If you really want to create the life you want, sometimes the rules you have break are your own.
“I’d like to make an offer on the apartment.”
I was standing in the middle of a narrow street lined by classic Haussmann-era buildings, in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, when I said these words. Even as I said them, part of me was screaming, “What the hell are you doing?” I didn’t even know how I was going to pay for the apartment I’d just made an offer on. But it didn’t matter. I was a woman possessed. I would not be denied.
The year before, during one of bleakest winters the northeast had seen in years, I lost my mother to breast cancer. She had been a dominant force in my life, the center of our family—especially after our father died. I had no husband, no children. It had been all about Ma for me.
Her death left more than a void; it felt as if she’d taken me with her. I no longer knew who I was without my mother. Her expectations had defined my goals; her pride in me had motivated my choices. I suddenly realized I hadn’t created a life on my own terms.
I’d been dropped into the middle of the ocean without my true north—lost, and overwhelmed by the empty horizon ahead.
A year later, I was apartment hunting in Paris, the one spot in the world where I felt at peace. Pied-à-terre is French for “foot on the ground,” and that’s exactly what I needed: to stake a claim in my happy place, and in a hopeful future. So, despite the screaming in my head, I bought 258 square feet of the City of Light.
It was the boldest thing I’d ever done, and to do it, I had to work against all my instincts, the ones that kept me safe inside the limitations I’d put around my life. My heart pounded in my throat as I toured properties—I knew it was an insane idea. But I kept on, blindly pushing through fear and doubt because I was on a mission. I’d never been so singularly focused. At times, I felt out of control because I was unfamiliar with the level of conviction I was experiencing, and the adrenalin rush that came with it. I blazed through any obstacles in my way—and there were many, like finding funds to pay for the apartment—never relenting until the moment I stood in my new Paris home, relishing in what I’d accomplished.
I looked around the apartment, now renovated and decorated, with its high ceilings and beautiful crown molding. Sunlight smiled on it, streaming in from two large windows that looked out at a classic Parisian view. For months, it had been a collage of ideas, paperwork and emails. Now I was standing in the middle of it, the smell of fresh paint making it real.
I had created this. And for the first time, I didn’t ask for permission; I didn’t worry about the consequences, or how others felt about it. I just made it happen. For me.
I often say that the apartment saved my life—pulling me out of a deep depression and giving me hope when things seemed hopeless. But in truth, buying the apartment enabled me to save my own life, pull myself out. I was making a commitment to me, taking charge of my own happiness for the first time.
The process of buying the apartment in Paris taught me how to live. I discovered what I was capable of, that I could visualize and realize a dream. I learned to stop making excuses, and resisting because of fear of the unknown. Something else was more important than fear: me.
One bold act led to others, and four years later, I now split my time between New York and Paris. I’ve done more than fill the void my mother left behind; I’ve built a new life and career around my passions. I had been someone who waited for permission before stepping out into the world, then still apologized for intruding. Now, I network and cold-call, and request meetings with corporations to talk about partnership deals for my own brand. Five years after my mother’s death, I don’t even recognize myself.
But I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Change is never easy. Going bigger, stretching yourself, will be uncomfortable. When you go after what you want, especially if you’re not used to committing to yourself at that level, you may even feel possessed, like I did. Selfish, irrational. Filled with guilt. I felt all those things when I was apartment shopping in Paris because I’d never dared before, never really put everything on the line like that. I kept thinking someone would tap me on the shoulder and call me out as an imposter. Or that I’d get “in trouble” somehow. And that makes sense because I was breaking the rules. Mine.
I’m still uneasy in uncharted waters. I don’t really know how to get from here to there exactly; sometimes I feel like I’m making it up as I go. But I’ve learned to use that pang of fear in my gut as my new true north, a sign that I’m going in the right direction.
You’ll never be perfectly ready for change—not the jarring, life-altering kind of change. So you might as well just start. Today is as a good day as any. Do one thing to set tomorrow in motion. It doesn’t have to be as big as buying an apartment in Paris. It might just be a phone call. You’ll know what it is that needs doing because it’s the thing gnawing at the base of your brain all day, waiting for you to finally push the “go” button. My turning point was a loss so profound I had nothing more to lose. What’s yours?
Playing it safe can make you happy temporarily, but taking risk, while it might be painful in the moment, can set in motion a future filled with happiness and fulfillment for a lifetime. Don’t be afraid to break your own rules, especially if they’re holding you back. You already have everything you need to accomplish what you want—the courage, the ability, the will. Don’t wait. Don’t ask for permission. Push that “go” button. I did. Now, it’s your turn. Consider me your first cheerleader.
Lisa Anselmo is a writer and creative director living in New York and Paris. Her new book, My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) chronicles her journey to find purpose in Paris after a life-shattering loss.