to What Should I Do With My Life?
first angry email was only four lines long. Following a subject line that
testified corporate life is not so bad, she took issue with a short
rant she had found on my web site. You make it sound like a day job is
a cop out, she chastized. I have a day job but Im proud that I
made the leap from my dream to reality. I can actually pay my bills, and
you know what? most days that feels good. She gave no specifics,
not even her name, and no clues as to where in the country she lived.
Something in my gut sensed there was a story here, if I could get its
author to reveal more.
We corresponded occasionally for a couple weeks.
Slowly came her gender, and then her first initial, W. She wrote generally
about corporate life and dream life, without any identifying details. The
lack of specificity kept me intrigued. There was a reason for her secrecy:
The path my life took after living my dream made me a much
happier, more interesting person. But people only want to hear about the
early years. Theyre not interested in my life now. So I hide the early
years, so people can discover the real me.
Slowly she trusted my sincerity of interest in the real her.
She agreed to be profiled if it might help bring this point of view to the
book. Her name was Wendy Jones. I wouldnt have to get on a plane to
come see her a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge would get me there.
She worked in Marin and lived in Sonoma. She was 42.
She grew up in Albuquerque. Her father was a secret service agent,
her mother a schoolteacher who earned $30,000 a year. Theyve been
married fifty years. Wendy was one of four children. In high school, her
dream was to travel. She wanted to be a flight attendant, but back then
there were height requirements, and Wendy was too tall. Five ten. All her
friends and boyfriends were shorter, so she stooped and slouched. Her
parents sent her to a finishing school to improve her posture. The series
of classes ended with a trip to New York for a modeling convention at the
Waldorf Astoria hotel. She put up with the classes because she wanted to
see New York.
Out of thousands of teens at the convention, Wendy
won. The prize was to be a modeling contract with the Ford Agency.
Instead, Wendy snuck out to head down to the fashion district. She wanted
to see the building at 550 7th Avenue; all the famous clothes
designers had their studios inside. She was standing in the buildings
lobby, soaking up the atmosphere, when the lobby guard asked, Are you
here for the go-see? Unsure what a go-see was, she nodded.
He sent her up to a floor. On the elevator was a very distinguished
looking man. He too asked her, Are you here for the go-see?
Yes, she said.
What agency are you with?
Ford, she tried.
Ford doesnt have runway models, he said doubtfully.
He got off at her floor and went through a door. She went to the
Youre not on the list.
The receptionists phone rang. She listened, hung up. Go
through that door.
She entered a showroom. Another man told her to get dressed. She
changed into a dress and shoes.
Walk! boomed a voice. It was the man from the elevator.
She walked. Clumsily. Terribly.
No! Follow me! Like this! He demonstrated, she followed.
Okay then, he said after a moment. Were hiring you.
Heres the booker at Zoli. Zoli was the agency for runway models.
It only pays two thousand a week. He told the other girls to leave.
Wendy didnt know what she was hired for. It turned out that she
had been hired as an in-house model, and that the man on the elevator was
Oscar de la Renta. She was only eighteen. That was the beginning of a
fifteen year career as a show model, working continuously in New York,
Europe, and Japan.
She wasnt gorgeous, and she couldnt walk, but
those could be fixed by training and makeup. She was tall and slender, the
perfect size, able to wear any designers clothes off the rack. She was
that size naturally, without any dieting or exercise. And for the first
five years of her career, that was the reason she stayed busy. They
just wanted girls that could fit in the clothes, she said.
Her dream came true suddenly, and too easily, and
without any hard work at all on her part. For that reason, she never felt
that she deserved her success. It was a fluke, determined entirely by her
genes, and not an accomplishment.
Very often we dont value the things that come
easiest to us. Its the things we work for, we earn, that we treasure
Her life had almost no similarities to the conventional life. She
never owned a car. She didnt keep an apartment in New York. Everything
was taken care of for her. Her agents in different markets arranged her
travel and bookings. She lived entirely in hotel rooms and studios owned
by designers. Maids cleaned up. She never had to cook for herself. It was
impossible to have genuine relationships because she was constantly
leaving town. She learned to be a loner. She traveled light, without any
belongings. Modeling wasnt her dream, (traveling was), but she got
caught up in the lifestyle and the narrow world of fashion.
I met amazing people and thought I was more
important than I actually was, she said.
Eventually she learned to manage some of her career rather than
cede control to others. She wasnt the genius in the family, but shed
managed to squeeze in four quarters of college. She saved a fair amount of
her money. She watched models do drugs and behave badly, but never fell
into that hole. Some of her success she earned, simply by not making bad
choices when everyone else did. She was dependable, and became
sought-after by designers.
