“You’re only 22 years old? My daughter just turned 27 and she isn’t as self-actualized as you. You’re going to be fine, I know it.”
That’s what a kind stranger said to me after 15 minutes of small talk and a few drinks each at the MSR Studios closing party back in July. I’m used to giving and receiving frivolous compliments from the joys of complimentary booze at industry parties, but I didn’t know how to respond to being referred to as “self-actualized.”
It reminded me of the time I took a course the spring of my sophomore year of college called “Adult Journey.” The course was two and a half hours once and week, and all we did 90% of the time was watch movies and write reflection papers about how those movies related to our lives. We occasionally colored and had group therapy sessions too.
This was a college course. I’m not kidding.
We spent one class watching The Breakfast Club and our reflection paper asked us to explain whether we identified with the criminal, the princess, the athlete, the brain, or the basket case. I’m pretty sure I wrote about identifying with both the basket case and the brain. I don’t remember exactly, but that combination seems as analogous to my personality now as it did when I was 19.
Another one of our assignments was to present a project about a person we believed to be self-actualized. My group chose John Lennon. Another group chose Oprah. A third group chose Gandhi.
See where I’m going with this?
Compared to those monumental individuals, why would someone consider me to be self-actualized? Almost two months after being given this unwarranted accolade, my reaction hasn’t changed much. I’m 22 years old and graduated from college just over a year ago. My job as a General Assistant at MSR Studios was unfortunately short-lived because of forces beyond anyone’s control. I burn toast and undercook chicken regularly. I lose at least one sock every time I do laundry. I learned what a 401k is two weeks ago. I have no idea what direction I want my life or career to go in, nor do I have a sense of how my presence impacts this world.
I’m not self-actualized – I’m far from it.
And for some reason, I seem to stumble upon situations that make others believe I have my life together. Or as my mom likes to say, “Bobbi, you always seem to fall into s!#$ don’t you?” My mom is very eloquent and honest – that’s why I consider her one of my best friends.
Let’s take being interviewed by Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York, for example.
Y’all have heard of that little blog, right? Close to 18 million people follow it on Facebook or some astronomically ridiculous number like that.
I was dropping my friend off at Juilliard for his graduate school audition when Brandon stopped me. It was a Monday afternoon in late February and I was on call for the studio, so unless a last minute session booked in or a co-worker called out, I had the day off. It was below freezing, I was sick, I had absolutely no makeup on, and my hair was reaching that point where I couldn’t resuscitate it with dry shampoo as I had done the day before. I usually have my earbuds in when I’m walking around the city alone, but for some reason, that day I decided to unplug rather than listen to my ?uestion Mark playlist (if you’re curious about my taste in music, there’s a snazzy link to the playlist below – there’s no theme, hence the title).
When Brandon first approached me, my initial thought was, “Ugh, this random dude is probably going to ask me for money, directions, or both. Look distracted, look distracted!” If you’re a New Yorker, those are two questions you dread being asked on a daily basis. But once he introduced himself and whipped out his camera, I knew what I was getting myself into. My sickly, unkempt appearance was going to be all over the internet along with whatever story I decided to tell.
I was freaking out. I started excessively complaining to Brandon, to which he reassured me, “No, not at all. You look great!”
To confirm how disheveled and awkward I looked, I was on the phone with a friend of mine about a month after the interview went live who hadn’t seen it. Before I could even warn him, he goes, “Yeah… that’s not the best picture of you.”
Life hack – get yourself some brutally honest friends to keep your ego in check.
After learning my name and a few other basic facts about myself, Brandon’s first serious question for me was, “What is your biggest challenge in life?” How do you answer such a personal question for someone you hardly know? I know that’s the whole premise of Humans of New York, but still. I have trouble communicating even my smallest challenges to my closest friends and family. So in response, I groaned several times in the vocal stylings of Tina Belcher, which inevitably made Brandon ditch the existential questions and start asking me about what I did for work.
More specifically, he asked me to explain what being a General Assistant at a recording studio meant. For me, it meant cleaning toilets every morning and taking multiple 40 gallon trash bags out every night. It meant going on food runs for clients at 2pm or 2am and spending almost 12 hours on a Saturday to set up for a two day Broadway cast recording session. It meant barely any sleep, going rogue for weeks at a time, and spending an absurd amount of money on takeout because none of us ever had time to cook.
Regardless, I’m not saying any of this with contempt. Although I only had the opportunity to call MSR Studios home for six months, they were some of the craziest and greatest six months of my life thus far. When our studios weren’t booked for clients, assistants were able to use them for personal projects, which was a huge luxury. To be able to go in on a Sunday afternoon by myself and record my own music on a 72-input SSL J Series console with what seemed like endless amounts of outboard gear and plugins at my disposal – it was an audio engineer’s dream.
And my co-workers. If one of them didn’t make me laugh until I cried with an ache in the pit of my stomach, my day was ruined. We supported each other and encouraged each other and I consider them all to be my incredibly annoying but affectionate big brothers. What other group of guys will leave a voicemail for you of themselves shouting your name while you’re on vacation or write and record an entire rap song based on you getting fiberglass down your shirt?
