In 1994 I had zero contacts, zero experience, zero personality, and very little luck. I also had zero interest in working in an office. So how did I end up with a corporate career?
In the featured image I’m holding up the classified section of the Dallas Morning News. Smart phones wouldn’t be around for another twelve years, but if this selfie had been taken with multi-megapixel clarity, then we might have enough detail to pick out the date. Suffice to say it was June 1994, the pre-internet age, when people searched “want” ads in newspapers to find jobs. The tech back then may have been different, but the journey I took in the mid-90’s is pertinent to first-time job-seeking today.
The Big Something
When this photo was taken I was twenty-five, a year out of college with no real job. I had studied mostly philosophy, ending up with a degree in political science, and was discovering that the knowledge I had gained from these fascinating subjects was hard to monetize. My dad was nice enough to let me crash at his place until I could conjure some monetary magic, and I’d end up staying there for years.
I worked a part-time gig driving vehicles from one car dealership to another, from Dallas to other towns in Texas and surrounding states. All this driving gave me way too much time to think. There was this overwhelming pressure to do “something” with my life, but what?
At some point I started using a tape recorder to preserve my ramblings on these long drives. My training in philosophy may have been useless when it came to finding a job, but it had taught me how to organize my thoughts. I transcribed many of these recordings in a philosophical journal called “Income,” much of which I posted online.
Come to think of it, I was blogging before blogging existed. I crafted my own website using a simple text editor, just for fun.
One question I kicked around a lot was whether a job was unavoidable. Yes, I needed money to survive. Freedom was also a big theme for me. I possessed a strong desire to be free of debt. (In an elaborate effort to delay the decision of what to do with my life I had spent half a year studying Italian at a language school in Tuscany, from which I still had a “whopping” $1,800 credit card debt.) But did I really need a job to meet my financial goals? More importantly, did I want a job? Instinct told me NO. Hell, common sense told me NO. Was I going to spend the rest of my life doing something I didn’t want to do?
Bewilderment shows up loud and clear in my transcripts. I act as if I’m on track to do something big with my life, but my professional goals are hilariously vague:
“My goal is to find a self-sustaining, entry-level, administrative position at an organization with international interests.”My Income Journal, 1994
Self-sustaining? I suppose that meant a job that would allow me to break even, pay bills. A quarter century later I take this for granted, but back then it was a big deal. At the time, only a couple of my peers had managed to reach such a lofty level of professional success.
“Administrative” was a word that I used to mean professional, anything that wasn’t manual labor. The “content and product” of the business I worked for mattered, too, but this was another vague guideline. Basically, I didn’t want to work for any business that was uncool.
International interests? That included pretty much every corporation in the world.
So with these goals I might as well have been searching for anything. I was caught in a catch-22 of not knowing where I wanted to go because I was following a map that was blank.
“Part of the problem is lack of information. I really don’t know enough about what’s out there to make the best decision.”My Income Journal, 1995
The pressure to do “something” was coming from society, but also from my mom, who of course was part of society, but who was also a vice president at a corporation based in Denver. She wanted me to move to Colorado and look for a job up there. My mom very much had the attitude of “suck it up and be a businessperson”. I know she wanted the best for me, but her vision of success did not suit me at all. She was one of those people who thought working for a corporation was the best thing ever, though things weren’t all that great in her own professional life. I noted in the income journal that she seemed to hate her job, and “despite the group therapy arranged by (her company), she and others at the office are hating life.”
At one point I considered joining the military, just to avoid the burden of making a decision about what this big “something” was going to be. The pressure from my mom must’ve reached a point of unbearable irritation, because moving to Denver became my absolute last choice, even lower priority than enlisting in the military at twenty-five.
In January of 1995 I took a part-time office job at an import-export business owned by an Italian family. They had first emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New York City, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth. This work paid even less than my car dealership gig, but at least it resembled professional work, and I could put it on my resume. It also allowed me to speak Italian during the day. In general the job itself sucked, but it was more or less an internship, bumping up my experience from zero to zero point one.
Meanwhile I kept looking for a real job.
By June of 1995, a year after my official job search had begun, I had made an estimated “seven hundred phone calls” and had “mailed over two hundred resumes,” resulting in a handful of embarrassing interviews and zero jobs. (I guess these were the days when you could call a company directly to check on the status of a job application.)
After a year of effort I was left with this brilliant spark of wisdom:
“It’s strange, but I find myself working very diligently to locate a job that I’m not sure I even want.”My Income Journal, 1995
Twenty-five years later I can still relate.
The Big Trap
After a year of job search failure and frustration I flew to California and embarked on what would be a life-changing backpacking trip in the High Sierras, with my brother, and another dude who went by the name of Hound Dog. It was July of 1995.
This ended up being much more than a vacation. It was a spiritual sojourn in nature, during which I stopped thinking so much about what society expected and started applying more introspection into what I wanted to do.
On the flight back from Reno I recorded this comment:
“I came remarkably close to joining the Navy, which, at this point, kind of scares the hell out of me.”My Income Journal, 1995
If only I knew that fifteen years later I’d start working overseas with the Navy, and this would evolve into a very big chunk of my career!
I returned to Dallas and wiped all my previous goals. Instead, I’d focus on three things that came naturally to me: “creativity (writing), freedom (nature), and adventure (international)”.
