Watching the Wheels
NOTE: I penned this a few months ago but never posted it. I’m now in deep enough to see some of the warts, and COVID certainly does northing to make you feel secure. But I was right. And that feels really good.
Finally, I’m off the merry-go-round.
“Surely you’re not happy now
you no longer play the game…”
A couple years ago I got cast adrift.
First, I wound up on the wrong side of a company political battle (it wasn’t about me, but I put myself in the line of fire by backing the wrong horse – never mind that said horse was right) and wound up getting forced out. Not long after I stumbled into a severely toxic “opportunity” that went even worse.
Which kicked off 20+ months of “self-employment.”
It was sheer fucking terror. Every morning I’d wake in a panic and it could take ten minutes just to collect myself and calm down. I had several medical issues, no insurance, mounting debts and the few freelance gigs I landed came nowhere close to keeping my head above water. I was sure I would wind up dead.
The upside was that even after working on the freelance stuff and hunting for jobs (applications with literally hundreds of companies, some phone interviews and a handful of in-person interviews which produced little more than a set of outraged posts on age discrimination, counter-productive interviewing rituals, ghosting and applicant screening systems), I had time to reflect on the dumpster fire of my professional life and how it had happened.
The Status Trap
Back in the early ’00s I took some career assessment inventories and among them was one that ranked professional priorities. It considered things like pursuit of wealth, the attraction of a challenge, etc. – basically, there are 10-15 things that motivate people at work, and you were force-ranked on what mattered most.
For me, #2 turned out to be status. This bothered me. I didn’t see myself as a status hound, but the test results raised ugly questions. Truth was, I did get hung up on titles and my place in the company. It was important to get promoted and to have people reporting to me. The gods forbid I should even wind up lower on the totem pole than (or worse, reporting to) someone younger than me.
These factors were visible indicators of the respect I had. I grew up Southern working class and deeply insecure on top of it, so status markers were tangible validation – the only tangible validation – of my worth. Even if I really saw myself as an artist, a scholar and a thinker, being an a executive director in a Fortune 500 making six figures with some direct reports, and even better, reporting directly to the C Suite, this meant I was winning by the incontrovertible rules of society. You might not care about poetry, but you had no choice to be impressed by the business card.
Status mattered in those other areas, too. PhD. Tenure. Publications. If a poem was rejected, it was a chip in the foundation of my worth as human being. So I lived life according to corporate/consumerist social rules, or tried to (even when I moved in academic or artistic spheres).
That hateful little test planted the seed of self-awareness, and while it incited a good bit of self-examination I never acted on it. I guess you could say I chose to live with the disease rather than seek a cure.
Despite a career which has seen me hold manager, senior manager, director and VP titles, those 20 months of futility eventually forced me to apply for work that was “beneath” me. And here, of course, was the CATCH-22 – it seemed that for every gig out there I was either not qualified or over-qualified.
When I did manage to land an interview for one of those lower-on-the-food-chain jobs I always – always – wound up hearing a diplomatically turned question that translated into something like “wow, what a resumé. Why would a guy like you want a pissant little job like this?”
It was a fair, if unwelcome question, and I experimented with a variety of answers. But the presumption lies against you in a job interview. There are very few right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Following the advice of a zillion HR experts probably only made it worse. But that’s what you do when you’re playing the game.
After all those months of failure I was compelled to face some realities about myself. I don’t love corporations. I don’t care about “career.” I find no personal or spiritual meaning working in the business world. I like money, of course, but not what you have to do to get more of it.
Instead, I love my wonderful girlfriend and my home life. I love playing with Trouble, the Cattle Dog from Hell. I love my photography and digital art. My writing? Well, some do it because they love it and others because they can’t make themselves stop, and I’m in that camp. But there’s value in it, whether it gets read by anyone or not. And nothing I could ever do in the corporate world would ever have that sort of meaning for me.
I finally broke down and admitted that I’m tired of chasing things that don’t make me happy just because other people say I should.
And that became my answer.
The new job
A few weeks ago I finally got the offer. Not for a Veep job. Not for a director job. Or senior manager or manager or any of the other things for which I’m qualified. Nope – my new position is copywriter – which is what I was doing in 1985.
And it feels so very nice. There’s less in the way of the pointless, manufactured stress that accompanies greater responsibility. (Pressure is how too many business managers reassure themselves that what they’re doing is important. It’s pressure driven by ritual, not reality.) My hours are reasonable. I’m not getting rich but I can certainly live on what I make. And I’m good at writing.
There’s some funny stuff about the situation, too, especially if you knew the old Sam. I’m probably the oldest guy in the group, for instance, and my boss is 30 years younger than me. Literally. She was born right about the time I was finishing my MA. She’s sharp as a whip and I really, really like her.
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
Sure, it could all go to hell. Sometimes situations are good early on and a few months later you want to murder people. No guarantees – not now, not ever.
But it feels different. It’s like a tremendous weight is off. I can breathe. And I know for certain that if this job doesn’t work out I won’t go back to the kind of joyless life I was pursuing before.
It took a while, but I now get it. I’m off the merry-go-round and I couldn’t be happier about it.