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Living In The Middle; Or, What I Learned At My First Job

December 31, 2011, 1:51 pm

Today is the day I go off the payroll of Zenith University, the institution that gave me my first job. Tomorrow I officially go on the payroll of another university in Metropolis, the city where I went to graduate school.  If all goes well, we will move in mid-summer.

OK, so Zenith wasn’t actually my first job.  I had a fair amount of work experience before I began my twenty years there in July 1991. Prior employment included: aluminum can recycling; substitute receptionist at Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate; popcorn stand attendant at a neighborhood movie house (the summer Jaws was released, no less); stringer for the Hartford Courant; administrative assistant and general dogsbody at a boutique public relations firm; writer/editor at an advertising agency; bicycle messenger; teaching assistant, research assistant, assistant to the Dean of the College; proofreader at the SoHo News; adjunct instructor of history (multiply by 6 here); and visiting assistant professor.

These are only the jobs I remember and for which I was paid:  I remember many other unpaid jobs, and there have been times I was unemployed but was paid anyway. I was also fired once.

Then there was the job writing reviews of photography shows for the misogynist downtown New York gay weekly (if you are of a certain age you know which one I’m talking about — remember the one that insisted until it went bankrupt that AIDS was actually untreated syphilis and could be cured with massive doses of penicillin?)  But I’m not sure that really counted as a job, since the editor I worked for told me it was unpaid but a terrific way to build a book of clippings that might lead to a real job as a journalist. Writing for no money seemed fair to me, which is my good fortune considering what academic writing pays. I knew nothing about photography, or art, except what I had learned in the Introduction to Art History and from my college roommate, who was a painter.  My only other training for this work was reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography. I would view the exhibit, consult Sontag, run to the library to research the photographer, and then find some intelligent way to write about the exhibit.  This system worked pretty well, and I was assigned new unpaid reviews to write on a regular basis. It was only after the arts editor died (of AIDS) that I learned the weekly had a peculiar payment system.  They distributed a lump sum to the editors who had commissioned various pieces; the editors were then supposed to pay the writers.  So actually my job as a photography reviewer had been paid work; it’s just that I never got the money.  It was after this that I decided all my efforts to break into journalism were failing, and I decided to go to graduate school.

Thus ended my career in the fine arts. The rest, as they say, is History.

When I landed at Zenith after graduating from Potemkin University I felt like a lucky, lucky Radical.  There were a number of reasons for this, one being that I had finally succeeded in paring down many ill-paid jobs to one good one and that I had consolidated my notion of what I wanted to do.  I had found a way to write and be supported for it. People seemed to like me, teaching was fun and being a history prof seemed like a straight shot to A Nice Life and many free books.  What I did not realize at the time was that the process of finding oneself is a long one and, it you are very lucky, that process goes on and on and on, stopping and re-starting in the most extraordinary way.  There are moments when you wrestle with terrible self doubt and realize that mistakes have been made — and if you are fortunate, they are balanced out by the moments in which you get to look around you and compliment yourself for a job well done.  That sensation also usually does not last, in my experience, and a great deal of life is lived in the middle.  It is the business of making life in the middle worthwhile that matters most, I think.

So without further ado, here are five things I learned at my first job:

1. If it isn’t right for you, no matter how good a job you have, you can always leave. Here I speak not for myself, but from observing others — many of whom I loved dearly and miss to this day — who made the decision to leave Zenith before me.  They went on to have careers elsewhere, sometimes doing something quite different.  Zenith is a wonderful, wonderful school with a terrific faculty and you should definitely consider sending your child there.  But — and I speak to all of you who work at equally wonderful places — if the only thing keeping you there is that everyone tells you how lucky you are to work there, I give you permission to leave if you need or wish to do so. You don’t need to wait until you feel bad and unlucky; the people you leave behind will still be your friends if you want them to be.

