A nomad finds her way to her lifelong passion

Connecting the dots years later

This is the part of our ongoing series in which we interview people who have interesting jobs and get them to tell us how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation —

Fiona Lee has a resume a mile long — she’s worked in publicity, marketing, journalism, education and law, to name just a few (there are more).

Her post grad tale took her on a slightly bumpy road (across the USA and back again with a long spell in Asia) before she finally fulfilled her lifelong career goal: getting paid to write.

Her humor, enthusiasm and quirkiness are also legendary. Read on to meet the woman whose current job title is “storyteller.”

Fiona Lee 1

At home in San Francisco

In high school, what kind of job did you think you’d eventually have?

To be honest, I thought I was going to be a writer. I took a really long detour to get here. I really enjoyed reading and writing and creating stories. My friends and I used to write round robin stories – we would all take turns writing one part of a story.

Where did you go to college? What did you study?

I wanted to leave suburban California so badly. Okay, I will also say quite frankly, I swear to God, I was influenced by the Babysitter’s Club books. In one, they all go off to New York and that was, apparently, very influential.

I went to NYU. This is right before Felicity. In fact, Felicity was filmed when I was at NYU. And I had this idea of myself – I was always a quiet kid in school and I had this idea that I was going to go to New York and go to the big city and make it. And I had no idea what that meant. I think I thought it just meant I would be a popular kid, but it didn’t really turn out that way.

I was coming from suburban LA, and it was just completely different. It’s was a tough time, not only because I had uprooted myself, but I was 3,000 miles away from my family and so insecure and anxious about a lot of things.

What did you end up studying?

I started out as an English major, but then I took a poetry class. I got an A in this poetry class, but something happened that made me switch majors. I think we were reading our poems and the professor didn’t think mine was very good. Keep in mind that I still got an A in this class, but still, I needed his approval and after that incident, I switched majors.

It’s funny – I got so much out of that class and he’s someone who played such a big part in my life but I can’t even remember his last name.

Looking back, New York was just very challenging for me.

How so?

I felt so stupid compared to a lot of kids in my class. I came out of a pretty good public high school, but I felt like the other kids were miles ahead of me. I remember in my English classes, the students would talk in-depth about works of literature that I had never even heard of – and I had taken AP English.

At that time, one of my biggest fears was about being good at what I do and setting up expectations that I feared I couldn’t meet. But that was a lie my anxiety told me.

And looking back on it, New York is very anxiety inducing. It’s so intense – this big city that’s really isolating, and it was just a big difference between my expectations and the reality. I think I would have coped better on a more traditional campus.

What did you end up studying after dropping your English major?

I majored in cinema studies and history. Cinema studies is the English equivalent of film – we’re not making movies; we’re analyzing them.

What did you do directly after your college graduation?

Before I graduated, I was working part-time as a paralegal at a law firm and after graduation, I was hired full-time as a paralegal. I was part of the first class to graduate after 9/11, so I was just happy to have a job, but corporate law is soul-destroying. Props to people who can do it, but really, it’s soul-destroying.

I wasn’t really happy there, but I stuck it out for two years. During that time, I applied for an internship at Tor Books, a science fiction imprint that’s part of MacMillan. I got it, so I worked part-time at the law firm and part-time at the publishing internship.

I should also mention that I wasn’t making that much money as a paralegal, so at nights and on weekends, I was also an usher at Lincoln Center.

There was one summer when I was 23 or 24 and I had three jobs: working part-time as a paralegal, interning at the publisher and working as an usher at nights.

How did you handle all those commitments?

A lot of my friends were doing multiple jobs. Even to this day, my friends and I talk about the “magic summer” we had – we were all young and struggling but we were pretty happy. We would go out and have adventures and eat good food and spend a lot of time together wandering around the East Village.

We’d all get together really late at night – I’d get calls from my friends at 11.30PM to hang out. We were all struggling and not making a lot of money. Now, looking back on it, I would think, “Girl!!!”

