The process of landing a job has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Skills and knowledge play a role, of course, but in the end it all feels like a lottery.
I believed for many years the art of hiring someone was all logic. But when I was part of a hiring committee, I was surprised at the decisions that were made, and the "logic" that was used.
They used a weird sort of algorithm - skilled but not too skilled, strong but not too overpowering. My managers wanted someone good, but they didn't want the best. The best, they reasoned, would want too much money and leave the position as soon as they could.
I suspect that algorithm has been used many times as I've been searching for a job. Many hiring managers see resumes like mine......and aim a bit lower. Hiring new employees seems to involve an odd mishmash of logic, emotion, empathy and intuition.
My own career has been a patchwork of choices both logical and emotional. I've always been a creative guy - I was writing songs and stories when I was 5 years old. I wanted to be a schoolteacher or a journalist when I was young - I can remember watching Nixon's resignation (at 5) and the Jim Jones massacre (at 10) and wanting to know more, understand more.
My parents loved me and wanted the best for me, and that often meant that they tried to pull my head out of the clouds and get me back to terra firma. It was a push/pull struggle, because I wanted to do meaningful work and enjoy it. For my parents' generation, you didn't entertain any notion so silly. You worked at the mill down the street, or the factory where everyone else worked, and you were glad for the paycheck.
So my career choices have been schizophrenic, with a real divide between the creative and the concrete. I worked for several years in the 90s in a bookstore, and I loved being around books and words. But my skills were only minimally used, and the path of advancement and growth was virtually non-existent.
I was afraid to choose a creative pathway, so I spent a decade working in the corporate world. I had two really good, solid jobs. I was lucky on both occasions to have great managers, great co-workers and interesting work.
And yet, I'd still become disillusioned or dissatisfied. Both jobs lasted about five years, and they both followed similar trajectories. In year one and two, I was enthusiastic and excited and worked to redefine my job, change the processes, and put my stamp on things.
At some point, though, the changes and challenges would disappear. I'd be on autopilot, just steering a machine that could drive itself. And I'd want to take a pen and gouge my eyes out from the boredom.
It was a miracle, really, that I came back to writing.
I'd always written for myself: stories, essays, and contributions to company newsletters. I became an expert at writing pointed, caustic letters-to-the-editor, or posting on message boards and newsgroups as a means of social commentary.
I signed up for a username on Wikipedia. It may be a laughable resource to some, but I learned how to edit an article, how to arrange information, and how to find supporting documentation. For free.
In 2005, my then-employer invited a speaker to our offices to teach us all "business writing." Despite her best intentions, our instructor was not a skilled communicator. Her materials were contradictory and disorganized. When she said she'd had hundreds of freelance articles published, I kept thinking: Hell, I could do that. And do it better.
My head is filled with those kind of pie-in-the-sky thoughts all the time. Usually, if it's a fleeting figment of my imagination, it will disappear almost as quickly as it materialized.
This idea, however, kept haunting me and nagging at me. So I learned what step one of the process for a feature article is: making the story pitch. I pitched two ideas to my local newspaper.
To my surprise, they bought both. Eventually, they bought a dozen or so more.
I was ecstatic. I didn't give up my day job, but I looked for any and all opportunities to write. I began to think that it was possible to write for a living.
The newspaper asked me to launch a blog. I wrote about some of the controversial issues in and around town, and generated a lot of buzz.
A local entrepreneur launched an LGBT-themed magazine. I met the editor, and discovered he was a smart, engaging guy with a really innovative approach to putting together a magazine. I wanted to be a part of it, and wrote several stories for the magazine, including a few cover stories on youth homelessness and LGBT people and faith. These stories are some of my proudest accomplishments.
As a child, I found stories irresistable. Our neighborhood was filled with stories - fiction, lies and streams of consciousness - and I became quite a storyteller. Sick days indoors as a kid meant watching soap operas. The serialized nature of the story, and the idea that I could see a character change and grow over the years, drew me in.
Years later, my comments on a soap journalist's website led to an invitation to write for her blog. I was excited to learn from a respected professional and learn more about the industry. I eventually launched my own blog with my own analysis of that corner of the world. That blog eventually landed me an invitation to see one of my favorite shows being made, and to talk to the writers, producers and performers.
And finally, after carefully assembling these bricks, after working so hard to lay a foundation, after putting in my time in Every-Day-Is-The-Same-Land, I landed a job as a writer.
I was writing for a living!
It was almost perfect; I was only sad that my mother, who had always encouraged me to write and who had harbored dreams and aspirations of being a writer herself, had died the year before, too soon to see this success.
But I was a writer! I was knee deep in research and queries and interviews. My work was featured on CNN! I had proved the naysayers wrong.
We make choices in life, and one of the biggest choices we make is what level of risk we're willing to live with. For many people, a little boredom is a small price to pay for consistency.
Some people write because they can; many of us write or follow creative pathways because we must. Few people do it for consistency, because it's one of the most risk-filled professions out there.
And no sooner did I feel like king of the hill - no sooner did I have my fists in the air in celebration - than I was knocked down from the peak. I was laid off.
In this economy, many writing jobs - including mine - have evaporated. Publishing imprints are closing, television writing staffs are shrinking.
That TV show I went to visit? Canceled.
And so, as I continue to search for a new job - five months later - I'm at a fork in the road. Losing my job hasn't knocked me down for good, but it's made me reevaluate everything I ever thought was true. I wonder if loving what you do for a living is enough.
Were those naysayers wrong? Or did I have my head in the clouds (or in my ass)? Should I, as someone once said to me, "write for a hobby and work for a living?"
Do I choose risk and reward, or consistency and stability?
Both pathways have their benefits and pitfalls. The only thing I've figured out for sure at this point is that I cannot have it both ways.