It is perhaps an understatement to say that I have always approached employment with a certain amount of fluidity. The fact of the matter is, I have never really worried about it. Within that context, I’ve had two primary “careers.” The first was in the restaurant world of New York City, and the second has been in the nonprofit sector, beginning in New York, at the Ford Foundation. The nonprofit work has lasted quite long – it’s now been 23 years. Ironically, had I not been sent to Ford as a temp, I may never have discovered the sector.
Regardless of my good fortune in that assignment, I’ve always contended: you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to do for a living; just be really clear about what you don’t want to do. And be prepared to run like hell when things don’t work out.
I’ve run like hell on many occasions. And regarding a few of them, I distinctly remember the red flag that pushed me into a new job…
One of my two dozen waitressing gigs was at a Hungarian restaurant on Manhattan’s upper west side. It was more lucrative than anything I could have imagined then, but that income came at a price. The work was nonstop, Mondays through Saturdays. I amassed a weekly average of $350 (in the early 80’s, mind you!), and I didn’t reach that total because I was serving high-end entrees to parties of well-dressed theatre-patrons; rather, I was running my ass off, collecting $2.00 tips here and $3.00 tips there. Do the math.
There were three of us “on the floor” at that restaurant: the two Hungarian waiters and me (me: the native-born; born, for that matter, in Connecticut and to a pair of WASPs). The kitchen was run by guys from the Dominican Republic, and the owner and owneress were Hungarian. As you can imagine, I learned several Spanish and Hungarian phrases while working there. And as you also might imagine (particularly if you are familiar with restaurants as a workplace), most of what I learned contained words that children should not hear.
One morning, about eight or so months into my Hungarian stint, I woke up with one phrase in my head: bazd meg. This, my friends, means “fuck it.” In a language I do not speak.
Red flag: if you wake up in the morning thinking “fuck it,” you are in a bad psychic place. If you wake up thinking “fuck it” in a language you do not speak, consider a job change. Seriously.
…Years later, after I had moved to L.A., I accepted a mid-management position at an area nonprofit. Having done some consulting with them, I thought it’d be a good fit. It wasn’t. I was becoming increasingly unhappy with the administrative details of my responsibilities, and the bureaucracies of the organization disturbed me particularly. I think I had to fill out about three forms to request a legal pad, and six weeks later, I remained without one.
At the same time, this organization’s mission statement included the following phrase: “the elimination of racism.” I became bitter as I watched what was going on around me. All I could think was this: if it takes six weeks to get a legal pad, then good luck with racism!
One day, as I was driving to work, I took a quick glance at my speedometer. I was going eight miles per hour.
Red flag: if you are holding up traffic while driving to your job, it is not the right job for you. Make a u-turn and find another gig. It beats being rear-ended.
About a half-dozen years after that slow drive to resignation, I was once again settling into a new staff job. This time, I had gone through an arduous interview/writing sample process as I vied to become a certain nonprofit organization’s first-ever development director. I landed the job and a nicely competitive salary.
But the challenges became apparent early on. The executive director, who was a lovely person and passionate professional, had some issues with delegation. Issues? Okay, I’m being kind.
As an example: one day, she said to me, “Send an email to the program officer at XYZ. In the subject line, write ‘introducing myself,’ and then tell her who you are and let her know…”
And on it went. I was being told how to write an email. I was being dictated the entire contents of that email!
A week or so later, the executive director was away on business, leaving me to put together the type of funder report I had been responsible for five years earlier, when I was the next-to-the-lowest paid person in a development staff of six. Which is to say, it was an assignment I could have done with my eyes closed.
I put all the documents together and then set out to write the cover letter.
I began by typing, “Dear.”
Just then, the cartoon paper clip appeared on my screen.
“Looks like you’re writing a letter!” its balloon said. “Can I help?”
I practically leapt from my chair and stared down the paper clip. Then, using my outside voice, I screamed, “I KNOW HOW TO WRITE A FUCKING LETTER!”
Red flag: if you are audibly yelling at Microsoft icons, you are wasting your time. And if that yelling has been incited by the micro-managing behaviors of powers-that-be, your time is being wasted. Move on.
And that was the last staff job I ever held.