I know what you’re thinking.
“I want to hear the song!”
Of course you do. Everyone does. But I’m not going to disclose the title or any of the lyrics because they are mortifying and I can’t listen to the whole song through without my face resembling a ripe tomato. All I will say is the song was a whimsical sentiment of love and adoration that I will always hold dear to my heart.
When the picture and write up finally went live two weeks after the initial interview, to say the response was overwhelming is a vast understatement. I received hundreds of Facebook messages from people all over the world (Peru, Australia, and France to name a few of the countries people were contacting me from) asking me to listen to their demos and if I was interested in producing them. My phone was buzzing continuously for weeks with text messages, emails, phone calls, and notifications from every social media platform. Atlantic Records reached out to me personally. Organizations such as Gender Amplified, Women’s Audio Mission, and Soundgirls.org welcomed me into their communities of like-minded female audio engineers. Thousands of friendly Internet strangers commended me on my work ethic and humility and wished me success in my career.
Being featured on Humans of New York, without a doubt, changed my life instantaneously.
However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling like a downright fraud.
I’m going to be vulnerable for a bit and confess a few heavy insecurities about myself to the worldwide web in hopes that those who may read this will understand my fraudulent mentality.
My self-confidence has always been relatively nonexistent. I’m not exaggerating when I say I virtually have none. It’s gotten marginally better over the years, but I still struggle everyday with finding the strength to take pride in myself and my abilities. I’ve been studying, performing, and writing music since I was six years old. I went to two high schools simultaneously (my hometown public high school for academics and a performing arts high school for classical piano) and still managed to be an honors student, a band geek, and a theater kid. I carried at least 18-20 credits a semester in college while working three jobs and graduated when I was 21. I’ve also been extremely fortunate to be continuously employed in my degree field since then.
I’ve accomplished a fair amount, but there’s always this nagging, devilish voice in the back of my mind whispering, “You’re not good enough, Bobbi. Just stop. Quit before people realize you’re actually terrible.”
Remember that scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II where Voldemort hijacks everyone’s minds and reproaches Harry in this eerie, hissing voice? The voice in my mind is essentially Voldemort.
With that said, in the wake of my Humans of New York interview, I was suddenly a fresh face for the “Women in Music Production” movement, and the newly placed expectations for me to make a name for myself and have my life together were daunting. I felt unworthy of the attention and praise I experienced and am still experiencing today. There are women in the industry working twice as hard as me and thriving in their careers, yet I was the one profiled. Six months later and I still feel just as unqualified.
But like I mentioned in the beginning, I fall into s!#$.
So how does being on Humans of New York and working at MSR Studios and being referred to as “self-actualized” all relate to one another?
I’m getting there.
My candid interview also presented an outpouring of comments from young women who were either unaware of the possible career paths in music production or intimidated by the difficulties of being a woman in music production. Because it is hard. It’s really hard. Breaking into the music industry, whether as an artist or audio engineer/producer, is tricky for anyone. Add on the stigmas and societal stereotypes of being a woman, and the journey becomes twice as hard.
My thoughts of being an unconfident, undeserving imposter aside, it was humbling and inspiring to hear these women’s stories. I’ve seriously considered quitting the quest entirely and moving to a rural hillside town in Europe at least a dozen times (I’m a dual citizen of the United States and Italy, so this fantasy may not be so distant in my future), but these confessionals persuaded me to keep persevering and stay true to my goals.
Because here’s the deal. Yes, I am only 22 years old, wide-eyed and intrigued by the world. Yes, I worked at a major recording studio in Manhattan for minimum wage sixty hours a week or more at times, then the facility closed and left me scrambling to figure out what I was going to do next. Yes, I doubt myself and compare myself and am constantly hard on myself. And yes, sometimes I consider giving up on this dream for a career more manageable and stable.
But part of being “self-actualized” means to “seek personal growth and one’s full potential through creativity and independence” (thank you dictionary.com). Everything that has happened in the year and a half since I graduated college has contributed exponentially to my personal growth. And even though my career path has experienced some detours and treacherous terrain recently, I’m determined to live my life in pursuit of my fullest potential, whatever that may be.
So I wouldn’t refer to myself as “self-actualized” like that tipsy gentleman did (he also insisted I learn how to play a Hammond B-3 organ – long story). I like to believe I’m still “figuring it out” – that’s a good millennial way to sum up my situation and every other 20-something year old’s situation, really.
“Work hard, be good to people, enjoy the process, and enjoy your life during the process.” I wish I could remember who or where I heard that from, but it’s a mindset I strive to emulate in my life day by day. I know it’s easy for me to believe because I haven’t been “roughed around the edges by the harsh realities of this cruel, cruel world,” (a miserable, old man I was working with on a live sound gig once said that to me and totally obliterated an already long 16 hour day), but truthfully and maybe even naively, I don’t care. Life is full of highs and lows, and I rather live my life searching for the highs rather than succumbing to the lows.
So yes, I’m not quite sure what the universe has in store for me, but I’m having the time of my life “figuring it out.”