By Stephanie Nikolopoulos
“I get paid to read all day,” I say, dreamily, whenever anyone asks about my job as an editor. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have what’s considered a glamour job. For more than fifteen years now I have worked in the book publishing industry—the type of coveted job heroines in films desire. But this also means fifteen years of looking for errant homonyms and Oxford commas, stray periods and Freudian slips. As Oscar Wilde once quipped, it feels like I spend all morning putting in a comma only to then spend all afternoon taking it out. I love my job but, presumably like most people, I sometimes wonder: Is this my life calling?
Feeling certain since childhood that I wanted to work with words yet curious if maybe there was something more for me to do with my life, I signed up for the two-day in-city retreat Designing Your Life led by Dave Evans and hosted by the Center for Faith & Work.
I arrive hesitant. An introvert—as many in my industry are—I eyed the conference room set-up with suspicion: instead of rows of seating like at a lecture, there are multiple tables for six. This was going to require group participation, I could feel it in my churning gut. At my assigned table, the man across from me introduces himself, though, and we discover he works for the same organization my sister does. Then a woman arrives who used to work in tech in the same building where I had my first job editing ebooks. Another woman arrives who recently attended a writing conference. I am among kindred spirits and almost feel disappointed when we have to stop socializing for the start of the presentation.
Dave Evans is immediately engaging. He would humbly joke he has the biological advantage of being tall, which society prioritizes for leadership, but it’s more than that: he exudes passion for helping others design their lives. Informed and charismatic, he has clearly spoken on this topic many times—he is Adjunct Lecturer in the Product Design Program at Stanford University and was the CFW’s inaugural 2016 Entrepreneur-in-Residence—yet it is as if he is speaking individually into the hearts and minds of every New Yorker in the room who identifies themselves by their career and level of achievement in life. He sets out dispelling beliefs: work isn’t about finding your singular “passion,” and it’s never too late to switch gears. He is speaking from his own experience—a fact that gives credibility to his advice. Evans dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, switched gears to work in alternative energy, led product marketing for Apple’s mouse team and introduced laser printing to the world, and became VP of Talent for Electronic Arts. He advises: “Don’t get stuck trying to solve your life—design your life.”
“Beware of normal,” he cautions. “Life is an adventure to be engaged.” He says of life and work: “Just not doing it wrong? That’s all you got?” That last one strikes a chord for me. My career is predicated on finding fault—typos, erroneous facts, upside-down images. It’s a job that fit my personality. Years ago, when I applied for a job, I was asked to take an Enneagram personality test that profiled me as liking pearls and tradition. I was mortified. I’m a writer! I’m creative! My mother likes pearls, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in pearls! Did you catch that—the part about me being a writer? When I dreamed of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was not editing other people’s words—I was writing my own. Writing doesn’t often come with a steady paycheck, though, and I didn’t believe in myself enough to write for a living. I was scared. I wanted safety. I wanted stability. True to my Enneagram personality, I took the traditional route: I took a job helping others achieve their dreams. Evans’ questions brought up the thoughts that ran through my head as a kid: be quiet so you don’t accidentally say the wrong thing, stay still so you don’t knock something over or call attention to yourself, do a good job so you don’t get in trouble. Don’t screw up.
We’re going to screw up, though. It’s right there in the Gospel: man sins, repents, and gets redeemed through Christ. We are going to make mistakes. We aren’t omniscient. Evans reminds us of Philippians 1:6: “Be confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” Though the bestselling book Designing Your Life was co-written by Bill Burnett, an atheist, Evans is a Christian with a graduate diploma in Contemplative Spirituality from San Francisco Theological Seminary. One of the key takeaways from the retreat is that too often Christians get in their heads that God has one definitive calling for their lives and that if they don’t find it and act upon it, they are not only not living up to their full potential but they are also disappointing God. “Life is not about not making mistakes,” Evans states, citing the Parable of the Talents, in which the two workers who took risks were the ones who were praised. “It’s not about ‘did I get it right?’” Evans says. “The dance changes and rearranges to account for missteps.”
On Saturday, Evans has us prototype three versions of our lives: the first is where we see our current lives headed in five years, the second is what we would do if our industry shut down completely and we had to find new careers (here’s looking at you, writers, who went into print journalism!), and the third is what we would do if money were no object or obstacle. In my third version, I envision myself continuing to be an editor but spending summers hosting a writing colony in Greece. Last year, my colleagues and I at the Redeemer Writers Group had put on a one-day retreat for writers in which we invited guest authors, editors, publicists, and marketers to share their knowledge with our writing group, and I had loved the process of thinking up panel themes and organizing speakers. The desire to do more of this pumps through my heart, and organizing a Christian writing retreat is the job I choose when Evans has us break into small groups and brainstorm ways to learn about and try out one of our ideas. Then, he has us speed network to meet others in the room who can help us or put us in touch with someone who can. It is terrifying and thrilling all at once. I walk away with several leads.
I may just have designed a new life for myself, and I’m excited.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos is a coleader of the Redeemer Writers Group. Her writing can be found at www.StephanieNikolopoulos.com.