Do We All Have A
To a certain extent, asking if we all get a passion is like asking
if we all have a story to tell.
I thought I lived at a time in which nothing much would
happen. The past seemed so dramatic. The wild course of history seemed to have tamed and
levelled off in time for me to miss out on the action. My generation would enjoy a
mild-mannered era, with little hubbub to record. Then the space shuttle blew up. Friends
of mine made millions in a few years on Wall Street. The Berlin Wall was torn down and the
Cold War was won. Crack destroyed many urban neighborhoods. South Africa ended apartheid.
Friends went to fight in the Persian Gulf. An earthquake interrupted the World Series.
Riots raged on the streets of L.A. The disabled were given protection from discrimination.
Friends died of cancer and respiratory failure and suicide. Friends made tens of millions
in a few years in Silicon Valley as the internet changed how we communicate. Animals were
cloned. The closest election in history made sure wed never again believe our vote
didnt matter. Peers were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. History was being
made faster than we could make sense of it. Maybe it didnt compare to civil wars,
world wars, the depression, suffrage for women, the threat of the nuclear age, Vietnam, et
cetera or maybe it does but comparisons are inappropriate. History continues
if we choose to see it.
In the same way, I never thought I had a story. Other
peoples lives were interesting, and I admired them for overcoming difficult
prejudices and beating long odds. By comparison, my life was bland and fairly privileged.
My parents loved me and told me so all the time, I attended good schools and earned mostly
high grades. Near the end of college, I began to secretly fantasize I could someday be a
writer, but even then I knew there was a bigger problem than the difficulty of getting
published or learning to write well: I didnt have anything to say. I had no real
material. Nothing had happened to me!
I thought of my life as a series of ordinary trials and
errors, a slideshow without patterns or pitfalls or peaks or surprises. I believed that
this slideshow had little lasting impact, and I was still a fairly blank slate at 30. In
retrospect, I hadnt accepted my life for what it was; meaningful events and turning
points were there all along, churning down in my psyche, waiting for me to recognize them.
In accepting my past in not asking it to be more
dramatic than it was in not asking it to compare to other peoples stories
I could finally wake up to how it had shaped me, and embrace where it was steering
Lets take my experience with work, which is of
central relevance to this book. From 7th grade through college, my slideshow of
summer jobs tallies into this script:
Cafeteria assistant manager
Cement factory janitor
Sports medicine intern
Hydraulic bus lift assembly line technician
Kitchen manager at fraternity house
Student Union bookkeeper
After college the slideshow continued with snapshots from
Greeting card designer
Political newsletter editor
High school teacher
Book publishing jack-of-all-trades
At that point, my writing suddenly took off after years of
frustration, and Ive made a living as a writer ever since. The funny thing is, I
look at that list and I barely see any clues I might end up a writer. As far as I was
concerned, Id done nothing but haul my ass off to work every day, slowly gravitating
towards work that was less objectionable. Some were worse than others, but nothing worth
writing home about. Id never taken time off to travel and have any adventures. And
Id received my worst grades in English classes, taking only the minimum two quarters
in college. My teachers had told me I couldnt write and my ideas were
unintelligible. My best grades had always been in math. I was actually a disinterested
math whiz, scoring near perfect on every math aptitude test I was asked to take, and I had
competed in the Washington State Math Championships held each winter at Central Washington
University. But I could care less about math and couldnt see its importance. If
Id seen a counselor, I would have been steered towards engineering, and I probably
would have lived happily ever after. But I was never sent to a counselor. Because my
grades were good, nobody thought I needed advice or steering.
So howd I do it? Well, I eventually learned to work
with the material at hand. Ill tell one story for now. Everyone has a "My job
was soooo bad
" story. Heres mine.
