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.

Grammar, social status, and success


I dislike people who are grammar purists, who quibble over “who” and “whom.” or over “that” and “which.” (This is mostly because I have trouble with these myself.)



But when people can’t tell the difference between “to” and “too” and “two,” or between “their” and “they’re,” or “its” and “it’s,” I get a little riled up.



So I suppose I’m one of those damned grammar purists too.



I am on the Internet a lot, and I see the way people write. I know how spell-check works, and I am very forgiving as a result. But there’s no possible way that spell-check can change “their” into “they’re.”



Well, what’s the difference? Our ancestors didn’t worry much about spelling. Well, I say, they had an excuse to write phonetically. We, having gone to Modern Schools, don’t have that excuse.



This is exactly the point made by Michael Skapinker in a recent Financial Times article. We can speak however we wish, in any circumstance. But if we want a good job, or a position of responsibility, we need to be able to speak Proper English (with grammar rules and everything) upon command. We need to be able to write memos in it, and letters, and spell correctly.



Skapinker makes a couple of other good points too: grammar is a good mental exercise, rather like logic, and helps us speak and think more clearly. This is also a good argument for learning a foreign language: it makes you think about grammar in the abstract, with rules different from those you grew up with, and allows you to switch back and forth because it’s natural to do so.



(I knew merchants in the Tunis medina who were able to cajole and haggle in six languages. I was walking through the medina with a Hawaiian friend when someone yelled “Konichi-wa!” at us, and we both laughed. “That’s because of you,” I said. “They know a little Japanese. But I bet we’ll never hear Chinese.” And just as I said it, one of the local merchants yelled out: “Ni hou ma!” And we both laughed like hell.)



Language is a tool, and grammar is a tool. Learn them, and learn to use them cleverly, and they will take you a long way.


Faking it


Back in 1981, I was offered a job up on Federal Hill in Providence. My new boss took me to a shadowy back room and showed me a machine that looked like a cross between an electric organ and a typewriter.  “Have you ever used one of these?” he asked.



“You bet,” I lied, my mouth dry.



I managed to figure it out. Within a few months, I was the only person in the place who really knew how to use the thing.



For a long time I felt guilty about this. Then, again and again in my personal life, I found myself faking expertise in a particular field. I still didn’t feel good about it, but at least I was becoming a more proficient liar.



Now I read this article by Luke Johnson in the Financial Times. He tells a story about taking a job as a DJ, when he had a big record collection but no experience. He figured it out. Lesson: many successful people begin their careers by faking expertise.  (Evidently there was even a British TV show about this: people taking on jobs/roles that they had no background for.)



When I was young, I used to be more or less terrified of adulthood, because I believed that I didn’t know the rules. Adults always seemed to know what to do; they seemed so natural. I tried to figure out the rules; I tried to learn the right things to do.



Now I realize it’s all about faking it



And what’s wrong with that?   Life isn’t a quiz; there’s no answer key. We just do the best we can.



What else are we doing in this life, from dawn to dusk and after, but faking our way through?


Again with the Olympics


Are you bored with the Olympics yet? Not me! It’s been a thrill a minute. Not so much the events, which I find mostly pretty dull. But the stories, egad, the stories!



Roll the presses:



Two brothers from Yorkshire won (respectively) the gold and bronze medals in the triathlon. (No, I didn’t know what the triathlon was either. It’s an endurance event, something like the American Iron Man events; contestants have to swim, and run, and cycle, in quick succession.) The UK is over the moon about this. According to Oma, my informant who lives in Luton, not far from London, the brothers wanted to cross the finish line simultaneously, but were told they couldn’t.  (Have you heard about this? Me neither, until Oma tipped me off, and then I read an article in the Financial Times on Wednesday morning. I know: we care mostly about American athletes, and NBC figures we couldn’t care less about a couple of nice young men from Yorkshire. But what a story!)



A weightlifter from Germany dropped the barbell on himself. It was a pretty horrible scene: a German athlete, Matthias Steiner (who won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008), was hoisting 432 pounds over his head, and his arms buckled, and the weight came down on top of him. It gave me pause. Some of these events are dangerous. You can at least sprain or injure yourself while weightlifting (for example), and at worst you can actually drop a huge weight on yourself, as happened here. Remember the poor young Georgian in Vancouver, Nodar Kumaritashvili, only twenty-one years old, who wiped out on the luge and died of his injuries? Remember poor young Greg Louganis, who hit his head on the diving board back in 1988? He said it didn’t hurt that much, but I cannot imagine hitting your head on a diving board while spinning around in the air feels all that great. (There are certain events that carry little risk of personal injury; table tennis comes to mind. Yes, I know, things can still happen while playing table tennis, but – you know? I could go in the kitchen right now to make a sandwich, and slip, and hit my head on the counter.)



