After that conversation, I wandered away from the campfire for a few minutes to get a better look at the stars. The moon had never looked so big. I could hear old-school hip-hop from our camp in the distance, but I was surrounded by absolutely nothing and no one, and I felt free in the universe. It was that moment that I realized I was truly free to do whatever I wanted in this world and it was completely up to me to make it happen. It was my life, and I had to stop caring what people thought about it. If I wanted to bake, I should. If I wanted to write, I should. If I wanted to start a company, I should. If I wanted to do nothing, I should. If I wanted to fuck up for once, I should. I was probably only out there for a few minutes before someone tapped my shoulder to go back to the fire (it was so cold that night your pee froze as soon as it hit the ground), but it felt like an eternity. Maybe I would have reached this conclusion had I stayed in San Francisco, but I really believe it was the magic of being nowhere that did it. Being nowhere forced me to stay silent long enough to hear what I hadn’t wanted to admit: I wasn’t living authentically. When I returned to work, I gave my notice immediately. My explanation of what I was leaving to do (explore some hobbies, work on a few projects, bake more) confused everyone, but they were all fully supportive. Ironically and quite magically, the day I returned (which was also the day I gave notice), an award was sitting on my desk that I had won while I was out: “Most Likely To Build A Start Up In The Next 5 Years.”
A competitive mind-set is productive only to a point. It’s important not to lose sight of value defined by other metrics. Peter Thiel’s argument for monopoly may provide an alternative framework. More . . .
April 23, 2012
Some skills of a monopolist (one who dominates in a “distinct market, niche and identity”) are “alertness, independence, and the ability to “reclaim forgotten traditions.” Brooks would also have the young re-examine the “status funnel,” a lemming-like obsession to compete for the best colleges, banks and companies.
Brooks does not develop his idea of reclaiming forgotten traditions. However, I would suggest that he hints at discretion being the better part of valor as one of them. If a pitcher has just suffered three home runs in one inning, for example, it might behoove him to take his bat and glove elsewhere. Perhaps he should find a blank space where everyone else isn’t. Take your sophisticated urban skills to a smaller community and make change where you have a chance or might be more appreciated. You might not even need a Stanford MBA.
American tradition honors wealth and success, but not always has America revered the drive for celebrity. Americans are an egotistical lot, but we have not always been narcissistic. There have always been people who wanted their photo and name in the newspaper, but not until the age of television, Internet and the plethora of electronic Media did we drool at the prospect of ten minutes of fame. Time was when a man or woman could feel wholly content and successful having tended well a relatively private garden in life.
Today we measure our own self-esteem against the best, the brightest, the “seen”ones. Often parents regarding the “status funnel” expect and often drive their kids into inappropriate careers and expectations — resulting in nothing but heartbreak. Some teachers belong in public school classrooms. They are called to it. One doesn’t have to be a university professor to be a good teacher and worthwhile human being. Life at the little end of the funnel is not necessarily a happy place. But, as Brooks says, when “the intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value, that’s what happens.” Knowing one’s self is very much a traditional value and that means knowing one’s league and being happy in it.
Steadfast and cautious,
. . .” Lean toward risk. It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did. . . ”
I have not found many articles that precisely fit the the theme of this blog, but these do. Brooks reports of how experienced people regard life decisions, perseverance, rumination, “strategic self-delusion,” “relentless self-expansion,” rebellion, self-obsession, and having to make crucial decisions when we are twenty-somethings. It is all here. I cannot recommend any reading more enthusiastically than this series. Go to the link below. Good reading for young, middle-aged and senior Americans. The following link goes to both earlier and later responses.
Steadfast and cautious,
In a year’s time current high school seniors will have been striding through autumn leaves for two months at the college of their dreams, whether first, second, third or fourth choice. I think of them wistfully, nostalgically in thoughts of my own college days. But for now the question for the next batch of frosh is where to go. It’s crunch time for high school seniors.
Though my college years are ancient history, I marvel frequently at the differences then and now. For me there simply was no question where I would go to college; oh, for awhile I idly wondered what it would be like to follow a girl friend to Bethany College. But I was destined to be an Ohio Stater like my entire family before me and that was really fine with me. And I would pledge a fraternity, too. I was destined be a Buckeye and a Beta, kicking leaves while crossing The Oval to the chimes of Orton Hall. Ohio State was just too enticing for a kid from a village of five hundred.