It was my first job out of college. I slipped into a navy
wool suit and rode the bus downtown every morning, saluted the chipper security guard,
rode up to the 22nd floor, strolled past the window offices, and eventually
took my seat in the back row in a gray windowless room of twelve young professionals my
age. My employer was a litigation consulting firm supposedly a blend of the best of
law and the best of management consulting. Id fought for an interview, and fought
harder to get hired. It was the perfect setup job for law school or business school. That
wasnt my plan (I dont think I had a plan), but it suggests the high reputation
this firm had.
The image was not the reality.
Our client was Pacific Gas & Electric, which was suing
the state to get reimbursed for the full $5 billion it spent building two nuclear reactors
in San Luis Obispo. The reactors were budgeted at a billion each, and PG&E blamed
inflation for most of the $3 billion overage. So our firm created enormous spreadsheets,
each hundreds of pages long, detailing every expense over ten years, factoring out
inflation. That wasnt my job, though. Oh no. That would have been the job I would
get to do in two years if I was good at my job.
My job not kidding here my job was to use a
10-key manual calculator, and add up columns of numbers on the spreadsheets to make sure
the computer hadnt made a rounding error. If the computer was correct, we put a
little red check mark on the bottom of the column. Then, with that same column, wed
do it again. Every column needed to be checked twice. That, and only that, was all I ever
got to do. Ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. I was being paid $12 an hour and
being billed out at $75 an hour to PG&E (who was in turn passing the cost onto the
lawsuit). All 12 of us in that windowless room were doing this. I was in the back row,
staring at the backs of heads, entertained only by the occasional ghost of a bra strap or
a bare achilles. The crazy thing was, at least 10 were competitive about being the fastest
spreadsheet checker. Theyd been brainwashed to believe rounding errors were as
dangerous as the ebola virus, and our spreadsheets had to be clean! It might occur to you
that we were printing money for the firm by racking up billable hours like monkeys hidden
behind a door, but it didnt occur to us.
Id had grueling and mind-numbing jobs before
(janitor, assembly line), but we always acknowledged we were mere shit shovellers. Here,
everyone pretended what we were doing was somehow important, somehow relevant. The
pretending was the worst part. We couldnt play music on our desks, not even listen
to headphones. Oh, and when we went to lunch, we had to wear our suit jackets. The firm
was obsessed with its image. The firm had a rule that we couldnt pass through its
lobby not wearing our jackets, and we couldnt be seen outside the office with our
I wanted out by the second day, but I had $42,000 in
student loans to pay off versus less than a months worth of savings. Besides, I couldnt
quit. Years of competitive sports and my natural stubbornness made me hold quitting in
such low regard that it was simply unacceptable. I prided myself on being able to gut
things out. I was raised to never give up until the final whistle blows. Never dropped a
class. Played through injuries. Never quit a job. I didnt know how. I was sure
nobody would hire a quitter.
After a couple weeks I began crying into my pillow at
night. My girlfriend would hold me and let me cry. I fantasized about someday getting
Saturdays off. I felt like my soul was withering away. Every dollar I spent was extending
my prison time that much longer. So I ate rice and cabbage at night. Corn flakes with
powdered milk for breakfast. I doctored my bus transfers to use them for the ride home. On
my familys birthdays, Id save the dollar a greeting card cost and draw my own
on a scrap of paper.
One day I went swimming at the YMCA. The entrance to the
pool was through the showers, and at the entrance to the showers there was a scale to
weigh yourself. So I stepped on the base and set the weights at 157 pounds, because 157
pounds is what Id weighed ever since high school. The lever arm fell hard. Hmm
I must have lost some weight. So I slid the one pound weight to the left, tap, tap,
tap, waiting for that lever arm to rise. Then I moved the 50-pound weight one notch over,
and resumed tapping, tapping
tapping. The lever arm finally lifted up to balance.
I wasnt metaphorically withering away, I was
literally withering away. For several months Id avoided spending $5 on lunch by
raiding the coffee room. Along with coffee and tea, the firm offered Carnation Sugar Free
Instant Cocoa mix, in single serving packets. I would dump 4 or 5 packets in a styrofoam
cup, add enough water to stir the powder into a pudding, and spoon down the calories.