It was exhausting. I can’t believe that I ever had the energy to do all that. Those were long commutes! Lincoln Center wasn’t anywhere near where I lived.

What was your publishing internship like?

It was in publicity. I really enjoyed being in publicity but even then, I never thought I could actually make money as a writer. And I don’t know why I thought that because I was in publishing – literally surrounded by people making money as writers! I think it was from being really insecure.

I did write, in that I blogged. I would blog almost every night. These were the years of LiveJournal. I loved LiveJournal because it was your own space, you could be private, you could balance private/public access and there was a really a community there. A lot of friends I made, I knew from blogs.

What was the next step for you?

Pretty soon into my internship, there was an opening for a publicity assistant. My boss asked me, “Do you want to apply? And I said, “I don’t think I’m ready for it yet!” I actually said that. Then further into my internship, the guy actually left and then my boss asked me again. I said yes because I felt ready. My internship turned into a paying job.

I had really wanted it badly. I didn’t care if I made copies. I was happy to make copies. Any little thing that anybody wanted me to do, I was happy to do it. Sometimes I would come across fellow interns and assistants and they would talk about how they were too good to make copies or whatever. I kind of do believe that, because you went to a four-year college, but I just have a very different attitude towards that. I really believed in paying your dues to get there. That’s just what you have to do. You all start somewhere. So I was happy to start anywhere.

How long were you there for? What was your job like?

I was a publicity assistant for a year before I got promoted to associate publicist. I really enjoyed that job and I really enjoyed the company.

As a publicist, I did a lot of press release writing, I wrote copy, and I would pitch books to editors and press and TV magazines to talk about the books we were promoting. I’d also set up tours for authors and help make travel arrangements.

At that time, science fiction/fantasy wasn’t what it was now – it was nearly impossible to get any kind of publicity from mainstream press. Now, having been on the other side as an editor, I understand, but people in New York who work in magazines are just super busy and they’re rude. That was pretty intimidating.

One time, I worked as a “weenie handler” for a publicity stunt for a children’s book at a trade show. My colleague was dressed as a giant weenie and I walked around asking people, “Would you like your picture taken with a giant weenie?” A New York Times reporter followed us around – she thought it was the funniest thing ever. That’s the first and only time I’ve ever been in the New York Times!

How did you end up leaving your publishing job?

I always wanted to go live in China. My junior year, I had studied abroad in Nanjing and I just always wanted to go back. At this point, I had a good group of friends in New York and had my own place, but even after a promotion, I never made more than 30,000 dollars a year there. You can imagine that kind of stress. My rent was 900 dollars, so after tax I only had 800 dollars a month to my name.

Although, even on that salary, I went to Paris and traveled. I was definitely super frugal, I cooked all the time, but even though I cooked all the time, I would shop at Whole Foods. I was also still working as an usher. Now when I look back on it, how did I do that?

I got a job offer in Wuhan teaching English, so I quit my job in New York and moved back home to LA to prepare to move to China. But… then my contact there told me that the university foreign affairs office didn’t want me to teach there because I was Chinese — they wanted someone who was white to teach English. Being Chinese American was a mark against me.

So that fell through a few weeks after I had quit my job and moved back to LA.

Did you freak out after that?

That describes it really well. I had just quit my job and was without income at this point, so I just decided to start applying to all the jobs on ESL Café – I applied to every single job and started selling stuff on eBay. About a month later, I did get a proper job offer from somebody who did know that I was Chinese, and it was actually more money then I would have made in Wuhan.

I ended up teaching English in Changchun. I knew nothing about it except that my grandfather was stationed there. And that it was cold. I moved there in October 2005.

I had taken Mandarin classes, but I wasn’t fluent at all. I knew enough to get by. I had studied abroad in Nanjing and had already taken Chinese classes, so I sort of knew what to expect.

What was your first impression of Changchun? Did you end up liking it there?

