The Happiest Year: My College Roommate Quit Law to Pursue Her Passion in Italy

(Note: All responses to my bolded questions below are the words of Mary Tharin)

Me, working on my passion but also #momlife

Imagine this:

After graduating from one of the US’s top universities, young woman moves to Washington DC to work in journalism and blogging. Being the driven person she is, she decides to pursue law school, makes it into Berkeley Law, graduates, and passes the bar exam. She rounds out her 20s and begins her 30s working for a law firm in San Francisco, a Ninth Circuit Judge in Pasadena, and California’s Attorney General.

But one day, things change, and this young woman, successful by any western definition of the word, decides to quit the career she’s worked so hard for and move to Italy. With a man she loves. To write a book!

Sounds a little Eat Pray Love, eh?

Well, I’m very proud to report that the young woman in our tale is actually someone I know, and I am so impressed by her journey that I wanted to share it with you all as part of my Happiest Year series!

Guys, meet my college roommate, Mary Tharin!

My first memory of Mary is meeting her and her two wonderful parents on move-in day at our dormitory at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I’m not sure I made the best first impression on Mary, as I was seated atop my boyfriend at the time’s lap in our dorm room, probably overly absorbed in him because I was terrified of our impending separation. Spoiler alert: said boyfriend didn’t last!

But first impressions faded away and dorm rooms are quite cramped quarters, so Mary and I became close and lived together for the next three years. Poor Mary was often the receiver of my boy trouble sob stories, lending an even, tempered ear to my drama. I always admired her brains and her drive, and her generally cheery manner. She excelled in college and so I wasn’t surprised to learn of her pursuits as an attorney after college, and her subsequent employment.

I WAS surprised, on a long overdue visit I had with Mary and a mutual friend in Fall 2018, to hear Mary tell me that she was leaving the field of law to move to Italy. Mary, who had always seemed to follow a steadfast path to “success”. Who didn’t even drink alcohol early in college when most of us around her were. Mary, who I had known to get upset when she wasn’t doing as well as she liked in school. Mary, who seemed to have JUST gotten done with law school, which couldn’t have been easy!

Mary explained that she had had a dream for some time to write a novel, and that, after a long period of thinking about it and after some other things had fallen into place (more on that later), she was going to move to Italy at least temporarily with her Italian boyfriend and go for it. Color me impressed!

I remember leaving our conversation thinking that if Mary could follow her dream of writing a book, couldn’t I follow my own?

Flash forward to this year, when I was thinking of topics for The Happiest Year, and I had the idea to interview someone I knew who quit her day job for her dream. Mary immediately came to mind.

I wanted to interview Mary about this topic for two reasons:

  • I think that there are so many of us out there thinking of the life we would lead. Dreams we still have, but they’ve gotten lost in careers or motherhood or trauma. That alternative us that we’re still waiting for, but the reality is we’re not kids dreaming anymore. Realizing that I was waiting for this dream life is what spurred me to start this blog, but I haven’t even jumped in with both feet.
  • I wanted to talk to someone who had really DONE it. Who had leaped for her dream. I wanted to maybe give inspiration to that woman thinking she can never possibly go for hers!
  • Secondly, I wanted a realistic opinion about what it’s like to go for that dream. Is it all rainbows and butterflies and happily ever after when you drop off the hamster wheel and find your own path? What challenges might arise? Does going for your passion make you any happier?? I felt comfortable asking Mary these things.
  • So what did Mary have to say about her journey? Mary answered some of my questions via email:

    What motivated you to start considering quitting law and moving?  When did you know it was for sure?  How did you feel?

