Don’t quit your day job.

Sometimes I think part of our problem is our cultural mythology of these deathlike states of transcendence. If I get married, I’ll be happy ever after, if I get the right car, I’ll be happy, if I have the perfect job, I’ll be happy, if I’m ever happy, I’ll be happy…and so on. It’s all tied to this odd notion that you go from unhappy to happy and then you stay there, forever, in some kind of heaven, and it aggravates the other great hope we all have, that there’s one perfect person, one perfect place, one perfect career.

I’ve been blogging for the better part of a decade now, and it’s a real cauldron for the kind of transcendence fetishes we all seem to harbor. I’ve had my own and witnessed countless more, but it’s only in the last several years that I’ve actually found my own career contentment (such that it is) in surrendering to the possibility that I will have a long series of careers over the rest of my life, some of which will be great, some of which will be grim, and many of which will come out of nowhere and surprise the crap out of me with the satisfaction they bring.

I grew up in a family business. I was surrounded by it, drowned in it, kept afloat by it, and it completely pervaded the world in which I lived. In time, I worked in the business, mastered the procedures, skills, and concepts behind it, and was well on my way to really moving up in the field when it…disappeared. Except for a small corner of the market that survives on the museum and archives business, the world of micrographic data storage is just gone, replaced by the pallid digital approximation of what it did, and my ability to thread a Xidex 16/35 diazo film duplicator on the fly without stopping the motor drives while clouds of choking anhydrous ammonia make vision impossible doesn’t really translate into the IT world.

I didn’t really love that career—it was more what came with my genes and my family—but I loved the detail and mastery of it, and mourned the business when things went “modern.” So I dragged on, into a new firm after the family business crashed, and into the new version of “information backfile conversion services,” and had eight years of soul-killing fluorescent cubicleland nothingness in which to daydream about my real true calling, which was…music, er, performance art, hrm, sonic installation art, uh, maybe street theater, or writing for a living…or something like that. Made mediocre money, but paid the bills, managed to get out and play and perform when I could, but just lusted for the day when I could reach the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock until I got fired for refusing to sign off on work I knew was not in compliance with our contract.

Good enough. I’d been doing technical writing for the company and they insisted I use words like “actionable,” and “impactful,” and phrases like “remediation and amelioration structures for data center pro-integration projects,” which always made me want to hurt my manager’s children. Here’s that deux ex machina, baby—time to spread my wings and fly like I was meant to (such statements are a permanent, indelible trace on my blog). I’m a terrific handyman, a good plumber, carpenter, and electrician, skills I learned from maintaining my broken-down old microfilm machines in the previous career, so I set out to be a journeyman contractor and writer on the side.

Sounds good, and was, for a stretch.

Only thing is, being a journeyman contractor, and a successful one, isn’t really that much about the actual craftsmanship or what you can do. It means a lot to be able to be able to cut gorgeous mortise and tenon joints, and to have the vision and the patience to cut, lay, trim, and polish Corian into something lovely, but you need to be great on the phone, insane with your daytimer, and have to schedule overlapping appointments and manage complaints and then actually charge enough to make a living (which is a problem when you’re a lifelong glassy-eyed communist type who thinks, in some roundabout buddhist way, that merely doing great work is its own reward). Blew through my savings, blew through my liquidated 401K, was writing less and less, was working harder for less money and feeling old and creaky from climbing ladders.

By the end, I was just wallowing in a funk, completely disillusioned about the whole idea that we can ever escape the lives we don’t like, finding myself on the floor of my kitchen in my underpants, eating Cool-Whip out of the container with a bare hand as “Bittersweet Melody” played on endless repeat on the CD player. That great big amazing leap of wondrousness ain’t entirely what the PR tell you.

Didn’t even finish my book, in two semi-employed years, with a manuscript already 80% finished, which just made it even funnier.

As it happens, I got an out-of-the-blue job offer from a museum in Baltimore where I’d done a few street theater pieces over the years, because I’d worked and gossiped with the staff enough for them to have an idea that I might have the skills needed for a new project. Started that job, which was to be the construction engineer for a full-scale mosaic project covering half the museum building with broken mirrors and pottery and old bottles. Never did anything like it, was scared to death of the prospect of having to learn to operate a giant diesel lift that weighed thirty thousand pounds and would have me hanging off the side of a building in high winds through a blazing summer and a frigid winter.

I’m very, very lucky to have been at such a low point then, so I couldn’t say “no.”

I spent a summer as a construction worker, more or less, baked alive outside and on my feet nine hours a day, and loved it. I ended up doing design work with the artist on the project, and was drawn into the classroom environment where kids from drug treatment and juvenile justice programs actually did the work, and by the end, I had another huge set of skills of questionable marketability which probably would have landed me in the kitchen and my underpants again if I hadn’t ended up making myself useful enough to the museum that I was asked to come on full-time to replace the retiring director of maintenance at the end of the mosaic project. I worked two full-time jobs for two months, then became a kind of glorified head janitor with a staff of cleaners and maintenance guys, which I’d never, ever have seen myself doing for a career, but it’s pretty good work.

It’s also a misery sometimes, with insane hours, pay way under private sector wages, and more fussy political administrative bullcrap than you’d expect in a place known for its magical, amazing side, but that’s the key thing. It’s not the perfect job, and though I love it most of the time, I utterly despise and bewail it at others. That’s the thing—there is no perfect job, even when you love your work/your employer/your industry. It’s all mitigated and complicated, at the best of times, and that’s okay.

I’ve moved sideways in my job, taken over all the landscape design, doing most of the IT work with my leftover career skills, producing a lot of the public events for the museum, and I’m not paid nearly enough for what I do, which means I’ll eventually have to move on to something else. Even though I’ve done work in exhibition design and construction, I’ll probably never be hired by another museum, because of the strict credentialist leanings of the field, but it just means the next career will probably be another shot in the dark, helped along by skills pressed into service in ways I’d never expected.

The big dreams bunch lectures you to stand at the edge of the cliff, spread your wings, and fly, and there’s a lot of truth and hope in that, but it’s bound to break your heart, too, if you take it too literally. What’s more important in that advice is the corollary suggestion to get comfortable without solid ground under your feet, and to deal with change in a more holistic, sensible way, trusting in your ability to catch on when you’re falling and pull yourself up to a place that’s not so bad. You will have to fight and struggle and keep on your toes from now until the moment of your death, which sounds so awful to most of us (and definitely always did to me), but you can find peace in that, as well, if you adjust your understanding of the world. You will fall and crash, rise and fail, but you’ll learn, and everything you come to know is another hook, another chance to say “yes” to some crazy job you’d never imagine loving, and which might just surprise the living crap out of you.

I can’t say where I’ll go next, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’m saying that as the complete opposite of a nomad (I’ve lived in the same apartment for twenty years). Good things will appear, bad times will descend on me, and still I believe I can make the best of what comes my way. Holding onto that faith in myself is the one thing I should do with my life. Everything else comes down to details.

© 2008 Joe Belknap Wall