I have read What Color is Your Parachute? four times. It’s not something I’m proud of. As a Gemini and a borderline Gen-Xer, I seem to have gotten a double-dose of “What do I wanna be when I grow up”-itis. In the ten thousand years that have passed since high school, I’ve gone through a coterie of dreams, some realistic, some absurd, some barely coherent.
About ten years ago, I decided to just give up. The idea of finding a career, even settling on something that I like enough to pursue, had just become too overwhelming to even consider anymore. The decision to give up was simpler than I would have liked to admit. I went to work, got good at my job, earned my paycheck. I wrote and sang and pursued art for fun. My time was divided into two succinct, separate entities—work and life.
So it comes as more of a surprise to me than to anyone else that, here on the brink of my 46th birthday, the idea of career has come back to me with a vengeance.
The Day Job™
I joke a lot about The Day Job™ here and elsewhere. I don’t make a secret of the fact that I’ve spent the last 25 years as a corporate drone. File rooms, call centers, office work—when it comes to Customer Service, you name it, I’ve done it. It’s not where I planned to be when I was in school, but it’s where I am.
And you know what? I’m damned good at it. I’m fiercely good at it.
It’s a matter of pride to me. It matters to me on a deep soul level that I give the absolute best I can when I’m at work, provide the best service I can, and be the best employee I can be.
And while it’s not the end-all, be-all of my soul’s ambition, customer service is a passion of mine. I think it stands at the dead center of the solution to so many problems we now face as a culture. Customer service comprises so many qualities that are sorely in need today—accountability, excellence, respect, courtesy, honesty, just to name a few. I am convinced that these skills learned in sometimes menial jobs are of more value to me in some ways than my college education.
If you want to buy me a fancy-schmancy coffee one day, we can sit down and discuss my theory about how every human on Earth should be required to do some sort of customer service job for at least three years. Kind of like mandatory military service to teach people how to not be douchebags. And whether you go on to become a doctor, lawyer, ditch-digger or radio psychic, the skills you learn in service to others will help improve your performance in whatever field you choose.
The Dreams that Never Go Away
I’m now going to reveal a secret to you. I did not choose my college major because I wanted to. I went three years towards a Journalism degree. In my third year, I had a run-in with a professor, a misogynistic, drunken fellow who blocked my path to all upper level journalism classes. Since it was a core class, I needed a C or above to move on to the junior level classes. (I had enough credits to be a senior, except in this branch of journalism.) And no matter what I did, how hard I worked, I could never please him. Since all his grading was subjective, I was at his mercy. And he didn’t like me one bit. The pretty girl in front of me who turned in stories filled with one-sentence paragraphs got As, but I got slammed.
I dropped his class twice (he was the only one who taught the class and it was a prerequisite for everything else in that particular discipline). The third time, I was determined not to drop out, no matter what, no matter how insulting he was, no matter how unfair his subjective grading methods were. I was going to stick it out and do my very best.
I got a D.
Now, I was not a D student. There were so many A’s on my report cards that it was silly. A sprinkling of Bs and the occasional C, but never in my entire career had I ever gotten a D as a final grade.
I remember it very clearly, the night I gave up on my dream of being a journalist. I was in my mother’s home. It was raining, and she was out of town so I was by myself in the house. I was in hysterics, because I knew I was never going to get through this guy’s class and consequently would never get my degree. The idea of quitting without my degree was unthinkable, but I was well and truly stuck.
As a Communications major, I took a lot of production classes. Radio and television workshops required massive amounts of time outside of lectures, from news-gathering to editing to hosting my own show on the campus radio station. To combat the stress of these classes, I used to take English classes for fun. After a week of putting together news programs using equipment that was a decade out of date and with coworkers who had varying degrees of skill and dedication, my idea of relaxation was attending lectures, taking tests and writing a couple of papers.
On that awful night when my whole future seemed to be collapsing around me, inspiration appeared in the form of my college handbook. It was there that I realized that all those English classes were providing my way out. Apparently, I’d earned enough credit from those “relaxation” classes that I could graduate in two semesters if I changed majors. In a heartbeat, my dreams of being a journalist were shelved and I was headed for an English degree.
Mind you, I had no idea what to do with an English degree. I didn’t want to teach and I had no interest in Grad school (I was deep in the throes of burnout by that time). But a degree in hand is better than no degree in hand, and I fully believed that if you had to have a meaningless degree, it’s better to have it in the liberal arts. At least you’re trainable.
Food for Thought
I’ve looked back at that decision many times in my life. And, depending on my level of mental health at the time, it’s occurred to me that I never once considered fighting the grade. Considering the teacher’s alcoholism (he showed up in class drunk or hung-over several times) and his obvious misogyny (the comments in class were offensive and discouraging), it wouldn’t have been hard to find a case against him. I remember at the time there were people who suggested I do such a thing.
But I didn’t. I was tired. I was discouraged. I knew it would be better to just give up than to fight, because at the time I didn’t have the strength to stand up for myself. I didn’t believe in myself, much less my right to resist unfair treatment by authority figures.
The secret to self-growth is to recognize patterns. And one of the recurring patterns in my life is this—I can stand up to adversity, I can stand up to ignorance, I can stand up to overwhelming odds. But when authority is held in the grasp of the undeserving or cruel, I tend to fold and walk away rather than fight for myself. I can’t tell you the jobs I’ve had, the bosses I’ve had, the stupid situations I got myself into, all because I couldn’t find it in myself to stand up to bullies with more control than self-control.
I’ve given up things that really mattered to me—jobs, friends, relationships. All because I didn’t think I was worth fighting for.
Where does that level of low self-esteem come from? How does a person who has so much on the ball, so much skill, so much talent and natural drive, develop the default reaction of running away rather than standing up for herself?
And now, with the 46th birthday looming ever nearer, I’ve come to an astonishing realization:
It doesn’t matter where it comes from. I don’t need hours of Freudian analysis to tell me this refusal to stand up for myself is hurting me. That’s obvious when I look at where I am in comparison to what I want. It hurts me when it causes me to superimpose the expectations of others over my own goals, obscuring my own vision and discounting my own inner wisdom.
Chasing the Wrong Rainbow
I considered myself a failure because I couldn’t sell a novel (even though I don’t even read novels very much anymore).
I considered myself a failure because I couldn’t sell a short story (I read them even less than I read novels).
But the first time I tried to sell a non-fiction article, I sold it. And I sold the next one, and the next one. Some 22 years after walking down the aisle to get that Bachelor’s Degree in English, I have come full circle back to journalism. What I wanted to do from the start.
When I took those English classes, I didn’t realize I was packing my parachute for when pursuing a Journalism degree became untenable. And when I was reading articles, doing online research, studying how others wrote by reading their work (and pretty much anything I could find about the craft of writing), I didn’t realize I was packing my parachute (no matter the color!) for a mid-life return to a dream I thought completely forgotten.
I won’t lie to you. I do not fully have a clue what I’m doing here. There’s a lot more to freelance writing than just knowing stuff (and how to put it into readable sentences). I am sure I will find out some things along the way as I stumble through this. I may even find some disappointments. But the joy of being able to pursue a dream again, one that isn’t just a reflection of other people’s ambitions, is worth the uncertainty.
As for The Day Job™, I’m still there. I am still fiercely determined to do the best I possibly can every day at work. And sometimes, I have to accept that the stress and demands of The Day Job™ are going to make pursuing my writing extremely difficult.
But not impossible.
I don’t think I believe in impossible anymore.