Fearful and Aggrieved – the Keynote that Wasn’t

Everyone has a bad day at the office. Sometimes a project isn’t perfect, sometimes it’s dead wrong. Every so often things are imperfect and you feel like a failure even though others see only a misstep or maybe two. People are generally kind, so sometimes they will deny they even saw a misstep.

I failed spectacularly in front of 500 people and I’m not sure they knew it, but I did. And that’s what matters to me. I was to give a keynote and I left out a chapter. The biggest chapter.

Typically when I’m speaking to an audience it’s about the intersection of technology and lifestyle, sometimes it’s about social media and chronic illness, but it’s seldom deeply personal. Actually, it’s never deeply personal, which is why even though I was prepared, I floundered.

I survived. I was (still am) a little embarrassed, but I survived. Audiences want their speakers to succeed, that’s the glorious secret no one shares. Most attendees will forget errors, the folks who don’t have the opportunity to feel superior I suppose.

I didn’t want to cry in front of 500 people. I didn’t think I would when I wrote this, I’d practiced three dozen times, at least. But I wasn’t ready to cry in front of a room full of strangers. I hadn’t expected to feel emotional, but I did – so I skipped over things, I couldn’t do it. There’s something magical and haunting about returning to places where you grew. Sometimes you feel like a returning conqueror, other times you feel like a 21-year-old who needs to impress their professors even though they’re really tired and may or may not care what you know.

I don’t recall all that I said, but here’s what I’d planned. The luncheon was to honor scholars at the Colorado State University Pueblo. It was a luncheon to thank the donors who funded their scholarships. I hope some of this resonates. Consider it my redo.

Scholarships


Thank you so much for having me here today. It has been one of my great joys to help out with the CSU Pueblo Foundation. Every interaction I’ve had leaves me feeling like I have taken more than I give. For anyone who has never worked with a not for profit organization, you should know that this is an atypical experience, and everyone working for the foundation has dazzled me with their work ethic, their insights, and their altruism. 

I graduated from the University of Southern Colorado nearly 30 years ago. The campus is recognizable, but the gymnasium is not, the outdoor recreation program has exploded, and along with that my heart. Outdoor Education was not my major, it wasn’t even my minor, but it was a massive part of my education.

Last week I was emailing with Sandy and when I asked her what I should be talking about this afternoon she said that y’all were looking for 15-20 minutes about how you can come out of a small school in a small town and have a big career. 

Luck, love, and tenacity have been all I needed. I suspect that much can be accomplished with two of these traits but, as we know, there is unending stability with a trinity. 

I’d really like to talk about the fact that Pueblo is many things, but it’s not a small town. You can meet new people here every day, in that regard it is very much like Los Angeles, or you can stay within smaller groups and interact with the same folks for a lifetime. Again, very much like Los Angeles. Every town is a small town. My daughter is in New York City and her neighborhood has become her own small town. I wanted to emphasize this because people who are fearless enough for a university education are fearless enough to live anywhere opportunity might present itself.

Let’s take a moment and look at some of the opportunities that we all create, some people call those second chances, and the opportunities that present themselves. 

At 17 I enrolled in college near my hometown. It was a little school on a hill near the beach, and the school itself was fine, or so I hear. I spent the first semester mostly at the beach and the second semester entirely at the beach. I was too young to leave home with any amount of grace and on paper, I failed spectacularly. 

But is it really a failure if you don’t even try? Maybe it was more of a false start. I know that there is more than one non-traditional scholar in the room, and I know that those of us who forge our own paths worry that we are in the process of doing things wrong. 

The only way to do things wrong is to not do them. Graduating a year and a half later than my high school classmates has not mattered one bit in so far as my career, my retirement plans, or my social life. 

I took a semester off and waited tables. It’s what I knew how to do, and you had cash on day one. First I worked at Ed Debevicks, which was a 50’s style diner where servers snapped their gum and insulted the customers – kindly…. 

Then I fudged my age – much easier to do in 1988 – and started working overnight at Denny’s as well. That was an education unlike any other and propelled me right back into the loving arms of academia. 

