This past weekend, my wife and I drove home to attend the wedding of an old friend. Afterward, we hung out with several of our high school friends with whom we still have fond contact, sitting around a campfire. One of them is a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. Another is a registered dietician. A graphic designer. A high school teacher. My own wife, a university housing professional.
These are, to my mind, real adult jobs. The kind of jobs that people make careers out of, with salaries to buy houses with and raise children on. For others of us in the group, however, obvious success is harder to quantify. As we let the fire burn down, we exchanged stories about work. The graphic designer was bored. The high school teacher was overstretched. The dietician was anxious about a new client base.
Whether they were happy or not was difficult to tell. And yet, when asked where I was working now, I was a little ashamed to tell them that I worked at a used book store in Madison. Nothing about their responses triggered this feeling. I shouldn’t have felt the need to hedge or qualify, but I nonetheless did. “It’s a job,” I finally said, when the pause drew out. I made a s’more for something to do while a few others poked at the fire with sticks.
Why that urge? Why that shame? I work in retail, in the entry-level position with my company. I went to college. I went to graduate school. I’ve taught at the university level and have a degree that qualifies me to do so again. My friends all know this. Many of them are in the positions that their schooling prepared them for, but some are not. Yet, sitting in the circle with my friends, I could not shake the feeling that I was not measuring up. That they were having a conversation about their working life that I, in my current position, was not qualified to participate in. Career-wise (and, by implication, life-wise), I was at the kiddie table.
Much of this is in my own head. I realize that.
I like what I do. I’m good at it. I get to leave work at work when I punch out, allowing me time to myself to write and pursue other interests. I tell myself that this is a good thing, even a necessary thing.
As we prepared for the move to Madison, I applied for a technical writing job at a large Madison company. Their compound has multiple campuses. It’s basically a city. The application process was rigorous, with at least four different stages. I had to take aptitude tests. I had to let a stranger watch me through my web cam while I took another test. After weeks of waiting, I was invited to Madison to interview in person. They flew me out from Minnesota, put me up in a hotel, bought me dinner. I interviewed all the next day, got excited about the job and the company, then flew home and waited.
The idea of having that job was very attractive to me. Not so much for the work, but because I would have that job, with all accomplishment that such a position implied. I got stoked. I felt adult.
After several weeks, I called them back. I talked to an answering machine. A few days later, my HR contact called to tell me that they had “decided to go in a different direction.”
By that time I had resigned myself to not getting the job. If they had wanted me, I would have heard by then. But still. Getting that call, hearing those words, hurt in a weirdly personal way. It was more than them denying me a job. They were denying me that feeling of adulthood and accomplishment.
It wasn’t even that I was excited by the job by then. When the afterglow of my theatrical interview day wore off, I began to think that the job may not really be for me. But I still wanted it.
And then I didn’t get it. It was a blow.
I’ve been lucky with jobs. I’ve gotten the majority of positions I’ve applied for, from my first job at sixteen, all the way up to my teaching gig in graduate school. I guess I had gotten used to that success, to defining myself in relation to that success.
None of the other jobs I applied for had netted any nibbles on my resumé. I came to Madison with nothing.
I was unemployed and miserable for a month. I felt like a drain on my wife—not just financially, but also emotionally. I was the absolute pits to be around. I felt rudderless, hopeless, and, sadly, worthless. It sucked.
I’ve told my wife before that, if I could have any job that was not writing professionally, I would want to work in a book store. And then, once I got a job at a book store a month later, all I could think about was how I should want to do more. I should be a nurse. Or a dietician. Or a high school teacher. A graphic designer. Something meaningful, I guess. Whatever that means. It’s confusing.
The conflict comes down to this—I don’t want any of the jobs my friends around that fire have. I like my job. And in that moment, talking with them around the fire, I felt ashamed for liking it.
I don’t know what force—be it external or internal—causes this feeling. That I should want something more than what I actually want.
And yet that force is there. And I kind of hate it. I tell myself that I don’t feel that way, but I do.
Every psycho-rational construction has a dark sub-basement where doubt lives.
I can rationalize, I can tell myself every kind of affirmation and platitude, but there is still that lingering suspicion that my friends on traditional career paths are somehow more actualized, savvier, and happier than I can be on mine. That they’re living in some fundamental way that I am not, cannot.
That suspicion is total, total crap, but it endures, fed by the sour waters seeping into that dark sub-basement.
My wife tells me that happiness is a choice. I mostly believe her. But very rarely, I think, do we make choices that leave us without doubt. No matter how happy, how satisfied, how actualized, how at peace we appear on the outside, I believe there is always that lingering sense that we could, even should, be somehow other than we are. And with that follows the counterintuitive guilt about not wanting that at the same time.
I realized not long before we extinguished the fire and dispersed that my friends, with their adult jobs and seemingly purposeful careers, are, in significant ways, often unhappy.
When I tell my mother about this, she tells me, “I’m fifty, and I still don’t have it figured out.”
Maybe that’s the secret. No one has it really figured out. Not me, not my mother, not my successful friends around the hissing remnants of that campfire.
We do our best, traveling through life, with some idea of where we’re going, making do with what we find along the way. That’s enough because it has to be.
Ben Wheeler-Floyd is a bookseller and novelist. He holds at MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. If you’d like, you can find him on Twitter at @benwheelerfloyd. He is obsessed with space aliens (which totally exist), horror movies (which his wife won’t go near), and Diet Pepsi (which is delicious). A Minnesota boy is whole life, he is still coming to terms with the fact that he lives in Wisconsin now. His story, “Snow Horses,” is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast.