During my freshman year in high school, my guidance counselor left a message on our family’s answering machine telling my mother she was concerned I might be “living on the edge of a fantasy world.”
So far as I can tell, the only reason she suspected this was because I’d told her I wanted to go to film school and eventually make movies.
First of all, at age 14, shouldn’t we all be living in fantasy worlds? Second, what’s so crazy about aiming for the career of your dreams? Most of our role models are people who stuck to their guns and conquered the fields of their dreams, or went out and created the careers for which they were best suited!
Once you know what you’re meant to be doing with your life, why would you settle for anything else? Sooner or later, you’ll just have to find your way back to your intended path.
In my own case, my lifelong interests have always drifted back and forth between writing and movies. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the two pursuits could be one and the same. While my experiences aren’t universal, they certainly taught me a thing or two about the hazards awaiting job seekers and creative individuals as they attempt to make their way in the world.
Narrowing Down The Options
As a kid, I enlisted my mother’s calligraphy skills in crafting a fairly respectable forgery of a Harvard diploma. The degree, which was awarded in a course of study I’m pretty sure is more simplistic than anything offered by the Crimson, said that I had earned a Ph.D. in Writing.
Writing would remain foremost in my mind until age 12, when I stumbled across the book The Films of Steven Spielberg, and instantly realized that filmmaking was a potential a career option. From middle school through high school graduation, I read everything I could find on movies, filmmaking, and Hollywood. You name it, I devoured it. When I finally got a VHS camcorder, I began making my own amateur movies with my friends. At the same time, between school and moviemaking, I landed a job at the local bookstore, where I pulled publisher returns and worked the cash register. Writing and movies were already fighting for my attention, but for the time being, Hollywood dreams seemed to have the upper hand.
When college eventually rolled around, in spite of my guidance counselor’s misgivings, I went to the School of Film and Animation at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My reasons for selecting that school as opposed to a more well known program like NYU were threefold. 1.) At RIT you started shooting 16mm film the very first week. 2.) I never had the stomach to live in New York City. 3.) I didn’t have anywhere near the grades necessary to get into NYU. Aside from writing assignments, I’d put as little effort as possible into my high school work. As far as I was concerned, school was just nonsense that got in the way of making and watching movies.
Yet, once I got to college, an ongoing pattern developed as I again found my interest bouncing back and forth between film and writing. My sophomore year, after spending the first quarter working on dozens of 16 sync sound productions, I finally admitted to myself just how much I hated film shoots. While I loved movies, and I enjoyed working with footage in the editing room, I despised the atmosphere on film sets. A loner at heart, I found the production atmosphere unbearable. At the same time, I began working more and more on my own screenplays, while regularly helping my friends edit and revise their liberal arts papers. I couldn’t help but notice how naturally editing came to me, and how working with other peoples’ words seemed to complement my ability to evaluate my own work. What’s more, it seemed my friends’ grades went up a bit whenever they had me look something over before they prepared their final draft and turned it in. Soon, I had changed my film program concentration to screenwriting. At the same time I began taking more and more writing and literature courses in the College of Liberal Arts. My two areas of interests, two different methods of storytelling, had finally begun to merge.
I started sending out query letters to literary agencies in 1999, but aside from a few responses that ultimately went nowhere, I didn’t have any luck selling my screenplays. A few months before my May 2001 graduation, I started sending my resume out to film and television production companies in New York. While I was still no fan of the city, remaining back east seemed like the best way to pursue a career in the entertainment industry while staying near friends and family.
September 11th changed everything. Suddenly, a city known for its film and television industry was knocked back on its heels, doing its best to help its citizens regain their bearings. While I continued taking the train into New York well into October for the occasional interview, mostly for internships that I couldn’t afford to accept (even if they had bothered to call me back), the people I was meeting with remained so shaken up that discussing crew openings on an ever dwindling slate of productions clearly wasn’t foremost on their minds. I can still remember a haphazard Q&A I went through outside a production office a few blocks from Ground Zero, where the interviewer continually fidgeted with his cigarette as he recounted the way the dust from the collapsed Trade Towers had come sweeping down that sidewalk weeks earlier. After the interview, I walked down to the fenced off wreckage of the World Trade Center, then took the train back to Connecticut. In my mind, New York was no longer a possibility.
As for most Americans, the next few months were a blur. Somewhere along the way, I went back to my high school job at the bookstore. Curiously, it was right around this time that I went to dinner at a friend’s house, and heard the father of a casual acquaintance uttering one of the misguided statements I have ever heard. Upon learning that his son wanted to pursue a career in the arts, this man muttered, “When did it become so important for people to do the careers they want to do? Just get a job that pays the bills and find a hobby.” I wish I could say I felt sorry for that guy. I just hope his son was able to escape that point of view and pursue his calling.
