Two and a half years ago, I woke up one Monday morning, looked at a calendar smooshed with things I didn’t really want to do and I said:
At that point, it was my 13th year in business (there’s something about the number 13, eh?) and I had never once blocked off my calendar to new clients. It had been 13 years of working straight through vacations. (Remind me to tell you about the time I spent 4 days in Madrid and only 12 hours outside of my hotel room, because I 👏 worked 👏 the 👏 whole 👏 time.)
13 years of 7 day weeks.
13 years of all nighters.
13 years of saying “yes” when I meant “hell no” because some Slugworth-looking MFer whispered in my ear that I was just “one funnel away” from getting into Willy Wonka’s Profits Factory. (JK I was making fun of ClickFunnels in the womb. Born 2 muckrake.)
I worked in the hospital when my daughter was born. (The nurses were like, “DO YOU REALLY NEED TO BE WATCHING A WEBINAR RIGHT NOW?” and I was like “NO! I DON’T! I HAVE A PROBLEMMMM!” The baby was napping. It was fine. But, was it?)
I worked on my birthday.
I worked on Christmas.
I worked and worked and worked and worked until I finally realized that Willy Wonka was NOT going to gift me a golden ticket unless I forked over $30K to one of his affiliate partners for the privilege of being “in the room where it happens.”
(Turns out, that room is just a dense fog of AXE Body Spray and desperation. I’m sensitive to the heavy stench of bullshit, so this would not have worked out well for me…)
And then I woke up and said:
E N O U G H.
I switched off my booking calendar. I put up a waiting list on my website. And then a few weeks later, I started FREE SCHOOL.
For the uninitiated, FREE SCHOOL was a “biz/art experiment” where I set out to teach everything I knew about business and creativity in my Instagram stories.
No opt-in. No follow required. Just show up and tune in when you can and I’ll tell you everything I know.
At least, that’s what I thought FREE SCHOOL was when I started it.
Be careful what ya wish for. It might actually come true.
I named this adventure “FREE SCHOOL” and on the very first day, I established that the pedagogy of FREE SCHOOL would follow in the footsteps of one of my favorite activist thinkers, Paulo Freire — “the teacher is the student and the student is the teacher.” I invited people to join me and shared that, if you ever watched a single story, I considered you a “FREE SCHOOL professor.”
Ohhhhh the teacher was the student, alright!
FREE SCHOOL schooled me.
And, ultimately FREE SCHOOL freed me. (More on that later.)
One of the reasons I started FREE SCHOOL was that my brain had begun to feel like the crawlspace in my attic — piled high with all the unused ideas, observations, and questions I didn’t have space for in my schedule.
It was the classic cobbler’s dilemma — I was so busy helping my clients to hoof it through building businesses and making content and sharing their messages with the world, I forgot all about my own poor lil’ tootsies. (Yes, this sentence was largely an excuse to use the word “tootsies” in a blog post. Because it’s cute!)
So, FREE SCHOOL was about FREEING my brain of all my knowledge and experience around building a business and harnessing your creativity, while giving myself a FREE PASS to do it messily — no fancy video editing or scripts or content calendars.
Just me, showing up on stories, telling you what I really thought about stuff. I had fun using all the random filters you find in the Instagram library as a container for the biz/art experiment. I even created a series, “Today’s Filters in Review” to rate my faves — you can find that GIF sticker in IG if you want to review filters for your own audience. Just type in “RKA filter.” It’s fun! (Should I bring that back?)
Early FREE SCHOOL days were very fun. It was a smorgasbord of pop culture commentary, behind-the-scenes of how I built my comedy show, and all the brand snark your heart could handle.
But speaking of heart, the more I muckraked, the more mine started pounding faster, sending me signals that FREE SCHOOL had more to teach me about myself than just business and creativity.
If business is a fancy word for how we describe “people helping people to solve problems,” we must remember that there is no magical line between our “professional” selves and our “personal” lives.
My challenge to say “yes” when I really meant it and “hell no” when I didn’t was not isolated to my business life.
