Places & Travel / Society & Culture

I Am Not My Job: Why I Left New York City

It was Patti Smith who said, in a talk at Cooper Union in 2010, that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling.” Smith wrote in her memoir, Just Kids, about coming to New York as a “down and out” young woman, scraping by in a cheap apartment, creating a community of artists, and even at times paying rent with artwork. But New York City has long since priced itself out of this lifestyle, with rent in Manhattan averaging $3,822 and in Brooklyn (the “less expensive” option) averaging $3,035 per month. This means that living in Brooklyn costs, on average, over $36,000 a year—higher than the salary of your average “young creative.” Our salary increases certainly have not kept pace with the cost of living.

When I was living in Brooklyn, I was paying $800 per month to split a three bedroom with two other girls. We were living on the border of Lefferts Garden and Crown Heights, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood which, while it wasn’t bad, wasn’t exactly the bustling downtown area people expect when they hear “New York City.” When I initially moved to Brooklyn, I was looking for work as a writer/editor, which I found, sparingly. I was working as a writing assistant making around $500, $600 a month, which is not much in general and is basically pennies in New York.

I can’t imagine that I’m alone in my experiences. Early creative work, what many call the “portfolio-building years,” inherently involves a lot of low-paying and non-paying jobs. We’re often seen as “apprentices” to our trade, despite our college educations and numerous internships. I’ve found that young creatives who desire to be financially independent from their families (which—despite what you may have heard—is most of them) do one of two things: they find a “real job,” a term I use skeptically, and attempt to pursue their passion in their free time, or they find a way to commodify their passion.

I was part of the former group, taking a job as a receptionist at a fertility clinic in midtown Manhattan. I ended up having a strong love/hate relationship with this job—I loved the patients and found myself getting very involved in their care, and I found the scientific aspects of the field absolutely fascinating. I learned a lot, both about medicine and about people, in my time there. (The job is actually one of the things that inspired me to branch out to sociology and anthropology, as the juxtaposition between medical technology and personal identity in our patients’ lives was extremely intriguing.) However, this was not the reason I came to New York. I’m a creative, passionate, intelligent human being, and while I was able to inject this job with a bit of those qualities, it certainly didn’t force it out of me.

The “commodification” direction is one I saw many friends take—those who were interested in writing took jobs at social media companies as SEO bloggers, and those who wanted to work in film and TV found themselves working as assistants to talent agents. These jobs, while technically in the “creative industry,” probably utilized as little of my friends’ creative skills as my receptionist job did of mine. While this is probably the objectively better option, not everyone even has this opportunity—securing these competitive positions often requires years of unpaid internships and some degree of “connection,” leaving out those of us who had to work part-time or full-time jobs during college and were not able to devote our time to volunteer positions.

Unfortunately, both of these routes are problematic. Let’s explore.

For my friends who took on “creative” jobs, the lines between “personal” and “professional” time became increasingly blurred thanks to both long hours (some friends of mine work 12+ hour days as assistants to agents, publishers and producers) and the now ubiquitous smart phone technology that has allowed people to be available via phone and e-mail 24/7. Because of the high competition for these jobs, the concern of being fired was ever-present for my friends, forcing them to overlook these downfalls (not to mention the low pay).

Those with “day jobs” who hope to pursue passions on the side will also find that it is difficult to live a dual lifestyle. As a receptionist, I was working between eight- and ten-hour days, plus making a commute of 45 minutes each way—a common situation, since the “centers of industry” such as midtown and downtown Manhattan are increasingly distant from the affordable areas of upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Yes, I was able to afford my rent, my Metrocard, and my school loans, but I certainly didn’t have much time or energy (or, realistically, money) to practice my craft or experiment artistically, which is so important for young artists. When I first moved to New York, I kept up a blog in an attempt to continue honing my writing skills after graduation, but it soon became difficult to fit into my life. I was constantly “busy” but never “productive.” My writing fell by the wayside, and while I excelled professionally, I had all but given up on my passion.

And this, here, is what many people don’t discuss when they are talking about young creatives. It may sound trite, but the personal identity of many young people who come to the city to flourish creatively is slowly crushed by the reality of affording the lifestyle. Social identity theory outlines the way that humans self-identify with a group or organization that they feel reflects their values and attributes. The identity you apply to yourself, in the United States and especially in a place like New York City, is unfortunately but inevitably tied up in your money-making methods. I am a doctor, I am a journalist, I am a receptionist. In New York, the question “what do you do?” is everywhere you turn. The cost of living means that money is a constant on the minds of the majority of residents. How much you pay in rent is not a taboo question, but rather an extremely common topic of conversation (and probably the question asked next after “what do you do?”); New Yorkers are constantly discussing the latest “hidden gem” of a cheap salon, bar, or Chinese food restaurant. In a society so preoccupied with money, it makes sense that we would begin to identify others, as well as ourselves, by professions as opposed to personal interests.

