I stared with furrowed brow at my computer screen a lot in those days. Streams of unproductive cuss words erupted from our makeshift office with regularity, as my wife will attest.
She’s better at staying calm in the face of things she can’t change. I, by contrast, get easily discouraged — even vitriolic — with inefficiency and conditions I deem to be unfair. I don’t know which method is more pragmatic. Probably hers. I like to think, however, it’s basic pragmatism that spawns my frustration with impractical, broken systems to begin with.
Fairness is an idea that was aggressively ground into my psyche from a young age. I don’t think it was a conscious moral gifted by my parents, though I can certainly trace its roots to their decency and integrity. Its firm installation can more likely be attributed to my folks’ general worldview, a worldview that places high value on a level playing field.
I hold on to my notions of fairness with some care. I do, of course, have the luxury of living a largely fair life — being a healthy, middle-class, heterosexual, white male has obvious socioeconomic perks. On the other hand, the world-as-fair narrative becomes harder and harder to defend as one ages and witnesses injustice. It’s easy and probably reasonable to release this faithfully held belief as evidence mounts. That said, outrage at its absence does keep us vigilant. Acceptance of life’s fundamental unfairness, while altogether justifiable and correct in its judgment, can fuel passivity and apathy.
I suppose that’s missing the point. Everybody eventually recognizes the world as unfair. And it makes me uniquely upset. But the point, I realize, is that while I’d like to believe in my own virtue, the dismay I feel is not risen from some great nobility; instead, I’ve grown accustomed — through unearned demographics — to being treated fairly. And, during the rarer-than-most moments when I’m slighted, I become petulantly angry.
Still, fuck job hunting.
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Our two-bedroom apartment was charming, if mice-infested — an admittedly unusual pairing. We lived on the second floor of a south Minneapolis duplex and enjoyed both the neighborhood and old hardwood styling. Melanie was my girlfriend, then fiancé, during our three years there and it remains a nostalgic smile-inducer on drive-bys, a space in which we enjoyed many happy mid-20s milestones. Even the mice, which were eventually if slowly exterminated, didn’t spoil its appeal.
Today, Mel is the director of a newly erected, state-of-the-art childcare center. At the time she was a teacher and puppeteer at a nonprofit school. It was a neat place and offered her a creative outlet for her theater degree sensibilities, as they put on performances for metro area children. The problem was the job’s dead-end nature: there was little opportunity for upward mobility. Furthermore, her boss was a maniacal tyrant, completely immune to reason and general kindness.
I worked at Slumberland Furniture — before, during, and after our residence at the apartment. I spent fourteen years at that company, though I definitely couldn’t picture the coveted finish line at the time. I started as a warehouse employee in high school, working my way up — a generous way to phrase it — to become a sales associate in college.
Retail sales is an enigmatic profession, ripe for fascinating social analysis while also painstakingly monotonous. The evolution of my personality, influenced heavily by my education, ran parallel to my feelings about the job. At first, it was an exciting new pursuit and a great way to make extra cash on the weekends. My lack of experience was probably an asset more than a liability given my wide-eyed enthusiasm and absence of a crusty victim complex — a mainstay among lifetime salesmen who file away commission-related slights for decades.
As my sophomoric pretention built, however, I began to feel uncomfortable with the work. Passionately immersing myself in social science studies at the university while being on the front line of the capitalistic business world felt like an awkward mismatch. My budding intellect was not yet capable of nuance, so I simply viewed the sales profession as a con, a way for slick-talking robots to bilk money from those who couldn’t afford it. And, even if there’s a fleeting shade of truth in my reasoning, it’s childishly unfair to paint an entire industry with so broad a brush.
As I gained life experience and lost my elementary black-and-white perception of reality, I curbed the judgment. But, for entirely personal reasons, I continued to hate the job.
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I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English in 2005. I kept my job at Slumberland. It was a convenient enough position that offered part-time flexibility while I further pursued my education. I then graduated with a Master’s Degree in English in 2008. I once again kept my job at Slumberland.