And the problem of thinking, “If I just push a little longer and try a little harder, things will eventually get better,” extended far beyond my work week.
My “push it out” problem reached its grubby paws into my family, my marriage, my relationship with myself.
So, a few weeks into FREE SCHOOL, my heart started to push back.
One day, I woke up and thumbed a 2,700 word email to my family from my phone. Subject line: “Please sir, can I burn my bridges some more?” (Yes, I dropped a Broadway / Charles Dickens reference into a letter calling out the abuse my family enabled for four decades. I am That Bitch.)
A few days later, I was in the shower, washing my face, wondering how I was going to “break it” to the Internet that my branded marriage was actually an advertising campaign for a love story that had long been fictional.
And this is the part of the tale where I reluctantly admit that Rachel Hollis was indeed responsible for my “aha!” moment. (Thanks, Rach. I think I will stop apologizing, after all.)
Because, girl, I washed my face and thought about Rachel and Dave and how, when they announced their divorce, shortly before Rachel announced her book, Didn’t See That Coming, her audience felt betrayed.
They had built an entire brand around selling life advice and luxury marriage retreats, all while they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together (unless they were filming it). Just days before the divorce announcement, Rach was giving IG lessons in her stories about how to have steamy makeout sessions with the same man you’ve been kissing for 20 years.
Of all the things Rachel Hollis ever did, this fake it ’til you make it marriage was, by far, the most “relatable” to me. (If you know, you know…)
I, too, had branded my own marriage.
I married my husband 365 times, for the love of cringe!
Yes, you read that right. We got married every day for a year — because, as we shared at the time, “one day is not enough.” Love is a verb — a daily choice — not a hole you fall into and eventually climb out of once you stop having steamy makeout sessions.
When we got married, even though my heart was very much telling me “hell no,” I wagered if I pushed hard enough, if I “chose” hard enough, if I loved the fuck right outta that verb, I could turn that “hell no” into a “yes.”
Because, in my dating life, just as in my business life — I had been doggedly searching for The One for over a decade by the time I met my husband.
I was a “pick me” before it was cool.
My family hadn’t picked me. So, maybe a man would? Maybe if I pushed hard enough into marriage where someone finally said, “I choose you, Rachael, muck and all!” then I’d finally get into Willy Wonka’s Happily Ever After factory!!!
Reader, the factory doesn’t exist.
So, back to me and Rachel Hollis in the shower.
If Rachel wrote Didn’t See That Coming, maybe I would write its foil:
Saw This Coming A Mile Away.
Because who didn’t?
If Rachel’s audience felt betrayed, I suspected my “audience” would feel amused that after I married a man 365x to prove to myself that I was worthy of love, the joke was ultimately on me.
This fear of “What will people think?!” with a sprinkle of “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” had kept me in the advertising business for my own branded marriage — hell, my own branded life — for years. We couldn’t go a day without fighting and we hadn’t slept in the same bed since the day my daughter was born. But, when my heart pushed me to see this false advertising for what it was, the devil on my shoulder disguised as my inner voice said, “If you marry a man 365 times, how can you possibly divorce him?”
Until one day, I washed my face, looked myself in the mirror, and as a student of FREE SCHOOL, I finally learned the lesson that had been right in front of me all along.
And, so I hopped out of the shower, and did the first thing any woman does when she decides she needs to come clean.
I bought a domain, Photoshopped myself onto a book cover, and shared it on Facebook with the caption:
“YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: I’m getting a divorce and writing a memoir and you can pre-order my book by going to SawThisComingAMileAway.com.”
If I was so afraid that people would jeer at my marriage’s failure, I figured I’d beat them to the punchline.
Reader, this student of FREE SCHOOL still had a lot to learn.
The moment I clicked “publish” on this post was when I inadvertently lit the match that would burn down my life.
School was now officially in session and I was but a pupil with a backpack full of the wrong supplies. (Turns out, rainbow Crayolas are highly flammable!)
