I spent most of my formative years dreaming I’d become an editor for a big publishing house in New York City. I imagined I would work feverishly in a cubicle inside a Manhattan skyscraper. One day, I would discover the perfect manuscript. That manuscript would subsequently catapult its author to fame and fortune.
In my single-minded pursuit of this dream, I spent my four years at UCLA not only double-majoring but also interning, working for the newspaper, taking part-time jobs, writing a thesis, volunteering, seeking out leadership roles in several student organizations, studying abroad, and applying to grad school. In hindsight, I think I must have been crazy. I just never quit. I rarely took breaks. If I did, it was to grab a latte and keep going.
After college, all that running around caught up to me. Instead of moving forward, I ran away to an island. I spent a year traveling and working in New Zealand. I passed my time farming, making friends, and planning parties with my hostel-mates. I hitch-hiked with strangers, learned to bake bread and make jam from Kiwi families, and woke up with the sunrise. I hiked a lot — alone and with new friends. I stood at the tops of mountains and looked at the tiny world below.
I still wanted to return home to continue building connections in America. I just wanted something deeper, that cut to the core of me, that made me feel more human.
Long story short: I returned from my trip and went back into publishing as an assistant editor for a textbook publisher. I thought I’d give it one more shot.
What I thought might be a dry endeavor turned out to be a wonderful learning experience. I realized that academic editorial work was actually a lot like community building. You have to recruit new authors, bring them together to edit one another’s work, and nurture their passions. You help them to shine and listen to their concerns, just as any community manager would.
A year and a half later, I learned of an opportunity at Chegg through a former colleague, and I decided to transfer my skills into the tech world. It was my first full-fledged community gig and yet I didn’t even realize it at the time.
I was tasked with creating a network of experts that students could trust with their toughest academic questions. In time, it became clear that the network needed to grow into a full-fledged community where people could interact, share, and learn from one another. The community was bigger than my job. It was full of quantum mechanics enthusiasts, environmental engineers, “mathemagicians”, and computer geeks. They supported one another. They shared opportunities. They met offline. We told their story in newsletters and got them advocating for us with contests. I had found my calling.
Each day was a “hustle”. I hung on and grew my team. We all participated in making Chegg an amazing place for students and experts, and I had an amazing internal team to help me along the way. I fueled my growth through local community meetups, Twitter chats, and a fateful CM Unconference where I met Tim and the gang.
I wasn’t satisfied with just building one community though. I attended San Francisco Community Manager (#SFCMGR) events, which I now lead. I started working with a team to build a product for community managers. I ran a baking business and planned a non-profit “pie party” for a local charity. I got bit by the community-building bug, and I realized that just being a community manager “as a job” was not an option. It was a way of living. Building communities fills you with an openness, a way to say yes to life, stories, and passionate people.
But sometimes we need to apply the brakes. We need to appreciate how much work building a community is. And sometimes we must leave home for a while, run away to an island to do this. The beautiful thing about strong communities is that they keep going without you. Having recently left Chegg, I’m currently taking some time out to plot my next move. Just as before, I want to do something that makes a difference in people’s lives. I’m ecstatic about where that will take me, where it has already taken me.
I’m writing this post from an Airbnb in the East Village of NYC. I decided to get a different perspective. In my downtime, I’ve opened myself up to working with an awe-inspiring lean startup here to define the direction of their community-centric product.
So I guess I’m not so far from my Manhattan dream after all. I’m here in New York as a visitor on a mission to build something big. I’m going to keep building and see where it takes me.