Disclaimer: I received an early review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2018.
“Shadow careers are easy to get trapped in because they bring you as close as possible to your dream job without the risk of failure. Failing at a job you don’t care about does not carry the breath-stealing pain of failing at your dream job.”
The daughter of Russian immigrants, Marina Shifrin reached her twenties feeling like she had somehow failed to live up to the “American Dream” her parents had worked so hard to provide her. Weighed down with student loan debt, and a “real” job that she hated, it took a drunken night with a likewise encumbered friend for her to realize that something had to give. She woke up the next morning with a hangover, and a list of thirty things she wanted to accomplish before her thirtieth birthday. First and foremost: “Quit My Shitty Job.” Shifrin would end up doing this in spectacular fashion, propelling her to a brief moment of viral YouTube fame when she danced around her empty office, and posted it to the company’s YouTube account to tell her boss she was quitting. 30 Before 30 recounts the messy path through her twenties, to feeling like she is starting off her thirties on the right foot.
Readers who have followed my blog for a while know that I am always down to read about a year-long blog-turned-book experiment. So I was doubly intrigued to read about what a similar premise would look like, stretched out over a decade-long timeline. 30 Before 30 is structured as a list-turned-memoir, taking each item on the list and using it to recount not just the accomplishment, but the life circumstances that contextualize it. Some of the chapters are tongue in cheek. Chapter Sixteen, “Take a City Bus Tour” simply reads “I went on a sightseeing bus tour in Chicago. That’s it. Holy cow, not everything has a lesson.” Chapter Thirty, “Write a Book,” says only “Please go to page one.” However most of the chapters are more serious and heartfelt, though as a former stand-up comedian and current comedy writer, Shifrin has no problem poking fun at herself. The most harrowing chapter was Shifrin’s account of the unhealthy, codependent pseudo-friendship she got into with her older boss at the digital content company she worked for in Taiwan, and how she ended up publicly nuking that job in order to get out. “Watch All Three Godfather Movies” turned out to be a touching story of trying to relate to her conservative, Russian immigrant father in the aftermath the 2016 presidential election.
Despite fairly different life circumstances, I related to this book pretty hard for a couple of reasons. Shifrin and I are the same age, and neither of us are quite where we thought we would be by thirty, because life is funny like that. But Shifrin embraces the messy direction changes of her twenties, and has polished them into interesting and relatable essays about stumbling your way into adulthood. Her viral media fame was no accident; Shifrin worked for a digital media content company, living and dying by clicks and views, and her memoir freely admits that she designed her Quit My Shitty Job video to be the perfect clickbait. She’s equally candid about what she did and didn’t enjoy about the “sixteen minutes of fame” that followed. Like getting an essay published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, neither feat quite launched her career in the way she initially imagined, because it turns out “there’s no such thing as a big break—just little pushes forward in the endless pursuit of success.”
Some of the strongest stories in the collection relate to Shifrin’s Russian immigrant family. They are both funny and touching. But while Shifrin was very comfortable poking fun at herself, she almost seemed a little protective of her parents, revealing some parts, but reluctant to expose them too much in others. Being an immigrant—albeit one who arrived as a toddler—has clearly strongly shaped Shifrin’s ideas about herself and what she owes to society and her parents. Although plenty of the stories were cringe-worthy, and I suffer mightily from vicarious embarrassment, I still genuinely enjoyed reading about a contemporary stumbling along the same messy path to adulting.
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