I had an obnoxious naivety at the time, complicated by an ugly economic downturn. I assumed an advanced degree would, on its own merits, open doors to new and exciting potential careers. Instead, I faced an unwelcoming job market that seemed to have very little need for my unique brand of academic writing skills coupled with a coffer of inexperience.
A share of the blame for my rudderless post-college career can be placed squarely at my own doorstep. A smarter person would’ve done more to ensure that “Master’s Degree in English” was not the only byline on a scarcely populated CV submitted to potential employers. Networking has never been a particularly strong characteristic of mine. Fostering new relationships, as a cynical introvert, has never been easy — especially those relationships that yield nothing more than professional rewards.
Of course, by not cultivating these contacts, you become isolated. It’s a lonely feeling when you step foot in the Job-Seeking Wilderness with no hand-holders. In the JSW, all of your un-networked waving and screaming goes unnoticed. It feels like everyone else stored up for the winter and you’re left to starve.
And so, in an attempt to navigate my way out of the harshly cold conditions of the JSW, I lifted the nearest bootstrap and began seeking resume-building side gigs. It’s a meticulous and lump-taking endeavor that guarantees a quota of metaphorical groin kicks. I cannot overemphasize the pride-swallowing necessary to embark on this process. And it’s not that the jobs I took were beneath me — it’s that the way I was treated while securing and completing these jobs was far beneath any self-respecting potential employee. The “hiring team,” a laughable overstatement in most instances, knew your desperation and treated you accordingly. That is to say, with total disregard for your talents and time.
I went through a frustrating plethora of freelance writing assignments during this period, with various levels of success and exacerbation — success in this case defined simply as not prompting murderous feelings of bitter resentment.
In 2011, I took a “job” writing for an upstart local magazine. It was exciting, the rare instances when I got to speak to or meet with an actual flesh-and-blood human being. These gigs usually involved days of unanswered emails addressed to craigslistposting42459. This time, however, I was invited to visit the editor in north Minneapolis at his company’s beguiling urban office, the typical open space with standing desks and ping-pong tables meant to attract motivated millennials.
The editor himself fit the mold, a late-30s businessman disguised as hipster, corralling young talent with promises of fun, flattery, and freedom. He was exceptional at selling himself and his noble cause to deliver dining and local event information to Minneapolis residents — as if he wasn’t the two-hundredth entrepreneur to attempt that on the backs of hard-working writers.
Allow me to recreate our dialogue, though, admittedly, my skewed-by-resentment memory might fictionalize the entire exchange:
“Hey, stupid! Be my beck and call writer monkey and maybe someday I’ll pay you!” Okay, sorry. I don’t think he said that verbatim.
“Hey, bro” — he probably said bro — “I saw your writing samples. They’re sweet, Dude!”
“Thanks! That’s nice to hear.”
“I’d love you to work with us on a part-time basis.”
“So, we have weekly meetings here every Wednesday. We get together and discuss projects and other stuff we’re working on. That work, bro?”
“Yeah, I think I can make that work.”
“Sweet. Sweet. And we’ll need maybe one feature article per month from you. We pay two cents per word. You ready to get down to the grind, bro?”
So, let me be clear about our arrangement: You want me to produce a monthly, 1000-word article on a topic of my choosing — that needs to pass a rigorous screening process with your team and takes days of research and preparation — in addition to attending weekly meetings, in the middle of the workday for my other job? And your offer is…$20. Am I getting this right?
Of course, that’s not what I said. What did I say? “Okay, sounds great!”
What a fucking idiot! You may be surprised to learn that it didn’t go well. During my second week of “employment,” before I had even written a single word, I left my furniture-selling job — I worked it out, through painstaking efforts, to leave for an hour — and arrived at the Wednesday meeting. The previous week’s get-together was not especially enjoyable: the entire table full of loud-mouth writers and junior editors screamed at each other over article topics as I sat uncomfortably quiet. The “boss” was less friendly then, obviously, as I was no longer the single target of his sales tactics. Nonetheless, I thought I’d give it another whirl.