If New York and the film business now seemed out of reach, something just as important developed around New Years, when the girl I’d been head over heels in love with for the last three years of college finally wanted to give things a go. Figuring I could be just as unemployed in Seattle as I was back east, I soon made plans to head west. Interestingly, the day I went into the bookstore to give my notice, the manager cut me off at the door and informed me I was being laid off in an effort to cut expenses. Serendipity? As far as my personal life was concerned, the move cross country was the smartest one I ever made. As far as my work struggles would go, they were just beginning.
You Can Be Just as Poor With a “Safe” Job
On a sunny Summer day in 2003, I sat at a window in Starbucks Corporate’s South Seattle headquarters, watching a group of Mariners fans heading towards Safeco Field for a game. The first thought that ran through my mind was, “I remember being alive and walking in the sun.” Now granted, I wasn’t dead, it just felt like I was. My job was killing me. I was working 40 hours a week in the company’s customer care center, and after taxes I was pulling in $680 every two weeks. That meant I was clearing just over $16,000 a year, and hating every minute of my life. After rent, utilities, car insurance, and healthcare costs, I was making just enough to cover half a bottle of $3 wine each night when I got home. Some nights I’d finish the bottle.
How I ended up in a miserable desk job doing nothing related to films or writing (modifying prepared response letters didn’t count) was a short but convoluted story. After hitting every film and television company in Seattle, I soon realized that most of the area’s production jobs had been lured north of the border by Vancouver’s production breaks. Needing some way to make ends meet, I started working construction in Tacoma, where I gutted houses, framed walls, sheet rocked, painted, and tackled just about anything else that came along. I ate lots of fast food. Drank plenty of beer. And went to bed each night thoroughly exhausted. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. Hell, I barely went to the movies. I also didn’t feel at all like myself. Eventually, I started wishing for a desk job, one with a regular schedule, maybe some benefits. I said I’d take anything, just so long as I could make a living and get a place with my girlfriend in Seattle.
While the Starbucks customer care department has since been outsourced — not to India, but to Albuquerque – a lot of people might be surprised to know such workplaces exist in the United States. The only way to describe it would be as a caste system. Starbucks’ top execs worked on the ninth level of the building. Salaries and stature within the company went down by floor number. I worked on the third floor. The second and first levels were for daycare. From the moment I got off the elevator every morning, I could see an enormous digital clock ticking away the time, right down to the second. You had to be seated at your desk, with your employee ID number punched into the phone by 6:30 and zero seconds at the latest. If you were more than 30 seconds late punching in each month, you were put on watch. What’s more, you also had to punch in a code every time you changed work tasks, took a break, ate lunch, or, yes, used the bathroom. This information was collected and printed, analyzed and evaluated, and while I was fortunate to work for a supervisor who saw this as the dehumanizing farce that it was, some of my coworkers weren’t so lucky. It was a demeaning, depressing place to work, one where the majority of the full time workers struggled to get by. At one point, the guy in the cubicle next to mine realized he could qualify for food stamps if he made just 20 cents less each week! After a year and a half of sleepwalking through my days, I eventually devised a way to temporarily cover my living expenses and escape.
I Was Prisoner 1125250
I’d started at Starbucks Corporate believing I could work a day job and write in the evenings, but here’s another truth about bad jobs: When every minute of your workday makes you miserable, and every bone in your body is telling you this is not what you’re meant to be doing with your life, going home and attempting to make up for lost time becomes that much harder. For me, trying to sit down at a desk and churn out something creative after 9 hours of having my every move monitored, proved to be impossible. By this point, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do. Screenplays. Books. Those were what I was supposed to be working on everyday. I just couldn’t find the energy to do it! I’d come home every night from that customer care job, feeling like a prisoner who’d just been sprung on an overnight pass. Technically I was Starbucks Partner 1125250, but that was really just my inmate ID. I’d punch out at 5 each night, sit in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour and a half, get home, open a bottle of Gato Negro, and toss back glass after glass till it was time to go to bed and repeat the process the next day.
Free of the hell of that desk job, I started searching for a common thread that would pull everything together. By now, all roads led back to writing, and as I clicked through the job sites, organizations looking for editors began to jump out at me. In the meantime, I went back to taking random construction jobs to help pay the bills. Finally, almost a year after I left the caffeine coal mines, I found the position that would eventually set me back on the proper path, unfortunately, it would be the worst job yet.
“It Will Look Good On A Resume” means “Look for a Better Job.”
I won’t bore you much longer with the odyssey of my work life, but I promise you, I’m getting to the point of it all now. My next job was as the Editor of Research Publications for a local university. I won’t name the college or highlight the department. If you want to get some idea of what that place was like, check out my book Billionaires, Bullets, Exploding Monkeys, which is set in a department eerily similar to the one in which I worked, and came from a simple question I asked myself daily as I walked into the building: Would I rather work in a building overrun by terrorists or endure another routine day in this toxic work environment? I’d rather have tried my luck with the terrorists. Aside from an unstable administrator, who regularly burst into tears and ran around the halls screaming at the office staff, I had to deal with some of the most ungrateful, emotionally stunted prima donnas I have ever encountered. It was in doing work for one particularly egomaniacal Ph.D. that I learned a priceless lesson: Anytime someone attempts to have you do more work than you’re being paid for, and rationalizes the request by saying “It will look good on a resume,” that simply means you should start looking for a new job immediately.