Making minimum wage and serving the 4 am crowd at a cheap chain diner turned me into a fantastic student, even if I didn’t understand the dynamic at the time. I went to community college in Los Angeles for a year and did two years of work with stellar grades. During this time I hung up my apron and worked afternoons and weekends in West Hollywood. The AIDS pandemic was in full bloom and it was a terrifying time to come of age. Men around me just disappeared. They were healthy and beautiful and then they were skeletons and then we were at their funerals.

AIDS would define my young adulthood and the scars from those losses will never leave me. Nor do I wish them away. Not anymore.

My parents, though both had advanced degrees, were not savvy to how one applies to college and my father looked at where he had clients and declared that Pueblo would be the next logical step for me. 

Additionally, the school we fondly referred to as “The Other USC” had a kinesiology major. I love being in motion, I love how our bodies work, and I couldn’t bring myself to major in PE. I knew I didn’t want to teach PE and I knew I never wanted to write another essay. 

I didn’t know that the joke would be on me. 

I had no idea where Pueblo was or who my father’s client may have been. I thought I could find Pueblo on a map but as the first tornado warning came on the television I realized I didn’t know where I was or even what a tornado might do. 

So I showed up in Pueblo with some furniture, an 8-pound dog who would attend an embarrassing number of classes with me, and a car that had never seen snow. I majored in Kinesiology and embarked on an adventure in learning.

Kinesiology was fun. I loved my classes, and the combination of classroom learning and physical activity suited me. I made friends, some that have lasted a lifetime, most did not – and that does nothing to diminish the value of those friendships. I met people I’d otherwise never have known, with backgrounds different than mine – and this, this was and continues to be my education. Our education. 

I worked while I attended CSUP. I worked on the newly constructed ropes course, I worked evenings at The Hangar, The Cavalcade and the restaurant at the golf course. 

I left Pueblo with $3,300 in debt on a Discover card. It was an overwhelming number to me and it kept me awake at night. I attended CSUP with no student aid and no need for it. Working my way through school and living independently was tenable in 1992. I’m aggrieved that this is no longer the case. I am aggrieved that our taxes don’t adequately support today’s scholars and because I work to support the foundation I get to complain.

I left Pueblo in January of 1994 with a BS in Kinesiology, a minor in coaching, a job secured and an apartment waiting for me on February 1st. I was to live with my family for a couple of weeks and then start my career with a  national health club chain. 

Except that on January 17th, 1994 that apartment and that job crumbled to the ground along with much of Santa Monica. The Northridge quake was magnitude 6.7 on the richter scale and it meant that I’d launch my career in sales rather than fitness. Some opportunities we make for ourselves, some opportunities we dig out of the rubble, this opportunity was rubble adjacent.

What I found quickly is that my degree was a piece of paper that conveyed to potential employers my ability to show up and finish what I started, and that I knew how to learn. There are many academic takeaways that I won’t mention, but those two skills are what every CSUP grad will leave college with, and I would argue are among the most valuable.

I ended up selling auto glass for a small, family-owned business in the San Fernando Valley. In addition to mornings servicing folks who called in from yellow pages ads, I spent my afternoons setting the shop up as a preferred vendor with insurance agents and car dealerships all over the southland. Like college, my days were a nice combination of indoor and outdoor. I excelled, but small family-owned shops aren’t created to make their employees financially free, they exist to serve the family, and after a few years it was time to leave. 

After the auto glass shop I decided to sell the whole car and most days I couldn’t believe anyone was paying me to do this. Auto sales was fun for me. Every customer was a unique challenge, every car a unique fit for someone. The days flew by and I was making a very nice living selling convertibles to young men and minivans to women with too many kids and not many options. This was before the proliferation of SUV culture.

