• Courtney Dianne

Interview: Unshakable

Melissa A., 33, has been setting trends and blazing trails as a side-hustler, a freelancer, and entrepreneur in fashion, entertainment, beauty, and education, long before it was the norm. Having shunned the traditional choices in work and love, she's no stranger to harsh judgment, criticism, and even the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Now a married mother-of-two, hear from her, in her own words, on weighing the risks, living a life you love, and what we can all learn from Cinderella.

I left a job working in education administration for the D.C. state education agency to pursue my interests in fashion and entertainment.

I felt the calling nearly a year into the job, when I realized that, if I did not act on it urgently, I would likely be too far into commitments at work and in my personal life to be able to feasibly pursue my passions unencumbered. I was already working evenings and weekends in entertainment as a brand ambassador and building a modeling portfolio. Also, at that time, I had saved plenty of cash and had great credit, as I had begun the home-buying process. I also was lucky enough to have a family that would let me live with them free of rent while I figured out my next move. So, I quit my job, stopped looking for a house to buy, broke off things with the man I was dating seriously at the time, and moved to the Bay Area first to take some “me” time. I then moved to the Dallas area with my parents for a few months. While in Texas and planning to move to L.A., I met a consultant who helped me develop a blog, podcast, and my beauty brand. I then moved to New York City and hopped around on AirBnB, taking freelance work for about six months before I moved in with my now-ex-boyfriend, who happened to work as an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry. During this time, I worked on projects for celebrities and learned about the fashion industry through my ex-boyfriend’s connections, eventually taking a job working in retail in SoHo with the intent to stay longer. When things didn’t work out with me and my ex, I moved back to Texas and kind of started from scratch - continuing to take gigs in fashion and modeling, as well as working as a self-employed tutor.

Looking back, I dealt with so much uncertainty during these two or three years.

Also, I am still rectifying the financial toll taken on my life due to these risks. I paused and rerouted my career, causing a lot of confusion as I sought to balance financial stability with a great interest in my passion projects.

I feel called to be a trailblazer and a trendsetter.

In my career and personal interests, I often find others questioning and even ridiculing my choices, only to see these very choices become commonplace in a matter of years. This can feel alienating at times, but, when trends catch up, I am then seen as a leader. For example, when the current COVID-19 pandemic resulted in schools being closed, as a middle school Spanish teacher, I was able to begin teaching remotely without a hitch because I had been familiar with and using tools and technology in the classroom for years. I also began my beauty brand, Z&M Goods, in 2011 since I couldn’t find natural products for my hair and body. Now, in 2020, the natural market has exploded! I know what brands to trust now and can understand ingredient lists, not to mention having a loyal following of clientele! Overall, I thrive dabbling in different disciplines and finding as much free and on-the-job education as I can. While it does lead to short-term risk, the rewards greatly outweigh it, as I am more versatile and able to bounce back from adversity due to a great deal of tools, resources, and knowledge of all that is available to me.

I have taken a lot of risks. I manage my fears by seeking out others doing the same thing I am worried about, and I spend more time around people who are supporting me through the risk.

The outcome always validates the risk. It may be years later, but, if you know why you are doing something and you can verbalize it enough times, journal it enough times, and find as many examples as possible of others who did it (books, blogs, podcasts, articles, friends, meet-ups, support groups, etc.), then you will be able to make it through. I learned to trust myself. When one knows thyself, others can’t shake them.

When I realized I was struggling to overcome societal expectations of me, I went through a really ungraceful transition period, but I eventually began to trust myself.

I journaled a lot and really worked on my narrative - defining my passions, goals, and interests. I met so much backlash in the personal and professional areas of my life. People made harsh judgements, and their jealousy is what ultimately showed through. When you put yourself in many different social and professional settings, being yourself in each, the underlying truths emerge. You can see what elements of yourself hold true regardless of setting. Sometimes, your self-talk becomes amplified, and you learn to adjust it to make more sense. For example, when I was a leader in technology at the college where I worked, some teachers called it “lazy”. When I responded that I was just being "lazy" in a Teach for America alumni setting with other high-performing peers who know the value of my technology proficiency, one gentleman told me I should watch how I label myself. In that moment, I realized the other professors' jealousy, and learned to pursue my interests in ed-tech more doggedly than before. Just because who you are is undervalued in one realm, doesn’t nullify your true value. Beauty is beauty, regardless of who sees it. Remember Cinderella? Good thing she didn’t let her awful stepmother and stepsisters define her.

As a teacher, I am working well beneath the pay I am skilled to receive in other professions or other areas of education.

I find that teaching works well for where I am in my life right now, with two young kids and putting down roots as a family. I also love the act of teaching and can do the technical aspects of the job in the fraction of time that is expected. This scheduling flexibility, general ease, and love for the Spanish language keep me in the profession. At times, I just find it hard to be at peace with not pursuing higher-paying positions. I justify it often when I am home early with my two daughters, my husband, and my dog, not worried about a thing! I also find that society has many benefits for teachers, such as discounts and, as I look at home buying again, down payment assistance and a tax credit.

My husband is seven years younger than me, less educated than me (holding an Associate’s and I hold a Master’s degree), and a first-generation immigrant to the United States.

