I woke up with my cheek plastered to the window of the New York City bus. I was disoriented and confused. Somehow, despite all the hisses and roars of the bus' engine and the blaring horns of all the cabbies scurrying alongside it. I'd fallen into a deep sleep, or what you might have considered a power nap.
In a haze, I reached over feeling around for my brand new purse (that my mom had insisted I get instead of keeping everything in the back pocket of my jeans) in the seat next to me. After about a half-second of searching, my stomach turned. I already knew it – it had been stolen and with it was my wallet which housed my license, school ID card, and money.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “Well, Briar, why in the world were passed out like that on a public bus in the middle of NYC? Seems pretty naive, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does, and that is because I was naive. But not necessarily because I’d fallen asleep. More so, because of the current choices in my life that had put me in the situation.
It was my third semester as a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and I was literally struggling to keep my eyes open after a 5 am morning shift at work. As a young and ambitious girl coming from a quiet, semi-rural upbringing, I’d been swept up by the endless opportunities of the big city.
Unable to say no, I soon found myself juggling full-time employment with a maxed-out academic schedule.
That meant that each week-day started with 3-5 hours of classes in the mornings before I’d cross Manhattan to start my work shift which ran typically from 3 - 11 p.m., and an occasional 5 a.m. - 1 p.m. on Saturday mornings. This was my routine as a 19-year-old, every week.
Of course, falling asleep on the bus and getting robbed wasn’t the first sign that, perhaps, I’d overextended myself. If I were going to make it, I was going to need to learn and learn fast. Thankfully, life is a wonderful teacher and, sure enough, my choices expedited my learning curve. And while each and everyone one of us has to learn on our own, in order to hopefully save you from some unnecessary stress (or thieves), here are the 4 most important life skills that I learned from overloading my teenage self as a full-time student and full-time employee in New York City.
1. How To Be Resourceful
Embracing a minimalistic lifestyle wasn’t necessarily a choice, but it did come naturally to me. FIT only offered housing to freshmen, which meant each year I had to find a new apartment. Rather than having the luxury of decorating my apartment, I had to learn to live with less. Which it turns out, was more.
With fewer things, I was more nimble, more flexible, and had more time.
For example, moving days were a piece of cake. Generally, loading up ALL of my belongings and transporting them to my new home took less than a day, which turned out to save quite a bit of time as I made 5 moves during my college years. Considering how swamped I was, I don’t see how I could’ve done it any other way.
During those years, I also learned to be a bit of a salvager, which I’m pretty sure is called thrifty with a touch of shabby chic nowadays. Not only did I refuse to acquire unnecessary things, but I also hated letting things go to waste. I didn’t have the time or the money to think or act differently (even today I do love a good bargain). When I saw a beautiful old wooden drafting table on the side of the street, I claimed it, single-handedly dragging it to my block and down a flight of stairs into my basement studio apartment. Why not? The treasures were bountiful if you kept an eye open! As a teenager in one of the most expensive places on earth, I gladly took all the wins I could get.
2. How To Manage My Time
You may be wondering, “If immediately after class, you headed uptown to go to work until midnight, how did you manage to do your homework? Let alone spend time with your friends?” Good questions.
While it may have seemed impossible, what I found was that we have more time in our days than we think - so long as we are truly optimizing it.
For example, I realized that the two hours I spent commuting each day on the train didn’t need to be wasted. In fact, it was an ideal time to read, write, and do homework. Sure enough, the subway became my new study hall. It was perfect. I found it super easy to stay focused on the train. After all, what else was I going to do, take a nap? I had already learned that lesson! Finding ways like this to make use of seemingly occupied time gave me far more hours for productivity than I initially thought was possible.
3. How to Set Boundaries
When I first got to New York, I was intoxicated by its energy. I was a young go-getter and wanted to do everything all at once. Want to take an extra shift? Yes. Want to take an additional course? Yes. Want an extra gig as a babysitter? Yes. The city offered endless growth and money-making opportunities and I just didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t believe in missing out, always wanting to excel and accelerate. On top of my full-time job and loaded academic schedule, sometimes I would even pick up babysitting shifts that would last until 3 a.m. It was insane.
Eventually, I realized that I could not keep saying yes. But it took some time. From falling asleep and getting robbed on the bus to missing out on fun times with friends, I gradually learned how to say no. Ultimately, the old adage, ‘quality is more important than quantity,’ is true.
By learning to set boundaries and looking beneath the surface, I could more honestly examine the items on the table that truly needed to be prioritized.
4. How to Set Priorities
This is a big one and again, took me a while to get right. At first, I would make these huge lists with 10-15 things I wanted to get done each day. However, what I found was that if I made too many priorities, I would get overwhelmed and my 10 priorities for the day would end up being zero. The stress that came with trying to get too much done each day was palpable. Sure, I was motivated to learn and grow and make money, but none of that matters if you don’t prioritize your own self-care. You know, like getting enough sleep, or taking the time to eat lunch! Initially, I felt that adequate sleep and nutrition would just naturally take care of themselves. However, I eventually learned that was not the case and without purposeful rest, I was never going to be on my A-game.
If I neglected the truly important priorities, I'd end up getting none of the other ones done to a respectable standard, If at all.
Fast forward to today and my life hasn’t slowed down a bit. I am currently running a for-profit S-Corp, COO of a non-profit 501c-3, a Consultant for Career Development Training Programs, an Ad Hoc Coach for an Enterprise Organization supporting a student cohort, and I run a Private Coaching Practice for Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. Oh, and did I mention, I am a mother of two beautiful children that I currently homeschool, and a loving wife who strives to keep a balanced household with her work-from-home husband and his schedule. When people ask me, how do you do it? How are you not pulling your hair out? When do you sleep? Or just flat out tell me I must be so stressed, I smile.
Despite what it may seem on the outside, as it stands now, there are very few overwhelming moments that arise. Being able to maintain concrete boundaries, manage my time optimally, set goals and prioritize them, and use my resources wisely, I know exactly what I am capable of. I rarely bite off more than I can chew, and when I do, it’s normally in reaction to things outside of my control. In fact, I tend to keep just the right amount of juggling and uncertainty in my days to maintain both equilibrium and momentum. For me, there is no other way that I could live. If you find the right balance and understand those needs, you’d probably be surprised at how much you can accomplish too.
Hear more nuggets that aim to recenter professionals & parents making career transitions or even those wanting to understand steps to find more balance in their day-to-day, straight from Briar on The Real Women in Business Podcast with Cass McCrory 'Living with Balance As a Priority & Celebrating Wins'
Meet The Author - Briar Dougherty | Briar is the Founder and CEO of Career Organic, dedicated to helping professionals make career transitions at all levels. She has been a hiring manager for the past 20 years, growing internal and external teams and professionals. She speaks, teaches, and mentors across international markets, staying current on industry trends and hiring practices across the globe.