My less-than-brilliant career

I’ve been considering a career change lately. Actually, I’ve been considering a career change my entire adult life. To be honest, I’ve never really had much of a career, but I’ve always thought I should have one.
I got my first “real job” when I was 30 years old. Prior to that, I had been a temporary landscaper, secretary, birdwatcher and janitor. Mostly I had been a student, in anthropology, then theology, then English, then journalism, planning on someday getting my Ph.D. and a teaching gig at some major university.
I only got as far as the Master’s. I couldn’t teach at a university with that, but I could teach at a community college, which I did for three years before quitting. I placed geography, friends and family above career and took a job and a paycut as a smalltown journalist. Eventually, I got back into teaching as a part-time, adjunct instructor of English and journalism at another community college. After applying for full-time jobs twice and seeing them go to strangers with better degrees, I gave up on ever having a satisfying career as an English teacher.
When your place of employment rejects you, twice, it becomes hard to go to work with a smile on your face. My dissatisfaction has been growing like a cancer ever since. Apparently the students have noticed. My latest review put me below the 50th percentile on every measure of teaching proficiency.
I reached my low point this morning, but it’s too soon to tell you about it. I have to string you along, and let the suspense build.
My previous lowpoint occurred shortly after I got married, when we were broke and I took a temporary job answering phones. I was taking orders for something called a Video Toaster Demo Tape, which computer geeks who wanted to make their own rock videos saw advertised on latenight TV. I still remember my opening line: “Hi! You’ve reached the Video Toaster tape center! Are you calling about the free Video Toaster Demo Tape?”
A few years prior I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Berkeley. Yeah, THAT Berkeley.
I got a couple job offers when I was working as a temporary secretary in my 20s, but I always laughed them off, thinking, “Can’t you see that I have a higher calling? I was in a Ph.D. program at Berkeley, you know. Yes, THAT Berkeley.”
My sister, who also started out as a temp, accepted one of those offers, and she’s now a manager making twice as much money as I’ve ever dreamed of, flying around the country for meetings with other high-powered executives, saving enough for an annual vacation to some exotic locale.
Instead of taking one of those jobs, I donned my backpack and hiked around for a summer, or jumped in my car and drove around to Montana to watch birds. Now I’m a part-time teacher at a community college with no chance of ever being promoted. And my students hate me.
Do I sound bitter? Well, imagine how my wife feels. She’s been hearing me complain about my various jobs for 15 years now. Sick of it, she has been encouraging me to take some kind of test to determine what I want to do, and what skills I have. So I did.
I found a test on-line, 75 questions, each one asking me to rank three activities or jobs from most to least desirable. The questions seemed to make sense, the only problem being my own wishy-washiness. “Well, driving a tractor seems desirable, but on the other hand, so does planning marketing strategy for a Fortune 500 company. Come to think of it, both seem like a living hell.” I did my best and submitted my answers.
The results came back looking like this: You are skilled at working with people, and have a high degree of independence, yet you would like to work with others as long as you maintain a position of power and authority and can be self-motivated and left alone. You enjoy a multitude of tasks, but would prefer to have one task you can work at until you decide to work on another. You like to work primarily with your head, but also with your hands. You have a knack for seeing the big picture, as well as the overlooked details.
That’s exactly right! I exclaimed. This test has me pegged!
The rest of my profile was available for $19.95, which sounded fair to me. Who can put a price tag on self awareness?
The results also showed 10 jobs for which I would be suited. Unfortunately, they were jobs 11-20. For the Top Ten, I would need to pay another 10 bucks, for a total of 29.95.
Jobs 11 and 12 seemed to be in the ballpark: journalist/editor and musician, two kinds of labor I know something about and mostly enjoy. I started imagining the Top Ten, thinking my dream job must be there.
I shelled out the 29.95 and got my results.
The personal profile was more of the same, and after reading my perspective on people, work, information, communication, data, machinery, authority, politics, the immortality of the soul, etc., I started to feel like I was reading my horoscope. Capricorn sounds a lot like it applies to my life, but so do Aries and Virgo and Sagittarius. As a matter of fact, you could write any profile of anyone, and it would seem to apply to me.
I moved on to the Top Ten, thinking this was where I would strike gold and get my money’s worth. My mouth drew dry as I clicked on the link, then scrolled down through all the introductory disclaimers and other gobbledy-gook. There, at number one, was the Holy Grail, the Dream Job I’d been waiting for all my life.
My skills and desires and experiences, the test said, make me perfectly suited to secretarial work. It said I should look for a clerical position with a low level of supervisory responsibility.
It turns out I was in my in my element at the Video Toaster tape center. That was quite possibly the height of my self actualization.
So much for the Master’s in English, the editorial experience at newspapers, the ongoing love for the out-of-doors. No more regrets that I quit the Ph.D. program. Those were mere distractions from my true calling. Where I truly belong is in an office somewhere filing my nails and someone else’s records, typing letters, filling out forms, answering the phone and looking pretty.
I’ve never known who I am or what I want. Except once. I told her about it, and she married me. We had two kids who are growing up with a dad who is present in their lives to the point of annoyance, like a mosquito.
Thanks to my wife’s work ethic and self knowledge, we’re now in New Zealand, where I can spend my mornings teaching a couple classes online and writing self-effacing, self-absorbed essays, and my afternoons going for hikes, learning new bird songs, and watching brown trout feed beneath the bridge.
Careers are overrated. If I have to be a secretary to pay for my birding habit, so be it. Kicking the rugby ball over the goalpost to my son, who kicks it back, is what life is all about. The other night we caught 11 in a row.

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