Category Archives: Careers

Careers… Our experiences at work, our concerns, our rationalizations, and our thoughts on everything from the quarter-life crisis to “selling out” to that long journey where one may look back and find that they’ve had a successful career.

Occupying Wall Street

It’s Monday, July 10, 2006, and I’m wearing a dark suit and pantyhose, standing in a sea of dark suits, all nervous and fidgety.  It’s the first time I’ve worn something from the Misses section at TJ Maxx, and it feels like a personal milestone.  Goodbye, Juniors, with your bedazzled t-shirts and l.e.i. jeans with patches on them: I’m a suit n’ pantyhose woman now.  And why wouldn’t I be, here, in midtown Manhattan, standing in the marbled lobby of a $40 billion company on the first day of my summer internship, the first job to pay me more than minimum wage, the first place where I’ve spent a whopping $89 on a suit jacket to still look like a street urchin in a Brooks Brothers catalog.  I’ve made it, Ma, I’ve made it!

As our group of eighty-or-so interns is herded into the auditorium for orientation, we pass through sleek elevator banks hidden by translucent glass panels, the ultimate markers of lobby opulence.  I never thought I’d end up in this kind of fancy place; in fact, my almost-Marxist teenage self would’ve totally pooh-poohed it: “Ugh, so corporate.  Gross.”  But now, sitting in a plush leather chair, facing a gourmet spread, I’m thoroughly ready to drink the hoity corporate Kool-Aid: drink it, guzzle it, pour it into an IV bag and take it intravenously, whatever.  All I know is that I have just one goal now: do well this summer and get a full-time offer, ‘cause this is where I want to be.  Maybe, just maybe, I could work here for the rest of my life.

“Hello, summer analysts,” the HR rep says. “Welcome to Lehman Brothers.”

HILARITY ENSUES

My mom always says that you don’t know what you like until you try it.  This is her rationale for why “trying out” Wall Street would be a good idea (although this doesn’t seem to extend to drugs, skydiving, or black guys).  In truth, I’m totally up for it.  All my friends are working in banks, so Wall Street sort of becomes our white-collar pregnancy pact.  We get the chance to live in New York, make money, and piss it away like spoiled-rotten socialites–what could be better?  Plus, there’s a certain prestige that comes with working on the Street: If you manage to land an internship at one of the big investment banks, you earn 50 douche points for Gryffindor, and everyone at Harvard wants to be Head Douche.

So that’s how I end up at Lehman: eager, young, impressionable, and in search of shits and giggles.

After our week-long orientation, I’m placed in the Equity Research group, reporting to a man who is the spitting image of Mr. Bean (perhaps with less charm).  His second-in-command, and the guy who is in charge of dealing with me, is a big, rotund, former offensive lineman who I call Diabetes, but not to his face.  While they’re nice, well-mannered, aromatic men, I get the feeling that despite my best efforts, giggles will be hard to come by.

Once I start the job, Mr. Bean and Diabetes have this crazy notion that I’m actually interested in what they do.  So they regale me with stories about free cash flows and outsize valuations and setting appropriate price targets for the stocks they cover.  Diabetes gives me a stack of research reports to read, which I use to create a little fort in my cubicle to play Berlin Wall (“Left hand, tear down this wall of annual reports!” “Okay, right hand!” *Crash.* And that’s the end of the game).  I find ways to amuse myself, because while Lehman might have a lot of money (in 2006), it’s severely lacking in personality.  At one point I try to joke around with Mr. Bean: “You’re such a lucky guy, getting to play around with all these models.”  Blank stare.  “Like, financial models.”  Blank stare.  “It was a joke.”  Curt nod.  “Okay, if you need me, I’ll be at my desk, trying to draw a pterodactyl in Windows Paint.”

I have a feeling this will be a long summer.

DEPRESSION HITS

As the weeks go by, I start to understand why bankers have such a high suicide rate.  The job is a depressing combination of number crunching and Powerpoint presentations.  Sometimes the highlight of my day is doing extensive data entry.  Other times, I get the privilege of formatting a chart.  I’m beginning to think that my job can be filled by a seventh-grader with basic typing skills and a knack for bar graphs.