2.  If you leave your job, you don’t have to leave for a job that is “better” by all the conventional standards of the academy. But you should go someplace where people seem happy and engaged with their work.  Over time, I have learned that people’s happiness in their work does not correlate with the status of their job in the way that you might imagine. Hence, moving up in the world might not actually give you better friends and a more productive work environment. You could realize that you have transported your unhappiness to a location where it will flourish to an unprecedented degree. Very few people grasp the full implications of this concept, which reverses the logic of Lev Tolstoy’s famous opening line of Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)  In fact, in the academy, unhappy people are all alike, whether they teach at Harvard or at Bauhaus Community College.  The vast majority of people who you would think ought to be happy are often as focused on those things that frustrate and disappoint them as the people you work with now. But I have found that happy scholars are all happy in very different ways, and it is usually because they have found some way to be themselves, do the work they want to do and balance a healthy ego with attention to the well-being of those around them.

This lesson correlates with lesson # 3, which is:

3.  If you figure out what work will make you happy and do it with integrity, you will probably succeed. I have come to believe that this is most true about writing.  Blogging and other internet platforms are one route into a wider range of publishing options, but even though academic publishing is becoming more difficult in some fields, it is still probably easier to publish as an academic than it is as an ordinary person.  I suspect that this is because they don’t pay us anything and, as yet, university presses are not expected to contribute to the profits of international corporate media giants.  These things work together to make it possible to get a real book into an interested reader’s hands without having a platform, an agent, a proposal that doesn’t die in marketing, and Nan Talese kicking a$$ at the NYRB.  But it becomes even easier to get anything done if you can:

4. Commit to whatever you are doing in such a way that you discover, or rediscover, your love for it. This can mean doing things that other people disapprove of, or even that they have contempt for.  It can be difficult, because finding your own way can result in various forms of institutional discipline, primarily the failure to reward or recognize your work.  If this is true, you have to ask yourself:  am I wrong or are they wrong?  Take your work out of the institution aggressively and see what happens. Chances are, if there are those outside your institution who think your work is original and interesting, it actually is.  It doesn’t mean that you are never wrong, but it probably does mean that you are on to something — and that you need to associate more closely with the people who claim to be learning from you and less closely with the ones who criticize you.  This doesn’t mean you have to leave your job:  rather, it could give you the self confidence to keep doing what you are doing where you are, be less affected by the disdain of others and find new allies in unexpected places.

5.  Plan. If I had anything to do over in my life, it would be to have been to locate, and plan my life in response to, my inner compass when I was younger. I have only very recently learned how to organize my professional and intellectual life in such a way that the work I expect of myself has acquired some dominance over the work other people expect of me.  Sometimes I still blow it, but at least I know I’ve blown it when I do. Finding and honoring your inner compass is a particular issue if you work at a place like Zenith where practically everyone, everywhere in the university (colleagues, staff and students), is incredibly interesting. SLACs have lots of compelling short-term incentives for professional development that rarely take into account that you are already working a 60 hour week, or that ask you to get interested in something that really doesn’t have anything to do with the work you are currently doing. Most of these things worked out well for me intellectually, but some were difficult to convert into longer-term dividends because the enrichment they promised came at the price of a kind of institutional ADD. But sometimes I think that those periods in my life that lacked focus were productive in less tangible ways. I certainly learned more than a few things along the way: how to re-tool, how to learn new intellectual languages, how to find the smartest people and learn from them, how to have true friends and colleagues, how to get a project up and running, how to conceptualize paradigmatic shifts in a program of study, how a university works (or why it does not), and most importantly, how to have fun.

So I am perversely glad that I never listened to all those people who were constantly telling me to “just say no.” There were a lot of things that I coulda, and shoulda, said “no” to at Zenith that have actually turned me into the person who is, as we speak, packing a few bags and boxes to get on the milk train back to Metropolis, where this all started, and begin a new job for the first time in 20 years.

Because you know what? Sometimes you wake up one day and realize that you got the career you wanted after all.

Happy New Year.

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