Some people move to New York to find success. I moved to find myself.

Photo by Amir Sarooghi

You only need two things in life to succeed: An outstanding work ethic and really, really big balls.

Moving around and trying new things, meeting new people, and being the new kid was never difficult for me. My vagabond lifestyle began early on. My mother married her second husband; we’ll call him Dick, when I was three. We went from Germany to Southern, and Northern California, a long stint in the Seattle area, Texas, Virginia, a pit stop in Minnesota and Florida for a few months, then finally back to California. I went to three high schools in just three years. In the middle of all the moving, I spent summers and Christmas in Illinois with my father. I did not understand what it meant to settle down and be comfortable.

When my first Bible college in Virginia closed down, we moved to California so we could attend its sister college. I say “we” because my mother, two brothers-in-law and I all attended the same school where my mother’s second husband was a professor. It was a family affair that only lasted a year before I quickly bowed out to attend Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, Calif.

I have always been quite self-aware and always certain of what I want, but not in the ways that most people are. I did not have a college picked out as a freshman in high school. I did not dream of being a bigwig ad exec or have a five year plan. In fact, my dream jobs changed constantly. I knew I wanted to have adventures. I just never knew how it would present itself.

Right after I moved back to California, peer pressure led me to settle down with the first viable option for a future — a legalistic Christian boyfriend. My family was ecstatic. Headstrong Lizzy was going to settle down with a nice Christian boy and have lots of babies, or as my boyfriend so gingerly put it, “Write your cute little stories in your spare time.” What other option did I have? All my friends and my sisters were settled down by my age, so I should too. Two of my sisters were married the same year I graduated from high school and the pressure for me to quickly follow suit was apparent. I had to find a Christian boyfriend in Bible college so I could start myself on the right path toward a righteous marriage.

I was raised in an environment where all of my girlfriends were looking for that knight in shining armor to raise a family with. I attended two Bible colleges for two very long years. I quickly coined the phrase “Ring by spring or your money back!” as a true interpretation of what Bible college was used for by most of the student population. My career options were to strive to be a children’s pastor, a youth pastor (if I got married), or to work in the office at my Bible college. If I felt really adventurous, I could be a missionary or someday start a church plant with a few other solid Christians. Church planting is a process that results in a new (local) Christian church being established. But I did not really want any of those things. I did not want that life but was afraid to imagine a successful life without those things.

It was difficult for me to admit that to myself but once I did, my life changed for the better. I slowly began to realize that I was allowed to make my own decisions.

“Never try to pin down a butterfly.”

After a bit of soul searching and a cautionary chat with my creative writing professor, I began to see that my adventurous spirit could not be controlled by what society thought I should do. So I re-imagined my life and this time saw myself in New York City— a pipe dream by every meaning of the term but I did not let that scare me off.

My brother Jacob and I moved to New York City in 2007 with $1,000 in our pockets and a couch to crash on. We were lucky that we had the support of our mother who always encouraged us to live our lives how we wanted, not by the pressures from others. My changes did not start immediately. At 22, I still had a lot of growing to do before I really began to take hold of my future and start living by my own standards.

Initially, we moved to New York to start a church plant with a friend of a friend from Bible college. She lived in a tiny studio on the Upper West Side. I almost died when I thought of how exciting it was to be able to walk to Strawberry Fields in Central Park every day. Within two months, I realized how terrible an idea it was to live with someone who was practically a stranger and with whom I was going to start a church in a new giant city. The whole idea of a church plant is to start a church with your community. It did not take long to understand that there was not really a neighborhood community mentality in this city.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (aka roommate going bitch on me), my little brother and I needed a place to live, and fast. We searched all over the city looking for something we could afford on my receptionist salary and his tips at a chain restaurant. We settled on a little one bedroom in Astoria, Queens, a borough right outside of Manhattan. It was magical. We were adults living in our own apartment in the greatest city in the world. We lived in what had been a predominantly Greek neighborhood that was turning Middle Eastern. I’m sure you can imagine how crazy it was to see five hookah bars surrounding little Greek bakeries and an Irish pub. But it was home.

As any good New York story goes, my brother and I moved into a few other apartments around the Queens area. Ceilings collapsed, we moved; neighborhoods were creepy, we moved; recession hit and my apartment was no longer affordable, we moved.

The recession in 2007 created a lot of issues for many people in New York. I was laid off from the hedge fund where I worked as an administrative assistant and within a month, was fortunate enough to find a new job as a receptionist and recruiting assistant for a life insurance company. I knew people who were unemployed for six months or more. In order to continue to afford living in proximity to New York City, I had to make a lot of cutbacks and my “glamorous” Upper East Side apartment was one of them. I was accepted to Baruch College, City University of New York in 2010, and after a move back to Astoria, it was not long until I landed in the only affordable apartment a college student could find: in New Jersey.