I approached the office building door which required authorization and buzzed the code. No response. I buzzed it again. No response. I figured that was a little strange, so I called the editor. Straight to voicemail. I got back in my car, slowly fuming. The more I thought about the situation the more I began losing my mind in a fit of rage, so angry that a supposed professional could treat one of their employees with such disregard. I rearranged my entire life for $20. Yet, this prick didn’t have the decency to notify me of the meeting’s cancelation. More than anything, I was overwhelmingly disgusted with myself. I’m better than this, I kept thinking, both of my own worth as a worker and as a human being who should’ve been smart enough to see this coming. I sent a text to the editor’s phone, which, for all I knew, was the office landline: “Fuck your two-cent gig and the way you treat your writers. I quit.”
I never heard back.
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I’m not above taking my lumps. Nobody starts at the top. But to treat upstart employees with such utter disdain and disregard, simply because there’s another hungry and inexperienced youngin’ waiting with wide eyes behind him, is repugnant.
Even with a roster of resume-enhancing side gigs, though, you come to realize that the JSW does not always reward your hard work and preparation. The network itself has become nauseatingly narrow and specialized — seeking only those with more experience than flexibility — often at the whim of a single disinterested decision-maker, many of whom are unqualified for their own positions. The cliché complaint is that it’s “hard to find good help.” And yet, we establish systems that discourage promising prospects from even applying, dragging them through a mechanized ringer without contact from a single human being.
The purpose of all this is to make life easier on the hiring manager — he doesn’t need to recruit, he gets all of his applicants in a neat email, and has to do very little training. Virtually no thought, however, is given to this faceless network’s appearance to potential workers. I can almost hear the thought process echoing through corporate boardrooms: We never seem to get reliable employees, so I suggest we make our hiring method even more of a grinding nightmare! Make sure it takes applicants forever to complete the process and then reward their efforts to join our organization by never letting them speak with an actual person. Who’s on board? Everyone, apparently. This arrangement has become so commonplace that it’s unavoidable.
I vividly recall a moment at Slumberland that crystalized my exacerbation with the entire system and gave me a glimpse into the key holders’ world. Our store was seeking warehouse help. An employee had recently left, leaving a vacancy that had to be filled somewhat quickly so as to keep the warehouse manager from working seventy-hour weeks. The situation was on the cusp of desperation, though our boss never seemed overly concerned about inconveniencing his workers. One evening, a young man came through the store and asked if we were hiring. I said yes, in fact, we were seeking a new part-time warehouse employee, and led him to my boss.
“Oh, hey, great!” my boss said. As with many other sales supervisors, he was skilled at turning on his manufactured enthusiasm at the right moments. He then dug into his file and handed the young man a sheet of paper with instructions on it. Slumberland’s hiring system, like most moderately sized companies, was to have candidates submit resumes through their website; “Just follow the instructions on there. Fill out your profile at home, online, and I’ll find it!”
The kid looked confused and crestfallen. He had gotten to the point of speaking with a hiring manager of an institution looking for help — further than most of his efforts had likely gotten him — and he was being turned back into the cyber JSW. I remember thinking how utterly stupid and inefficient this interaction was. My boss would have cited Slumberland protocol if I had objected to his behavior. But it was also basic laziness. He could’ve sat him down and helped him complete the process on one of our work computers. But he didn’t. The unintended algorithm seems to be: bad system plus bad supervisor equals labor crisis.
I also remember watching the disappointed kid, maybe twenty years of age, go back outside and wait in the cold for the bus. I can only speculate about his personal story, but the situation did make me think about my own “plight” in a different way. It was the first time I acknowledged my fortune at having any job at all. Sure, it wasn’t what I wanted. But I was only metaphorically and artistically starving — not physically. Thereafter, I tried to regularly remind myself of that. Some people couldn’t get their foot in the door for minimum wage warehouse jobs. That’s an altogether different JSW, with stakes closer to actual life and death.
