an application at the Barnes and Noble. A few days later, I was there again filling out paperwork.

At the end of that first spring semester, I began to panic. Finals were rolling around, and I still hadn’t crossed off the internship part of my checklist. I scanned Craigslist constantly, sent out resumes, but no one was biting. Then, suddenly, I was asked to come in for an interview for an internship at a film magazine, on the afternoon of one of my finals. I went in, took an editing test, and then sat down with two perfectly nice women in a very cramped office space. They told me a little about the company, but strangely only asked two questions about myself: why I wanted the internship, and did I have any questions. Finding the very brief interview a little strange, I was very surprised when I received an email the next day offering me the position.

I didn’t have anything else lined up, no interviews, nothing, and the semester was officially coming to a close. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the idea that this film magazine wasn’t a great fit. They had accepted me knowing very little about me. How could they be so sure this was going to be a good working relationship?

Even though my stomach felt queasy, I turned the internship down. It was my first professional offer for anything, and I had said no. My whole summer was planned around having something lined up, and I had just waved off the only opportunity that had come my way.

I ended up getting two internships that summer: one at an established academic publisher, and the other at an office that would eventually turn into my first full-time job after graduation (right on schedule). Still, I think back to those hours staring at the acceptance email from the film magazine, and I wonder what it was that gave me the chutzpah to turn it down.

Many things in life require sacrifice, and in any, but especially this, job market, sometimes you need to take opportunities less because they are good and more as a means of survival. People say that you should never leave a job unless you have something else lined up, and this is good advice. Being picky is a privilege that few of us can afford, and I have never wanted to take advantage of the opportunities I have been given. Because of this hustler mentality, however, sometimes it can be hard to see the bigger picture, to leave spaces in your life open so that new experiences can present themselves. Sometimes you’re so busy juggling the balls you already have in the air that you don’t even see the other things around you that are worth picking up.

There have been a few times when I have had to make the call and turn things down even without a backup or means to supplement what I was saying No to. I had a very well-paid gig helping maintain a lawyer’s office last winter, but after realizing that much of it was going to be throwing away his soda cans of tobacco spit and peeling dried food off his court documents, I realized that this was not how I wanted to spend my evenings after a full shift at my day job. I once turned down the opportunity to take the night shift as a Nielsen survey writer after calculating the sleepless nights I would endure watching television episodes repeatedly in a dark room, despite the fact that it paid twice as much as my side job.

Now, I am finding myself saying No to continuing a job I’ve had since moving to New York: after seven and a half years, I quit my retail job at Barnes and Noble. For seven and a half years, I have not had a weekend, and only a couple of years ago have I even had one consistent day off a week. For seven and a half years, I have worked through chaotic holiday seasons, long closing shifts where we would wait patiently until every customer had left the store, turnover that included many of my best friends, and huge changes to the book industry as a whole. I have always been thankful for this job. I have always considered this job my second home. But now I’ve decided it’s time to say goodbye.

I still can’t put my finger on exactly how or when I made the decision to quit. When you add up the numbers, I still very much need the money and I could very much use the stability. At the same time, I want to envision a future where I have weekends free, where I have time to catch my breath, and where I am not always stretched thin, all for an extra few bucks. I don’t really know what the future holds. I may be looking for another side gig in a matter of weeks.

For now, I’m just trying to see the spaces where this work once was and let them be open. Who knows what might come along to fill it.

Kimberly Lew is the proud writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.

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