What happened next is a fiery blur, but I’ll do my best to Cliff’s Note it for you:
I started receiving phone calls, DMs, and not-so-well-meaning police wellness checks about how I must be out of my mind if I’d burn down my business, my brand, my marriage, and my family all in one fell swoop. (It’s called “efficiency,” people! Look it up!)
But, by this point, it was too late to convince me to keep convincing myself that pushing harder into becoming the person I didn’t even want to be was the way forward.
And this is when we got to the “LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I REALLY THINK” era of FREE SCHOOL.
The cap was off the bottle (it was a pile of melted plastic at this point) and out poured…
- All the horror stories of harmful business actors I had hidden away inside myself in the name of being a “good girl”…
- My own observations of how celebrity personal brands were re-selling their audience’s trauma back to them and then blaming them for it…
- The dot by dot connections between industry power players and their SEO-optimized friendships…
Then, in what felt like a poetic callback to my “aha!” moment in the shower, Rachel Hollis blew the whistle on her own troubled toilet and I just happened to be in the room where it happened when she did. I made a TikTok about it and shared my thoughts in my stories, as I had been doing since February.
And finally, after years of being a professional “pick me” — hoping that someone, anyone would pay attention to my hot takes on how to build a brand on the Internet without selling your soul — all the gatekeeping girlbosses enrolled in FREE SCHOOL. (And by “enrolled,” I mean, started watching my Instagram stories 😂)
This is how Jenna Kutcher slipped into my DMs (and right about when Sophia Amoruso tiptoed out).
It’s why FREE SCHOOL freshmen started sending me their own tales of being in the wrong rooms when shady shit happened.
It’s when the controlled burn of my cute lil’ “biz/art experiment” turned into a towering inferno.
Remember that subject line to my family? “Please, sir, can I burn my bridges some more?” The answer is yes.
This is when the bridges back to my former life all collapsed into the stormy sea and I had to come to grips with what it really means to live on a deserted island.
(Instagram became my “Wilson.” I’m not saying it was healthy. But you do what you gotta do when you’re a cast away struggling to survive.)
In the interest of word count, I won’t bore you with all the details of what it looks like to become the Robinson Crusoe of your own making.
*** Insert montage of sleepless nights, long walks, hard sobs, and hours in the library, as I searched every book ever written on the evolution of advertising and branding, trying to understand why I felt so lost at sea without my “brand.” ***
At the end of that montage, a muckraker was born.
And so was the book I was really meant to write. (The other Rach can hold down the self-help / memoir genre a little longer. It’s all hers.)
FREE SCHOOL freed me, alright.
It freed me to become myself — in all my messy, unhinged, unbranded, fiery, technicolor glory.
It freed me to stop trying to squeeze my human being into a productized version of who I thought the world wanted me to be.
It freed me to say “yes” when I meant it and “hell no” when I didn’t.
It freed me to figure out what it means to live my life instead of curating it for the marketplace in the name of more followers, more clickthroughs, more money.
It freed me…to pick me.
The day I started FREE SCHOOL, I tweeted the following:
”TODAY AN IDEA PROPOSED TO ME AND I SAID YES 💍”
But it wasn’t the IDEA that proposed to me. It was me. It had always been me. The call was coming from inside the house.
Two and a half years later, I’m not going to give you another montage of long nights and longer sobs that ends at Willy Wonka’s Happily Ever Factory. (I already told you, it’s as fictional as the idea of a billionaire spontaneously handing his business over to a random boy named Charlie and his weird Grandpa Joe.)
But I can tell you this — unbranded living is messy, unhinged, fiery, colorful, and ultimately, glorious.
It is terrifying and lonely and beautiful and exhilarating.
It’s everything that only humans can be and brands never will.
I’ve found my “yes” and my “hell no” and they were both on the other side of being willing to set fire to the “good girl” that was pushed on me, so I could pull myself out of the rock bottom of branded existence and see my own fireworks for the first time.
It’s a helluva show.
If you liked this, read on:
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