Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Your Day Job Might Be Training for the Dream

I never believed college would be a magical ticket to better pay and respect. I did believe I would get through it with my personality and mind intact. Oh, the naivety of youth!

I went to college because I didn’t know what else my next step would be. High school has a way of pushing you forward while just float there, and when you finally get dumped into the sea, the opportunities leading off in any direction, you might suddenly realize you weren’t actually taught to swim or how to navigate.

But I hear echoes of the millennial philosophy, one filled with either criticism or complaints. Many people my age were told that college would lead to bigger and better jobs, and that you would end up working at a gas station if you chose a different path. This is attitude I’ve witness multiple times, either via the regret of those who pay the big bucks to take the most traveled path leading nowhere, or the disdain of our older generation attacking that sense of entitlement. My college boyfriend once said to me, point blank, that he would not take entry-level jobs or work for low pay if he had a college degree. The degree was to give him a leg up and have him skip the grunt work. He was a theatre major with no work experience and remained unemployed for the following two years, save for the volunteer work he did at a theatre. To this day, almost a decade after he graduated, he still lives at home and seeks out a masters.

Recently, I found a friend in a similar position, graduating after a good period of time, to find the workforce abhorrent. Having lived off a full ride scholarship since high school, her first foray into retail ended explosively. She now tells me she won’t get a job outside her artistic field and is supported by her boyfriend’s parents.

When I first graduated during the height of the recession, I felt completely lost. I had believed that the answers would just come to me—most people told stories of finding their career by accident—and yet, there I was in Los Angeles, unable to get a basic retail job. I struggled to determine since high school if I should focus my efforts and education on a “career” day job, or if I should just keep myself afloat, giving as much energy as I could to my real work. For months I wallowed in stagnancy, until finally I moved back home, found a job with a theatre company and started to work my ass off for what probably accumulated into two bucks an hour.

Since graduation, I've worked for theatre groups, a fabric store, a dog walking company, extracurricular education, a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, and a gift store. I took jobs as they came, moving all across the country and the world as I tried to figure what I wanted in life.

In 2016, I was living with my then-boyfriend in his home country. I couldn’t work yet, still on a visitor’s visa, deciding if I would commit to him and moving to Australia—halfway around the world. The things I had waited for for so long—a husband, a dog, having a permanent place to live, and a space of my own—were right in my grasp. But it had been so hard to get there and not really worth it. At all. He was the wrong guy, and the country, while beautiful, had restrictions that penalized me as a writer. I talk to many artists in Perth, and they all admitted that those who took it seriously would move to the U.S. or Britain. Even their own bookstores were filled with American works with only a few “hometown heroes” being praised in a sort of, “Good for you!” kind of way.

All the sudden, my life took a turn. Once the relationship ended astride my visa, I strove to do all the things moving to Australia would mean. I lived in NYC, started submitting my book to American agents, and experienced a year of the quintessential starving artist.

But I didn’t want that either.

I found myself stressed and constantly concerned with money. My roommate was batshit crazy, checking my lightbulbs when I left for work and abruptly stopping her phone call to shout at me there was literally a singular hair in the tub.

So back to Wyoming came I, determined to focus on my writing as my real job. For the first time, I made a decision. Writing was my career, and I’d take only work that didn’t subtract from it. Go to work and leave it there. No mental labor or decision making, little personal investment in the outcome. A job in which I had to take charge and worry about drastically subtracted from my ability to do so for my books. You only have so much to give.

Part of my work now focuses on marketing. I’m expected to create “personas” of my target readers—fictional people based off the sort of audience I’m aiming for. It also reminds me of how much salesmanship and presentation is relevant to being successful, and how easy it is as a writer to avoid talking to people all together.

I often felt like day jobs got in the way of really pursuing and having time for my real work, but there’s a lot of basic training that a writer needs if she wants to make a living, or even just be read by people who she hasn’t met. Or even those she has. These skills are not naturally learned during the actual writing process, but are quickly taught when you have to work for someone.

-How to talk to people, including negotiating with those who have financial leverage over you, or unsatisfied readers.

-That complaints about pricing aren’t always indicative of being “too expensive.” It’s common and not always intuitive. (People tend to complain more the cheaper your product is.)

-How not to approach a sale - a store or a manager you hope to sell your product to. Negativity is always off putting, and no matter how friendly or chatty you are with the employees, you must talk to the manager to get results.

-Just how important location is to selling something well. Both the shop itself, but its position in the shop.

-How much more effective a personal, one on one sale is to lambasting the public.

By playing “games” to see how good of a salesperson I could be, whether that means which words to use or how to reorganize the store, I got the opportunity for trial and error without a lot of risk on my part. Since I don’t care if the product is actually purchased, I don’t feel bad when the customer turns me down, but learn about why they did and have ideas on what to try next time. And there will be a natural next time without needing to put myself out there. Because I’ve worked along side a variety of people, seen hiring practices, had to deal with inventory and restrictions, I’m much further along in terms of having a head for business, how to work with people, red flags of bad hires, and how to present my work in a professional, trustworthy way.

Yesterday, I somehow got myself roped into the planning of a fundraiser non-related to anything I’ve been trying to save my focus for. As I scanned down the list of options for me to take the reins on, I felt a sickness in my stomach. So much work. So much stepping out of my comfort zone! But there was an obvious choice on there: Marketing. No one wanted to do it. I’m trying to learn it. I have other members of the committee with experience and ideas who can give me a good head where to start, and it’s a great place to begin my trial and error without having my name directly attached to any missteps. As I reframed the sudden responsibility in that light, I went from dread to excitement. Learning is a part of a process, and it’s better to have a safety net and other people to help you than to try and figure it out all by yourself when everything’s on the line.

You may hate your job or feel like it’s a waste of time. Maybe you don’t want one at all unless it’s directly taking your career forward. But you never know how it might help you with necessary lessons you never would have thought about writing by yourself in the corner of your house with fictional people backing you up. Sometimes, you have to get out into the world and test things outside of a vacuum, and a day job you’re not super invested in can be just the place.

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