While working at the dealership I met and married my husband. Although I loved my work, I wanted to be on the same schedule as he was and I took a job selling golf club shafts. During all of this, I was also selling my friends’ old couture on a brand new website called eBay. Living in LA gave me access to some of the most coveted brands in the world and I was a risk-taker. I would buy handbags for $4,200 and sell them a week later for $10,000. I bought truckloads of overstock merchandise from Federated and sold it to other eBay sellers. I bought UGG boots with coupons and sold them for 2 to 3 times retail after Oprah put them on her favorite things list. They sold out everywhere – but I had a garage full. It makes no sense – this requires a lot of fiscally irresponsible people to come together for a single transaction and I was willing to be one of those people. I sold between six and ten purses a year along with hundreds of boots and more than a few single shoes – which is a long and absurd tale –  this was my job right up until the writer’s strike and the recession hit LA in 2008 and 2009. 

I never had a job I could explain so when people asked what I did, I’d say I was a stay at home mom. I had the worst of both worlds, a need to work, and no way to explain to people that I was working. 

I won’t go into the details but I will tell you that I’m a woman who likes to know the rules so that I can identify which ones I am going to break, and I do so mindfully. The business owner at the golf shaft factory was a no-nonsense, completely linear, thinker and when we combined my pregnancy with his rigidity I was fired in the middle of the day and sent home unceremoniously – and I’d earned it. Let’s be creative and call this yet another opportunity.

I was only a good employee in certain situations and since I couldn’t find that situation I decided to not be an employee. Except that I’d married for love not money and we needed something to live off of. I couldn’t get more handbags than I already had so I needed something else to sell.

Between long naps, bouts with feelings I never knew I had – fear, confusion, rage, joy, excitement… sometimes all in the same moment – I decided to sell some of the domain names that I’d owned. Domain registration was a dynamic event, some of them I’d not even paid for, others required an essay to get ahold of. ICANN would come into play just as I was ending my reign as a domainer.

This would be the first of many unsustainable career moves that I cannot bring myself to regret.

I bought and sold URLs for about a year, bringing in a modest amount of money in an even more modest amount of time. I was terrible at being pregnant and this kept me home where I could be cranky in private.

The moment my daughter was born I was myself again. Now I was busier than I’d been before but I was also happy and could get off the emotional rollercoaster that pregnancy had presented. High-speed internet was now approaching affordability so I used our daughter’s very long naps to teach myself to build websites.

Now, instead of selling people an empty URL, I’d put a little content on a website and sell it for more. I was doubling my money and likely quadrupling my workload, but I loved learning, so this fed my spirit and my bank account all at once. 

When I showed up at USC I didn’t know that glycolysis was a real word. When I left I’d aced a 90-minute exam detailing the Krebs Cycle. Like I said, I learned how to learn. A degree in Kinesiology was proving itself to be valuable for a marginally employed stay at home mom.  


I continued selling things and ideas on the internet as our second child was born and I think I managed to be slightly less unbearable during my second pregnancy but only my husband could tell you the truth about that – I’d prefer he lie.

We had an uneventful couple of years with babies and toddlers and first days of school and then one of my closest friends in the world had his HIV turn to AIDS. The end was near and my son was starting kindergarten. I’d bring my kids to school in the morning, take long naps, do the minimum around the house, pick kids up from school, sleepwalk through the afternoons and dinner, put everyone to bed, and then spend the night in the hospital with Steven, waiting for him to die.

Except this death was slow and cruel and my son had just started kindergarten. So I’m meeting all these new moms and they’re breezily saying (not asking), “How are you?” every morning and I’m bursting into tears.

The correct answer was, “Fine.” But I was not fine and I never did get that answer right.

I started a blog. I knew how to buy and build and sell websites but I’d never really kept one. I built a remedial site because I didn’t care much about the architecture, and I started journaling what was happening during those nights. Nights when nurses ignored Steven, nights when he didn’t know he wasn’t in Mississippi, nights when he didn’t know he was dying and the nights he knew he was.

What I found with that weblog, that online journal, was a community of people who had HIV, ARC and AIDS, their caretakers, and gawkers were sympathetic. I found resources like how to file for social security, forms for wills and estates and tips for dealing with nurses who wouldn’t touch him.

Imagine dying and no one being kind enough to touch you.

