I have reached the (middle)age when I find myself on the phone with college students who are seeking career guidance. I reckon I’m dead in the middle of about a 10-year window, which will slam shut soon enough—when talking to me starts to seem to them like asking Grandpap what he did during the Depression.
The first thing I tell the lads and very occasional lasses—for reasons unknown to me, it’s true that at least nine out of every 10 of these junior networkers are male—is that the reason I would never want to be 18 again is that I never want to be 23 again: a confident new college grad bursting out into a world that yawns wide because it has gotten along without your services for all of human history. And then, an immaculate intellect and a pure heart thrust into an irrational workplace and into a morally greasy mission.
I’ve written a lot about my own experiences at that traumatic time in my life:
My first job, selling stuffed animals door to door. “By 11 a.m. it was 90 degrees. I was melting in that camel’s hair jacket, and trying to figure out how I would break it to Hector that although I very much admired his positive attitude, I didn’t think I was cut out for this work. I was too negative a guy, I told him over a hot dog and fries.”
My first real job, at a newsletter company that made The Office seem like a Harvard Business School model of orthodox corporate culture. “An editorial colleague took me into a storage room and 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.'”
I even share some reminiscences from my first real boss, when he was a young man, trying to make his way in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. “On the first day, I was shown how to insert a rifle barrel into a vice, position a cutting wheel directly above the right spot, turn a small wheel with my right hand as I cut a small groove into the piece of steel. The foreman took two minutes to show me how to do it, then watched another four minutes as I did two or three. Two hours later he returned to tell me that I was working too fast. My career came to an end one rainy Monday morning. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed.” It was ever thus.
But after I tell them how absurd their first jobs are probably going to be, I’m compelled to tell them … something more. Something about taking those jobs seriously anyway. Something about finding what meaning and wisdom one can, wherever one is, and making use of it. Something about hanging around.
And then I ran across this quote by the late actor Ruth Gordon, who happens to have been the star of Harold & Maude, my favorite movie of all time—a poster from which I have on my office wall, in fact.
“Nothing about me was ever right at the time,” Gordon said late in her career. “I would hear that: It’s not your time. You don’t fit in. Well, I thought I had a place. I believed that I would be right for things. And here we are. You have to believe. You have to train, to grow. You have to show up. And then you’re just what they needed all along. I didn’t change one iota, but tastes and standards expanded and improved, and I was just right. Hang on to become just right.”
So now I figure, I’ll send these young folks this post ahead of our calls, in order to dispense with the basics (and the candy-asses).
If they still want to talk, then we can get into specifics.