I arrived pretty late at night. Someone met me at the airport and drove me to the university. I saw donkeys and big carts on the road. I was like “Donkeys and horses on the street? What am I getting into? I’m in the middle of nowhere.”

I taught English and lived there for two cold-ass years. I liked it but I had such a love/hate relationship with China as a whole. I think I have a masochistic streak in me in that I live in places I don’t really like — there’s always something that keeps me there.

I had this core group of really good friends and there were four of us in the program and we just really bonded. But in Changchun, there was a major change in my life – I had been blogging about living in Changchun and I was contacted by an editor at China Daily.

He invited me to write an article for China Daily based on my experiences as an English teacher. He thought it was funny and he thought the way I wrote was funny. It was the first time I ever got published.

This was a big changing point in my life. For so long, I really thought no one was ever going to pay me to write.

Eventually he and I met up in Beijing and then I pitched articles to him and he was very receptive to that. I felt like I really benefited from knowing him and his caring enough to give me advice on my writing.

What made you eventually leave Changchun?

In my second year, I was dating Scott, my then-boyfriend. Well, we were in a weird zone of dating. I was just kind of mess at that point. As a foreigner in Changchun, you can either be an English teacher or a German engineer – that’s really it.

Eventually, we ended up moving to Beijing. At this point, I was freelancing for China Daily and I was going to Beijing to see if I could write more and do something different.

How was looking for jobs in Beijing?

I came in pretty cold into Beijing applying for all kinds of jobs. I really wanted to work for That’s Beijing (now The Beijinger) magazine. I applied way beyond my skill set for an editor position, but the boss of the company, Mike, created a different job for me. He saw that I had publishing experience and he wanted somebody to come in and do marketing for Immersion Guides, their China guidebooks.

Were you happy to have that job?

I was happy to have a job, and I was happy to work at True Run Media, but I was disappointed in myself because I had gone for the easier thing rather then pursuing writing. But I thought to myself, “It’ll probably be pretty easy to switch over to editorial. I’m at a media company.” But the way they saw it, it was much easier to find an editor than to find someone in marketing, which I understand. So, I was there for a year.

Why did you move on?

I really wanted to learn Chinese. As a kid, I’d been to Chinese school on Saturdays and studied in college, so I had a pretty decent level of Mandarin, but I wanted to be fluent. I wanted to be able to read a newspaper.

I saved up a ton of money from my previous job. It paid pretty well and I was living with Scott at the time, so we split expenses.

I studied Chinese full-time for one year and then I got a scholarship to get certified to teach Chinese to foreigners, so that was another two years.

How did you make money during those three years?

I worked part-time jobs to fund this. For a bit, I worked at a company where I wrote copy and pitched to foreign countries for a video game company. I was also a marketing manager at World of Chinese, a state-run magazine.

When you look back on this time, how do you feel?

To this day, making that decision to stay in China for that long is one of the few things that I regret. By the end, I was really unhappy. I made good friends and was able to finish my master’s, but it was really hard. I’m not a good fit for the Chinese way of education – all that rote memorization.

At this time, Scott and I had broken up. He didn’t really like Beijing and he was so miserable that we just broke up. I stuck with finishing out my Chinese program even though I didn’t think I really wanted to.

As I remember it, you were involved in everything and anything! Organizing book swaps, ukelele lessons, teaching cultural lessons on the weekend, and swing-dancing, to name a few. Have you always been this active in the community?

I like being part of a community. It’s a great way to put down some roots and get to know new people. Having hobbies is also important for my own creativity — a lot of the things that I did used parts of my brain that I didn’t use professionally.

Fiona Lee chair

Relaxing in Marseille

What was your plan after China?

I only knew that I was going to go home. That was the entire extent of my plan. Go home and find a job.