Until Steven died the site was anonymous and the drama of it – there was so much unnecessary drama – built my community and my audience. They were American, they were affluent and they were readers.

All of a sudden the woman who picked a college major based on the ability to graduate without ever writing an essay was writing. I never called myself a writer, I’m a communicator. I don’t know grammar as well as one should. I only occasionally write for print publications and my skills aren’t in traditional writing, my skill is making it bearable to read on a computer – which, quite often, can be an unbearable task.

I came to like my online community. Some of these people are my friends and colleagues today. I’ve met them in person, one even helped my daughter move into her first apartment in New York City. Online communities are very real things, yes, many are toxic, but people embrace the opportunity to be good. 

After Steven died I launched JessicaGottlieb.com. This was both brilliant and idiotic – I find these two go together more often than I’d imagined. It was brilliant because an unusual last name is a clear brand, and it was idiotic because if I’d had dopeymommy.com I could have created forums and then sold it like so many other early bloggers did.

But I didn’t, and now here were are in 2007. I have an audience who knows my real name and advertising is taking hold. The web is still relatively slow and DSL is the state of the art so I don’t have to be concerned with things that I am not good at – namely photography.  I partner with startups to tell people about new websites and apps to try, I partner with national brands to promote sales or credit cards or whatever is being sold. I have a career, I’m a writer – heaven help me.  

I clash with publicists because I cannot understand why I’m supposed to mention a product to my audience, I’m a personal blogger. I’m getting paid to journal my days and if someone wants to buy an ad I think they should. I stand by that, but the internet doesn’t work that way then or now. I resign myself to being an outlier. I don’t like their rules and I will not participate.

My audience grows as my children gain independence and I am now working four hours a day crafting perfect posts, getting side gigs, and pitching marketing teams. My little blog is getting a million hits a month and combined sources of ad revenue are paying for private school for two kids and a family vacation each year. I’m trying to stay relevant and it’s exhausting in the most wonderful way.

Opportunities are flung my way. I join boards for startups all over the place and I make a little money from them along with the promise of stock valuations rising. I could wallpaper three houses with the valueless stock certificates I own. But none of these are mistakes. I work with Venture Capitalists on many of their startups helping them refine their message, and finally, I realize that I’m very good at this and I launch an influencer agency. During the next four years, in addition to blogging, I am hiring and managing hundreds of women, some like me, some very different, to work with brands small and large and their integrated marketing campaigns.

I am successful. I travel the world with everyone from AbVie to Oprah Winfrey, I interview Bill Clinton and Betty White, I fight with Deepak Chopra and Dr. Jay Gordon. I am on every major network multiple times saying polarizing things like, “Did you know that it’s possible to raise great kids without ever once spanking them?” and when I see myself on the Daily Show because I’ve forced Dr. Keith Ablow to deny he’s a pedophile in one of Fox and Friends’ weirdest segments I know that I don’t care if I never go on TV again. I’ve accomplished more than I’d ever hoped.

I am successful because I am raising my children while enjoying a career where I am paid to live my life. I am paid to learn about new and interesting businesses and discoveries. I’m paid to share universal parenting experiences and I’m in no danger of missing a family moment. I’m at every drop-off and pick up, I’m at every dinner, and my kids don’t know that I work except for the fact that UPS shows up at our house more than at others. 

I don’t have the job security of my peers who followed more traditional career paths and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am rich with experience and using my degrees. You know, it’s that little piece of paper that reminds the world that we have learned how to learn.

Congratulations to our scholars whose academic achievements everyone in this room is honored to support and thank you to our donors. You are giving our scholars the only gift that can never be taken away, the gift of learning.  

Comments 5

  1. Brilliant!
    I first met Jessica at Jeff Puk we’d #140 conf ( I was doing pr for the conferences) and Jessica and I both spoke on bullying and the urgent need to find ways to stop it and help students.
    She was and obviously still continues to be a passionate communicator whose heart driven words laced with occasional humor can reach & has deeply effect change.

    Jessica, please always continue to speak your mind and share your drive to inspire others against injustice.

    Best
    Imal

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