We never heard from the kid again, obviously.
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What it comes down to in the end is that a resume is a poor representation of a human being. And, in a complex society with a host of recruits seeking a single position, perhaps a better system has yet to be invented. But the fact remains: a sparkling resume does not guarantee a sparkling employee. No self-flattering piece of paper can tell you if a person is going to poop in the staff lounge toaster — which, by the way, actually happened at one of my jobs, perpetrated by an employee with an immaculate resume.
The interview is a better indication, though still restricted by its brevity. At least by speaking with the person, some knowledge of basic interaction and communication skills — necessary in every job ever conceived — can be gleaned. The problem is that the resume remains the first line of defense. If that boring, skim-read document doesn’t hit its mark, an applicant doesn’t get the luxury of making up for it with a charming face-to-face conversation.
Let me also be clear: despite my vitriolic ranting, I’m not suggesting that certain skills and experience don’t help in a professional environment. Of course they do. You can’t hire a mechanic as a chef or a writer as an investment banker. But tallied minutes in a cube cannot accurately predict a person’s drive, initiative, flexibility, or intelligence. And, more importantly, it certainly can’t predict if you’re a normal human being, which is often the single most important element in selecting an employee — even if nobody will say it and it can’t be listed as an accomplishment.
Indeed, as you so often realize when beginning a new position, your listed achievements are virtually meaningless. Every company does things a little differently — nothing in your professional history prepared you for Erick, the cement-headed art director, and why does Debbie insist on asking you to smell her desk? Human beings make an institution function. Not spreadsheets.
Luckily, however, when you do actually begin the work, things are more likely — though not guaranteed, in a world of maniacs — to be meritocratic, because you can prove your worth. Each office’s best workers are not necessarily the most experienced; they’re the most thoughtful and open-minded and fun.
A smarter person could probably make a graph proving this lack of correlation.
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After reviewing your qualifications, we deem that your Master’s Degree in English, years of writing and editing experience, and a decade’s tenure as a sales associate do not fit the requirements for our Book Seller position at Barnes and Noble. We wish you luck in your future endeavors.
* * *
I always used to tell Mel that she was lucky to be working in her field of choice, even if the job itself was provokingly defeating. She’d usually shrug in begrudging agreement, prompting me to examine why, exactly, my pseudo compliment failed to penetrate.
The primary reason, I think, is exceedingly simple: she was living the day-to-day grind of a job she didn’t enjoy. It’s easy from the outside to tell people they’re lucky or should be happy about a given situation when you don’t have to put up with the humiliation of a degrading boss or the total lack of self-worth and professional value. All fields have terrible positions. But then I also thought that perhaps my way of thinking was obnoxiously male.
American convention suggests that a man’s identity is more intertwined with his profession than his female counterpart, even if he doesn’t want this to be the case. “What do you do?” is often the first question asked when two newly acquainted men begin their conversation. It’s both a blessing and a curse, I suppose. On the one hand, this patriarchal tradition allows males to construct an identity independent of the home where he can be the “breadwinner” for his family in a chosen field. He is expected to pursue his dreams and make something of himself, and thereafter boast about his achievements.
On the other hand, if a man doesn’t have a good answer to the question, he begins to feel worthless and unfulfilled. I contemplated this a lot, in my own professional predicament. Did I want a new career because I hated my current one and felt I had more to offer? Or was it because I liked the idea of blustering about an impressive job title? I didn’t want to believe I could be so predictably shallow and vain. And, obviously, having a fulfilling job and a fun-to-brag-about job are not mutually exclusive.
Still, I was sick of calling myself a furniture salesman. The question was always at the forefront of my mind: When can I justifiably introduce myself as a “writer”?