Out of curiosity and for the purposes of blogging, I have been researching a little. One writer makes a lot of sense to me. He says the greatest waste of money is spending exorbitant tuition and housing money just to get a silly degree. By that he means a major in women’s studies, sociology or medieval German. (To show you how relative this judgment is, I have never regarded my two majors of international studies and English as silly. My father had other opinions.) Some folks, the writer says, are coughing up $200,000 for this sound, quality start on a glowing career from inflated base camp — Boston. If the individual has a million-dollar trust fund, here is a good choice. The more sensible and just as effective decision would be grabbing the street car across town to the local, public institution. For such a degree the writer maintains, any old place will work. Go cheap, get a taste of college and then get serious.
Other than the expectation that I would uphold and advance the family’s upper, middle class station in America, my parents did not hover over me. Oh, I knew they worried about my interest in liberal arts because they knew that I had always had “nice things and trips” and would want at least those amenities to continue. They worried about my opposition to “materialism” or whatever I thought it was and my desire to “do something for others.” Our family had never produced a minister, social worker, professor, diplomat or career public school teacher. We have been industrialists, engineers, business people and lawyers. Nothing made my parents happier than the day I left for U. S. Naval Officer Candidate School. It was my choice and my decision. It seemed the perfect solution for me at the time. They were thinking long range and I was thinking adventure. To them I was set. I was seeing the Pacific for the first time. In my high school yearbook it was prophesiedthat I would be a history professor at Ohio State. I must have said that to someone.
Because I was “second generation college” the assumption was that I knew the purpose of a university and higher education. I loved learning, even more than football (and that was to be an individual at Ohio State). I loved university life so much I wanted it to go on forever in an endless sequence of majoring in everything. That’s not the purpose of a university. I didn’t think international studies was silly at the time. I was interested in globe trotting. Naval life was the first trot.
Frankly, I don’t know how I could have been more earnest than I was at the time. I roomed with two geniuses and that was a good influence, but I was intimidated by their minds: both Phi Beta Kappas and Wilson candidates. I knew I wasn’t that “smart.” So, I did what made sense at the time.
And that’s where kids are in their twenties — doing what makes sense at the time. I do not think any helicopter parent can change this. So what I might say to any twenty-something or high school senior is this: “You don’t know how self-defining experience is yet. You do know what pleases you more than something else. You don’t know how experience will change your perspectives. The plodding old tortoise does. The necessary in your life will change with living, especially if you are living to make life meaningful. Most likely you don’t know what meaningful is and no one can tell you; if someone could tell you, it wouldn’t be your discovery. Only your discoveries will stick. Meaningfulness shifts and changes. Pragmatism in many ways is a gift from the gods, but it can be learned.
About the materialism thing. Be careful what you jettison. I mean, regardless of how creative or altruistic, you may be, you will still have car payments, rent and/or mortgage payments, grocery bills and on and on. The material amounts to a lot in survival. Most of what we must do is either physical and material. Now, if your minimal acceptable standards require a Volkswagen Passat, a decent wine with dinner, a vacation every now and then, athletic and or concert tickets, then to that degree YOU ARE A MATERIALIST. You are going to be busy. You cannot shake it off. Deal with that to which you have grown accustomed — likely the incontrovertible gift of your parents. No one, except Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the starving artist escapes materialism — especially in America. Having good things is part of American culture — with which the smart citizen never trifles. It’s the law.
Steadfast and cautious,
Yesterday on a blog, I found a father’s concerns about his daughter wanting to become an English professor. Memories of career dreams poured over me and my own idealization of the English profession. I once fancied myself Mr. Chips.
Immediately I pondered several questions. Does the young woman want to teach English as an end? Does she have a passion for writing and see the profession as the perfect solution, even a hide, for one who loves to read, write and expostulate on literature, its meaning, value, significance, et cetera? Is she open to other teaching opportunities: community college, trade/tech schools, secondary schools, overseas and especially teaching in the boondocks? Would she drop back and get the lowly secondary teaching certificate for high school — IF she could even find a slot there; or even in a prep school? Is English professing a means or an end?
More cynically I wondered if she might, all sexism aside, be attracted to a particular professor. (I could wonder the same about a male student under the influence of professorial charisma.) Good professors are actors and romancers.
The points are that the cushy university, tenured position, if it ever existed, has become incredibly difficult for the best of candidates. Professors are under much administrative pressure to publish and also to carry significant committee and university duties. Funding shrinks, especially in the Humanities. Universities still need indentured teaching assistants to teach English composition — so that the senior professors can pursue their career dreams and play the effete aesthete. Universities cannot or will not afford Master’s scale to teach these courses. Teaching the frosh is anathema to many Ph.D’s.
