A long career and a happy one

long career

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times solicits questions from her readers. She posts them, asks her readers to send in responses, and then weaves the whole thing into a column two weeks later.

A recent question went something like this: “I’m around thirty, and I’m very happy with what I’m doing. All my friends are looking for newer, higher-level positions, and are telling me that I’m crazy for wanting to stay put. Question: am I doing the wrong thing?”

This is an excellent question to put to someone like me, who’s been with his current employer since 1987, and has held his current position since 1999.

Answer: why not stay in your current job, if you’re happy?

But this is what will really happen if (like me) you stick with one job for the long haul:

For a while, while you’re new, you’ll see your contemporaries come and go. Some will stick around, but most will move on. (I’m assuming you’re under forty. If you’re over forty and starting a new job, probably you have different ideas. But read on.)

After about ten years, you’ll become part of the wallpaper: no one will notice you. You’re now a drone. No one will worry too much about offending you, because – why would they? You’re not gonna quit. (This can be a difficult phase. You will have the sense that people are looking down on you. And you know what? Some of them will look down on you. You are now, to use another Lucy Kellaway term, a “bumbler.”)

Then, around twenty years into your tenure, you will begin to notice that people are giving you a kind of peculiar respect. You’ve been there since forever, and everyone knows that. You can make things happen. You know who to talk to, and whom to call. You have faced a variety of crises, and not a single one of them came close to killing you.

Your personal appearance will be a little weathered, probably. But you will go on and on. Sto lat, as they say on your birthday in Poland: “a hundred years.”

And now, the last verse of a poem by Elinor Wylie (d. 1929):

In masks outrageous and austere

The years go by in single file;

But none has merited my fear,

And none has quite escaped my smile.

Everything is equally important

everything is important

We had a two-day office retreat / meeting a few weeks ago. We listened to presentations, and lunched together (twice). I got to know some of my co-workers better. Most of them I respect more than I did before; one or two, not so much.

One exercise, however, was odd.

In a morning session, we were asked to come up with things that might improve our departmental performance. These were condensed (by a team in the back of the room, over the course of a few hours) to twenty-four suggestions. At 3:00 pm that afternoon, we were given little electronic voting devices with five keys labeled “A” through “E,”  and asked to vote on the importance of each. “A” was very important; “E” was very unimportant.

We were supposed to be going home by 4pm.

By 3:15pm, we’d only gone through a few of them. So the moderators of the session speeded up the voting.

Result: almost everything got voted “very important” or “important.” Only one or two things rated “medium.” On the plus side: we were done by 3:55pm.

What does this mean?

One interpretation: everything’s important.

Another interpretation: the voting didn’t mean anything. People were tired, or pushing whatever button they felt like.

Another interpretation: people were afraid to undervalue things, so they always voted high.

Yet another interpretation: most of the suggestions were pretty vague, or pretty universal – “We need better communication!”, for example – and how can you vote “Not very important” on something like that?

And one more: people wanted out of there, so they were voting high, with the unconscious assumption that if they liked everything, things would move more quickly.

How important do you think this exercise was?

Yes, I agree with you. It was very important.

But for a different reason than the planners of the retreat had intended.

Sweet are the uses of adversity

uses of adversity

I am ailing. This is a shame. But there’s no reason I can’t get some benefit from it.

Once in a while, when talking to people, I just touch the side of my neck (where my tumor is) with people who know about my illness, and they become much more agreeable right away.

This is awful of me, I know. But what would a bad thing like cancer be without some positive side?

People are afraid of illness generally. A lot of people are unfamiliar with cancer altogether. One of my coworkers asked me the other day: “What would happen if you didn’t do any treatment at all?” (I had to explain to him that cancer is a death sentence if not treated; mine would probably metastasize to my jawbone and lungs, and I would die a very painful death within a few years at most. His jaw dropped, and his eyes were like saucers. He obviously had no idea it was that bad. Apparently he thought that cancer was like a bad cold – nasty, but you get over it eventually.)

People at work (who know about my condition) treat me with respect, for the most part. I don’t deserve it – I’m a horrible person in general – but then again, I’ve been in the office for over twenty-five years, and I deserve respect for my seniority if not for anything else. If it takes the realization that I’m seriously ill to make them pay attention, then so be it.

I love being treated seriously.

The cursed restaurant

cursed restaurant

There is a small restaurant right across the street from my office building. When we first got there thirteen years ago, it was a luncheon counter / bar, and it got pretty regular business, and you could buy lottery tickets there. It was grimy-looking inside and out, and gave the impression that it had been there for years.

And suddenly, after a few years, it closed.

The building stood empty for a couple of years. Then two young entrepreneurs bought it and turned it into a club (upstairs) and restaurant (downstairs). The club did very well, and is still going strong (I find lots of broken glass and car keys and discarded compacts and cigarette wrappers in our parking lot on Monday mornings).

The downstairs restaurant flailed around for a few years and finally closed.

Then it redecorated, and put out new signs. It was now a cute little Italian restaurant! Partner and I ate there once, and it was excellent. We made a resolution to eat there again, but before we knew it, it was gone.

Then it became a “Latin grill.” The few people who ate there said it was pretty good. Then I spoke to someone who said he’d eaten there the week before and it was pretty bad. Then, a few days after that, they closed.

Now I see it’s Jamaican/Caribbean.

How long do you think this incarnation will last?

Some people think that there are buildings that have curses on them. Remember Babu’s Pakistani restaurant on “Seinfeld”? Babu didn’t succeed, and neither did anyone else in that venue.

It’s a curse, I tell you.

(So: do you feel like Jamaican food? If so, act quickly! In a few weeks, it’ll be Korean!)