The beach volleyball matches have turned into the hot ticket at the London games. A FT columnist wrote a very funny column on Wednesday about the matches: it’s like a party, everyone in the stands is drinking and having fun, there are dancers on the floor of the arena between matches, and the announcer is more like a party DJ. Now: don’t you wish you were there, even though you don’t care two bits for volleyball?



Grenada has a gold medal. Remember Grenada? The USA invaded it in 1983, for some reason I don’t quite remember. Well, they have a gold medalist, Kirani James, in the men’s 400-meter. The whole island has gone properly insane, and was given a half-day holiday to celebrate. (I remember, when I was in Morocco in 1984, we (Moroccans) won two gold medals. The country went berserk. I was in Casablanca on the day the athletes came home from Los Angeles, and it was proper bedlam. It puts Michael Phelps’s smirking about winning seventy-five medals into perspective. Who cares if you’re a medal-winning freak from a country that always wins anyway? We like to see the less-represented countries win. It’s kind of what the Olympics are all about. Right?)



Iceland keeps trying to win a gold medal in handball. I will not even try to tell you the backstory on this one. Here’s the outline: Iceland has had a hard time over the past couple of years, economic collapse, blah blah blah. They won the silver medal in handball in Beijing in 2008. (There is a museum in Reykjavik which displays a sculpture called “The Icelandic Handball Team”; it’s a set of full-sized silver penises, which denote national pride.) Iceland was hell-bent to win gold this year. As of this writing, they have lost their chance. But they are doughty. And there’s always 2016, providing the Maya are wrong about this whole end-of-the-world thing



Swans win gold in London. From Wednesday’s FT: “London is now so obsessed with the Olympics the very wildlife turned to imitation: on the Serpentine a five-strong group of swans broke away from a peloton of Canada geese.



Even the swans and geese are getting into it.



As Oma, in Luton, wrote to me the other day: “It’s been a great games so far and I’m loving it, loving it, loving it.”


Logos Quiz


I was browsing drearily on my iPad the other day, looking for some new diversion, and found something called the “Logos Quiz.” Stupidly I assumed (for various reasons) that this was a Bible quiz. And I’m just a fool for Bible games and such.



But the game is far more insidious than any Bible quiz.



You are presented with a table of several dozen advertising logos: images, typography, color schemes. None is complete. You must identify them.



At first I was sniffingly scornful. Some ad agency put this together, I thought; product placement as a game.   Hmm. Starbucks, of course. Firefox. Barbie . . .



Then: goodness, I thought. This is harder than it looks.



There are (I think) eight levels; I’ve only made it to Level Five. The brands aren’t just American, but worldwide. Some are achingly familiar; others are almost-but-not-quite obvious.  (Quick, describe the insignia on a Saab!) Sometimes it’s just a font, or a combination of colors.



I was amazed when I opened the Financial Times on Monday and found that the redoubtable Lucy Kellaway had  written this week’s column on the Logos Quiz! (I was angry, a little, because I’d already made up my mind to write about it, and Lucy stole most of my thunder by making most of my points before I could. But she writes so much better than I do, so there’s no real harm done on the cosmic scale.)



Here are some of her points, and mine:



Point One: Advertising / logos are insidious. They dig into your brain and nest there. You will be amazed at what you recognize viscerally. (Quick! Sketch me the Nike logo! I know you can!)



Point Two: Things that are obvious to me as a fifty-four-year-old are not obvious to a twenty-year-old, and vice versa. (Lucy, close to my age, recognized the Kodak logo right away, but her young son didn’t; he recognized the Xbox logo right away, but was scandalized that his mother didn’t.)



Point Three (Which Lucy Didn’t Make In Her FT Article): The companies must be giggling about how this game is working in their favor. People are actually Googling their logos and corporate branding!  (My first thought, when I saw the game, was that it was somehow sponsored by a corporation or group of corporations.  I still think that this might be true. Who knows?)



Postscript: I don’t know if you read Thomas Gibson. He’s a little too FutureWorld even for me. But I read one of his novels, “Pattern Recognition,” a few years ago, and it made a little impression on me, mostly because its main character is a media consultant who reacts to corporate logos on an instinctive level.  You know the Michelin Man? She has a reaction to him that resembles anaphylactic shock.



I think I understand that. I used to feel the same way about Speedy Alka-Seltzer.



(Now: can someone explain to me the logo with the letter “N” shooting a laser beam off into space?)



Obsessed with Robert Pattinson


There was a picture of Robert Pattinson in the Financial Times the other day.  It was from his newly-released movie “Bel Ami”; he was looking louche and European, wearing period costume.  How did the article put it?: Here is his ‘Twilight’ impassivity – weird, lucent-eyed, fixed of stare, sullenly magnetic . . .”



Naturally I brought it to lunch to show Apollonia and Cathleen.  “I have something for you,” I said casually to Apollonia, and slid the newspaper into her hands . . .



