Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 27, 2005

Master's degree Required/Some Heavy Lifting

Instructor, Caroline Bender

There is a lot I don't remember anymore. Not like a blackout, or even "it's all a blur." I still remember the facts of things every day, snapshot incidents that characterize how it all dissolved.

I remember that I used to get the dry heaves in the morning, just before brushing my teeth, and that I cried at my desk at least once a day. I remember that once I did hide in the footwell and found the enclosed dark space very comforting. But the real feeling of that pain -- say, the feeling that drives you to leave the building in the middle of the workday to go to a poolhall to shoot people with video guns -- I don't have sensual memories like that anymore.

But this is not the story of that pain, or the way that it ate me away, or how one wakes up -- as our previous contributor described -- not knowing how one got there.

The story I want to tell here is how it changed the way I think about my professional life. This is not necessarily advice for you to follow; this is not a diatribe against "careers" or those who desire them. This is only my story. I am Caroline B., and I am a workoholic.

The class does need some background, so let me spend a few moments on that. I did not plan to enter the profession I did; that is, I had no path or formal training. I had been inspired by two women I worked for to enter their field and was encouraged by them, by my colleagues, and by my staff to grow in qualities I had never known in myself. I had never been happier. I had found a vocation that was not only career and ambition, but a ministry, and way of life. It was the method I had found for making my contribution to the world, and even when for periods it was the hardest thing I had ever done.... I found tremendous joy. I had never been so in-the-game, or felt so good at anything. I knew exactly what needed to be done every moment of the day in any situation, and was at my best when several situations were happening at once. I was one of those finger-snapping, fast-walking, clipboard carrying dynamos in heels -- every moment tightly managed, every task anticipated, accounted for, delegated and executed. Staff development, budgets, office politics, facilities management, curriculum development, project management, student advising, breakfast meeting with the dean in the morning, awareness programs at night, leadership retreat over the weekend. All before work-from-home, conference calls, emails, or cell phones.

I entered the field at 23 and was elevated to management at 25. At 28, on a career development plan, I took a slightly higher position at another campus. At 30, the veneer began to crack. Underweight, underslept, emotionally dead (except for the crying jags and $10 rounds of Lethal Enforcer, which were euphoric), I kept playing through it. Walk it off. It's a phase, it's flux, you're just tired, she's just a bitch, it wasn't his fault, this too shall pass... whatever got me through the rough spots until I could get the groove back. These are the trials on the way to the deanship, I kept telling myself, ignoring the voice in the back of my head that I was still many levels away from a deanship I might not live to see. I wasn't even sure I wanted that anymore, but that was the career path I was on. Just keep working, keep working. It can't catch you if you're moving. This road leads somewhere if you can stay on it. Only the strong survive.

By 32, I had full-on rock star exhaustion. All I thought about was making it stop.

When I tell you that my resignation was rejected, you must believe that this actually happened. Like an infidel questioning the cult, I was shamed and punished for betraying our insular community, and daring to believe I could succeed anywhere else. I won't recount the words said in that meeting -- they were shockingly painful, and all has since been forgiven. Let's sum it up by saying that it was clear that if I walked out that door I could never come back -- not just to that campus, but to the profession.

And there's the heartbreak. Because I did want to come back. I wanted to stay. But I also wanted to feel better, and I knew I couldn't get sober until I walked away from the bar.

I have been re-examining my relationship with my work these days because it was 10 years ago this month that I submitted that rejected resignation letter. It took me this long to separate how I earn my money from defining who I "am." I went through a journeyman period ("This is my profession; I just happen to work for you.") followed by a need for utility ("I just want my best skills put to use every day.") Today I work for a company I don't particularly respect, doing a job that is not fulfilling, in an industry that bores me to tears.

But I stay.

I stay because the only real agreement concretely made between my employer and me was that I would show up and complete my duties, and in exchange they would pay me a salary, invest my retirement money, and provide me with healthcare.

I stay because it is more money than I ever thought I would earn -- and like the saying goes, they give you a thousand dollars a week until you need a thousand dollars a week to live.

I stay because it is 15 miles from my house and doesn't require me to drive on the highway.

I stay because I finally understand that the promise of "parking provided" delivers more consistently than "growth opportunities in a dynamic industry."

My colleagues and my supervisors will tell you that I still deliver, often far beyond their expectations. They'll tell you I still make the place a decent place to come to every day, that they value my partnership, that I cut through the garbage. I'm not puffing myself up; they have told me these things themselves. Only I know the difference.

And I guess now you do too.


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