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

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

  1. You speak to my heart! I left a job as a high school English/Special Educator a few years ago because it absolutely drained me, and I had no time for my family or my writing. I focused my energy on helping my husband grow what has become OUR home remodeling business, and I love it! We, too, will be moving out of the suburbs and into a more rural community so that I can focus more energy on my writing. <3

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  4. Yay for you for following your heart! I just blogged about this, too~ about how I want to quit. Also, I’ve observed it’s mostly people who make the bucks, or people who love their careers, who want to identify as their jobs… I’ve never heard a friend say, “I AM a Target employee”….

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  6. It’s such a hassle to be at a job that you aren’t passionate about. I’ve been there before. I can tell you it wasn’t pretty at all. The difficult choice always comes, whether to go for a job that pays the bills or follow your passion with or without pay. Logic seems to always win every time. As creative people, we wish to be well-fed slaves instead hungry free people. It’s a challenging reality that faces the creative person. In less developed parts such as Ghana, where I am, it’s unthinkable to follow your creative passion. You’ll be called insane for choosing such a path. So, the best most creative do is to keep a ‘real’ job and work on the creative side as a part-time hobby. And you know what? The hours and dedication you put on any enterprise determines the outcome. No wonder the grave yards are filled with many creative people with unfulfilled dreams. It’s a pathetic reality.

    PS: you have a creative title for the post.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful entry. For me, the most powerful message is in the title (“I Am Not My Job”). I spent many years feeling unhappy about my work because I did not feel passionate about it. I had the unrealistic expectation that my work would be the ultimate expression of who I am and, when it wasn’t, I felt lost and hopeless. I recently left my job to devote myself exclusively to my passions for a few months. For the first time, I no longer feel pressure to find the perfect job because my true identity lies in what I do when I get home.

    • this is a really good point, actually. i’ve had a lot of discussions about this—how there are multiple types of people, some who need to find fulfillment within their work and some who see work as simply a means to an end outside of their job. neither is necessarily ‘better’ than the other, but i’ve yet to figure out where i fit in.

  8. Funny enough, my experience of NYC is the opposite: I came as an established professional, found the industry (fashion) too commercially obsessed and dropped out to write. I had to rethink this place, confront NYC on my terms. I think the energy is unbeatable and unlike anywhere else but the financial hunger of many residents and employers can ride roughshod over creativity and artistic integrity. At least in the industry I worked in. Writing seems that way too but nevertheless I can plug into the pulse of the city in any of the many coffee shops all over the city, pounding the keys, and the reward is invaluable. The coffee may be pricey but the refills are free. In Paris, London, Dublin, Milan, there are no free refills :-)

  9. Hi
    New York is not for everyone; but they do say if you make it there then you can make-it elsewhere as you seem to have found joy in your little VT cabin.

    A friend of mine had moved to New York many decades ago with the hope of making it big there because he thought he had found a wonderful job but not. In the end, he fold up his tent and moved back to California where he grew up. He still lives there and struggling like everyone else these days.

    I had made my husband make a move to Washington State and we hung out there for less than two years. We sold almost all we went there with and came back to taxing Massachusetts. It has been a longer struggle ever since.

    I continue to remain unemployed with no hope of ever finding employment. I am graying and nearly 50, so none wants the likes of me around. Can’t say that I blame them.

    Thank you for blog-land. Happy New Year.

  10. Wow it’s amazing what a sea change could do. It was a big risk and it seems to be paying off for you!! I can’t help to wonder if the two years was for a purpose to inspire you and all it needed was a change getting outside your safety net again to really fire up the creative juices! Love the post thanks for sharing.

  11. Johannesburg is our NY here in South Africa. No matter which industry, there is where the money is to be made. I myself would probably make twice e money i make now in Cape Town. It’s like two different worlds. Jozi is money driven, career driven, work your arse off but the price is being away from all friends and family back home. Many go to jozi for a few years, to return with experience in order to get a higher paying job back in CT. They always come back.
    Jozi has, money, bad traffic, new roads, busy roads, sky scrapers and the foundation to build a career.
    In Cape Town living in the suburb means a 20 minute drive in any direction and you’ll find, the city, mountains, vinyards, beaches, golf estates, horse riding, fle markers, food markets.. and the list goes on…

    I could never give up my beloved city for Jozi. My creativity is well stimulated right where i am. I’m a Graphic Artist for a clothing manufacturer, so i spend my days drawing. it’s what i love to do. i dont see myself doing anything else. i guess im lucky

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