Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Ultimate Question

Get happiness out of your work or you may never know what happiness is.-- Elbert Hubbard

For many people, the Ultimate Question is "Why are we here?", "Do aliens really exist?", "Will my dog go to heaven?", "How do I know if he's The One?" or even "Why are there so many morons with drivers' licenses?" My Ultimate Question is the same as Po Bronson's: "What do I do with my life?" Some people wish for a winning lottery ticket. I wish to know what job I'm supposed to have. Everything else is just gravy. And unless your Ultimate Question is the same as mine, you will never understand how much some people dread Mondays.

I don't blog about it much because it's kind of dangerous. Anyone remember The Washingtonienne? Not that I am involved in anything scandalous like that, but I think I did read somewhere about a girl who was fired for bashing her job on her blog. So I'm not going to come out and say where I work. It's a library. I'll leave it at that. Talking about my job is depressing/stressful for me, and besides, I try not to be a whiner as I'm truly blessed for the most part. It's actually a pretty cushy job. But like many things in my life, I obsess over it. Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I struggle with this. It is a bigger concern to me than my love life, if you can believe that! But like most of my obsessions, I get overwhelmed when I think about it. So instead, I do nothing at all because I fear every decision will be the wrong decision and then one day I'll wake up at age 40 and have a breakdown because my life is wholly unfulfilling and I'm miserable, but it's too late now, I blew it. (Yes, I know this is illogical. Just go with it, Ok? I live in fear of making huge, irreversible mistakes in my career path.)

I envy most of my friends who are happily employed, talk about their jobs outside of work and feel the desire to advance their careers.
I'm about the only person I know who answers, "No, I don't." when asked if they like their job. I just want to pretend I don't have this job in the hopes that it will enable me to escape it more quickly. Sort of like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, or the opposite of Field of Dreams: If you deny it, it will leave.

So how did I get here? Let's look at my work history...

From birth until fifth grade, I wanted to be an artist. For days on end, I colored and drew pictures. (Anyone looking at these "masterpieces" now would be bored to tears--I drew the same two things over and over: a red house on a hill and My Little Ponies. Early evidence of my obsessive personality. I was always trying to draw them better than last time!) I also played school and "office". My love of teaching, learning and color-coded office supplies began early.

As a typical youngster, I babysat. I loved the money, but realized retrospectively that I had no business being entrusted with peoples' children. My idea of babysitting was forcing the kids to play with their toys in a separate room while I watched MTV and ate whatever I found in the fridge. It started to grate on me when I realized I was not legally allowed to spank them. Violence was the only way of dealing with conflict in my family, so to have this option removed left me frustrated and clueless. I had to sit on my hands to keep from smacking some of the little brats.(I love kids, I swear! My mom wouldn't let me watch MTV as a kid, and so it was the only chance I got to watch it. I checked on the kids to make sure they weren't bleeding or anything. Sheesh! I wasn't that irresponsible.)

My first real job was at Kroger's where I worked in the video rental department. We sold lottery tickets there, too. I learned a lot at my first job: taxes suck, people are really testy about late fines, some people are scam artists, some people have gambling problems and some people do nothing but watch movies. I also learned some stuff about myself: I cannot count change in my head, I hate doing busy work and I am pretty good at The Kevin Bacon Game.

After that, I waited tables for many many years. Sounds crazy, but I actually didn't mind it so much. I was usually busy from the minute I got there until I left, I felt I had actually earned my pay, I could go home if there was nothing to do, my coworkers were all pretty cool, there was a lot of social interaction, smoking was totally acceptable, I always had cash and it was easy to under-report my earnings to the government. I even got to burn calories while running around and at the end of my shift, all my meals were half off! Aside from my feet hurting and smelling like onion rings at the end of the night, it was pretty good. I miss it sometimes, actually.