I told myself, “I’m going to find a writing or editorial job. Fuck it, I’m gonna try it.“ I was tired of telling myself that I couldn’t do it. At this point, I was beginning to pitch to a few places. I wrote for ArtForum China and I was still was doing a bit for China Daily. I had a fair amount of clips.

Why did you move back to LA instead of New York?

I just didn’t want to move back to New York. I felt like that would be regressing. I firmly believe in not going back, even though given my job history and connections, it would have been easier. But New York was not the place for me anymore.

So I moved back home to LA for six months. This was during the recession. Before coming back to America, the longest I ever spent unemployed was by choice and for a month-and-a-half, but this time I could not find a job.

I couldn’t even get unemployment. I think a lot of people come back to the States and think, “My China experience is going to be relevant,” but it’s not. I put years of my life into Chinese and it didn’t matter.

A friend who worked at GOOD  hooked me up with a freelance gig doing content marketing. I was working with major brands and freelance copywriting.

I was living with my parents, but finally I found a job in Palo Alto as an editor for a Chinese textbook company. It fit really well with my master’s degree, because I was writing the textbook lessons and doing social media marketing. But I really didn’t like it very much.

What happened next?

I was laid off, but it was a blessing in disguise. It was not a good fit. They hired our intern to replace me – they hired her and fired me in the same day. I had trained her.

At the time, it was really traumatic, but I didn’t like working there anyway. And this way, I got unemployment.

What did you do while unemployed?

I felt like a lot of time was spent doing personal exploring. I joined a job search group and it was really helpful. I was pretty proactive about making contacts and meeting people for informational interviews.

Then I moved to San Francisco and that really changed things for me. It opened up opportunities for me and I was happier living there.

I’m noticing that place is a big factor in your happiness. True?

Place is really important for me. When I moved to San Francisco, it was the only place that I loved instantly, which is rare. It’d never happened to me before. Maybe because I’m in my thirties and I feel very ready to settle down here and put down roots. All the other places I lived in always felt temporary.

I spent eight years in New York and four years in Beijing – and there was always something wrong with those places. But I miss San Francisco when I have to travel for work. I think, “I want to go to the beach!”

For me, that feeling of “I belong here” is key.

How did you get your current job?

I was going to a lot of tech meet-ups and networking events. I was primarily looking for a content job – or content marketing, which is a pretty big thing out here – or any kind of writing job.

There’s this thing called Girl Geek Dinner. It’s a dinner event that builds a community around women in tech, because there are so few of them. A lot of women get pushed out of tech early in their careers, and this was to build a community to encourage women to get into tech.

They give great swag and have good food and even if you’re not into tech, there’s always something to get from the events.

I found my current company, ThoughtWorks, through one of these Girl Geek dinners.
Most of these events are thinly veiled recruiting events for software engineers, because the demand for programmers and developers is so high here. If you’re a female engineer, you can kind of write your own ticket.

I actually considered becoming a developer. I started taking the classes on Code Academy. I have a good friend who is training herself to become a developer. She’s 29.

There are so many inspiring stories around here, like, “I was a third grade teacher, and now I’m a developer,” or “I was a nanny, and now I’m a developer.”

At one Girl Geek Dinner, this woman named Annie from ThoughtWorks gave a presentation that really resonated with me for two reasons. She said she had trained to be a graphic designer, but started out in HR at ThoughtWorks. She transitioned to being an experience designer (XD).  This was the way my career path had gone: I had trained in one thing, but I had gone another way.

And the second thing is, she had grown up in Beijing and worked in international schools in Beijing.

ThoughtWorks really looks for folks who don’t have traditional backgrounds. I had already been burnt by recruiters who told me my background was too untraditional. Advertising agencies just want to see that you’ve been working in advertising since the beginning of time. I talked to one recruiter and he just said, “Your China experience doesn’t count.”

I sent my resume to ThoughtWorks and a week or two later, I heard back from a recruiter and he talked to me about a marketing position. I told him, “I would do it, but I’m really interested in creating content.”

