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College portrait

Me, a few months before I entered the Big Wide World of Work

A few weeks ago, someone e-mailed me to ask if I’d do a blog post advising students how to succeed in the Big Wide World of Business.  Should they learn how to “rock that interview”?  Become familiar with the latest software applications? Et cetera, et cetera.  I was too busy to do a post when the request came in, but I’ve given the subject matter a lot of thought.

Succeed in the working world?

Learn how to make the other guy look good.  It’s not about what (or how much) you know, no matter what field you choose to go into.  It’s — forever and always — about the other guy.  Make their job easier.  Help them look like the greatest bundle of awesome that ever awesomed, and you’re guaranteed a solid spot on the company totem pole.  More than likely, you’ll score some rewards: raises, promotions, nicer Christmas gifts.

But where will YOU be?  The real you.  The authentic you.  The you that you’ve always dreamed of being – the one who feels fulfilled, satisfied, content, happy.  That’s the real challenge in the working world: is it possible to keep the other guy looking like a star without completely burying yourself in the process?

I was part of the 9-to-5 thing for 38 years, beginning just a few weeks after I graduated from college.  My dad had ingrained in me the rule that Thou Must Always Have a Job — not necessarily a great job, or even the right job, but A Job — so I was both pleased and disgruntled when a vacation at the lake was interrupted by a phone call that said Come now, and start working.  That was the beginning of almost four decades of Making the Other Guy Look Good, and watching myself become more and more buried.

See… I’m a writer.  I’m also a variety of other things (daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, consumer, viewer), but in my heart of hearts I’m a writer.  A storyteller.  I’m the most content, the most at peace, and feel the most complete when I’m writing.  When I can’t write, I feel as if I’m being locked away from a loved one.  So whenever I could, during those 38 years in the corporate world, I used little bits of time to tell stories.  A day felt like a success not if I managed to put together a pile of legal briefs or sales flyers, but if I found the time to write a page or two (or twenty).  Over and over, I searched for jobs that would allow me to write… something.  During one job interview, I was promised that I’d be able to contribute to the company newsletter.  Did that happen?  It did not.  The best I was ever able to manage was drafting boilerplate business letters — not at all an exercise in creativity.

I had a regular paycheck.  I had “a good job.”  (Actually, I had seven good jobs, not counting the soul-killing temp assignments, during one of which I had to pick up a Fleet Enema kit for a boss who seemed determined to make me feel Less Than.)  But I never felt like a success.  I tried my best to make all the other guys look good, because I was trained to fit into that age-old image of The Good Girl, the quiet, obedient helper and listening post and whipping boy(girl) — even when it was killing me.  The whole time, I kept writing.  I published two books and a long list of fanzines, shared hundreds of stories online… and no one really took that seriously.  After all, it wasn’t my Real Job.  It wasn’t the thing that brought in the cash.

Finally, I hit the wall.  I’d been looking at retirement, figuring it was still a few years off, years I thought I could manage.  But reality was looking me in the face.  I was about to turn 60, a point at which we have to admit that what remains of the journey is much shorter than what’s already gone by.  I started to ask myself, When do I get my chance?  When do I get to nurture the real me?  I didn’t know when that would be, and I started to panic.  Literally: I had a panic attack.  My hands trembled uncontrollably, and my vision got foggy.  I had to struggle not to throw up.

That evening, I decided that enough was enough.

This past May, I said sayonara to the business world, to being constrained by office hours and limited space and other people’s needs and whims.  I became my own boss.  Now, the person I’m trying to make look good is me.  And finally, I feel at peace.  I feel like I’m nurturing the person I’ve always tried to be, the one who tells stories.  Finally, I feel like a success.

So…what advice would I give to a student who’s about to enter the working world?  Do you need to “rock that interview”?  Do you need to become a master of the latest software?  Sure.  Go ahead.  Do that.  But at the same time, be aware of the most important person on your team: yourself.  If you ignore who and what you really are, you’ll never be content.  You’ll probably start marking time, and complaining to your family and friends that Oh my f-ing god, I HATE MY JOB.  Which isn’t to say it’ll be easy to find work that fulfills you – or at the very least, doesn’t make you want to walk in front of a moving train.  Chances are, you won’t find a job that makes you want to hurtle out of bed in the morning…but do look for something, somewhere in your life, that gives your soul a chance to speak.  Find time for that.  MAKE time for that.  Write.  Draw.  Compose.  Sculpt.  Garden.

Something.

That’s how you succeed.  That’s how you’ll survive.  And with luck, you’ll find the right opportunity to shine on your own terms while you’re still sane enough to enjoy it.  So go forth, young Skywalkers, and make the other guy look good.  But don’t ever lose sight of yourself.

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