Meanwhile, slowly, my love affair with history grew. From fifth grade until my junior year of college, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then I realized that following that career path involves getting very dirty on a regular basis and wearing rather unflattering outfits. Not really my style. To boot, I came to realize that my brain does not work in the way a scientist's brain should and I'd be left in the dust--no pun intended. It was sad to let the phrase "I'm going to the Valley of the Kings next month." fall out of my vocabulary, but there's always Indiana Jones movies.

My senior year, I panicked, realizing that if I didn't think of something quick, I'd be living in my parents' basement. I had always considered teaching, so I started to apply for teaching jobs, and I got one. I loved it. I jumped out of bed every morning and spent every waking minute trying to figure out how I could be a better teacher. It appealed to my personality: I had to be organized, think clearly, prioritize, be flexible, be able to deal with different types of people, be consistent, and be able to work in a fast-paced environment (just like waiting tables!). To boot, I got to be fairly creative, write with a red pen and buy lots of office supplies. Every day had a new problem, there was always work to do, I enjoyed most of my students and most of my coworkers. My students loved me (well, most of them!) and I felt like I was making a difference in the world, even if it was a tiny one. My boss thought I was doing a great job, too--I always got great reviews. He wanted me to take some education courses so I could get certified (I had been a history major, not an ed major and was hired as thanks to an emergency teacher shortage clause). "Ok, sure!" I said. (Anything to be a better teacher!) "Great! But you have to pay for them," he said. That was when reality set in.

I knew going into it I wouldn't be making a lot of money. I didn't know "not a lot of money" means "$8.00 in your bank account after you pay your bills." --I'm not exaggerating. I had more spending money when I was a college student. As someone who cannot add or subtract, I can assure you that I watched every penny that year! I still bounced lots of checks. I had to borrow money from The Czarina all the time. Any unexpected bill threw me for a loop. I had a wake-up call when I paid for an Extra Value Meal with nothing but nickels. The drive-thru girl glared at me when I handed them to her. I suddenly realized: as much as I love this, I need more money or I will start to hate it. I did the math and realized I made more money waitressing--before I had a college degree. To make it even more insulting, school pay scales were not merit-based, but seniority-based. This meant that while I slaved away at twelve hour days, trying to improve my techniques at cramming information into my students' brains, the lazy teacher who did nothing all day (and left with the kids at 2:30) was paid four times what I was paid. It made me resentful.

By the end of the year, I was burned out, resentful and broke. When I told my boss I wasn't renewing my contract, I cried. I cried when I told my students, and I cried even harder on the last day of school. I miss it almost every day. Sometimes I think I made the wrong decision.

The deciding factor had been a random opportunity to attend grad school for free. I knew it was a one-time shot, so I went ahead and accepted the grant--how can you say no to a free degree? It paid for all my tuition and about half of my bills. But I had no idea what to get my masters' in. The Czarina suggested library science since it's flexible. Which is true. And since I didn't have a better idea, library science it was. I have hated it ever since. I almost dropped out three times. Do you remember the movie Legally Blonde? There is a scene in it where Elle, the slightly bimbo-esque sorority girl decides to go to law school. She shows up at her first class looking cute and sparkly and sticks out like a sore thumb because her classmates are all these stuffy, preppy, brainiac nerds. She wonders where all the parties are and why everyone is taking school so seriously. This is VB going to library school in a nutshell.

No offense to any other librarians who may be reading this, but a lot of the stereotypes are true. Librarians, in general, are either really weird or really geeky. They aren't very social or fun. Very often they are both weird and geeky, and old to boot. They do not know the meaning of happy hour or value anything remotely fashionable. Take my boss, for example. She participates in some, uh, alternative hobbies. (If you really want to know, email me--it won't disappoint, I promise!) And here I am, young, single, former sorority girl with long blonde hair who reads Cosmo and parties every weekend--I'm the weird one! Do you remember how on Sesame Street they split the screen into quarters and sang a song along the lines of, "Which one of these does not belong?" Yeah, I'm the one that doesn't belong! If I had a nickel for every time someone said, "You don't look like a librarian!" I would be able to get another Extra Value Meal. If you don't even look like you are in the right field, it's a sign.