Id get invited to lunch, and all I could think about was that $5 Id never see
again. "Oh, I brought mine today," Id say, and beg out. $5 today, $5
tomorrow, thats $125 a month (6 day workweek), thats $2,400 a year I could
save by skipping lunch. The crazy thing is, until I discovered I was vanishing, I was
secretly proud of my ingenious technique for saving money. Id walk around with my
cup of cocoa and nobody was the wiser. I thought Id found a secret loophole in the
code of ordinary human behavior. I was always looking for loopholes. Things that people
did unconsciously, out of custom, that were unnecessary.
I got a performance review and mentioned to my reviewer
that I wasnt happy. He said that was normal. In two years I could go to business
school and put it behind me. I didnt tell him that at the rate I was losing body
mass, in two years Id weigh 7 pounds.
I daydreamed about every escapist fantasy imaginable. One
of those daydreams was that Id magically grow rich designing greeting cards. So my
girlfriend and I began to secretly design and draw an imaginary line of absurdist cartoon
greeting cards to have something to hope for! I had nowhere else for my hope to go,
so it poured into this crazy, stupid, small-time pipe dream. That would have been it for
me I didnt want to dare risk destroying this fantasy by subjecting it to
reality but my girlfriend was more practical than I was, and she started to think
it was stupid wed done these drawings and were going to let them sit idle. She went
to greeting card stores and asked some questions, introduced herself to some sales reps,
attended a gift conference
how hard could it be?
and suddenly our fantasy,
this vessel of hope, had a little more room to grow. A month later wed raised ten
thousand dollars, five hundred at a time, and I was running a greeting card company out of
the back of that windowless room at the litigation consulting firm.
Id come in early as ever, take my seat in the back
row, lay out my spreadsheets as if I was working, and start to make phone calls to my
sales reps around the country. All day long Id talk to stores, talk to the printer,
order boxes and paper, et cetera. I used the firms computers and copiers to do the
accounting and print invoices. We had 48 card designs and were on sale in about 200 stores
in 20 states. The whole room knew what I was doing, but three of them had invested $500
each in the company they needed hope too and the others were so
flabbergasted at my complete and utter disregard for propriety that they didnt know
what to say. They were kind of afraid of me. At lunch Id walk around to the greeting
cards stores downtown to make sure our cards were displayed. At the end of the day,
Id scratch a couple red check marks at the bottom of the spreadsheet columns and
turn in my work.
It was a new type of small company incubation I
called it parasite entrepreneurism. When Id gained the weight back, and my
confidence was brimming, and Id gone through a full order cycle with the cards, I
quit the firm to do the cards full-time. Funny thing was, the greeting cards didnt
last long like a parasite and its host, there was something essential in the
symbiosis between my fondness for greeting cards and my hatred of their spreadsheets. Once
I was out on my own, I really didnt have the dynamism anymore. It wasnt nearly
as much fun to run a greeting card company as it was to run a greeting card company out of
the back of a suffocating law/consulting firm, leeching off their infrastructure. After
six months, the card company died for lack of effort. That was okay; I thought it was my
dream but once I gave myself to it, it clearly wasnt.
Partly because of the shame of losing peoples money,
albeit small, and partly because of the embarrassing misery Id gone through in that
windowless room, I took that year and packed it down into the frozen iceberg of all things
forgotten. If you met me in the years after, and asked me what I did or what Id
done, I wouldnt have mentioned either. I looked only forward, not backward. Six
years later, in an oral storytelling workshop, I remembered it. Was it a great story? Not
really. But that was the first time I ever told a story as it really happened the
first time I didnt use the truth as merely a foundation on which to build what I
thought stories should sound like.
We all have passions if we choose to see them. But we have
to look backward even more than forward, and we have to chase away our preconceptions of
what we think our passion is supposed to be, or not supposed to be.