The New York Times had a piece Sunday titled “The Magic of Your First Work Friends.” Its thesis: “Early-career connections can be life-defining. For young people entering the workforce today, the connections over Zoom are shaky.”
And that’s my chief objection to CEOs and others who are sanguine about remote work as a norm. I’m not worried about what it does to veteran workers like me, who know enough about work culture and human nature to operate well remotely. I’m worried about what it robs of new employees, who are trying to figure out the meaning of work, the meaning of relationships, the meaning of power, the meaning of responsibility (and hence, the meaning of life).
“People younger than me that haven’t had that full-time work experience in an office don’t really know what they’re missing out on,” says a 26-year-old law intern in the Times piece.
“You’re a different person every minute when you’re in your 20s,” says now 50-year-old employee, about her first publishing job, “but these friends really were crystallizing the person I wanted to become.”
It’s hard to tell someone what they’re missing out on. It’s especially hard to tell a person in their 20s.
So I’m going to take a little time this week, to demonstrate what I think they’re missing out on. And a lot of it is pain.
I’m going to tell you about something that happened at my own first job, 30 years ago.
I’m going to spread it out over the next three days, to tell it, digestibly, at a level of detail that its lesson requires.
The story is so unflattering to almost everyone involved, that I’m concealing the names of everyone but me—and the name of the company, as well.
I moved to Chicago in the spring of 1992, just out of college, with an English degree. My search for a writing job was made more urgent by the misery of stints as a night waterman at a local golf course and a door-to-door salesman of stuffed animals. After rejections from such august editorial institutions as Bowler’s Journal—the other candidate had more bowling experience, I was told—I got hired as an editorial assistant at a small publisher of obscure trade newsletters.
The company’s new President had big growth ambitions, and so did I. Though I was only making about $16,000/year—and also served as a warehouse gopher and a conference cloakroom attendant—I rose in about six months to become editor of a new title they had acquired—or a weary old title, more like: It was a monthly newsletter that went out to human resources people, many of them still drearily called, “Personnel Directors.”
It was a good publication to try a 23-year-old editor out on, as it had very few readers. In fact, at one stage, the Circulation Manager pulled me aside and told me in a hushed tone that it might have fewer than 100 subscribers, a fact he advised that I not share with the President or his father the Founder, lest they kill the publication and put me out on the street.
Despite its obscurity and its wee size, this publisher was peopled by a surprisingly smart and sophisticated editorial staff. We might have been writing about humdrum topics for tiny audiences, but around the water cooler, we talked as much and as seriously about literature and philosophy as any staffers at The New Yorker might do. (And maybe more.) I was taken aback by some of those brains. Was changed by them.
The place was also a magnet for characters. The nut hired next after me was the unlikely writer son of a South Side Chicago homicide detective. Super talented, super funny, and most of all more of a character than me, this guy soon became my Editorial Rival. (And one of my best friends.)
After I’d been on this job less than a year, my young fiancé and I—we were college sweethearts—got it in our heads that maybe we’d settled down a little too soon. We wanted to backpack across Europe. I respectfully approached both the President and the Founder with a plan to get my whole newsletter reported and in the can two months ahead of time (this wasn’t the newsiest beat). I would forego two months’ pay. And I would be back to pick up where I’d left off, forever grateful for the opportunity.
That may sound like a preposterous request for a young employee to make, but this place valued such adventures, and the management agreed to the proposition without much complaint—until the week I was supposed to leave, when the editor of the publisher’s well-read weekly flagship newsletter abruptly resigned.
Thus creating a plum opportunity for an ambitious young editor. But I had in hand passports, plane tickets, travelers’ checks, Eurail passes, and a fiancé who’d been working with Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door to plan this trip for months, and secured a leave from her own employer.
Couldn’t the Rival Editor, six months greener than me, do the job for a couple of months with the help of the President and the Founder, and then I’d take up the reins on my return?
He would have to.
And so I went. To England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Greece.
By the time I returned, my fiancé was only my girlfriend (backpacking is hard on a young couple), my plum assignment had been predictably usurped by the Rival Editor and I was firmly in the doghouse with the President and the Founder, who had had 60 days to mutter to one another and to all the other intellectual editors words like “callow” and “dilettante.” In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them derided me as a “boulevardier.”
On my first day back in the office, another Editorial Colleague took me into a storage room and revealed one more unpleasant surprise: He showed me a tiny, snipped-out clipping of an issue of the newsletter I edited, in which, smack in the middle of some sidebar copy, had been inexplicably printed, “David Murray is a dickhead.” (As for the veracity of the characterization, behold my standard work get-up during that time and quietly judge for yourself.)
Tune in tomorrow to learn about DickheadGate—and what it taught me and my young colleagues, about everything.