On top of this, he was a student in one of my college classes. A lot of friends didn’t understand how I wasn’t waiting for the most accomplished and financially-stable man. My father couldn’t understand how I could marry someone who came from a Muslim family. The outcome is a beautiful, amazing family with a man that I admire for his tenacity. I learned how to keep my personal life to myself as much as possible, and, in hindsight, I would probably just have truly embraced our odd coupling sooner. We wasted a lot of time (and money) over miscommunication and misunderstandings in the beginning.

I learned to listen to my heart. Tell people you love them even if you don’t understand why.

If they don’t feel the same way, that’s not your problem. I look for someone who mirrors some of my deepest desires and whose life is a reflection of the kind of life I see for myself. I wanted to be an International Relations professional, and, although that didn’t work out, I married into a family with diplomatic ties. My husband effortlessly understands that part of me. My children will live a life of global citizenship. I will continue to cultivate my linguistic skills. I don’t need the career to live a life I love. Finding a mate nowadays comes down to finding someone with whom you can share both a life and a lifestyle. Then the little things that may be intolerable with another person suddenly become non-issues.

I mostly thought, growing up, that I would have been more “settled” by now.

I reconcile the difference in expectations when students tell me I have had an interesting life and when people call on me for help with things that I have spent a significant amount of time researching and learning about. Someone “settled” by 22 years old may not be able to speak to so many different experiences and be seen as “worldly” by her peers. In the same way, I always imagined myself a sophisticated lady when I was young, and I believe, in most ways, that has become my reality.

I am really into sharing what I learn through experimentation, failure, and general curiosity!

  1. Shopping for sustainable essentials: The Grove Collaborative and Target’s Delivery, Drive-up and Order Pick-Up services. I love using The Grove Collaborative because they have already done all the work to curate a selection of household essentials by brands -- such as Mrs. Meyers, Seventh Generation, and Aunt Fannie’s -- that are non-toxic or low toxicity, eco-friendly, and sustainable. So many options are compostable, and they are working to eliminate carrying anything packaged in plastic within this decade! They also carry beauty brands. You can use my code to get a gift and start with them (using the code also automatically pays me for my advice). As for Target, their app has a way of earning you cash back with every purchase, and you can buy a yearly subscription to Shipt to have orders of $35 or more delivered through the app to you at any time. This helped a lot when I was pregnant, and, of course, when I have been at home with my newborn babies. It also is great if you are on a deadline at work and just really can’t leave home. Hell, sometimes, it's just great to not have to leave home because you don’t feel like it! If you don’t want to spring for the membership because Amazon Prime is already one membership too many, then I suggest using the drive-up feature of the app to save time. I generally take a few hours or days to build and edit my cart for both The Grove Collaborative and Target Shipt delivery, and stick to a budget for household essentials so I don’t overdo it with the beautiful presentation and ease of The Grove Collaborative! If you are concerned about toxicity in your beauty and home products, visit the Environmental Working Group's website and search their databases to see the score of your products. You can also find a great line of beauty products that Walmart carries called Earth to Skin that have been developed with the idea of leaving out the icky stuff like parabens and synthetics, and at a price point of $10 or less. I use some of these products. The great thing is that now product options that used to cost so much money and could only be found at Whole Foods Market or luxury stores such as BareMinerals, Lush, and Aveda are now ubiquitously available for a fraction of the price.

  2. Health: I spent about six months faithfully attending the same gym multiple days a week. This was life-changing because I met all of the instructors and regulars there and found a few classes that seriously felt like church! It was great to find a group of individuals that came together at the same time every week with the common goal of taking care of our minds and bodies. After I moved out of the neighborhood where the gym was located, I attended every month or so when I had extra time in my schedule, always to be greeted like I never left. I suggest everyone have a home gym or health club, even if you prefer to work out alone. Having those positive vibes goes a long way in keeping you motivated and also knowing you have somewhere to go that is healthier than your favorite bar when you need to be surrounded by good energy.

  3. Love: If you are looking for a type and it is not working, then consider spending time with someone who shows genuine interest in you and is kind to you. If you are ever feeling rejected, don’t dwell on it. Do what you have to do to get over it and move on. Spend time with friends and people who want to spend time with you! If you have found that special someone, communication really is key. My husband and I had some rough times in our first year, but we really worked hard at cutting people out of our life that came between us and taking time to communicate what our goals are - the goals we want to reach as a couple and independently. We remind each other when our personal goals are edging out our joint goals, thereby keeping each other focused on the long-term partnership. You have to go into the union prepared to make sacrifices and to be okay with making some. Also, know how much sacrifice is too much and communicate to your partner when you are losing too much of yourself. It is better for both of you if you can feel comfortable with the give and take.

I am getting through this COVID-19 pandemic by walking daily, doing a lot of self-work to spruce up my professional life, and checking in with family weekly.

As a teacher, I was on short term disability leave as my maternity leave when teachers were told not to report to work. Since being back at work, I am happy that I was already virtually teaching my class while on leave. Most of my classes were already automated, so I am offering help to less experienced colleagues. I am really treasuring the extra time I have at home with my daughters.

I am into yoga, walking my dog, and learning more about self-compassion.

I stop all demands on my time every now and then and tell everyone I just need to rest. Or, I don’t say anything and I just REST! As for building resiliency, I have chosen happiness, and I choose it over and over again. Sometimes this means distancing myself from toxic people and environments. Not giving in to unreasonable demands on my time. Knowing my value and not giving away my hard earned skills and knowledge for free. Getting out of situations that will overtax me. Mindfulness. Staying present.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa A.


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