So not only am I a fish out of water socially/personality-wise in this career, I'm also bored to tears. Sitting at a desk, waiting for someone to walk up to you gets old. If no one asks me anything, I have nothing to do. Dealing with the public is getting old as well. Many are weirdos themselves: cranky, smelly, cannot communicate a clear thought, they are incredibly stupid or lazy... you name it. And some of you may think this sounds funny, but I wish I worked with some men! Don't get me wrong--my coworkers are one of the few great parts about my job. They are some of the coolest librarians around. But it would be nice to have some male company, and I'm not implying that it is for flirting purposes (although, if some hot n single 30 year old gets a job here, you won't catch me protesting!). I just enjoy the company of men and I enjoy working with them. They are the ying to the female yang, or whatever.

I have no interest in this field whatsoever. Don't wanna go to conferences, advance my career or learn about the future of librarianship. Don't want my boss's job, either. I would be required to deal with even more boredom and cranky people. I take this as another sign.

I want a job where I show up and my boss hands me a huge stack of papers and says, "VB, I need these all finished by 5:00. Can you do it? Even if I need them collated, filed and edited? They are a mess and I really need them squared away. Then I need you to help me figure out how to plan for our big annual event." And I will say, "Why yes! I'd love to! Do you want me to create a coordinating paper clip/highlighter system for them as well? And would you like me to train the new guy? When I'm done with that, I should have time to think up some ideas for your presentation and our annual event. Then I can work with Bob on our project and advise Susie on her project."

That sounds like a secretary....hmmmm....that's another thing I played as a kid...

Anyway, I don't like my job, and the only way I know to get career happy is by the trial-and-error method. Is that what everyone else does? Or are people just born knowing? People who have always known what they wanted to be when they grew up amaze me. It is a concept so foreign, it's like they are from Solmalia or something. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not designed to have a career...it's not that I'm lazy. Maybe my brain is just not cut out for jobs. I wouldn't mind getting in touch with my Martha Stewart side...perhaps I'm a housewife-in-waiting.

I wish I was one of those people who is passionate about something specific. I am not deep in my interests, I am wide. I don't have much passion for anything (well, maybe lipstick) but I have lots of little passions for many things. Does that make sense? I have diagnosed myself with what I call OCD ADD. This means that I will become totally enamored with a career and obsess about trying it (OCD) but then I lose interest and move on (ADD). I'm crazy, right?

Every week my dream job changes: real estate agent, writer, teacher (again), professor, public relations, advertising, editing, marketing, nursing, paralegal, caterer, small business owner....I could go on, but you get the picture.

So, I don't know where I'm going, but hopefully I'll know when I get there! Anyone who can advise me or sympathize with me is welcome to comment!

And thanks to Modigli for the post inspiration! I told ya you weren't the only one, girl!


Stuck said...

If you still miss teaching, I'd say that's a pretty good indicator of where to go from here. There are no jobs I can look back on and think, "Man, I wish I still did that."

TheDailySketch said...

Ok, I won't lie. I couldn't read it all. But I'll come back later.

In regards to the career thing, I hear Canadians have an amazing 'career assesment test' that will tell you exactly what you'll be best qualified for. Supposedly it's very precise. So you may want to look into it. Some colleges offer it also for free. ;)

Jamy said...

It's a really important question and one I still struggle with--and I can almost see 40. Yikes.

You are one of the lucky ones--you alread found something you love: teaching. Find a way to go back; you won't regret it.

Anonymous said...

Gangsters, cartoon bubbles and fortune cookies-
I dont understand how the idea of finding one's purpose in a career IS any form of self actualization.
Im currently conducting an experiment at work (finance) that I call, "Damn it feels good to be a gangster". I dont go to any meetings, dont follow policies, and basically get my job done, but by my own rules. So far, Ive been given three awards and a posh business trip next week.--
As I read your ultimate question I had a cartoon bubble with the shoveler from "Mystery Men" who said, "God gave me a gift. I shovel. I shovel REALLY well." --
My last fortune cookie ticket read: "What you are supposed to be doing is what you are doing right now" Dutifully, I ate that cookie.

ditto on the lipstick (sigh)

leelion said...

my god, that was a novel. You're still young. Why not abandon your job and get one on a cruise liner, or a super-yacht, or go to a town in Australia or Northern England or Israel and work in a bar for a year. Getting away from current circumstances allows for reflection.