In light of this, it’s easy to feel like a failure if your job (“receptionist”) does not match up with your ambition (“writer”). I often found myself feeling like an outcast because my job wasn’t exciting, because I wasn’t a “mover-and-shaker,” because I wasn’t fulfilling the role that many picture when they think of a “creative New Yorker”—a role that has all but vanished here. In a community where everyone asks about what you do and no one asks about what you love, it’s easy to become discouraged and uninspired. Many of us cease to think of ourselves as “artists” as our minds and our days are consumed with the tedium of the jobs we take on to afford living in New York. So what’s the point?

This is why I left New York City: not just because it’s not affordable, but because the lifestyle wasn’t benefitting me as a young creative. I’m not alone—a recent New York Times piece on the “goodbye letter to New York City” (one of which I suppose this may be) highlights a new dearth of young, creative thought in New York. “If you think you’ll find intellectual stimulation, you’re thinking of another era,” Andrew Sullivan is quoted as saying. “The conversations are invariably about money or property or schools. I’ve never been more bored by casual chat.” David Byrne, in a piece for the Guardian, acknowledges that what people really come to New York for—”the possibility of interaction and inspiration”—is on the decline, thanks to the very problems I discussed above. So if there’s no time or money for art, and there’s no more inspiration, it seems obvious that young artists should pack up and find somewhere new, as young artists have been doing for centuries.

I moved to the Catskills, an area that has long been a creative hotspot but has maintained a certain level of laid-backness (not to mentioned affordability). I’ve been here three months, and so far I’ve done more reading and writing than I did in the entirety of the two years I spent in New York. My fiancé and I have been getting by on (for me) editing and writing work and a bit of nannying and (for him) photography for some fantastic regional magazines; we’re actually able to survive on the low salaries of the early creative years in a way we never could in NYC. This has translated to more time for art, more time for experimentation, and more space to make mistakes (an always integral part of the artistic process). What I’ve also found is that, because the lifestyle is less expensive, it’s also less focused on the “job,” leaving much more room to talk about passions, ideas, and new projects. People are less rushed, less stressed, and more willing to have real, genuine conversation. The calm, less distracting environment and the beautiful scenery don’t hurt, either.

I’m not advocating that everyone move to the mountains—it’s certainly not for everyone—but I am hoping that young creatives everywhere can start to open their minds and consider other home bases. New York City had its creative heyday, but cities are constantly evolving entities; perhaps it’s time to stake out some new real estate.

Originally posted on Medium.

Photo by Tom Smith.

Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn. See her portfolio at eberhardtsmith.com.

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243 thoughts on “I Am Not My Job: Why I Left New York City

  1. Great piece. I migrated to New York City to pursue my creative passion. Took the 9-5 (or, shall I say, 9-9) day job and was too bushed at the end of each day to write. Somebody once told me that LA is the place “where dreams go to die.” NYC will do that too, if you let it.

  2. there’s a reality to what expectations one can have when they decide to pursue a career in “creative like fields” such as writing and visual art. If one wants to have a lifestyle that allows them to enjoy their passions then they’re going to have to be more selective about where they want to thrive and there has to be an actual demand for the passion otherwise they’re chasing a dream without any realistic foundation. I love playing video-games but expecting my community to reward me for that simply because it’s my passion isn’t a solid plan in life and would beg me to question how practical my goals are in terms of being happy with my lifestyle… every actor i’ve met in isn’t going to make it big, every musician isn’t going to have a record deal.

  3. Great post and I want to add that many of us who stay (I was born here) really miss the people we loved who had to move. How much better this city would be if those people could have stayed.

  4. I’m 29 years old and I left Orange County, NY (65 miles from the city) to move to North Carolina because I too felt that New York had nothing to offer me but hospitality or retail work. Can’t say that things are much better in the south but I’m surviving much better than I would have if I stayed in NY.

  5. I’m 33 and god I wanted to move to NYC so bad when I was 22-25, but I just never could make the leap. But I totally agree, being a writer, literary person, never adds up to the perfect dream job after college like those friends who majored in Economics and Engineering. They seemed to get awesome great paying jobs super fast and I felt stuck and unable to find my place. Good post!