Redacting the trash

redacting the trash

My office recently began recycling its trash in earnest.

And guess who gets to lead the recycling effort? Yes, you guessed it: little old me, natural offspring of the Lorax and Woodsy Owl.

I am a natural Green Warrior. I have no car, and I walk a lot, and I take public transportation. I turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use. I buy compact fluorescent bulbs (even though I’ve noticed they don’t last as long as everyone said they would; they seem to burn out almost as quickly as regular incandescent bulbs). I take sackloads of household goods and clothing to the Salvation Army. I was born in Ecotopia, after all, and I’m still an Ecotopian citizen in my heart.

But not everyone feels the same way about recycling.

I tried to make the office recycling method as easy as I could. We have blue garbage cans (for recyclables) and gray garbage cans (for non-recyclables). We have color-coordinated bin liners! We have posters, and lists, and information!

And still, every day, I find the wrong garbage in the wrong garbage can.

It’s usually first thing in the morning, when I arrive at the office. I think the University police use our cafeteria at night when they’re patrolling, and they throw their greasy pizza boxes and burrito wrappers and orange peels in the blue garbage bin, where it doesn’t belong.

I sigh. I like the fact that the cops come in at night; the building is much more secure as a result. I can deal with a little non-Green behavior.

And I roll up my sleeves, and dig the greasy wrappers out of the blue bin, and deposit them in the gray bins. And the orange peels, and slimy plastic containers, and everything else.

One of our computer programmers was watching me do it the other day. “What in the hell are you doing?” he asked.

“Redaction,” I said. “I’m redacting the garbage.”

He shook his head and grinned.

I don’t mind. I have no pride, and I have no shame. If someone sees me digging in the garbage with both hands, I can brush it off with a smile.

I’m working for the good of the planet.

(And you know what? My great-aunt Estelle was a cleaning lady for years. It’s not a bad job. It’s simple and repetitive and calming. If I ever lost everything and had to start over again, I think I could be a custodial worker.)

(It’s an honest living.)

What not to do in a job interview

I interview people regularly. Most of my interviewees (whether for student jobs or regular jobs) are very well-behaved and charming. Some are nervous, naturally, and I always make allowance for that; I’m a terribly nervous person myself (although I control it with various medications), and I understand when people are jittery in new and/or unfamiliar situations.

But there are things that just go beyond the pale.

Let’s list some of them, shall we?

Chewing gum during the interview. You should at least offer me some.

Taking a phone call during the interview. I understand that cellphones are ubiquitous, but – really?

Eating during the interview. I’ve never had anyone this rude, but I’ve heard of this happening. I can hardly believe it, but then again, I have seen a little of everything.

Challenging the interviewer’s skills. Some time back, on “Jeopardy!”, a contestant recounted how he’d prepared for an interview as a proofreader by acquiring a couple of issues of the company’s publication and proofreading them. Problem: the person interviewing him was the person who’d proofread those very issues. Uh-oh!

Speaking badly of former employers. You may think you’re being terribly entertaining when you tell me how awful your current boss is, but you sound creepy. Cut it out.

Condescension. I especially like it when people look at me with that look that says: Really? You’re interviewing me? I should be interviewing you! Except, hon, that you’re not. So get over it.

I was looking for something to tie this blog together when I found the perfect thing: a dialogue written by the always-funny Anthony Giffen (AKA wellthatsjustgreat on Tumblr), describing his dog Ducky going on a job interview.

I’d hire this dog. He knows how to poop, and how to look disappointed in human beings. Those are powerful skills.

Interviewer: So Mr…Ducky, is it?

Ducky: Yes.

Interviewer: What are your three greatest strengths?

Ducky: Oh, I’d say I’m pretty good at communicating when I’m hungry and when I need to poop. And if I had to name a third strength, I’d say I’m great at looking thoroughly disappointed in humans.

Interviewer: And three areas of possible improvement?

Ducky: Um, I wish I could figure out how to open the container with my food.  And the treat one too. Does that count as two or just one?

Interviewer: That can be two.

Ducky: OK. Well, I guess I’d like to be able to spread my legs out just a little further at bath time. I swear, I think two more inches would make it impossible to get me in that tub.

Interviewer: Thanks for coming in. We’ll be in touch.



A few months ago, I ran into my old friend Violet. Violet retired from the University only a few years ago, after working there for over thirty years. She was one of those people who knew everyone, and knew how to do everything. She was smart, and quiet, and calm, and always seemed to be completely unfazed by everything.

So, after we exchanged a few pleasantries, she asked me: “What are you doing now?”

And I said: “I’m you.”

And we both laughed.

But it’s true. I’ve been there for over twenty-five years. I know everyone, and I know how to do everything. And, if I don’t, I know who to call. And I know their phone numbers by heart.

I have a funny little gadget on my office wall, which was given to me by a pension firm. It’s headed YEARS TO RETIREMENT, and it’s a big stupid dial, which you can turn from 2015 to 2040.

Naturally I have it set on 2040. I point it out to people from time to time, just for laughs.

Do you remember the Harry Potter character, the professor who’s actually a ghost? He was a regular professor once, but he died while teaching, and his ghost just kept teaching. So he’s still there.

I have a tiny fear that this is exactly what might happen to me.

When Violet first told me about her decision to retire, a few years ago, here’s what she said: “One day last week, I got up at 5:00 am because I wanted to work in the garden. And I was out there on my hands and knees, and I watched the sun come up, and I thought: I’d better start getting ready for work. And then I thought: I don’t have to do that if I don’t want to. And I made up my mind right there and then.”

Maybe someday, like Violet, I will pack it in, and turn in all the necessary paperwork, and go do some serious gardening and reading and writing.

But not just yet.


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