Wendy told me all this in a very manner-of-fact tone, without any
of the self-indulgence that signals someone is living in their past. She
wasnt overly proud and wasnt hoping any of this would impress me. We
were having lunch after spending the morning at her office. I waited for
her to talk about how she left that life behind, and then prodded her to
You dont want to ask me more about those years? she asked.
Is there something you think is important you didnt tell
No, just She looked at me again. Maybe I was for real.
Usually people want to hear, you know, all the dirt. What designers I
worked for, what they were like, did I sleep with any of them. Or what
such-and-such famous model was like. Who took drugs. What hotels we stayed
in. All the sleazy glamorous stuff. And then people assume I made a lot
more money than I did, and so they figure something must have happened
that Im not rich and retired now.
I gotta admit. None of that sounds very interesting to me.
Youre rare then. I appreciate it.
Were you famous?
Not like runway models today are famous, and never like print
models are famous, but yes. Enough to be recognized on the street
I watched her. I was trying to sense what lingering effect all
those years had. Are you still a loner? I asked.
Im trying not to be, but yes.
Do you have a boyfriend?
I want to, but no. Im dating.
Is it hard to have a genuine relationships now? Like, do you
push way, need to be by yourself?
Maybe a little. But Im aware of it. My parents are my role
model, and I often feel that no relationship in my life can compare to
theirs. Half a century together and theyre still on their honeymoon.
What about money? Have you adjusted to the value of a dollar?
Ive adjusted to paying my own way, which I didnt have to
do before. But I never lost touch with the value of a dollar. My mother
was a schoolteacher.
She talked a lot about her family, including her brainiac sister
and younger brother, who was a police officer in Dallas when he was killed
on the job. He was 25. Wendy was 31 and in Europe at the time. Shed
wanted to leave modeling for a while, having recognized that it wasnt
fun anymore, but she was afraid to leave because she had no skills. She
couldnt even type. What would she do? When her brother was killed, she
quit immediately and moved back to New York, where she was closer to her
family. She had many offers to come back to work, but wasnt interested.
Modeling had kept her from spending time with her brother. It was tainted
in that way. She couldnt be around it. Unsure what else to do, a friend
of hers, a photographer, asked her to represent his work. Soon she agented
several photographers to catalogs.
After a year, not feeling better, she finally started seeing a
grief counselor. To help her get on with her life, she left New York,
which was too steeped in the modeling business. She moved to the West
Coast, and then, because catalogs and photographers were still a
connection to her past, she left that to be a recruiter. She worked on
commission for different chop houses, cold-calling workers. She
worked her way up to respectable placement agencies. Two years ago, she
was hired into the Human Resources department at Restoration Hardware,
where she is now the Director of Recruiting for their corporate division.
She had offers from other companies for up to $20,000 more in salary, but
wanted to work here.
It was my very first real job, she said. And I was
40 years old. She was completely unready for the office politics and
the weird corporate rituals, like performance reviews. Im here every
day, working beside my boss, and suddenly one day we have to turn and look
at each other in judgment. When youre not used to it, its very
demeaning. She got over it. Her boss has become her true mentor and
Ive never been happier than in the last two years, she
Wendy gave me an extensive tour of Restoration Hardwares
headquarters. Every product they sell really appeals to the nesting
instinct. But its more than that. Plato believed in Forms, these
categorical ideals that exist in our head. Any chair we sit in is compared
by our minds to what we mean by chair, or what we mean by
bedspread, which in combination come to represent what we mean by
home. Restoration Hardwares products are straight out of our
Platonic ideal of Home. Theyre timeless. They conjure home. The more I
soaked in, the more I saw Wendys company as a Temple of Domesticity. It
was not surprising that after fifteen years of never having an apartment
or a car or a steady relationship, she had chosen this Place of Worship to
immerse herself in, as a sort of training course in the simple pleasures
As Director of Recruiting, she doesnt look for people whose
dream is to work for Restoration Hardware. Most people fall into
things, she said. Shes looking for the right fit, not credentials.
Degrees are small minded, she insists, reminding me she doesnt
have one. She hires from other industries. One of the reasons her work is
so meaningful is shes sort of rescuing drifting souls like the one she
used to be, and giving them a home. Or at least a work-home.
Do people here know who you were? I asked.