Original Me said...

Funny. I just wrote about this very thing and I am a librarian too! I'm just bored with it. I have been thinking that housewife would be a fine career choice.

Virginia Belle said...

the loyalty of my readers surprises me constantly! i totally understand if you had to skim this one...i guess i got a little wordy. sorry. but now you are all up-to-date on my entire work history! you could write my resume! ha ha! be glad i'm not any older!

i did leave out that i worked as a department store makeup girl while in grad school. talk about an alcoholic working in a bar! as if having 115 lipsticks and 78 eyeshadows weren't enough, they gave me about $3,000 worth of free stuff!

thanks to anyone who actually read this.

Stuck & Jamy--yeah, you are probably right. but i have bills to pay. and i like to shop and go out to eat. these are things i cannot do as a teacher. so unless i marry some really rich guy, it's back to the drawing board.

Sketch--i know, i know. i'm sorry. don't read it all. it won't offend me, i promise. i wonder if the canadian test is the same one i took: The Meyers-Briggs test. It said i should be: a teacher, an editor, a nurse or a real estate agent. hmmm....what i already knew!

anonymous-- your comment reminds me of one of my favorite movies: Office Space. one of the songs on its soundtrack is called "damn it feels good to be a gangster." peter gibbons got a promotion when he started making his own rules. i love the fortune cookie thing, btw. i need to eat more chinese food...

leelion--you have a point there...i do want to see more of the world. traveling rox. hmmmm....

original me--i too see the appeal of having nothing better to do than learning how to ice cakes decoratively or re-organize your home office. sounds pathetically June Cleaver-ish, but i'd get a lot of enjoyment out of cooking, cleaning, organizing and making stuff all day. a lot of it is really fun and rewarding! (ew, i think my inner feminist just threw up a little...)

Anonymous said...

Belle, is it at all fair to say that a good deal of what you found rewarding in teaching was in what you gave the kids?
Somehow I dont find it the least bit suprising that when you wish to impress a guy, you bake for him. How very June CLeverish. And its a turn on to men. Suprised? That doesnt sound ANYthing at all like "ew", or as though you had "nothing better to do" or even remotely..."pathetic". So please please PLEASE, for your sake, dont think for a single moment that men dont pick up on this...unless you wanna grow old with cats.

Virginia Belle said...

OK, good, because i'm a closet wanna-be housewife! shhhh! it's a secret! i just love the idea of being the support network for my hubby, who probably comes home tired and stressed and just wants to relax with a cookie and a glass of milk.

of course, this whole daydream implies that i get married...but whatever. it'll happen.

i guess i saw how well it worked in my family (my mom worked full-time from home, but still managed to cook dinner every night and be home when the kids got home), so i'd like to have the same thing one day. minus the cats. i hate cats. plus i'm allergic.

Anonymous said...

I seriously need to move back to the east coast....
Wow, wow, and yet once more....wow.

NML said...

You rock! I'm normally not very good at reading long posts but i thoroughly enjoyed this. I have been though an indecisive time and I have ended up with a good job in the media industry, as a result of circumstances, not really as a plan. I can relate to some of how you feel. Write a list of everything that you'd like to do big or small, and sort into time periods. That reveals a lot about you and gives you some direction. Look at job sites and check out other industries. If you can afford it, try a career guidance counsellor for a couple of sessions but don't live in boredom or frustration forever. Great post :-)

open365dayz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
open365dayz said...

Hi #NAME#. Just found your site via payday loans. Although I was looking for payday loans I was glad i came upon your site. Thanks for the read!