This was the beginning of a period in my life that some of my less-accomplished slacker friends would refer to as my “rise to success”. (Insert the 1980’s “Eye of the Tiger” Rocky theme song.) I went for peak physical condition, running daily and lifting weights. I maintained fierce focus and ruthless discipline, with an eye on getting my life on track. From the outside it may have seemed like I was training for what most people considered “success,” but in reality my motivation was unique. As I’d write years later in another journal, Brief History of Economic Me:
“Money motivated me, as I lacked it in a big way, but the hottest fire in me burned to get society off my back. I wanted to build a space between me and the world.”Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Who was this “society” anyway? To me this was the source of all greater expectations and obligations, the most traveled path in life. Society enforced all the bullshit you were supposed to do.
I began looking at my future in terms of income opportunities, not as a mere search for a job.
“My conclusion is to listen to my heart, and to make decisions with spiritual eyes (not so logical). It is something I have never truly done, but I need to start now. Otherwise I will find it increasingly harder to break free of the trap that such a vast majority of our society find themselves in.”My Income Journal, 1995
My horizons broadened with this new world view. I entertained the idea of beginning a carpentry apprenticeship, as I valued independence and I liked building things. I imagined running a business that restored old houses. (An endeavor that still appeals to me today.)
“By last Wednesday, the 16th of August, I had grown confident of my plan to move to California, pay off my debts then put myself in a position to start my own small business enterprise. I talked to my mom about how I had become disenchanted with the idea of working in the typical corporate environment because of the sheer lack of spiritual content. It seemed that I had talked her into it, and she even sent me literature on outdoor organizations to help me pursue employment.”My Income Journal, 1995
The next morning, Thursday, August 17th, 1995, I got a call from someone named Missy at Resource Staffing in Carrollton, Texas, to discuss a job at SeaLand, a global import-export company (this fit roughly into the category of “international” in my triad of new goals).
I had already failed to impress SeaLand in three previous interviews. The fourth interview was a failure, too. I didn’t get the job, but the next week Missy called back about a low-level clerical job at (I’ll just call it Boring Office Job One, or BOJO for short), which I accepted. It was the kind of thing where you just showed up to work, no interview involved. My department was a bunch of middle-aged women who took frequent smoke breaks, along with an older gay guy who was crazy about cats.
“All of this intense discipline fortified my anti-social, loser self with just enough courage to set foot in an office and work the lowliest temp job in the world.”Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Eventually BOJO offered me a permanent position, at a cool $20,100 per year (around $34,000 in 2020 dollars). Again I accepted, by now hooked on the steady trickle of cash.
I paid off my credit card balance a few months later, and would remain debt-free for life.
With that financial milestone out of the way I began feeling the “sheer lack of spiritual content” involved in processing paperwork and calling other bored office workers on the phone. I was making some money, but failing on all of my goals.
The Big Break
By the spring of ’96 I had been at BOJO for the better part of a year, and already the endless cascade of Monday-through-Friday weeks was killing my soul.
In the evenings after work I fought off the inevitable soul-death by writing about nature. Over the course of several months I wrote and revised a 25,000-word account of my recent adventures in the High Sierras. The theme was (ironically) “the courage to pursue freedom”. My corporate job didn’t afford me the freedom to spend much time in actual nature, but I could at least experience it vicariously through my own written words.
Even today the “Tahoe Journal” is a pretty good read. It was the longest piece I had written at the time. This too went on my prehistoric blog.
But with “Tahoe” complete, I wasn’t inspired to write anything else.
In the summer of ’96 I began a new off-hours routine that would end up changing the course of my life. Every night I came home from the soul-sucking office, went for a run, and retreated to my room. (Yeah, I still lived with my dad.) There I engaged in a secret hobby. (No, it wasn’t porn.) I spent nights dismantling my computer, swapping out hardware, and – when luck was with me – getting the thing to run again.
One tech-heavy sentence for the initiated: these were the days of Windows 3.1 and DOS, setting hardware jumpers for system resource use, and configuring arcane boot files like the config.sys and autoexec.bat.
There was no internet to guide me in these endeavors, only advice from friends. I was way out of my league. At least I had the foresight to save my journals to floppy disk. More than once I accidentally wiped my hard drive clean.
I’m not sure why I did all this. It wasn’t future job training – that much was for sure. Something about it satisfied my curiosity and meticulous nature. Maybe it was the occasional victory. Troubleshooting PC hardware issues involved mostly angst and frustration, but the elation of fixing something was sweet indeed.
The important thing to note is that I didn’t engage in this geeky pastime because I thought it would get me a job. In fact I did it because it felt like flipping the middle finger to the very concept of a job.
Sure, I knew it could lead to a career. A couple of friends of mine – the ones who had managed to attain the “self-sustaining” lofty level of success – were making good money in the blossoming field of computers, double what I made, and without college degrees.
But for me this was just a weird, masochistic hobby. It appealed to me naturally, and it was something I liked to do. Like the primitive blog I had created with a simple text editor, I did it for fun.
So playing dangerously with computer hardware changed the course of my life, eventually getting me “the big something,” which happened to be a career in IT. Did it lead to everlasting job satisfaction and good times? No, it did not. But overall it led to a decent compromise with the Man.
Two and a half years after that blurry selfie, I was safely above zero in every category needed to start a career. I had acquired a few contacts, and my experience working in a professional setting was at level one. My business personality was starting to come around, too, thanks to all the mind-numbing customer service I had done at BOJO. I had contacts, experience, and personality, but what about luck?
Within a couple months I would get smacked in the face by the most miraculous luck imaginable. But this luck would have gone unnoticed had I not learned that valuable lesson in the High Sierras. Some might say that luck happens when the stars are aligned, but sometimes luck happens when we get ourselves aligned with the stars. In other words, we start applying more introspection into what comes naturally to us, and ignore what society expects. After that it’s just a matter of paying attention, and seizing what the universe throws our way.