Soon I realize that I can get by with minimal effort as long as I present something that already confirms Mr. Bean’s hypothesis: “You were right again, the lagged NASDAQ index is a better indicator for revenue trades.”  This strategy seems to work well, especially when combined with my flowery new finance vocab.  Still, even though I’m barely working, often eating, and most likely napping in the handicapped stall with the bench in it, I’m in the office past 9 pm every night.  Because despite the Wall Street stranglehold on words like “optimization” and “efficiency”, the mantra of “face time” rules over them all.*

In my last week at Lehman, I’m given an offer to return full-time.  At the start of the summer, I would’ve been ecstatic.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Diabetes takes me out to lunch to discuss “my future at the company.”  His argument is a good one: it’s a great offer, at a prestigious company, in the best city in the world.  But I have spent the last eight weeks painstakingly manufacturing fun in a job I hate.  I know now that no gourmet spread will be able to sway me.

So, I decline my offer.  Two years later, Lehman declares bankruptcy.  I guess it was a good decision.

SHITS AND GIGGLES

I never foresaw the economic crisis that would lead to Lehman’s demise.  As much as I like to think that I psychically predicted this, I simply left because I didn’t enjoy the work.  And since that summer, I’ve been detached from the turmoil that’s surrounded Wall Street.  I can sympathize with both the protestors and the good people I used to work for.  Ultimately, though, I hope that both sides can see that we’re in this slog together: We need our banks to efficiently allocate capital, and we need an informed public to keep it in check. We need enthusiastic young people to work hard and kick out those caught napping in the bathroom.

But no matter how much we compromise, everyone—people and institutions—must recognize the human fallacy that can be the source of our problems: it’s much harder to take a stand on your own, and it’s much easier to blindly follow the crowd.  That’s how I ended up shoveling shrimp cocktails into a TJ Maxx power suit, and that’s how our country got stuck in this current financial mess.

When I was at Lehman, our group published a 100-page research report in August 2006.  In the report, we predicted that one of the stocks we covered would be trading at $32 by next year, based on our sophisticated (financial) models.  Diabetes had wondered if we were being too bullish, so Mr. Bean asked me to compare our target to that of the other banks.  After a thorough Bloomberg inquiry, I found that we were right in line with the Street: all the other big firms (Fidelity, Moody’s, Merrill, etc.) were giving targets within spitting distance of $32.  So we went with it, confident that we were in the ballpark.  Make little ripples, not waves, they say.  All these smart people can’t be wrong, right?

A year later, the purported $32 stock was at $3.

Oops.

————————

*Also, in most big banks, if you work past 8 pm, you can order dinner. If you work past 9, you can get a black car to take you home. So if you’re already there at 7:30, why not stick it out for another half-hour and get some food out of it? Resourcefulness.

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On Writers

Writers are special people. Except for the fortunate few who can afford to live on a farm in the Netherlands and write 19th century pastoral poetry, most writers aim to please. That is, we write to sell. And writing to sell means being commercial. And being commercial means selling out. And selling out means not being a “real” writer who composes lovely haikus on milking Holsteins, but being a craphole writer who turns to Wikipedia to research Dutch cows and who seeks external validation in the form of dollar bills. Preferably big dollar bills. If we’re lucky, Hamiltons.

As writers, this is the source of all our issues.

The brain of a writer contains a huge tropical storm of garbage, sprinkled with a few tiny nuggets of treasure. Not unlike high-functioning schizophrenics, writers spend countless hours mining their own psyche for bits of inspiration. Sometimes the writer’s mind can yield great things. Most times, however, it’s just a repository for shameless self-indulgence. For example, a sampling of my random thoughts from today: “I just don’t get eyebrows. It’s like an island of hair on my face.” / “Stop staring at the fridge: you just ate two steaks an hour ago.” / “How much do egg donations go for these days? How many months of rent is that?” / “Why can’t human beings have three separate holes, two for waste and one solely for reproduction?” / “Who will ever love me???” / “Fine, go treat yourself to some ice cream.”