  6. Living in London, working in Retail but having a passion for art and photography, I can really relate to this. I am often too tired to be as creative as I’d like in my spare time. Even keeping up the blog is hard. But I love being in a city with so much art and creativity to see around me. I do feel rubbish when I tell people I work in a shop. I’m much more what I love than my job. Thank you for making me feel I’m not alone!

  7. I could have written this post myself. I spent seven years writing my first book while living in NYC, working as an editor 9-5 and trying to find the time and energy to write on the side. After removing to Colorado, I finished my second book in four months. I still miss the excitement of the city sometimes, but leaving was the best move I could have made for my creativity.

  8. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! So many young people go to New York City romanticizing the life of the starving artist, who gets by on the goodwill and passion of her friends and mentors. Thanks for giving us a dose of reality. I hope that this reaches people who need to hear it!

  9. Very interesting piece and I commend you for having the hutzpah to leave and make a new start somewhere else. I firmly believe that there needs to be time for both making a living and having a life. As you get older, you’ll realize that this becomes an even more important part of who you are and how you want to spend that time.

  10. Great post. As someone who has hustled in NYC with “real job” while pursuing creative dreams, I can attest to the fact of just how hard it can be. Overwhelming, daunting, disparaging and downright hopeless at times! But invaluable in the lessons learned.

  11. I’d like to see graphs on studies as to how and why these rents are so high. Comparisons in the market due to inflation and how we can fix this as a whole. Because I moved out of New York several times and now I’m back but very confused

  12. Really interesting. Partly indicative of how different NY is from elsewhere in the States. For example, San Francisco is expensive and has many of the issues you discuss, but at the same time, it does feel (subjectively) like a more creative city

  13. I relate to this even more than I thought I would, seeing as I’ve never lived in New York. I consider myself a creative, artsy-type but have struggled TREMENDOUSLY trying to find the time and the inspiration to practice my craft, while also trying to be financially independent. There have been times when I have abandoned my creativity all together due to life stresses and trying to keep my head above water. I felt totally drained and lost, and still do at times. I tried to “make it” in LA (it defeated me), I had to move home to Iowa (the least inspiring place I have ever been), and finally I moved to a small beach town on the East coast of Florida (where I am finding myself all over again). It is SO HARD, but I have found that all I can do is continue practicing my passion. Currently I work two part-time jobs to keep up with living expenses, but my five year plan is to become a full-time artist. Wish me luck, I need it!

  14. New York is one of my favorite cities. I still love Miami to live for all it’s water and charm but New York is really fun and I would have loved to have gone to art school there. Our A.V.A Live Radio After Show just kicked off last week. I Hope you’ll check it out and participate with me in the conversation.

  15. The only reason to be in/near NYC — and I chose to live in a nearby NYC suburb, as a full-time writer — is ready access to the people with the power to hire and promote you and your work. It is a stunningly expensive place and it’s true that you can easily get distracted from creating anything of value long-term in the endless frenzy to just meet your daily cost of living.

    The other issue is challenging — being around smart, talented peers who will inspire and push you. Social media can replace some of that.

  16. I think this is true of many areas of the world right now. I’m in the UK and marrying creativity with money making (just the kind that pays rent- nothing too fancy!) is certainly a difficult juggling act- especially when society heaps on the pressures of expectation. I have a First Class English and creative writing degree and I can’t break into any of the industries that I want to, because I have to work unpaid and commute in from a more affordable renting area. As a result, I now work in a shop which gives me the time to pursue my writing and illustrating as a sort of extra curricular activity. Who knows, maybe one day the creative side will blossom and pay my rent. Until then, would you like a carrier bag? Do you have a loyalty card? Have a nice day!

  17. I love the thought that ‘you are not your job’ and I can relate to the struggles of inner-London City expenditure to facilitate employment. As the old saying goes, ‘there’s more to life (thankfully) that money (or jobs)…Cheers, N (London)

  18. New York City is like a meat grinder. Everyone gets chewed up and the creativity is stifled by repetition and thinking in the box. I too left New York long ago when the sky was sometimes blue and quite often a morose gray. When the building had lost the distinction of being unique and just clouded the sky. I went to Florida, and found the dumb down state. I exchanged the rusty state for the state where rust was predominate.

  19. Difficult to take such a difficult decision. But once taken, life changes for the better. I quit the rat-race 4 years ago because my ‘one year old needed me’. Now, 4 years later, I need myself. I can’t give away my freedom to garden, write, sing, learn, stich, knit, draw to a job that pays handsome but leaves me no time for my creative lust.
    Best of luck!!