Keep At Least One Iron in the Fire
I spent the better part of three years looking for job that would get me out of that place. In the meantime, I formulated a mantra that finally got me writing again, and not just writing, but completing books. It was a simple phrase, but one that helped me solve the dilemma I had encountered at Starbucks, whereby I came home from work too exhausted to sit at a desk and tackle anything but a bottle of Gato Negro cabernet. I began getting up one to two hours before sunrise, always asking myself the same question the moment the alarm went off: “Do I like sleep more than I hate my job?” Since no emotion outweighed my hatred for that place, I managed to get up just about every morning and hammer out two to four pages of three books: An unreleased non-fiction project called Film Geek, Billionaires, Bullets, Exploding Monkeys, and On/Off – A Jekyll & Hyde Story.
In the meantime, miserable as the work was, I was becoming a surprisingly speedy editor and proofreader. Just as importantly, my renewed energy for writing went hand in hand with an increased appetite for the printed word. I returned to reading voraciously at lunchtime. In addition to my books, I resumed working on screenplays again as well. Eventually, wonder of wonders, three and a half years of misery paid off, and one of the jobs I had applied — the one I was perfectly suited for — came through. Soon I was free of that painful office job and editing film reviews for a popular website. While it had been a truly painful experience, a few good things did come from those three and a half years at the university. Shortly before I changed jobs, I got married to the girl who had brought me out to Seattle in the first place. A few months before that, thanks to my years of grueling employment, we qualified to buy our first home. Life outside of work had been good to me. Now, not only had I landed a job I loved, but I had three manuscripts and two screenplays under my belt.
Return the Favor
I’ve titled this piece “Why Doing The Job You’re Meant to Do MATTERS.” I’m not saying that lightly. Having a job you hate is bad for your health. At the bare minimum it will make you unhappy, more than likely it will make you overweight, miserable, possibly an alcoholic. I can easily see how that happens to people. Also, notice I say the job you’re “meant” to do, and not just the job you “want” to do. There’s a distinct difference. I knew people at RIT who wanted to make movies, but didn’t have the slightest talent for it. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks who know what they want to do, and will probably die if they don’t find a way to do it. When asked what would have become of him if he hadn’t succeeded as a writer, Stephen King has said, “Oh, I’d be dead. I would have drunk myself to death or drugged myself to death or committed suicide or some goddamn thing.” For him, writing is what he was meant to do, it matters. I’m no Steven King, and I certainly don’t have his tendencies for self-destruction. Aside from too much wine, too many Night Owl Pumpkin Ales, and too little exercise when I was at my most miserable, I don’t think it’s in my genes to commit suicide or develop debilitating alcoholism, but who knows, if I faced a lifetime of what I went through at Starbucks and the university… maybe things would have started to look a whole hell of a lot darker. So, this is where I think the biggest lesson comes in: If you lucky enough to figure out what you’re meant to be doing, and you find a way to do it, you’re obligated to help other people do the same thing.
I go out of my way to direct assignments to skilled writers who are eager to work. If someone expresses interest in a position for which I might be able to provide some kind of recommendation, so long as I believe in the person in question, I always do what I can to help. Paying it forward is more than a catchphrase (and it’s certainly more than a forgettable movie with that kid from The Sixth Sense). Doing a job that saps your spirit is bad for your health, if you have even the slightest chance of helping someone find a career that works for them, you have to live with yourself if you don’t raise a finger to help.
I’ve known extremely successful writers who will gladly share their professional contacts when someone asks. I’ve also known authors who hoard their connections jealously. Whether this comes from a crisis of confidence or a general lack of empathy, I don’t know, but it does seem the more skilled authors are often the most eager to lend a hand to up and coming writers. Writing, like any other field, is a two way street. You never know if the person you help today might be in a position to return the favor somewhere down the road. Either way, what do you have to lose by sharing your good fortune?
My Final Thought
I’m not saying you need to know what you want to do right out of the gate. In some ways, my stumbles came in part from having a big career goal from a very early age, one that inevitably morphed over time. No, what I’m saying is that while you can learn a thing or two by by taking a few detours (I learned how to sheet rock like a champ and pull a mean shot of espresso!), if you know the job you’re currently doing isn’t for you, dismiss the excuses, remember the goal, and get back on course as soon as you can. If you’re ready to make a fresh start, you I can do it! If you know someone who has a chance to start out on the right foot from the very beginning, share this advice with them. If you happen to be in a position to help a talented individual fulfill their dreams, do everything in your power to help them out. Doing the job you’re meant to do MATTERS! What greater aspiration is there than to find your niche, then help someone else find theirs?