As far as a livelihood that will support a writer is concerned, they are whatever a person can find to survive and/or starve in pursuit of discovery. One could join a military service, for example, and manage to find time to write. I think of Fred MacMurray playing the novelist on the USS Caine (fictional) and Alex Haley in the Coast Guard (real). The passionate would-be novelist/poet can do as Hemingway and go into journalism (not an easy slog by any means). Melville went to sea as a seaman. He was a better writer for it. Nothing has changed in the artist’s world. One could go into PR, but that demands a huge compromise. I found being a public information officer rather pleasant, but low-paying. PR people are usually among the first eligible for cutting. Working at Starbuck’s will work for some.
My heart says, “You go, Girl! Live your dream. Stake your will, talents and skills against all odds. Do it now while you’re young and have lots of time and resilience to recuperate and re-invent yourself, two, three, four times over. I want to say that; really I do. Regretting a road not taken gnaws at the soul.
In youth we always think we will be the exception to the naysayers. That possibility exists, of course it does. So, go out, be a hammer rather than a nail. You surely would, if you only could as Simon and Garfunkel sang; but write yourself a note, young lady, a note that says, “I shall never become bitter if what I choose in full knowledge of the world doesn’t work out.” Laminate the note and tuck it into your purse. That’s a tough one, too. It’s T. S. Eliot’s “shadow that falls between the motion and the act” (The Hollow Men).
Finally, the universe of arts and letters far transcends and dwarfs the individual artist, professor, college, and university. In the chance that a youth will choose the mundane pragmatic over the romantic challenging, I say to that person, remember that the academic approach to literature, even teaching literature, is only one approach. Writers do not write for professors, scholars and critics. They write out of desire, passion and native wit. They direct their own study. Art was invented by more creators without degrees than with them. When there are no longer bookstores either on the corner or on the Internet, when there are no longer libraries, when there are no more writers and readers groups and publishers, then I will despair. Besides, academe can stultify a lot of passion and creativity — not always. The artists are the first heroes in this epic. You can even find them in your cellar hide.
God bless youth!
Steadfast and cautious,
P.S: For an interesting story of twenty somethings, literary types all, making their way in New York City, see this NYT article on Literary Cubs.
I stumbled upon comments by Francine Prose in The Atlantic. She expresses her thoughts about being among academics who somehow did not share her interest in literature in quite the same way and with quite the same passion. She was among people who study “texts.” She terminated her doctoral program and left.
Prose’s words have taken me back some thirty-eight years to my own similar moments and feelings in grad school. Unlike Prose I hung around to exhaust my last option because I wanted to feel I had done my best in face of the odds. Those three years were not wasted, but only, only because of the reading, thinking and writing I did for myself. Now that I have forgiven the naiveté of a thirty-one year old, I have no regret — finally. After several livelihoods I find that the friends I made in my books are still there for me.
If you have stumbled upon this blog and you are facing similar decisions and feelings, I urge you to click on the link above. (The reference is the third from the last question on page three.) Francine Prose is the author of twenty books including novels, children’s stories, novellas and short stories. Elsewhere on this site in the Career category, you will find my experience with the PhD Octopus.
Your comments are genuinely and fervently requested.
Steadfast and cautious,
According to David Brooks (New York Time, 8/12/11), author Tim Harford’s basic lesson is that “you have to design your life to make effective use of failures. You have to design systems of trial and error . . . ” I haven’t read it yet but the book appears to be a Tortoise kind of thing. Anyway, I’m going to check it out. Brooks full review is at NYT (6/13/11).
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As in most of my blogs, I claim no panaceas for interviewing or final incontrovertible wisdom. All I have is a lot of experience in the war zone. I do not believe anyone can give another person a foolproof strategy for finding employment. If my experience helps someone, I am glad of it. I do recommend reading and practicing sample answers and questions readily available on the Internet.
Being invited to a phone interview always pleased me — often more so than a personal, physical meeting. The phone interview is a warm up for the real thing. The phone opportunity provides anonymity that can be advantageous. One point is that the interviewer has limited the evaluation to one of the senses, i.e. hearing. The interviewee is free to prop her legs up on the footstool and sip a little iced tea. You’re even free to walk around a little. The interviewer cannot see fidgeting, shuffling feet or drifting, insecure eyes. However, the voice can also reflect any of these weaknesses too. I don’t recommend smoking at a phone interview. Even for a phone interview I did not wear grubbies or skip combing my hair or shaving. Why? I felt better. I never, however, wore a tie for a phone interview unless it happened to be during time stolen from my work day.
I liked phone interviews because I have had a lot of experience conducting business on the phone. The telephone gives me a sense of objectivity, a distance. I, too, in a positive way was forced to use one medium; then, too, a number of people had complimented me on my telephone manner. I am like most disc jockeys, rather introverted. The phone gave me an impersonal situation I could use to my advantage. The challenge lay in maintaining that confidence and “presence” in a personal interview later.