Some might think I’m crazy, but I ain’t.  I’m just a writer. And most writers are a little crazy. A little eccentric. A little smelly.  We fancy ourselves to be high-minded, beret-wearing hipsters who create Art & Culture, complete with a showy vocabulary and a penchant for the Ironic (and unnecessary capitals).  But really, we’re just hiding from the truth. And the truth is, most of the time, we believe that we are terrible writers. We believe that we create literary fecal matter that would be better served lining horse stalls than being read or performed by anyone other than our immediate family puppets. Writers are nothing if not neurotic. We’re flighty, we’re flaky, we’re strange, and we enjoy wallowing in our many insecurities.

Writers always worry about whether we’re being smart enough/profound enough/funny enough for an audience that will never be wholly satisfied. We slave over word choice and act breaks and storylines that may seem insignificant to everyone else but which causes us devastating internal turmoil and despair. We edit and re-edit.  We second-guess our second guesses. We frequently pull avada kedavras on our computers in stylistically-imbalanced fits of rage. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete.  And in addition to churning out daily doses of horsewallpaper, writers find numerous ways to procrastinate.  Whether it be cigarettes, alcohol, armed robbery, or gummy vitamins (my personal preference), all writers must find a vice upon which to blame all their troubles if things do go awry.

But then one day, amidst the haze of smoke, drugs, guns, and folic acid, something amazing happens. The cloud of mediocrity floats away, taking with it the banal dialogue and the unnecessary plot twists. The sky opens up. The story becomes strangely clear.  Suddenly we’re left with something that, despite all its previously-ulcer-inducing pockmarks, actually seems… good. And we truly believe, that after all this time, after all we’ve been through, we’ve finally managed to produce something that could be considered great — nay, brilliant.

And then we wake up the next morning, and we think that it’s crap again. CTRL-A-Delete.

Such is the life of a writer.

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The Bipolar Writerly Life

There are some days when I think I’m an honest-to-goodness genius.  On those days, I feel like a veritable gift to this world, like sliced bread, or sunshine, or Jesus.  I can cure ignorance. I can defeat stupidity.  I can bring about a new age of enlightenment with my words.  Someday, somewhere, there will be an uber-flattering marble sculpture of me, in a pretentious garden overrun by hipsters and indecipherable modern art, right next to a Starbucks.

On other days, I feel like an honest-to-goodness nutcase. I’m a meager also-ran, something that never quite lived up to the hype, like fungus, or acid rain, or JaMarcus Russell.  I can’t write. I can’t tell jokes.  I can’t slowly corrupt the hearts and minds of the general public.  Someday, somewhere, I’ll end up shuttered in a small studio apartment, typing away as my cats nibble on my toes because I haven’t fed them in two weeks.

Welcome to the roller coaster ride of the potentially-bipolar, oft-alcoholic television writer.

Unlike “suits”, who can point to their steady paychecks and flashy business cards to justify their existence, television writers are simply defined by whether they’re working or not working.  If it’s the former, then they’re poppin’ bottles at the club and brushing up on pedophile jokes for the writers’ room.  If it’s the latter, then they’re eating condiments as dinner entrees and telling family members that they’re working on a novel.  As a new writer, the insecurity of it all is a bit terrifying.  One person can think you’re great; another person can think you’re a flaming pile of feces.  Rejection in the writing world is commonplace.  You often hear that it’s not personal, it’s business… But when you’re the business, inevitably any rejection can make you feel like you’re one step away from homelessness/extinction.

Of course, it’s exhilarating to live a crazy, volatile, follow-your-ridiculous-dreams kind of life.  For now, I’m OK with the fact that my bipolar writerly life sometimes involves me eating ice cream in bed, watching House Hunters on repeat, and feeling like a failure.  But I’m banking on having more good days than bad ones.  And if that’s the case and all goes well, I’ll probably turn into a self-absorbed, self-involved, narcissistic prick with a marble statue.  I’m sorry.  Please don’t pee on my statue.

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Shameless Plug for a Good Cause

My short story, “A Cultural Revolution,” has been published in this recently-released short fiction anthology: Voice from the Planet.  Check it out!

Experience the trauma of an African earthquake and catch a lush glimpse of love in the jungles of Peru. Explore fire dancing in the mountains of Bulgaria, revisit the American rebellions of the 1960s, and ascend the dizzying world of pre-9/11 high finance.