I stopped going out to dinner. I cut back on my excursions for musical entertainment on the Lower East Side. I prepared my lunches for my workdays. I stopped buying clothes I didn’t need. It was difficult at first, but I am grateful for the lesson now, and I am especially grateful to have learned that lesson before the financial constraints that college created just a year later. I learned how to manage my money and what items were more important to hold off on until they were more affordable. Though I never starved, I did have a few weeks here and there where cereal and rice were main staples of daily meals.

Those were all surface changes, though. The real changes in my life came when I started to figure out who I was as an individual. I was involved in a Christian organization for artists as soon as I moved to the city so most of my time was spent in a very familiar environment to the one I had left.

It was not until I went back to school, about three years after I moved to the city, that I really started to understand what it meant to be an individual and to make my own choices. The Christian organization that I eventually ran as a leader closed. It was heartbreaking at the time, but it was also freeing. I was no longer constrained to certain expectations. I did not have people relying on me to show up weekly, which left more time to engage in social activities outside of the organization. And for the first time in my young adult life, I was no longer looked up to as a Christian leader.

I started making friends with non-Christians (gasp!). I stopped going to church (heathen), and I started to figure out what I wanted out of life. And I came to one conclusion: I wanted to achieve happiness and experience all the good that the world has to offer. Most of my Christian “friends” stopped communicating with me after the closing of the organization. It was difficult to feel so cast off at first. Then I realized that I did not have any strong relationships with most of those people; everything was surface. I wanted relationships that mattered.

Now, seven years later, by my own standards I have achieved incredible success. I was only unemployed for a total of three months, made drastic changes when I was unhappy, made it through the financial crisis of 2007, was never homeless, managed to graduate from college (with no debt), and somehow ended up with a husband who shares in my sense of adventure and my meaning of success.

What I have learned from my adventure in leaving a very comfortable life in California is not that New York is the only place to be in the world, but that you sometimes need to leave your comfort zone to find yourself.

I worked at a hedge fund where success was measured by your paycheck. I sat around with artists, models, and actors whose success was measured by how noteworthy their craft was. I met writers who are noted in major publications. But for me, success is measured by my fulfillment, my happiness. I do not need a six-figure salary nor do I need everyone to know my name. I feel that success is how you manage to obtain your dreams. Social pressures should not weigh in on your personal success.

Elizabeth at her wedding to George Eschenbach on September 27, 2014 in Madison, New Jersey

My dreams are always changing. I have wanted to be a lawyer, a bed and breakfast owner, and a best-selling author. But I have also been open to other possibilities. I have taken every opportunity presented to me, no matter how “below me” it may have seemed.

Throughout college in New York, I took every job I could in order to avoid taking out student loans. Because of that, I have had incredible adventures in the city and have met so many amazing people. I have learned much about life and about myself. This is a type of success few people value over monetary compensation. Yet, it is so much more important. I have done everything from being a nanny (who also cleaned!) to working as a hostess at a private suite at the U.S. Open. I have been a door girl at a club, waited tables (naturally), and helped people pack up their homes. It kept me fed and housed, even if it did keep me away from home for 15–17 hours a day, six days a week.

I understood how important it was to be organized and to work extremely hard in order to achieve my goals. There was never time for me to let things like appointments or assignments slip by. Because of all my responsibilities that came from being a nanny to a student to a brand ambassador, among many other things, I learned that people rely on you to keep to your word. Not showing up for a job, being too tired to finish an assignment, were not options for me. I graduated from Baruch College in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Working hard and putting my goals of graduating ahead of my social life was a difficult but worthy transition from carefree kid to responsible adult.

I have run in to many angry people throughout my life who are unhappy and stuck. They are afraid to make changes because they fear losing their status. But what I have learned is that no status is worth your happiness. I am not saying a cushy finance job is not your idea of happiness, or that being a waiter at night and an actor during the day is worthless. What I am saying is that you have to figure out what success means to you and you alone, and proceed to do everything you can to achieve that dream.

I am grateful that at 29 I am still discovering what I want to do “when I grow up” and that I am never too weary to make big changes in order to be happy. Lucky for me, I have a life partner who shares my desire for adventure and who will not restrict my need for life changes. We have such a short time on this planet and we should measure success by our own standards, not by those of others. If your definition of success is to be a banker on Wall Street or a farmer in Montana, do it. Follow your own idea of success in order to make the most of your life. Do not let society or pressure from your family stifle what you want to achieve with your life. Because when you get right down to it, the only two things you need to succeed in life are an outstanding work ethic and really, really big balls.

Elizabeth Eschenbach studied journalism at Mt. San Antonio College where she served as the arts and entertainment editor of the Mountaineer student newspaper. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Baruch College, City University of New York, and currently works in Manhattan as a marketing assistant for Rockefeller Center and Top of the Rock. She is also a freelance writer.

This story is a part of a special alumni series. Students who have graduated or transferred from Mt. San Antonio’s journalism program are featured weekly.

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.