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I Tried to Clean Up My Career

But first, I had to clean up my soul.

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

My greatest fear is to die a wasted talent.

I’ll say it to anyone who will listen. I even titled my first unproduced TV script Wasted Talent.

I’m not sure it’s totally-totally true anymore. Now that I’m a mother, I’m pretty sure my greatest fear is to die while my daughter, Hazel, still needs me. I also have a paralyzing fear of mice. And Mom Blogs. But the point is: I constantly worry that when it comes to my career, I completely fucking blew it.

When I turned 40 last summer, I looked around and realized that a lot of my friends have made it. One friend just bought a $2 million bungalow in LA. Nobody gave her a cent. She killed it at work for that kidney-shaped pool. Obviously, that’s an extreme. Another close friend is a top nurse in Boston who saves babies’ lives — every day. Saves. Babies’. Lives. Other friends are landscape architects or small-business owners or social workers — they all astound me with their accomplishments. I generally feel inadequate compared to all of them.

I make a decent living as a freelance writer. I wrote a book a few years ago. I’ve sold a few TV shows that never made it on air and never paid me bungalow money, but they landed me a good agent and a little bit of street cred. I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m proud of my work. Even prouder that I kept up the momentum while having a baby on my own. I designed a lovely work-life-baby balance, and I did it all my way. Suffice to say, my default setting has always been: at least I’m happy.

But if I’m being honest, I’m often sad that I’m not more successful. There are two parts to that statement: I’m sad I never made more money (something that never fazed me until I had kids, and now I think about it all the time — the price of preschool set me into panic mode, and I honestly can’t begin to think about college!), and I’m sad that more than once, I let the voices in my head tell me that I wasn’t good enough to rise to where I wanted to be. I’m mostly sad that I listened — and continue to listen — to the loudest voice inside my head, the one that constantly whispers, You can’t be both successful and happy. So choose happy. That voice means well, I like her, but recently I’ve wondered if she might be wrong.

So last month, when I had the chance to work with the world-famous life coach and author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap, Face Your Fears, Love Your Life, Lauren Zander, a wild-hearted force of woman entrusted by Hugh Jackman and Babyface and a certain queen of all queens who I’m not allowed to mention — I jumped on it. I’ve always been skeptical of life coaches, but after sulking to a friend about my twisted relationship with success, she said only Lauren could untwist things.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Next week, I go to LA for another round of TV pitch meetings, and I’ll take any extra wind in my sails. I’ve tried to get various series on the air for five years now, and while I’ve come really close, it’s never happened. This might sound like “Champagne Problems,” but I should make something clear: At my level, you generally don’t get paid until the show is in the pilot stage (that’s very far along in the process). So, in five years, I’ve made maybe $20,000 altogether, not even enough to get into the Writers Guild — which would at least cover health insurance for me and my daughter. I’ve worked ferociously on this dream. So ferociously that when I was eight months pregnant and I had a deal with a network, my blood pressure spiked so high that I needed an emergency C-section — (and I still took a notes call from the pre-op table). See? The TV business nearly killed me.

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Guess what? Lauren Zander doesn’t give a shit.

After rehashing that deal and worrying that my parents think I’m a fraud and talking about how I’m a working single mom without a trust fund or a nanny and listing all my self-made friends who now make millions, she sharply cut me off. “Listen, Pussycat. If you don’t get that the problem is you, I can’t help you think much bigger.”

That was one of the gentler things she said to me.

Lauren swore that she could get me the TV show of my dreams. And I don’t doubt that she could have. I want everyone I love to have a Lauren in their life. But that being said, I knew our relationship was short-lived.

The problem was the homework. Lauren likes to say she’s your spiritual accountant — she does the books on your whole work/life/love situation, which means she needs to collect a lot of information. Hours of written and emailed lifestuff that she needs in order to get started (broken dreams, haunting memories, hard-to-swallow truths about you and your family). And once that’s done, there are more assignments in which you actually begin to do the work.

Here’s the problem: I have too much work to do that work.

