Grateful for the Opportunity

I took my first job like many people do, fresh out of college and sick of working in a coffee shop, fetishizing the trappings of a 9-to-5 lifestyle, the desk, business cards, the quiet self-satisfaction that comes with having a cubicle and health insurance. Mostly, I was scared, and grateful that someone wanted to hire a 23-year-old with no relevant experience to do a job that was salaried and not hourly.

Work is work—we do it to pay the bills, we do it because we are grateful for the opportunity. Getting out of bed, putting on a coat and shoehorning yourself into a crowded subway train makes you feel like you’re worth something, and that is one of the best things a job can offer. Months of unemployment slowly chip away at your resolve, each day that passes without an offer, a promise, a glint of hope or potential removes another tiny brick from the wall of self-sufficiency. When an opportunity is presented, without fanfare, the instinct is to take it because who knows when another opportunity will come your way.

My father was a professor who left teaching and fell into a variety of smaller, different jobs to pay rent and raise two young girls by himself. I watched him do work that made him sad, work that made him angry, work that didn’t fall within the skillset he had worked so hard to achieve. He worked these jobs because they let him put food on the table and pay rent and raise two girls by himself. A job is a job, he told me. We need to work because we need to take care of ourselves. This attitude is my birthright.

One or two jobs in a field is a coincidence, three or four jobs in that field is a steady, and solid career. With each job I took, I found myself continuing on a career path that I didn’t really want. Every time I got a new job, it never felt like my choice, because these jobs were the only ones presented, because I had run out of money and because I needed to continue to pay rent, and work. You go on interview after interview, taking control of your life in the way you choose what you apply for, but not being able to control the outcome.

It’s a powerful and frightening thing to recognize that you want more than you have, and it’s even scarier to take the steps necessary to actually get it. For some, this is the only way they operate, and for others, it’s a fear that hovers just out of reach. It is okay to admit to yourself that you want something. It is okay to acknowledge disappointment when you don’t get what you want. When it relates to a career, choosing what you want to do is borne of privilege — the financial security that comes from a trust fund, or a parent with deep pockets, willing to let you putter around until you find the “right fit.” The eternal dilettante, skipping from career to career with no real focus can do so because there is security to fall back on.

I was offered a job that I was not excited about, another notch on the bedpost of a career that I had no interest in furthering. I was off the heels of what felt like a promising first interview in a field that I was excited about. When I was offered with the first job—but left to mull over the prospect of turning down a sure thing in the interest of not settling—I struggled. I had some money in the bank, I was okay for the next three months, but when you’ve been looking for work and have been for a while, three months is both very long and very short. After what felt like years of settling for things I didn’t want out of necessity, out of the need to continue to keep a roof over my head, I wanted to have the ability to make a choice. Then, the second job was dead in the water. I took the job offered. When the opportunity is presented, we take these opportunities, because a steady paycheck and money in the bank enables you to do better.

We can choose to be happy, holding out for the one job that meshes neatly with our interests, our skills, our talents, our intended path for ourselves. Or, we take work where we can get it, grateful to be employed. Decisions are made out of fear or out of choice. It’s easy to qualify these decision as good or bad, but the fact of the matter is that a decision is a decision, neither good or bad. We cannot predict the outcome, because no one can see the future. We just have to be willing to take the risk.

 

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

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19 Comments / Post A Comment

andnowlights (#2,902)

“The eternal dilettante, skipping from career to career with no real focus can do so because there is security to fall back on.” This is more or less what I’m doing right now and reading this line just… hurt me.

I wish I knew what I wanted to do more than anything, but right now I only know what I DON’T want to do (which is what I’m doing, plus a couple of other really random things). I want more than I have right now in terms of career, but I don’t even know how to take that next step! Plus I can’t move because the husband is in PhD school. Frustration!

Edited to add: This is excellent, heartfelt, well-done writing. Well done, Megan.

meatballsub (#5,401)

@andnowlights Are we the same person? My resume is scattered and I’ve done contract/temp work for the last 3 years which HR people love to point out to me at interviews. Now I’m second guessing turning down a FT job offer b/c it would’ve meant stability (in a field I don’t want to be in, with a manager that people “warned” me about during the in-person interviews (I KNOW)).

Karebot (#5,803)

@andnowlights Yes, I *wish* I knew what I wanted to do! In college and my 20s, I blindly assumed that I’ve discover it by happenstance– in some quirky class I took, some random job offer, what have you. I’ve now decided that I’m probably the kind of person who can make a number of different jobs work for me, but there’s likely nothing that will be wholly fulfilling and a perfect fit. My personality is too flexible and accommodating to commit, perhaps.

