One week ago I landed my dream job. After years of thinking about going to hair school, and then actually going to hair school, and then passing the licensing test, I got an interview at my top choice of salons in the city and was hired after performing a “technical”- basically a hair audition where I had to demonstrate my knowledge of some different services on actual people. Great! This is all happening! Just like I planned! Incredible! And then I thought, Oh shit, here we go…
I had one brief day of training where I just met the manager and we chatted about hair products and whatever else. The next day I had my first real shift. I had mentioned to my manager that color and bleaching services were my weak area and he promised he’d just have me do haircuts for the first few weeks until I learned more about color. So imagine my surprise when my one client for the day was booked as a “bleach/tone/haircut/style.” Way to kick things off. My client walked in, a tall and spindly man in his 40’s with shoulder length bleach blond wavy hair with about five inches of grow out. With the discreet help of one of my coworkers, I mixed up some bleach and painted his roots. After that processed I washed it out, toned it to a pale silver, gave him a trim and some layers, dried it, and flat ironed it as per request. He was out of there in three hours, glamourous and satisfied. Afterwards I felt wrecked but proud, amazed at myself. I had not for a moment let myself dwell on the possibility of failure and it was only later that I realized that I had actually never done that particular service before at school. I felt extremely lucky that it had gone well.
The next day I got to work and looked at the schedule. I had six clients for the day- one long cut and five short cuts. Phew! No color. The long cut was tricky because her hair was very long, thick, and tangled and I spent about 20 minutes detangling it. I had to be fast because I had one hour to cut her hair and then my next client was coming in. I finally managed to brush it, trim it, throw some layers in it with my feather razor, and blow dry it before my next client.
Next up was a nice older man whose wife had been pressuring him to get a haircut before their vacation. After his haircut I had five minutes before my next client, a man who was pleasant but nit picky about his hair because it was thinning on top and he was about to leave for a friend’s wedding. Next I had an 11 year old boy who told me he wanted his hair short all over but leave some bangs, which I thought was weird because he had a very short forehead. I kept looking to his dad on the bench for input, who was completely uninvolved. When I was done his dad looked at him and all he said was, “You sure you want your sideburns like that?”
My next client was a tall man in his 30’s with thick sandy hair. I had to have him slouch so that I could cut the hair on top of his head. My arms were tired from having to reach so high. My last client of the day was a guy who had a buzz cut on the back and sides and about nine inches of hair on top. He just wanted me to shave the short parts and take about half the length off the top- easy. But when he asked me to put in a clean part with my trimmers (in a U shape!) I hesitated then said, “Honestly I’m pretty new at this and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it perfectly, and I really don’t want to screw up your hair.” He said, “Oh…ok. Thanks.”
Every haircut I’d done that day, I felt like I was making it up as I went along and I was truly surprised each time when it turned out looking okay. It seemed like I’d been blessed with some amazing luck that might run out at any moment. Driving home that night through the wild streets of NW Portland and speeding along rushing freeways, I felt lonely and disoriented, homesick, thinking how incredible it was that at the end of my journey there was a sweet warm family waiting for me.
Yes, I felt proud of myself for getting through a challenging day but the bigger feeling was one of doubt, of inadequacy. I knew I had done a decent job, of course it was hard- it was only my second day. But I couldn’t shake the nauseating feeling of being not good enough. I felt like I was cowering in the giant wave of all the years of practice that it’s going to take to feel like I have a handle on this.
I don’t have good tools yet, just the basic stuff they give you in school. I’m not tall enough to cut hair comfortably, I have to strain and tiptoe through every cut. I’m older than my coworkers and yet have so much more to learn. And most of all, this isn’t school anymore. It’s not a delightful surprise that I have some talent- it’s expected. I have an intuitive sense about hair but my technique is still so lacking, especially because a lot of what I learned in school is not how it’s done in salons.
I felt seized by a sickening dread, the thought that I was going to have to go back there the next day and do it all over again. But this is my dream job, this is what I’ve been striving for all these years. It’s finally here! So why am I filled with dread? Suddenly I realized, it’s because I want this so much that I’m dreading it. Because I know I have to continue, I have to go through with it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. In the past, starting a new job has always been difficult but I have a mantra I can usually fall back on to lessen the anxiety: “This doesn’t really matter to me.” There’s always a nice little buffer of detachment, keeping my real self slightly separate so that I don’t have to care too much. I noticed myself start to do that with this job and I had to stop and say, “Uh oh. This does matter to me. I do care about it. I have to, hokey pokey style, put my whole self in.” This is a hard thing, and I can’t not do it. I have to follow through.
And then I realized that people all over the world since the dawn of humanity have had to face this, often to a much more drastic degree. The Native American going through a coming of age ritual. The actor starring in his first stage play. The doctor performing her first surgery. The new kid starting Freshman year in a different country. The professor teaching her first college course. Your education and training can often take you only so far, after that you just have to take the leap and embrace the crushing discomfort at being a beginner, at the bottom with so much mountain to climb.
After two days at my dream job I felt so envious of my past self, the one who just worked at Guero and spent time with her family and barely left her neighborhood. “Why would I ever leave that comfort to pursue this difficult thing??” I couldn’t imagine. Oh yeah, because I love it. Because I want to grow. Because part of being an alive human is pursuing challenges, strengthening the weak parts of yourself. Is that what they call “grit”? That ability to get through something tough, to come out stronger and smarter. To know that it will get easier. To realize that it’s the most cowardly part of you that resists growth and change- the fear of the unknown stiffening your reach, slowing your feet, closing your eyes.
Then I heard another voice gradually become louder. “How cool, you don’t know that much! That means you get to learn all this new stuff! That means you get to experience that amazing feeling of growing and changing every day of your life! That means your senses are alert and you get to stay young and you won’t get all dry and stale from not taking any risks! Savor the tender, raw delicacy of it! Savor your ignorance, your fresh wonder! The world is cracking open for you, let it crack you with it! Be broken! Be lost! Don’t be in such a hurry to find yourself! Be curious! Be unpredictable! Be open to possibility! We’re all babies in some way or another! Be a baby! Be proud to be a baby!” This is what the wise old Buddhist in me shouts.