“What do you do?”
In many parts of the world, that common icebreaker is considered rude. In France, which has more of a “work to live” culture than the U.S., that question is considered tacky and boring. The Dutch find it classist. Small talk is frowned upon in Russia.
But in New York, that’s generally the first or second thing strangers ask each other. And it sucks when you’re not proud of the answer. Frankly, there’s no reason to not be proud of the answer— honest work is honest work. I’m happy with my answer, especially given the new job I just started, but my path here was random and complicated. I owe a lot of my career path to an article I read a few days before my 30th birthday.
But we’ll get back to that…
In December 2008, I graduated with a journalism degree and zero job prospects. We were mid-recession, and major cities’ newspapers hemorrhaging workers and ceasing publication left and right. My competition included not only the rest of the class of 2008, but all the people who got laid off from The Wall Street Journal.
I spent nearly a year doing random odd jobs: an unpaid internship listing civil service exam results at a newspaper, freelance articles for $50 a pop, selling cell phone covers at a mall kiosk, painting living rooms. And then in October 2009, I got a job as holiday help at a department store, determined to be the world’s most efficient sweater-folder to ensure that I’d still be employed on January 2nd.
Mission accomplished. They kept me on, in the stockroom, fetching shoes for the salespeople. It was mind-numbingly tedious and the pay sucked. At the time I was embarrassed that I did it, although all these years later I see how unnecessary those feelings were.
Still, I kept pursuing journalism. The most common is foot-in-the-door is at a small local newspaper, but I happen to be from New York City where there aren’t a ton of those. Instead, I’d do freelance stuff while interviewing in Westchester or Connecticut, and sending my résumé all over the country, knowing how unlikely anyone was to respond. Getting this letter from an editor in Manhattan was probably one of the highlights of my year… Manhattan, Kansas that is:
The ship had sailed on the journalism thing, or so I thought. I had moved from the stockroom to the sales floor, where I met the HR director from a more prestigious department store. (They go to other stores to pose as customers and see if there’s anyone they want to poach; it’s a thing.)
I sold shoes and made more money than I probably would have at a journalism job. I didn’t make a lot, but it was enough to live in an apartment and have a social life again. I’d have this conversation all the time:
“What do you do?”
“I sell shoes.”
“Oh…. cool…. Can you get me a discount?”
The pauses spoke volumes. People look down on retail sales, thinking it’s a job for the “lazy,” “stupid” and “unmotivated.” Never mind that it’s really difficult to essentially pay yourself (yes, 100% commission) according to the whims of the general public while being “on” at all times. Still, I internalized those pauses.
I hadn’t written anything, or even tried to write anything, in a couple of years. Instead, I focused my energies on getting a “real” job in sales since I was already on that trajectory. My Plan A didn’t work out; that would be my Plan B.
Most office-type sales managers look down on retail just as much as everyone else does, so leaving “Bloomies” (Bloomingdales) was hard as hell. Still, I eventually got a job as an account executive, selling newspaper ads. It was the worst, encompassing the bad parts of the retail world (hustling to pay yourself) without any of the good parts (the camaraderie, the fact that people come into the store so you’re guaranteed to sell something).
Mark Manson is one of my favorite writers. I discovered him on Facebook after he wrote an article about the insights of his 40+ readers and what they wish they could tell their 30-year-old selves. The article was timely because it was written around the time of Mark’s 30th birthday— and mine.
His readers recommended starting to save for retirement young and letting go of mediocre relationships. The “Life Lesson to Excel in Your 30s” that really resonated with me was the sixth one: Don’t be afraid of taking risks; you can still change.
The point of this passage was that 30 years old is still young. You’re several years out of college and entering a new decade, where you feel like you should be really settled. But it’s alright if you’re not because 30 isn’t nearly as old as it seems at the time. Mark’s readers talked about doing career overhauls in their thirties, which inspired me to try and do the same.
It’s strange to think about a random Facebook article changing my life, but it did. I started pursuing journalism again the night I read that article. And after a few months, I got back into it. It had been so long since I wrote for a living that I was back down to entry level. But hey, foot in the door.
Getting a job at an online trade publication, essentially falling ass-backward into an industry I didn’t know the first thing about, but really enjoyed? Go figure.
My job situation is something I’ve been ruminating about a lot over the past few months since I was laid off. I left my return-to-journalism job on great terms and ended up going back there for a bit to help guide a new editorial direction. My three-month contract ended last week and I just started a new, full-time job.
Everything worked out in the end, just like I kind of figured it would when HR said “See ya!” back in August. But since my path here was so random, ridiculous and circuitous, I feel can appreciate it that much more.
What parts of your path do you appreciate?
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