    If you had told me two years ago that I would quit law and move to Italy, I would have said you were insane. Yet, here we are. I guess the shift started three years ago when I got an idea for the premise of a book; a story that I desperately wanted to exist in the world. I realized that, for that to happen, I would have to write it. So I started writing, and gradually the book took over my life. I would come home after eight hours of staring at my computer at work, just to hunch over my laptop at the kitchen table and write whatever chapter or scene had been running through my head all day. Eventually I realized that I cared more about the book than I did about my job. 
    But the idea to quit and move didn’t solidify until I went to an incredible writing retreat in Guatemala. The woman who led it encouraged all of us to dig down and ask ourselves what we really wanted–not just what was expected of us. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to think that way, and I was surprised by what I found. 
    There was also something else going on at this time–I was falling in love with an Italian guy. A few weeks after the retreat, I posed the idea to him: What if we move to Italy together? He was thrilled, but he wanted me to be sure. So I thought about it for two more weeks before deciding yes, this is what I want. The thought of staying and doing the same thing felt intolerable now that I had this other option. 
    How did I feel? Terrified. I was sure that my friends, family, and coworkers would judge me for being irresponsible. I had to drum up lots of courage before telling people about my plan. But every single person that I told was thrilled for me. No judgment, no words of caution–what most people said was “I wish I had done/could do that.” It made me realize that I’d been the one holding myself back.
    Has anything been exactly how you expected?
    I expected the lifestyle in Italy to be lovely, and it is. The food is great, of course, and the wine is SO cheap! Life is calmer and slower, which is perfect because it enables me to focus on writing. It’s been really fun to build my skills and allow my imagination to run wild.
    Has anything been very different from what you expected?
    Thinking about this question makes me realize how few expectations I had. I didn’t have any idea what it would be like to be a full-time writer, or to learn Italian, or to live in a country as a foreigner. It’s been an adventure navigating all of it. I’ve had to loosen up, learn to go with the flow, not judge myself for making mistakes. 
    Greatest challenges?  Greatest joys?
    Working for yourself requires so much discipline! I’ve found it challenging to stay on task when I don’t have deadlines or someone else relying on me to get the work done. So I have started giving myself pretty detailed schedules to make sure I stay productive. The solitary aspect of being a writer has also been a challenge for me. I need to interact with people every day or I get pretty bummed out. 
    My greatest joy is writing. Whenever I am working on the book–either drafting or editing or researching an idea–I’m happy. Yes it can be frustrating and challenging at times, but all of that feels worth it because I’m creating something that I care so much about. 

    Would you do it again, or what would you do differently? What would you tell another woman looking to quit her 9-5 to follow her passion?

    If you take this path, you will have moments where you think: What have I done? Because you’ve let go of a relatively “sure thing” for something that is a big question mark. So make sure, at the beginning, that you know why you are doing this. Write it down. Make it your mantra. For me it’s: “I am the only one who can tell this story.” Find your reason and make it the thing that grounds you when the doubts start to creep in, as they inevitably will! Friends are also great for this. Make sure you have people in your life who love and support your work. Lean on them when you need a boost.
    Mary and I, right after college
    Additionally, Mary and I had a lovely FaceTime conversation to further discuss her big move. I asked Mary how she liked Italy (she does), and how things were with her boyfriend (now husband!). She mentioned she is in the process of editing her book and will then send it off to publishers for review. Writing a book seems like an intense process, and Mary admitted becoming a “good” writer entails more than she expected, which was good for me to ask about since I am also interested in it.
    Mary and I also talked about the logistics of her move. I realize that there may be many women who will think “But I don’t have money to move” or “But I can’t quit a job that makes me financially independent.” And maybe that’s true, right NOW. But…Mary had hesitations, too, and she planned. She spent a very long time thinking about her choice and considering what she will do when the savings she’s relying on run out. Mary explained that she expects to pick up a job in Italy in the future, perhaps as an English teacher. She said she is already tutoring English for some income as she writes.
    Stepping from a job as a lawyer to a tutor/teacher may seem like a downgrade to some, especially those of us conditioned to believe achievement equals happiness. Mary seems to be embracing her new, slower pace of life, and I appreciate her candidness that it’s not all glamour and you might not get an instant book deal or become Instafamous immediately. Basically, you might have to wipe some tables down on the way to your dreams…and that’s ok!
    In the end, I wanted to know if Mary thought she had made the “right” move. Was she happy? Happier than before she quit her day job?
    After a pause, Mary simply said, “I definitely feel like I am where I am meant to be.” She commented that she does not miss her previous job at all, and we both agreed that’s probably a great sign that she followed the right path.
    I personally can’t wait to read Mary’s book, I know it will be quality and the story sounds amazing, though I’ll keep those details hush hush for now! I’m also so proud to know someone who took the reigns of her own life and released the control that others’ expectations or our past trajectories can have on us. Maybe this interview will, at the very least, inspire one of my other female friends to take even a small step in the direction of her dream life.
    The older I get, the more I believe that the American dream isn’t so dreamy. There are so many alternative paths to happiness, and many more important things than retirement funds and promotions. Most days, a waitress job in a small town in Italy sounds much more like happiness to me than a 9-5 in a big American city.
    If you’d like to read some of Mary’s awesome essays, you can find her work at Medium. You can also follow along with her Italian adventure on her Instagram.
    Now…what would your wildest dream life be? What would you quit your day job for? Can you imagine it, or better…can you imagine the next step to making it a reality??

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