Enemies of My Creative Self-Worth*
It was my first job out of graduate school. My supervisor and I were hired as a duo in the newly created “research” division at a small family-owned marketing company that opened its doors in the mid-1980’s. They’d spent most of their years printing marketing collateral and when I was hired (well into the 2010's), they were just getting around to including advanced 21st-century offerings like graphic and website design. Fancy!
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I’ve always joked I’ll write a book about my time there entitled “Just Drink the Kool-Aid: My experience working for a racist, sexist, ageist organization.”
I had completely forgotten about this incident until I recently opened some of my writing from the time. While I didn’t write much over the last 10 years I’m thankful I was wise enough to record this period of time. There was a lot to process from that first job out of graduate school. As I go back and reread some of the experiences from that job, something clicks. So much of my disbelief in myself over the years since graduate school has probably revolved around conversations like the one I’m about to describe. And unfortunately I internalized it. So here’s how I wrote about Jeff himself, and about the conversation as it happened on that hot day in July.
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Most of Jeff’s ramblings are very pointed attempts to tell us how great he is or how important he was as part-owner of XYZ financial company downtown. Conveniently, there is no mention as to why he no longer holds that title. He wears a gold chain around his neck and never buttons his shirt high enough. He also can’t be bothered to put his phone on vibrate, so every meeting with him is loudly interrupted by techno music blaring from his pocket. Jeff’s examples in sales training are always about how he worked on a huge recall project for the big three automakers, and it was top-secret, and the media couldn’t find out about it. We get it, Jeff. You’re hot shit.
He and I are discussing LinkedIn one day when he announces he doesn’t put profile pictures on his online accounts because it allows the government to identify and track you. He opens the app and begins scrolling. “This is Florence Beckworth,” he says. “She and I used to date. She’s now running for state senate. I wish her the best, and she’s a great lady, but it didn’t work out. She’s a democrat.” He tips the iPad so I can see, “But she’s a beautiful woman, isn’t she?”
One day, there is obligatory office banter about the heat of the summer and being stuck in an office building. “You know,” suggests Jeff, “We could just move the meeting poolside at my house! I live three miles from here!” We laugh. “Yeah,” he offers, unprovoked, “I live in Harrison Ridgeway, that neighborhood right off of Roosevelt. It’s got a ton of huge houses. The former governor used to live in my neighborhood.” The rest of us nod slowly, eyes trained on the floor.
Many of Jeff’s best ideas for work revolve around how the savviest multinational organizations are using amazing twenty-first century technologies to stand out from the crowd. His prime examples are animated websites, and animated presentations. He suggests we all download a plugin for PowerPoint to create amazing animated presentations for our clients, as if those will distract from our collective douchiness as an organization. But forget the latest plugin or app; his mastery of Outlook is abysmal at best. I have had to decline multiple invitations to meetings at 3:00 AM on Saturdays.
Jeff is just as dangerous with metaphors and similes as he is with technology. In a meeting last week, he told us all, “It’s like going to an orchestra, and it builds and builds until the…what is that…the grezendo.” Knowing he was wrong (and not listening to someone correct him by mumbling, ‘it’s actually crescendo,’ he backtracked and used a new analogy: “No, no, it’s like a fireworks show that builds up to the grand finale!”
So imagine my excitement in suffering one day through a mile-long car ride with him between lunch and the office.
We were discussing a general sentiment in the office that client proposals are too time intensive and therefore we shouldn’t spend time on them. Instead, we should magically produce a scope of work for our clients in 30 minutes or fewer! I found rare common ground with him, agreeing this was absurd.
“I’m trying to change that attitude and convince The Boss they’re worth working on,” Jeff confided.
“Yeah,” I offered, “I’ve worked on plenty of proposals – or at least enough to understand they’re very time intensive but they pay off.”
Jeff took a deep breath. “Can I give you some advice” It wasn’t a question. “I know you didn’t ask for it, but this is a good learning opportunity…I think you’re a great addition to this company, and intelligent, and you do good work. And I think you’re going to do a lot of great things here. But how old are you?”
I stared straight ahead. We were almost to the parking lot.
“How old are you?” He pressed.
“Do you really need to know?” I said as flatly as possible, eyes straight forward, jaw set.
“Yes,” he said, “How old are you?”
“25,” I said, moving neither my teeth nor the volume of my voice.
“Yeah,” he said, “So when I hear you say something like you’ve done “plenty” of proposals I chuckle to myself a little bit because I wonder how that could be true. See, if you’ve been in the industry for 20-some years like I have, I could say something like that. I’ve built a business from the ground up and made a lot of money doing it, and I’ve written literally thousands of proposals.
You’re in a great position because you’re young and the bar is set pretty low for you. Not a lot of people your age have jobs like this, so you’re in a great position. You just have to show up and let your work speak for you. You don’t need to talk yourself up like that. Just come and do the work. That’s why you and The Boss got into that argument a while back – because you claimed to have a lot of experience doing something.”
I learned in that moment The Boss had told Jeff about a conversation I had with him. A conversation in which he berated me and told me “no professor is here to grade your work,” and “I like you, but you’re a little green.” And this conversation, here in Jeff’s car, was – what? Mentorship? An intervention? Were they playing good cop – bad cop on me?
I wish I could say I came to my own defense here, but I panicked. I said something to the effect of I think you’re right, and I just came from graduate school where it’s important to talk about the work you’ve done so that your colleagues get to know you, and I understand that it’s not like that here.”
“See,” Jeff said, playing the good cop, “we’re not like that here. We’re trying to be supportive. It’s not sink or swim.” I had my hand on the door. I wanted out. Get me out of this car, this conversation, this job.
Okay, I get it. Some spunky 25-year-old comes to your company with specialized knowledge, fresh out of working in the academic and nonprofit worlds, and it’s annoying that she’s talking about all the experience she has. She’s done research, and you admittedly have no idea what that means. All you know is she seems eager, and this place doesn’t handle ‘eager’ super well. And she looks like she’s maybe 16, tops.
Guess what? I’m annoyed with my former self too. She didn’t know shit. And it was really stupid of her to use the phrase “plenty of proposals” because the reality was it was, like, a handful at most. But that girl, “green” as she was, had a good skillset, and a faint sense of right and wrong, which was maybe more than you could say for others at the company. This story is cringe-worthy for so many reasons. Maybe the biggest reason is the way I let it impact my work and self-image for years to come.
We slammed our car doors shut. I imagined the asphalt was hot lava and the only safety was, ironically, through the office doors, back within earshot of our coworkers.
“So that’s my advice,” came Jeff’s voice from behind me, “But I think you’re great, kiddo.”
*This phrase (and the fun process of reliving this nightmare!) is brought to you by a writing prompt from The Artist's Way