Failure & Self-Realization & Ravenous Hunger

This is definitely one of my favourite book titles in recent memory.

Since leaving my job — more on that later — I haven’t been reading as much as I expected.

I think it’s partly exhaustion, and partly just feeling lost. There’s no need to jump from deliverable to deliverable, always on a time crunch, anymore. I have time to truly think for a change, instead of just executing. That’s a luxury, and it’s scary, too. What should I tether myself to, now that I can do anything?

I keep extensive to-do lists with what I want to accomplish: writing, coding, volunteering for JordanCon, et cetera. I set tasks, not time slots, so that I don’t keep 12-hour days if I don’t have to. It also means that I sometimes get to sit down to a luxuriously long lunch and just read. That’s exactly how I finished THE CARE AND FEEDING OF RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY GIRLS yesterday.

The book is decently written, with a very human premise. A woman named Althea and her husband, Proctor, go to prison for defrauding their community, throwing their family — her sisters, their children — into shambles. The novel explores what it means to be a mother, a sister, a child, an aunt, a caretaker. It also considers the responsibilities of both loving someone, and of being loved.

I kept reading, even though I didn’t love the book, because there was an emptiness in the main character that spoke to me. I didn’t put my finger on it until a particular quotation, about halfway through the novel:

“You know, I was gonna be a cartoonist,” Mercedes [a fellow inmate] says. “That’s what I wanted to be.” She only ever talks about what she was, a caricature artist, never what she wanted to be. And I [Althea] think, What did I want to be? Definitely not a bookkeeper. That’s something I just ended up becoming after years and years of night school. And a restaurant owner? That was Proctor’s dream. A mother? I think I just became everything I am. Was. But at least I was somebody out there.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, p. 118

The idea of becoming, now that I’m well out of college/grad school (and old enough to have kids and a mortgage, even if I have neither) has obsessed me for the last year. It’s so easy to feel like it’s too late to become, like the track has been laid for me. I should just keep going, right?

It’s also why leaving my job, which paid really damn well, to pursue a passion that pays pretty damn poorly, feels so stupid.

And, the fact is, I don’t even know where to start. My identity sometimes feels like it’s just a collection of things I love. Reading, and writing, and video games, and science, and Scrabble are wonderful. They don’t make a person.

That’s what made consulting so easy. When you work 60-80 hours a week, you just keep doing it. You say a prayer of thanks every night you find an hour to yourself to read or to write. It’s a privileged position, and the polar opposite of Althea’s — a different side of the same coin:

“[…] What I’m telling you is you didn’t have much of nothing else. When the one thing is everything, it gets easier and easier to do whatever you got to do to keep it. And that was you, Althea, with my dumb ass along for the ride.”

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, p. 239

It is easy to just go along for the ride. I can imagine waking up in 20 years, a Managing Director & Senior Partner at a prestigious consultancy, earning a ton of money by making the rich richer, while giving or creating nothing for the world. When it’s your one thing, it’s everything. It’s what I’ve seen in so many senior leaders of my company.

I didn’t love this book, but I did appreciate the mirror it held up. I wrote about the idea of becoming in Du Maurier’s Rebecca last year. I’m not sure I’ve developed any answers since then, but, at the very least, RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY GIRLS made me feel like I set off down the right path.

I hope I can remember that in a few months, when everything gets a little bit scarier.