It was one of the few times with a job where I was really straight up about what I wanted. So he said, “I’m gonna see if we have any content positions available that will play to your strengths.”

It turned out that there was. ThoughtWorks had been talking about hiring an internal reporter. The company is a consultancy and many employees work on client sites and are not in the office. They wanted someone to draw out some of the stories that were happening and report on the cool things the company was doing around the world.

How was the interview process?

It was a series of interviews. At the first one, the position hadn’t even been officially created. The entire hiring process took four months. I later heard that they have some of the toughest interviews, and if I had known that before, I would have been more scared. I was just happy to come in and talk to people.

They also place a high value on social justice issues, but luckily I’m obsessive about reading the New York Times, The Economist and The Guardian, so I felt like I was able to think deeply and speak articulately during the interview.

In the meantime, I had managed to get a position at eBay as a copywriter, but hadn’t yet begun.

What happened next?

ThoughtWorks made me an offer the Friday before the Monday I was supposed to start at eBay, so at the last minute, I had to let eBay know that I wasn’t going to be starting there. I actually feel quite terrible about this, but eBay just felt too corporate for me, and also, it would have been a two-and-a-half hour commute, because it was down in San Jose.

What is your job title now?

I’m the internal storyteller at ThoughtWorks. I interview employees and look for the stories in their work. I write a newsletter that goes out every two weeks. It’s a big company, so people are very interested in what other people in the company are doing.

All of our content is digital. I also make videos and write scripts. It’s funny – I’m finally using my cinema studies major.

Are you happy now?

I’m totally doing what I want to be doing. And I love living in San Francisco. Most of my friends out here are ex-New Yorkers. San Francisco is where New Yorkers go to retire.

What was the toughest struggle you’ve had in your career path?

Not knowing if I was going to get a job when I moved back to the States. Sometimes I thought, “Is it better for me to chuck in the towel and go back to China?” It’s a funny thing to say, but that’s the reality when you’re living a recession.

My friend at GOOD would submit my resume directly to her company, and it would still get rejected. I got rejected a lot.

It really killed my morale. I questioned my self-worth. I’d think, “Am I worth anything, especially in this bad economy?” That was the worst time. It was very difficult.

What’s your advice for recent grads or anyone stuck in a job they don’t like?

Don’t be afraid to take the road you didn’t expect to be on. Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path.

Also, I spent so much time thinking I couldn’t make money as a writer – but you should at least try! Give it a go, because even if you don’t succeed, at least you’ll know. People will definitely let you know if it’s not the right fit for you.

Don’t be afraid to take paths you want to explore. Your twenties are the perfect time for that. But save lots of money so that you can do that!

Also, do informational interviews – people always say when you are on a job hunt, do informational interviews. They don’t help you get a job, because rarely will somebody think of you for an opening – that’s super, super rare – but they do help you with telling your story and doing interviews. I got a lot of practice out of them.

And I hate networking. I always feel so awkward and weird, but the good thing is everybody else does, too. Even as weird and awkward as it is, just think about it like, “Hey, I’m just going to get to know somebody.”

Go into it with attitude of “How can I help them?” instead of “How can they help me?”

It took me a long time to get here. I had a lot of friends help me. Even if they couldn’t help me get a job, my friends were super supportive and they did lots of things to support me. And I’m really grateful for that.

Fiona works full-time at ThoughtWorks, but until last week, she also worked weekends freelancing for websites because, “I always think I don’t have enough money.”

About a week after I interviewed Fiona, she posted this on Facebook:

The fortune I received the other day that warned me to stop being a workaholic:

fortune cookieTen hours later, she posted this:

“As I woke up yet again in the middle of the night because of stress/hunger, I decided to heed my fortune to stop being a workaholic, and wrote my clients to let them know that I’m quitting freelancing after this month. It’s going to be amazing to only work 5 days a week and take care of myself.

The “Post Grad Dispatches” feature comes out every Wednesday. Stay posted here.