  20. Cool, Your story is very inspiring and true of today’s struggles as the modern artist. We often become so enamored with the past that we forget about what is going on today. The financial insecurity that many artists face today makes being an artist such an arduous,intimidating, venture. One that many give up (I did for a lil bit). So, we look up to our New Schools, our Beat’s, or whomever we grew up admiring and hearing their stories about the glamor and then realize it’s not 1955 anymore. I’m glad you found balance by moving to the Catskills, I suppose you can commute to the City anytime and you are getting your Walden on (perhaps building houses).
    Love,love,love the story again,
    Mardaweh

  21. I really enjoyed this post. I to have gone through the process of taking on unpaid internships and low paid work. It was all in the hopes of doing a job that was you said was a) beneath me, and b) not necessarily in the creative field.

    Leaving New York sounds like it was an extremely tough decision. I completely understand your reasoning. It’s the feeling of having your head under water. You manage to come up for air sometimes, but you always feel as though you’re drowning.
    I’ve asked myself theses two important questions countless times, “what am I doing, and what am I going to get out of this?”

    I think pursuing your passions, regardless of what you do to make money is the best advice I’d give to anyone. Like you said, we are not our jobs. Here’s a link to my story :)

    http://gradualthought.com/2013/12/27/i-published-my-first-ebook-the-carpenters-son/

    Also here’s a link to a free documentary by Vice on the City of Detroit. Detroit is seeing an arts revival, with a ton of young artists flocking there due to the cheap housing prices, and relatively low cost of living. The same thing is happening in Ontario, Canada. The cost of living has risen in Toronto, thus a lot of young people are leaving to go to the nearby city of Hamilton. Hamilton is an old steel city with a bit of a rough reputation. It shares a lot of similarities to Detroit.

    http://www.vice.com/en_ca/uneven-terrain/detroit-lives-full-length

    Cheers,

    Ryan

  22. I love this article.

    I am a highly creative person– according to my workwates.
    When I was still in the Philippines, back in my first school there, I had the time to practice my craft from music to drawing, from painting to writing. I was creative and productive during that time. I also had interesting and enlightening conversations during this time.

    Now that I moved to Thailand. Though it is not like New York, the people in the community where I am teaching right now has the same mentality and very shallow priorities. I discovered that my creative side is slowly diminishing because the standards of the people I am with right now is all about BEAUTY, STATUS, PRIDE AND MONEY and very less about creativity or meaningful ambitions. I sometimes fall to depression every time I notice I no longer have a good hand for drawing/painting or playing the guitar that I once had. My writing skills also diminished after coming to Thailand and working in a community like that of New York– where BEAUTY, PRIDE AND MONEY IS HIGHLY PRIORITIZED.

    Haaay…I did the opposite.

  23. I have a niece who is now in New York and trying to pursue her passion in music, either on Broadway or other. I wish her well, but I can already see the strain it is putting on her. Very tired and traveling by train everywhere.She is working many small jobs but can not seem to find the one in music she really wants. I hope she can keep up…

  24. You definitely made a good choice. It is exhausting when one feels the organization they work for, does not reflect their values. We’re on the same boat regarding that. The best thing is to work for a while, save some money and chase after your dreams. Good luck!

  25. As a Londoner, I have travelled to the Big Apple a few times and found it intimidating, I even contemplated doing my degree in NYC (most of my family lives there), but I knew that it would have chewed me up and spit me out.. Moral of the story, its not for everyone, you need to be tough and wiling to hack it.. perseverance and all.. Good luck on your new journey…

  26. Good post. As a native New Yorker I find my desire to stay put in this fabulous city has come to an end. I don’t blame anyone for leaving this overpriced arena!

  27. I believe that there is a price to pay for any easy access to pretty much anything we want. And it really doesn’t matter where you are or what country you are in right now, the economy will still dictate a person’s expenditure.

  28. Very thought provoking piece. As a non- New Yorker I just assumed that is where the creative energy is. I live in Chicago and work with a LOT of creative folks here. It seems that Chicago is still affordable (in some neighborhoods).

  29. thank you for sharing. its pretty much the same scenario thats going on here in singapore as well, where you become so caught up in the haste you forget to stop and enjoy life itself as well.

  30. Sounds like you made the right choice. I’m older and I’ve taken acting classes with young people who’ve moved to NY to “make it” and I wonder why they didn’t go somewhere with a creative scene that’s more affordable. Artistic communities are everywhere.

  31. M frm mumbai and it is very very very crowded. It is very busy too. I agree with u . But also once u are used to the crowd a country place or a less develop ed city u don get used to it . I dunno if u have ever experienced but after 3 days of holiday in a quite place I have to come running back to mumbai from the ultra quite and lots and lots of time. M not a creative though m a doctor

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