Not at first. I was afraid of not being taken seriously. On my
resume, and in conversation, I would tell people that I traveled
internationally on behalf of Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and other
designers. Most people assumed that was a fancy way of saying I was a
sales rep. Three months into this job, I was outed. A banker was meeting
with the CEO, and he saw me in the halls. He was shocked to see me, asked
whyd I left modeling. Right in front of the CEO and CFO. Everyone in
the company knew within half an hour.
I said, And now youve got the guts to let me out you
Its not something I want you to do, but I recognize its
part of doing this with you.
Im proud that Ive made it back to reality. Most models
work until they stop getting bookings and their only option is to marry
some wealthy man.
Last December she was in Union Square when one of the women handing
out perfume samples asked, Are you Wendy Jones? Wendy realized they
used to model together. The look in her face was deep shame and
embarrassment; she tried to pretend she wasnt really just a perfume
model, considered the lowest form of modeling. Im just doing this as
a favor to a friend, she said. Soon the word spread, and Wendy got
calls at her office from out-of-work models hoping for a job. They had no
skills, not even a resume. They were unhirable.
It was a defining moment for me, Wendy said. Im a very
happy person. I wish I could say that they seem happy. I was proud of
myself, maybe for the first time in my life. That was the first time I
feel I really accomplished something in all these intervening years.
Among the many models she worked with, she knows of only two who
have other successful careers. Ones a writer and the other an antiques
Shes been in her place in Sonoma for twenty-five months
straight, which is a new record for her, by four months. I still have
that itch for the gypsy lifestyle, she admits. For the last nine years,
shes been hauling around a bunch of taped-up boxes. Theyre full of
old portfolios and mementos of her brother. She avoided opening them for
so long that she came to think of them as Pandoras Boxes.
Six weeks ago, I finally unpacked.
Hows it feel?
She answered by repeating words that came to her last weekend, when
she bumped into the photographer she used to work with. What happened
to you? he asked. You just disappeared. She explained her
transition, and added, As a model I was always just existing day to
day. Now Im truly living my life.
To me, she added, Thats really how I feel. Im truly living
What did your old photographer friend think of that?
We went out for drinks. We laughed about old times. At the end
of the night he said, Its great to see youve cracked the
Her past is resurfacing all around her. Talking to me is a way to
confront it and no longer hide. Wed come a long way in a few weeks,
from her first email.
You were really mad at me when you wrote that, werent you?
I felt like you were bashing my choice of lifestyle on your web
Im going to soften that rant, I said. Rewrite it a
little. I think you were right to call me on it.
The subtext to our conversations was the question, When should I
make peace with my ambition and settle down? The one feeling everyone
in this book has experienced is of missing out on life. For some people,
this recognition leads them to pursue a dream; for others, it leads them
to let the dream go. Sometimes thats the wisest choice. Im not just
paying those words lip service Ive seen both sides of chasing
I mentioned earlier that my father had put his company
through bankruptcy. He had grown up in the insurance industry, but in the
late seventies he got the entrepreneurial bug, borrowed from a bank at 20
percent interest, and purchased a thirty-employee light-industrial company
that refurbished telephones. He ran it well and loved it, but after a few
years the Justice Department succeeded in breaking apart AT&T.
AT&T, in turn, broke all of its subcontractor contracts. My dad no
longer had a contract with his biggest customer, and his company plunged
into bankruptcy, a long and arduous process that almost took our house and
car. Could he have jumped back on the entrepreneurial horse again? Sure.
But should he? He didnt like the feeling of total loss of control. He
didnt like the temper that rose up in him. He didnt like not being
able to sleep at night. He hated the feeling that he couldnt provide
for his sons. He recognized that his psychological makeup was not a good
fit for failing. We all must ask this test if we are considering chasing a
dream: Am I the kind of person who will find fulfillment, even if I fail?
Its easy to be a magnanimous guy if the coin lands on heads. But to
play a game of chance means you have to be capable of handling tails.
Going to court that summer was such a terrible experience for my father.
He saved himself by using his afternoons to do something his heart told
him to do. He took a Coast Guard training course and earned his
skippers license. At the end of the summer, he skippered a
96-foot-long, 1929-built wooden passenger vessel all the way up to Alaska.
It was his salvation. He eventually decided, I think rightly, to go back
to selling commercial insurance. Hed always been a great insurance
broker, and he even learned in this time of crisis that he probably
wasnt cut out for managing more than small teams of people. In any big
firm, if youre good at doing the work you get promoted and dont do
the work anymore. My dad liked being the one who did the work. He told his
firm that was where he fit. He had the awareness to recognize where he was
most productive. And now, in his retirement to horse ranching, hes
found in himself a sweetness and thoughtfulness that he never expected.
to What Should I Do With My Life?