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Do We All Have A Story?

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 we’d never again believe our vote didn’t matter. Peers were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. History was being made faster than we could make sense of it. Maybe it didn’t 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 people’s 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 people’s stories – I could finally wake up to how it had shaped me, and embrace where it was steering me.

Let’s 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:

Busboy
Cafeteria assistant manager
Line cook
Cement factory janitor
Sports medicine intern
Hydraulic bus lift assembly line technician
Kitchen manager at fraternity house
Aerobics instructor
Student Union bookkeeper

After college the slideshow continued with snapshots from the following:

Litigation consultant
Greeting card designer
Bond salesman
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 I’ve 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, I’d 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. I’d never taken time off to travel and have any adventures. And I’d received my worst grades in English classes, taking only the minimum two quarters in college. My teachers had told me I couldn’t 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 couldn’t see its importance. If I’d 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 how’d I do it? Well, I eventually learned to work with the material at hand. I’ll tell one story for now. Everyone has a "My job was soooo bad …" story. Here’s 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. I’d fought for an interview, and fought harder to get hired. It was the perfect setup job for law school or business school. That wasn’t my plan (I don’t 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 wasn’t 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 hadn’t 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, we’d 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. They’d 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 didn’t occur to us.

I’d 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t pass through its lobby not wearing our jackets, and we couldn’t be seen outside the office with our jackets off.

I wanted out by the second day, but I had $42,000 in student loans to pay off versus less than a month’s worth of savings. Besides, I couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 family’s birthdays, I’d 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 I’d 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.

132 pounds.

I wasn’t metaphorically withering away, I was literally withering away. For several months I’d 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. I’d get invited to lunch, and all I could think about was that $5 I’d never see again. "Oh, I brought mine today," I’d say, and beg out. $5 today, $5 tomorrow, that’s $125 a month (6 day workweek), that’s $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. I’d walk around with my cup of cocoa and nobody was the wiser. I thought I’d 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 wasn’t happy. He said that was normal. In two years I could go to business school and put it behind me. I didn’t tell him that at the rate I was losing body mass, in two years I’d weigh 7 pounds.

I daydreamed about every escapist fantasy imaginable. One of those daydreams was that I’d 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 didn’t 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 we’d 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 we’d 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.

I’d 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 I’d talk to stores, talk to the printer, order boxes and paper, et cetera. I used the firm’s 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 didn’t know what to say. They were kind of afraid of me. At lunch I’d walk around to the greeting cards stores downtown to make sure our cards were displayed. At the end of the day, I’d 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 I’d gained the weight back, and my confidence was brimming, and I’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t have the dynamism anymore. It wasn’t 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 wasn’t.

Partly because of the shame of losing people’s money, albeit small, and partly because of the embarrassing misery I’d 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 I’d done, I wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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.