Planet’s voices are varied and unique, featuring award-winning and new authors from Congo, China, Peru, the United States, Bulgaria, Belgium, Canada, Brazil, Scotland, Finland, and England.

Voice from the Planet is published by Harvard Square Editions. Award-winning author and editor Charles Degelman has gathered this multinational short fiction collection with authors and publishers donating net proceeds to the Nobel Prize-winning charity Doctors Without Borders.

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Loving (Not) Having It All

Back in September 2008, I started this blog as an escape from the daily doldrums of the corporate world.  I originally began writing because, like many people just out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  The real world wasn’t charted out like the first 22 years of my life.  Before, I simply went from one school to the next.  Suddenly, on the cusp of college graduation, I was faced with a litany of decisions I had to make.  What city did I want to live in?  What career did I want to pursue?  What did I want to do with my life?

It was a great problem to have, yet I agonized over the decision: to follow the typical corporate path (finance > some cushy job > a life of picket fences and clam bakes) or to pursue some ridiculous, crazy, unclear, undetermined, unknown dream.  I wanted to have it all, but I was quickly realizing that I had to choose.

For 2+ years, I did the safe thing.  I worked at a big company in a glossy building with a stable salary.  I immersed myself in spreadsheets and statistical models, seeking refuge in the certainty of numbers.  And while this life was great, comfortable, and even enviable, I still yearned to do something different.  So throughout all of this, I wrote over 200 posts and 80,000+ words on this blog, covering topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to friend feudalism to choosing between New York and LA.  I’d come home after long nights at work and write TV scripts.  I still held out hope for the undetermined dream.

And then it happened.  Last week, I got an offer to write for television.  It’s a small show on a small network, but it’s an opportunity to actually write words that will go on paper and then get on air.  So, on Tuesday, I quit my corporate job.  I waved goodbye to the glossy, black building, and I left behind the comfort of the safe and the known.

It’s somewhat terrifying to be heading off to the writers’ side, where there is no certainty, no tried-and-true formulas that can be applied like in the corporate world.   Yet, no one can ever have it all; at some point, we all have to choose.  And at least now, I feel like I’m much closer to answering the question of what I want to do with my life.

I have been incredibly lucky throughout the past three years, and I could not have done any of this without the support of my family, friends, and colleagues.  I suppose the theme of this blog must change, given that I’m no longer clawing my way out of the corporate world.  Still, I will continue to write on this site, rambling about grammar, technology, and growing old with cats… However, if you expect the quality of my posts to improve now that I’m a professional paid writer, please don’t hold your breath.  It’ll still be the same old drivel… unless I get this crap optioned for TV.

 

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Living in an Angsta’s Paradise

I have officially become a tortured artist.

I had never believed in that crap before.  To me, the “tortured artist” was an anachronistic idea that allowed angst-ridden weirdo-artists to swath themselves in alcohol, drugs, and sex addiction.  Were their lives really that hard?  I doubted it.  

Then, I moved out to LA in my vain attempt to break into the writing world.  In all my vanity, I  had decided that it would take me two years, tops, to break into the TV writing biz, get on a show, convince network execs to give me a deal, and then write comfortably from the cold, unhappy winters of the East Coast, corrupting the minds of the 18-49 demo with intellectualized, comedic, drivel. 

I’m only three months in, but I’m already behind on my very-unrealistic two-year plan.

And so, every afternoon, as I toil through a corporate job which pays the bill but doesn’t get me any closer to the so-called “dream” of writing, I have the following (highly-annoying) conversation with myself:

OK, let’s set the stage for this little discussion.  Topic: my quarterlife crisis.  Yes, again.  Fine, this isn’t really a quarterlife crisis, unless I live to 100 – so if you want, we can probably call it a 30%-life crisis.  Well… then again, by the time I die, everyone will be living past 100 (hey, hey, healthcare).  That would make for a really long Happy-Birthday-from-Smuckers segment on the Today Show. Network television will be gone by then anyway.  Okay.  Get back on track.  We’ll call it a quarterlife crisis.  Although, “crisis” is much too overdramatic: perhaps it’s more of a “dilemma”?