At the same time I assumed that the phone interview is used when the number of interesting applicants is rather high. Phone interviews are screens, most likely designed to eliminate candidates. On the phone one interviews for another interview, not a position. My whole objective was to get a physical interview, but not to be too eager. Sometimes I might answer a question briefly and then add, “This seems to me to be an important question for both of us. I hope I will have an opportunity to provide more details in person. I have a written proposal I once gave on the subject. ”
I tried as hard as I could to match voices with names, but rather than address the wrong person, I did not hesitate to say, “I think that was Roger, right?” The interviewer or team will be helpful. I wrote names down during the introduction. If possible. I tried to catch the company name. No harm in asking, “Now, tell me where youwork again?”
Do not jump to conclusions about anything based on tone of voice. Do not react negatively to what sounds patronizing or sanctimonious. That person may not even be on the second interview team.
A telephone is a great medium for being one’s self, for being forthright and candid, but not familiar.
If necessary ask for the question to be repeated for clarity — that buys a little time for thought.
Speak clearly and to the point. Do not go on and on. The telephone invites informality and directness — sometimes too much. Use the medium for what is. “I could say more on this favorite topic, but I know we haven’t the time.”
If you notice a thread, say “Well, to you and Roger, I would say . . .”
At some point ask, “Does this position entail significant telephone communication?” If it is a sales or PR position say, “I know that the position requires excellent telephone skills. In my past work I . . . ”
On the telephone one can close his eyes even and imagine a receptive person on the other end. Speak to that positive person you visualize — maybe it is your friend, parent, or favorite uncle you are imaging.
Having a friend or spouse in the room might be a help or a hindrance. If silent companionship helps, hold hands, but don’t get palsy walsy. Got a cat or laid back dog for your lap or at your feet. A pet may do something to make you smile. That smile will relax you. You can do no wrong in the estimation of a pet. Besides, in my experience animals have a way of putting things in perspective. There will be more interviews.
Steadfast and cautious,
Well, sir, without any facetious intent whatsoever, I can tell you, it’s a jungle out there. In a perfect world I assume that employers like you would like to feel that an applicant like me has done a lot of research and narrowed his search through the sights of a rifle and not a shotgun. I have done my utmost to match what I want and what I know about myself to carefully select employers. At the same time I’ve tried to be realistic. I may not find exactly what I would prefer, but I am a resourceful person with a variety of skills and abilities. I might even discover an opportunity I had not anticipated — so there are some good things about the tight market. It requires me to be open to the unexpected. I want to be productively employed. I never thought of working in your industry until very recently and I think I have found something challenging here at APEX, LLC. What I would find challenging is . . .
Comment. In this answer the applicant is acknowledging what everyone knows. The job market is for the seller these days and he/she is banking on the idea that the kind of employer sought knows this and further, wants commitment and attitude over perfect match of experience and skill. After I had mentioned the challenge of APEX, I would cease in the hope that the next question would be related to a subject I had anticipated. The ball would be in my court. If not I have only been realistic about an employment market that sucks. What is important is that a significant portion of target companies have been researched in detail. One must use a shotgun in the interest of survival and chance.
The risk here as with all honesty is that it may be too honest. The employer may fear that this applicant is dishing bull and that he will always be looking for what he really wants. This, of course, may be what the employer does in his own interest, but he really may want to hear only that APEX represents the be all and the end all of the applicant’s dreams. If this is the case the employer is naive.
If the employer is sensitive to to the market, it doesn’t matter. The situation affects all concerned so the employer may as well be as exacting and demanding as he wishes. Again, the rule is the interviewer is looking for reasons not to hire rather why to hire. He’s got a pile to work through.
Here’s another possible answer if you’re a data person. “I look at a company first for the challenge it offers and the opportunities to grow as a professional. Uni-Ply has had at least 3 three to 4 per cent growth in the last ten years. That is respectable in these times. Your bond rating is above average and from what I’ve read you really research your markets before you enter them. I like that kind of thoughtful conservatism. Bottom line, a company that is not breaking new territory is not for me. I want the opportunities which growth brings like the chance to head up a new division or at least be part of new division startup team. It all takes time. I know that.”
Steadfast and cautious,
In the early 1980’s my career drifted into the doldrums. My dream of becoming a professor had died in 1973 and then what had been a surprisingly good alternative career in the community college system ended. My position as a public information officer and community education coordinator fell victim to a downturn in post-secondary education in late 1979. The problem was national as the tail end of the Boomers finished college, I was “right-sized,” a sister term to ” let go.” (Both terms are the euphemisms for employers. My jobs didn’t just pass away either. They died. ) The college dropped from an enrollment of 7300 to around 4000.
