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if I leave my job, will I still be “cool”?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
I'm plagued by fear that if I leave my "cool" job in fashion, people won't be as interested in me anymore—like I'll lose a little bit of my clout or edge that gives me a boost at parties or with new people. I hate feeling defined by my job, but I also am scared of losing the cool factor I feel when I say I work at a place people admire. Ugh. How do I combat this??? — EgoAnxiety, she/her
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What’s cooler than being cool? A high school guidance counselor might say: “Being yourself.” But the great poets, a.k.a. Outkast, say: “Ice cold.” It’s a reference to one of Andre 3000’s many nicknames, although if you squint, it could mean that these days detachment is a metric of coolness. Maybe that detachment is waiting a day to text someone you really like back so you don’t seem too eager. Or maybe it’s hiding behind an artifice—a brand, a job—and letting it speak for you.
Let’s be real: You’re not wrong to assign value to working somewhere with clout. “Coolness” is a subjective but undeniably valuable tool, especially in creative industries like fashion, where it dictates how things like money and exposure are distributed. Capitalism has imbued name recognition with inherent value. Some rare individuals get an edge off their names alone (think: Andre Leon Talley, Virgil Abloh) while the rest of us attach ourselves to brands in hopes of reaping smaller rewards…call it trickle down influence.
We all live like this, asking about careers and colleges to compulsively categorize people we meet. At the most altruistic, these are our clumsy, human attempts at finding kindred spirits. At the most insidious, it’s superficial sorting that hinges on exclusionary criteria like higher education, unpaid internships, and low-wage jobs. It’s also, frankly, not that effective. I’ve met plenty of brilliant, forward-thinking people at “uncool” jobs, and plenty of unkind, unimaginative people at “cool” jobs. And as I’m sure you know, the jobs “a million girls would kill for” aren’t as glossy as they may seem.
Once you see the privilege that cool earns, it’s hard to leave it behind. I felt this same fear a few years ago, when I left my job as an editor at Bon Appetit. The glossy title wasn’t just in my Instagram bio—okay, it was the only thing in my Instagram bio—it was how I introduced myself in professional spaces, and also how I answered the dreaded question of “so, what do you do?” at parties. And yes, it gave me plenty of clout: free dishes at restaurants, Instagram followers, and praise from strangers who didn’t know me at all.
I was terrified when I left my cool job to go freelance. I had poured so much of myself into my work that I didn’t know who I would be without it. (Yes, the burnout was real.) Even though my work was supporting a brand that many people admired, I had to remind myself that those ideas and labor were mine first.
shift the vibe
Now, when someone asks me, “what do you do?”, I start talking about what I’m making instead of where I’m doing it. I don’t say the word “work” here, because a lot of the projects that inspire me most aren’t things anyone is paying me to make, especially when I first went solo. I’m excited to talk about the newsletter I launched to write about hobbies (but really just write in a low-pressure environment) and the magazine about cake and sex I launched with a friend. These projects are “work” in the creative sense but not the capitalist sense, and while they don’t always nurture my bank account, they’ve helped me step away from assigning larger value to how we make our money.
Of course, taking the time to essentially pitch a stranger on my new projects isn’t quite as effective as name dropping a household name. Not everyone stuck around for a longer conversation. Sometimes I found myself relying on old tactics, naming contributors or press coverage that might have a similar effect of conjuring up corollary coolness. But eventually, I stopped feeling like I had something to prove. I knew I was proud of my work. It wasn’t a brand—it was all mine.
So, what if you separated your labor from your value? I’ve been at parties where people have asked, “how do you spend your time?” or “what brings you joy?” instead of the classic “what do you do?” It sounds like a New Age ice breaker, and it kind of is, but it works.
do something creative, just for you
But shifting the onus from your job to your passions, is just the beginning. Breaking free of external opinions is a lifelong practice, and leaving them entirely behind is a privilege many creatives don’t have. “That adrenaline hit of people liking this thing you did is a human thing to want to have,” says Brandon Stosuy, founder of The Creative Independent and author of Make Time for Creativity. “One way I’ve found that I’ve removed myself from it [is realizing that] over time, you start caring about the work itself and just want to complete it. Of course you want to release it to the world where people will respond to it, but the more you worry about what people think, the less time you have to think about what you’re doing.”
How would you fill your time if nobody was watching? Would you dive into baking, start vintage furniture collecting, pick up writing poetry? Following a personal passion might not mute the voices in your head, real or imaginary, but it will help you crank up the volume on your own wants and desires. Yes, you can talk about your side project at parties as a way to show people what you care about and how you view the world. But do it for yourself first.
Whether you want to leave fashion entirely or move to a different company in the same field, say this part out loud: You are more than your job. “All of the labors of love, stripped of the capitalist impulse to make money, fame, and power, are really bottom attempts to connect to other people,” writes the labor journalist Sarah Joffe in Work Won’t Love You Back. “They are attempts to be bigger and better than our lonely little selves—even the most solitary artist’s creations are in a way a request to be seen, to be known. Stripped of the need to fight to survive, how much more connections could we create? How much more could we try to know each other?”
Of course, stepping away from capitalism is a lot easier said than done. We still have bills to pay, and even a purpose to try and fulfill. But purpose and community can be found in all sorts of places: gyms, knitting circles, very literal community gardens. Joining a group like this doesn’t just build a new skill set, it enables connections with people who already have common ground, and new ways to relate to yourself as well.
I’ll ask you one more question: How much more can you try to know yourself when you stop letting your employment speak for you? Maybe it’s time to find out.