I, too, found myself just taking a job to make things work while my husband was in grad school and now I have a skill set and work history that pretty much decide my career for me. Just like picking a college major as a naive teenager, those seemingly innocuous jobs you take just to pay bills may actually be serious life decisions. Even if they don’t open doors for you, they’re probably at least closing others. I’m pretty happy with where I am, but I got lucky.

pearl (#153)

@andnowlights This whole comment thread right here, this is me, as well as the article. Argh! How do you figure out what you want to do in life? Is there necessarily a “thing” for every person? I’m reasonably content in my low-level admin job but I aspire to “more”, but what that is, I’m not so sure. So I don’t know what direction to take.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

Being able to choose your jobs is not solely a result of luck or privilege. With proper planning, you can anticipate which fields are likely to be in demand while you’re in university. (That’s not to say that your judgement will always be correct, of course. But planning is better than random chance.) If you choose a field where demand does exceed supply, then you can choose the jobs which best meet your financial and psychological needs.

That said, I do have a great deal of sympathy and respect for your father. Academia is a very competitive environment and it can be a low-paid career. He made a difficult decision to choose jobs which would provide more income for your family, but resulted in greater stress and pressure.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@WayDownSouth I do think that being able to figure out what sort of work you want for a career when you are 18 or 19 years old is mostly luck though. I think a lot of people end up in jobs that they “chose” as an uninformed young adult, but then can’t seem to break out of when they discover they chose wrong.

I really, REALLY like your point about choosing a career which is in demand. For the most part, the factors that highly influence how much a person likes a job are culture or financial things which you CAN choose if the field is in demand. Those aren’t the ONLY factors that influence how much you like a job though, and there is a lot of luck in having been guided to think about careers this way. (“pick something in high demand” is not really the dominant narrative we as a culture are telling young people about career planning)

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@MissMushkila yes, you’re right. There is certainly a degree of luck involved in any career. Your point is very true.

In my case, when I was in university back in the Stone Age, I chose IT because that’s where I thought the money and jobs would be. I started in training, moved across to analysis, before settling in project management for the last 15 years. Although the individual jobs differed quite a bit, being in a high-demand field like IT provided quite a bit of room to move.

I agree with you very much that the advice being provided to university students at present is quite different. I read quite a bit about “doing what you love”, with an expectation that fame and fortune will result. This appears to result in lots and lots of recent graduates chasing jobs in very limited areas (e.g., publishing, creative writing, media studies, game design). There’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing these majors, but the students don’t appear to be receiving much guidance about the longer-term employment prospects of these degrees. After the students graduate, they really have to struggle to find a suitable job.

@WayDownSouth You are absolutely right about choosing an in-demand career while in college. I wish to god I had done that, but I wasn’t very practical at 18 … and the whole “do what you love” thing dominated my psyche. If I could go back in time…hell yea I would do things differently.
Also another thing I didn’t understand as a kid — it’s not just the work you’ll be doing, it’s the atmosphere, the culture of your industry, and the people in your industry that are important. It would be so fantastic if colleges offered lectures by people in different industries / fields and they spoke honestly about what their workplaces are like.

Ralph Haygood (#5,297)

“Every time I got a new job, it never felt like my choice, because these jobs were the only ones presented, because I had run out of money and because I needed to continue to pay rent, and work.”: This is indeed how many, probably most, people spend the prime years of their lives in this country. And it’s a lousy way to live.

I’m lucky, in that I’m clever enough to learn quickly and do well many kinds of work most people find difficult. Mostly, I’ve made money by being good at getting computers to do lots of things. I got a Ph.D. and did a couple of postdocs, which were mostly fun, but I could see being a professor isn’t a great gig anymore, what with the ever-increasing demands and ever-decreasing funds, so I went back to programming. The work is mildly interesting, and the pay is pretty good, but even so, I don’t think it’s a great way to spend your life.

There needs to be much more widespread recognition that (a) work and the economy exist, or should exist, for people, not the other way around, and (b) everybody could be well provided for with far less drudgery and precariousness under more sensible and equitable economic arrangements. Things don’t have to be this way. Society, especially its most wealthy and powerful members, chooses for things to be this way, and it could choose otherwise.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Ralph Haygood that’s interesting. What are your thoughts concerning the alternatives?

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sariberry (#4,420)

What a thoughtful, important article. Thank you, Megan.

It has some overlapping themes with this article, which basically says that the “do what you love, love what you do” mantra is elitist and dangerous: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2014/01/do_what_you_love_love_what_you_do_an_omnipresent_mantra_that_s_bad_for_work.html

BornSecular (#2,245)

I liked this a lot. I like the comments a lot too. So much of this is also relevant to my life.

Oh my god, this and every comment is the story of my life.

This was so well written and so true for so many of us.

oldflame (#1,553)

Some people tell me to apply for all of the jobs, even the ones I’m not qualified for. Some people say to hold out and only take the jobs you really want. I don’t know.

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