I found some middle-class welfare under the infamous CETA program and became a youth employment trainer at a joint vocational school in the secondary public system. Of course, many in my Republican, white, upper-middle class background regarded CETA as a a boondoggle. In many ways it was and I was not supposed to need the benefits of CETA. But I had just missed by one getting a PR position in a hospital and personal funds were running low. So I took the job, vowing to make the best of it, and hey, maybe I could do some good for some kids who were not “college timber.” During this period, I began to understand that career, such a seemingly rewarding passion for others as all the motivational gurus , might never be so for me. So, I started to pay more attention to life in the bigger picture. I cherished the hours I was then spending in the forest, with tractor and chain saw, cutting wood to feed my burner at home. I became involved in community affairs and even ran for office in that period. Serendipity happened and life seemed good, despite my fall in status.
The program included actual jobs for young people. The best-laid Federal and Ohio plans anticipated that employers would be partners in acclimating young people to the world of work. Together business person and youth adviser would work on matters of punctuality, attitude, dress and work performance. In short we were to instill the work ethic. In the process we would increase the kids’ employ ability. Back in the vocational school they were taking general education courses plus special training in secretarial services, retail services, cosmetology, agricultural mechanics, small engine repair, electrical technology, masonry, carpentry, etc. Each year the school actually built a home for spring auction. Conceptually the program could not have been better, but then entered human nature, the economy and mis-perceptions. Turning employers into serious mentors was always a problem.They didn’t have or take the time required. Cynically speaking in the worst cases we needed miracles to turn sow’s ears into silk purses. Looking back, I learned much and saw a side of society I had never known. I came to respect highly the dedication of the best vocational teachers. I saw some of them perform miracles with kids who badly needed a miracle.
In my work we used the Ohio Career Information Service. OCIS was a partnership of the bureau of employment services and the department of vocational education. We dialed up a number and then pushed the phone receiver into a plastic device that resembled a double cup holder. Rubber gaskets cut out interference from ambient noise. Once the electronic ears were in place we had contact with a main frame somewhere in Columbus. We could print out miles of job and career descriptions. Youth came to our lab to explore every whim and dream they had ever had. My associate and I shared our worldly wisdom with them. He was an air force vet and former park ranger. We were advisers and had to avoid calling ourselves counselors. In some cases we tried to encourage a few whims and dreams.
We also had a nifty test that assessed student preferences for working with things, data and people. From my background I knew only that you completed the college track and went on to college where you majored in business and commerce, liberal arts, or science and math and then picked a major in some field — which either stuck through graduation or went through numerous metamorphoses. My partner and I took the test ourselves. He was a former park ranger.
I was thirty-eight, feeling totally unsuccessful, but thoroughly interested in the data generated. Various jobs, of course, entail differing percentages of time proportioned among work with data, things and information. My job as a YETP adviser rewarded the do-gooder in me. The data gave a measurable dimension to the guessing game of “What Do I Want to Be” and I enjoyed the role of teacher and adviser. I decided that common sense, trial and error had pretty much led me into appropriate career choices, although true success in PR required more social interaction than I liked. I also learned how privileged I had been.
And yet the kind of interaction a lawyer has with people would never have worked for me. The professor thing also was entirely appropriate with the possible exception of university and departmental politics. Late thinking about people, data and things truly made me feel that staying in the ordered universe of the Navy would have been good for me — alas.
I still bemuse myself pondering the perfect blend of involvement with people, things and data as if such fine tuning and modulation were possible. Large doses of small talk and hanging out have never been appealing to me. Chatting while sharing work or dining is pleasant; and I particularly like a good discussion over an issue, a book or a movie. Babbling at a bar over lite beer does not wear well past an hour or so. After that I’m ready for a book.
Writing a blog, posting it and then seeing it up there in front of the world and God? That’s cool. I spend hours now in a cellar cave with my computer and a little Internet business. And while this thing at which I stare and punch has its limits, I am mostly rewarded. My dog will show up when it gets muggy upstairs. I look forward always to a spinoff conversation with someone in Minnesota, Florida or Louisiana which happens sometimes by phone — but most folks want to plug data into me and hear it come out from me, input-output. I am an appendage of my Power-Spec PC. Along about six, there’s sometimes a bike ride and always, somewhere in the mix, pleasant times and chats with my better half. I know. I’m needing to get out amongst ’em, though.
Steadfast and cautious,