Your career is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you're going to get. But everything you get is going to teach you something along the way and make you the person you are today.
– Nick Carter, musician
If you’re not working your passion then you’re probably wasting your time. Right?
Well, sure, if you’re lucky enough to know your passion and you’re making a fine living working it.
But most of us trod a job path of hit, miss, and discovery that often means taking what comes, fair and foul. And perhaps because of this process, we earn something just as valuable.
I was born into my first job. My father owned what was then called a general store in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he sold groceries and dry goods, such as clothing and housewares.
As one of several sons, I was expected from an early age to lend a hand. This meant loading and unloading the truck, stocking shelves, cleaning, waiting on customers (no such thing as computerized cash registers back then, so before I was eight I could make change by counting it out in the customer’s hand) and, every Saturday morning, riding with my father on neighborhood deliveries.
Not just on Saturdays. Every school day morning before class from the second to the sixth grade, one of my brothers and I carried bags of groceries to some of the regular customers. It meant heavy loads and extra walking for young legs, but we were part of the family business.
One of my morning charges was the homebound Mrs. Pensak, a slight, saturnine lady with a befuddled air and gait. She lived alone with her grown developmentally disabled son, who required her constant care.
Each day after I deposited the groceries on her kitchen table she would hesitate and, as if the thought had just occurred to her for the first time, tell me to wait as she went into the next room.
She returned unclipping a tiny, black change purse that she had already, it seemed, stuck half of her beaky nose in before pinching out a faded nickel, saying, “Here.” Coming from that burdened woman, this daily gratuity was one of the dearest acts of generosity I ever experienced.
By the time I started high school, supermarkets had driven stores like ours out of business, and the new “convenience” markets would soon make the corner mom-and-pops disappear. Just as well since, my father’s health was failing, and his working days were over. So, at the age of 14, I looked for my first “outside” job.
I found it again in the delivery service. This time with a local parcel delivery company, which at that time, before the coming of the UPS giant, could still thrive.
I was too young to drive so was paired with one of the older guys—Eddie, Tommy, or “Bootsie” (because he always wore motorcycle boots). The idea was that the younger lad should help the driver carry heavy packages if needed or with multiple drop-offs.
But the way it worked was the older guy sat in the truck and I, the younger, did all the lugging. If I protested, my senior colleague would direct a solid, closed-fist shot to my arm or leg.
I would never think of complaining to management since it was all part of the initiation. I took my lumps with bravado, even returning a lucky one now and then (usually, much to the driver’s mirth). Despite the shenanigans, the job provided road adventure and male mentoring, however sketchy the role models.
Along the delivery route, I also learned things about girls I never dreamed of and added lots of useful profanity to my young lexicon. Hard to imagine that some of the coarser stuff would later help me bluff my way out of a few dodgy situations. I still find brilliance in the force and descriptive range of some purple language.
However, most of the things my drivers taught me about girls proved little use when I finally encountered the real thing. Don't ask.
I caught a break, and during my last year of high school I found a soft job as an usher at a downtown movie theatre. I had to put on a coat and tie and talk nice to people, a radical adjustment at the time. The worst part was having to watch the same movie 10 or more times a week. Torture if it was an Elvis movie.
On the radio
After graduation, working class kids like me had two choices—college or Uncle Sam. With dismal marks dogging me all through junior high and high school, college was a waste of time and money. So I soon found myself in a U.S. Air Force uniform training to be a ground radio operator.
I was petrified when, after technical training, the Air Force set me in front of a console and microphone and told me to transmit important data to real airplanes flying high up in the sky. I had never had that kind of responsibility.
But, without a choice, I swallowed my mike fright and chattered away. This was my first outing as a public speaker, and I loved using radio lingo (alpha, bravo, charlie, oopsie-daisy, over and out).
But late one cold December night, one of our planes went down in the Atlantic with a crew of nine lost. I realized then that work could be serious business.
Back to school
After being discharged, I banged from one odd job to another—construction, factory, gardener, limo driver, mental health orderly... I even worked on a movie set. Some jobs I liked, some I hated. But all brought skills and, especially, lessons, the most important of which was that I wanted something better. And for that I decided I needed an education.
Applying to college in my early 20s was the biggest challenge I had ever faced. My early academic history had programmed me for boredom, confusion, and failure. But apply I did, and I found one school in New Hampshire that accepted me.
Once enrolled, I discovered to my joy and amazement that I loved school. I loved classes and assignments and writing papers and, especially, learning. Where had this ardor been hiding in past years? There’s no answer. But I flourished, graduated magna cum laude, and went on to receive advanced degrees.
Then, in the sweetest of ironies, after grad school I, the original class knucklehead, became a teacher—of French. First in university, later for one year in public schools. I was a natural in front of a class; and more than once I tried to encourage lagging students with my own late-blooming story. Don’t program yourself, I told them.
As much as I enjoyed time in front of the class, I disliked the administrative side of teaching, such as the constant homework of class prep and correcting papers. I also didn’t care for lazy or smart-ass students. I had been there and now had no patience for the likes of my former self.
On one of my last teaching jobs—an American university’s summer term in Quebec—an angry senior confronted me at term’s end, demanding that I raise his grade. I explained why he deserved the mark he got, considering his quiz and test scores and not only his lack of participation, but his lack of presence most of the term.
He turned belligerent, and started poking my chest hard. I was in no mood and taking his finger in hand I bent it back until he wailed in agony. “Don’t touch me,” I explained.
He ran, of course, to the program administrator, who, at least, ignored any complaints about abuse. But, caving to the digiteer’s wishes, the director raised the grade. I thought it a niddering act but, feeling that it was time to move on anyway, I began to scan the landscape for other professional outlets.
I took a short-term contract as an assistant editor with an educational publisher. This led to a stint with another educational publisher marketing foreign language texts. I then went to work in the advertising department of a community newspaper, selling and writing advertising and the occasional feature article. Suddenly, I was a publishing professional.
I now felt ready to settle in, and with perfect timing I received an offer to begin what turned into my 24-year career with a major international development association. I became an editor and writer, working on reports, studies, articles, blurbs, and blogs. And what a grand place to settle into—bright minds from every corner of the world and a dynamic organizational mission.
I now call myself a part-time freelance commercial writer, which leaves time to work on some long-overdue personal projects.
That funny little thing
So do I love my work? Well, over the decades my jobs have given me pride, happiness, satisfaction, collegiality, inspiration, and even occasional joy. Is that love? I don’t know. But if not, it’ll do until the real thing comes along.
On the other hand, it was Bootsie back in the delivery truck who shared an important secret that I never forgot. He said that, if you ever want to know if your girlfriend is the one true love of your life, ask yourself one question: Would you drink her bathwater?
Sorry, Boots… that’s a gulp too far.