Such a desperate erotically-charged whinny you have never heard.  She leapt to her feet, moved backward slowly until her shoulders met the refrigerator, and slowly slid downward until she was sitting on the filthy kitchen floor, the paper clutched in her hands, staring at the picture of her dream/demon lover.  “He’s perfect,” she cooed.  “Look at him.  Just look at him.”



Cathleen had no idea what Apollonia was looking at.  “What did you do to her?” she shrieked at me.  “You’ve finally driven her over the edge.”


“Pattinson,” I said.



“Oh,” Cathleen said.  “Patterson.”  (It amuses her – and me too – to call Robert Pattinson by the wrong name, because she knows it irks Apollonia deeply.)  “Give me that.”  She ripped the paper from Apollonia’s trembling hands.  “Oh Jesus,” Cathleen moaned, inspecting the photo.  “He’s hideous.”



Apollonia recovered slightly and went over to the cafeteria sink to rinse her plates.  “I don’t care what either of you thinks,” she said dreamily.  “This movie is going to be a masterpiece.  It’s been in the can for a while, you know.  They’re only just releasing it now.”



“By ‘can,’ I assume you mean ‘toilet,’” I said, and Cathleen and I snickered.



“Huh huh,” Apollonia said.  “Laugh away.  I’m glad I amuse you both.  You have no idea.”



“No, we don’t,” Cathleen said.



“We really really don’t,” I added.



Ah: poor Apollonia.  The heart has its reasons, whereof reason itself knows nothing.



But oh dear.  Robert Pattinson



Now leave me in peace with my Chris Evans posters.


Goodbye, New York Times


The only newspaper to which I subscribe – in the sense that there’s actually an ink-and-newsprint newspaper outside my door in the morning – is the Financial Times.  I began buying it some years ago because I liked the crossword puzzle.  Then, gradually, I found its dry British take on world politics far more appealing than the MacWorld version offered by American news sources, and its business coverage was intricate and mysterious.  I don’t know much about economics, but I have always been intrigued by the subject, and I always feel, when I read FT articles about the future of the Euro or the BRICs or Emerging Markets or black swans that I am trembling on the edge of recognition and understanding. 



Also, I like the salmon-tinted paper it’s printed on.  (Somebody on the bus asked me once: “What’s the matter with your newspaper, mister?  It’s a funny color.”)



Then, of course, there is the New York Times



I have been a faithful follower of the NYT (both print and online) for many years.  It has nourished me in many ways.  I like its rhythm: world news, national news, local (meaning New York City) news, op-ed, culture.  It’s unabashedly liberal, and I welcome its confirmation of my beliefs and prejudices (as do we all).  And the writing is generally excellent.



A little less than a year ago, the NYT announced that its website would no longer be free.  For full access, you have to cough up fifteen bucks a month.  (That’s just digital access, mind you.  A lot of porn sites cost less than that.  Don’t ask me how I know.)  You can still read twenty articles a month for free; you can also access the Times through search engines, etc.  But if you want to romp around on their websites – culture, videos, travel, food, movies, editorials, all the things they do so well – you have to pay.



Hm, I thought back in February 2011, and prepared to do without.



Then, for no apparent reason, the Cadillac division of General Motors (with which I have no real connection) gifted me via email with a nine months’ online subscription.



It expired on December 31.



Goodbye, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins, both of whom I read consistently, and often laughed aloud as I did so, and quoted their nastier/funnier lines to my friends.  If I were a conservative (shiver!), I would probably find them strident and silly, kind of like the way I actually feel about Rush Limbaugh.  But I agree with them.  So nyah nyah!



Goodbye, David Brooks and Ross Douthat.  The former is a cheesy social critic who plays Edmund Burke, but not very well; the latter is the token-conservative editorialist, who takes a topic – like, let’s say, Ron Paul – and finds something to like in him after all.  Also, Ross is Catholic (but then again, in his columns, he almost always reminds you of that). 



Goodbye, Bill Cunningham, bicycling around New York and taking photos of people and their outfits.  May you live forever.



Goodbye, Mark Bittman.  You got a little Hollywood over the past few years, but your writing is excellent and your recipes are very good. 



Goodbye, Frank Bruni.  He used to do restaurant reviews; now he does general (and often political) commentary, and does it very well. 



Goodbye, Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler, so much better and more entertaining than the guy who was the Frugal Traveler before him.



Goodbye Nick Kristof and Paul Krugman, for cheerfully leading me into the coming political / economic apocalypse.  You’ve both been right consistently.  Keep at it.



And all the rest.



I’ll still be checking in, maybe twenty times a month, or maybe more.



(Is $15/month too much to pay?  Maybe.  We’ll see.  I may start jonesing for Gail and Maureen and Paul and Frank in a few months and give in.)



But for now: goodbye, my dear and lovely friends, goodbye.


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