I emailed over some answers, but we both agreed my input was “pathetic.” Following which, I sheepishly told her that I genuinely couldn’t find the time to finish her assignments (on top of all my other assignments). That I don’t have a second to do anything besides working or mothering. That I have too much laundry for a life coach.

Flaking on Lauren made me feel lazy and unambitious. Momentarily. In reality, I know I am not lazy or unambitious. When I’m not doing the jobs that pay my bills or excite my producers, I want to dance with my daughter and sleep when I can. So I continued to wonder: if I believe strongly in a healthy work-life-baby balance, and my kid is always going to come first, do I even have what it takes to be the wild success story that I want to be?

Meanwhile, I tried something else to help cleanse — if not specifically my career, my soul, before my LA trip. Something less time-consuming. Something emotionally easier, perhaps. I went to a spiritual healer, Sondra Shaye, for a tune-up before my pitch meetings. Typically, this is also not my kind of thing, the way life coaches aren’t my thing. I don’t wear mala beads or sprinkle moon dust. But another girlfriend, whom I love and respect, swears by this woman for “all things too hard to sort out on your own.” So I figured, why not?

After a brief introduction via email, Sondra said I needed an “emotional cord-cutting ceremony,” which would take place at her Brooklyn sanctuary. I looked this up on her website. Would you like to free yourself from feeling tired, drained, weighed down by people or events from the past? Emotional Cord Cutting can help you do all this, and more.

As I navigated my way to Sondra’s, I thought, Who has time for this shit? The cynicism evaporated as soon as I met her. As opposed to the electrifying New York lightning storm that is Lauren Zander, Sondra Shaye is the softest Malibu sunset.

We talked a little. She listened. Then she told me to stand up while she dismantled what looked like a fencing sword. “Is it going to hurt?” I asked. She giggled. No. All I had to do was close my eyes and be present. So I did. I closed my eyes for twenty minutes while she encircled me with the saber, allegedly cutting off years of unwanted energy that drained me, dragged me down, from ex-boyfriends to professional contacts to random strangers.

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I went in expecting nothing and left so much lighter. I truly did. When a friend called me about a work crisis that night, I had the clearest, most precise advice for her. When my boyfriend and I took a notes call on a script we’ve been agonizing over together, I felt like there was so much room inside my brain to absorb, process, and put into motion all the feedback.

As for my relationship with success — both wanting to make more money and wanting to go big, really fucking big — I shed some unbecoming shit in that Buddha-rich office. Jealousy. Bitterness. Regret. Sondra cut it all off, but I think it worked only because I wanted it gone. Will it stick? I don’t know. Will it get me to LA in really good emotional shape? I hope so.

In the aftermath of these mini-experiments, and even in writing this essay, I realized a lot about myself. I realized that I’ve always associated big-time success with, well, ugliness. Fighting-dirty, bad-priority, fuck-you-money ugliness. I never had a stomach for that, never will — and that’s what made the voice inside my head say, Success … it’s not for you. Sorry, Mama.

But what if I chase success — the money and the deals — simply because I’ve worked extremely hard for it, because I believe in my talent, because I’ll never stop trying? What if I chase success in television because I know I’d be great at it? Is it possible that in such a cutthroat business, a little innocence can go a long way? I hope so.

“I run a renowned life-coaching and consulting company,” said Lauren Zander on our second and final call. “I’m working right now from my fucking bed with my three kids running around outside. Do you see what I’m saying? The world is stunning. Anyone can do anything.”

I’m off to LA tomorrow, and I’m bringing both women’s generosity of spirit with me. But I’m also bringing my daughter, and all her ballerina tutus, and all our favorite Knuffle Bunny books. So there won’t be any room for that inner voice that tells me that success is going to take away our sweet little life. Sorry, Pussycat, I don’t need to sell my soul. Just a few more TV shows.

Alyssa Shelasky is a writer and author of Apron Anxiety: My Messy Life In and Out of the Kitchen. Her work can be found in New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appétit, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, and many more.