Back to my dilemma.  Not that I’m freaking out, but… What am I doing here?  Am I doing the right thing?  If I want to write, shouldn’t I just quit my job and write?  But, it’s good to have a job.  And it’s not like I’m sitting on an unlimited pile of money.  Could there be alternative options, between this corporate life and the peripatetic, never-employed existence as a writer? (Is it weird that of all the writers I’ve met, 99% are men who wear Coke bottle glasses? Not even exaggerating).  Would I be better suited for advertising / journalism / magazine editing / or even academia? Should I settle on an existence that could take me back to the East Coast? Because although I could kick it in LA for 2 years, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it after that.

Maybe I should get an MFA.  Or an MBA.  Or maybe I should just start a routine of lying in fetal position every few hours to facilitate the osmotic transfer of ideas?  My friends all have legitimate jobs with workable hours and fat salaries and the promise of steady employment.  I could do that too, if I wanted.  But I don’t.  Or do I?  Maybe I just don’t know what I want.  (Heightened panic.)  What am I doing with my life??!?

Let’s watch Where Are They Now? Clips from The Biggest Loser.  That makes me feel better.  At least I’m not on the verge of a hypoglycemic coma.

I ate six cookies today.  Maybe I am…

Let’s get to the denouement.  I’m extraordinarily lucky.  I have options.  That might not seem like a good thing now, but in the long run, it is.  I just need to make up my mind and choose… choose the path I want to go down… — Why can’t I do it all??!?! — Calm down, crazy.  Keep doing what you’re doing.  Stay in your job, and continue to write on the side.  — Even if I’m only writing educational finance parodies to ‘80s music??? — Sure.  Because, one day, you’ll have a breakthrough.  And if not, then at least you’ve tried, and you won’t ever regret it.

— Are you sure I won’t regret not selling out earlier?  Because the time value of money says I’ll regret it. —

You nerd.

Yeah, you’re right.

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Blaming Blogger’s Block

Over the past few weeks, I have endured a severe case of writer’s block – or, to be more specific, blogger’s block.  Blogger’s block is the over-alliterated, ugly stepsister to writer’s block, in which a normally-loquacious blah-ger can’t find anything to blah about.  

The recommended “cures” for writer’s block (literary exercises, meditating, or—from one website—writing down “Remember, We Die” on a post-it note) don’t apply to bloggers.  Whereas a writer is ostensibly producing three-course meals of high-quality, literary material, a blogger is just churning out frozen pizzas: it has to be short, quick, and immediately satisfying.  Essentially, it has to be Delonte West.  

Therefore, blogger’s block is rare.  There is almost always a topic in which we can provide our most-unnecessary commentary.  On this blog, I’ve written about bathrooms, napping, and aliens — all topics that are naturally top-of-mind in the blah universe.  Yet, I’m finally at a point where I feel that I’ve exhausted all original thoughts in my head. Within the vastly-narrowed expanse from my left ear to my right, there is nothing remaining that can be easily snippeted into a blog post.

I recognize that blogger’s block is just a phase.  We all have those moments when we are temporarily unable to perform.  With the help of writing exercises, alcohol, or low doses of Cialis, we’re usually able to overcome these execution issues.  Only on rare instances do we Knoblauch ourselves into an ignominious oblivion, never able to regain our past glory.

But human beings are like Pringles. Once we start having these blocks of impotency, we’ll never stop. These frustrating moments will just come to us intermittently, shamefully, as if we’re riding an unpredictably ornery donkey that kicks us off every once in a while. We’d almost rather be Knoblauch – at least we’ll have accepted that we just can’t cut it anymore.

Still, we try. No matter how ugly, terrible, or incomprehensible the result, we try. We take ‘The Little Engine That Could’ and put its picture right up next to our “Remember, We Die” post-it note.  So therefore, to combat my blogger’s block, I am blogging about it.  I am trying.  This, my friends, is the lowest of the low, but hopefully it will re-inspire me to produce some more lowbrow, low-quality, quick and dirty blog posts.

And if that doesn’t work, then I guess I’ll just start taking drugs.

 

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