‘If any of you plan a party for me, I’ll kill you”
Some thoughts on the proper place of a career
When I was twenty-three and recently graduated from college, I took a temp job in a corporate library in Princeton, New Jersey. I shelved books, collected and filed copyright records, and assisted with clerical work. A month into the job, the head librarian—a short, spunky, wicked smart woman in her early sixties—announced that she was retiring. She broke the news at a morning staff meeting, and after graciously accepting a few congratulations, she said something I will never forget:
“If any of you plan a party for me, I’ll kill you.”
She meant it. She wanted to go out without fanfare. No celebrations. No speeches. No gold-plated pen. Just walk out the door and wave over her shoulder. See you on the other side.
You can't learn perspective. All you can do is be open to it when it inevitably arrives in the wake of that thing that is much bigger than your career. And there are so many things in life bigger than a career.
It took me three decades in the workforce, surviving several layoffs and attending a half dozen actual retirement parties to understand what she was saying that day. The rough translation is this: A career is nothing much to celebrate. It is work dressed up in a rented tuxedo and shoved out onto a stage to make an acceptance speech.
She clearly enjoyed her work, and she was good at it. Her staff adored her. In the eyes of most people, she had had a bona fide career. She had made a difference. But she was also clear-eyed and unsentimental about it. She knew that she would be replaced and mostly forgotten. She was OK with that.
Today, I am a college professor who teaches an internship course, and I often work with young people who are preparing to graduate from college. They are all English majors, so many of them want to find work as writers and editors. Like I was at their age, they have mostly accepted the conventional wisdom that a career is one of the defining pursuits of a person’s life. I try to be supportive and helpful. I want them to be successful in their work after they graduate, but I also want them to have perspective, and that cannot be taught. In most cases, perspective is earned rather than learned.
What I do not say is that I have lost my faith in career. I have one—academia is a respectable career by most measures—but I no longer believe that having one makes me a better, more fulfilled person. The work itself is still immensely pleasurable to me. My job is creative and fun. I am on my feet most of the day. I am energized by working with young people. I learn new things every day in my job, and I get to hang out with smart, fascinating colleagues who have interesting things to say. But career—the constant hum of white noise about publications and promotion and merit pay and complaints that so-and-so isn’t the best qualified person to teach that class because of her area of specialization in graduate school. . . . All of this is a pernicious distraction from the work itself.
Maybe I feel this way because my chosen career is notoriously littered with puffery and empty traditions. Many academics write articles that do not need to be written and publish them in journals few actually read because, to quote one particularly honest professor, “I need another pub to get promoted.” At graduation, we dress in robes adorned with caps and colorful sashes that make us look like we just marched in an orderly line out of a time machine from the Middle Ages. An academic career is measured in lines on that puffed-up, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink resume we call a curriculum vitae. The puffery extends to the work itself. Everything takes longer in academia—interviewing and hiring new professors, completing projects, scheduling meetings. I regularly suffer through interminable meetings filled with grandstanding and fuzzy outcomes because it is a standard of professional courtesy that everyone gets to weigh in, and we professors think we have a lot to say.
I lost my faith in career only gradually. It was chipped away by experiences and observations and the influence of a few good books. One early lesson came in the form of a layoff, my first. I survived, but my office mate did not, and I endured the sad, traumatizing hour in which he literally packed his few personal items into a box, cracking jokes to lighten the mood while we all stood around not knowing what to say. Around the same time, my father, who was in his mid-50s, was made an offer he couldn't refuse from AT&T, his employer for 37 years where he worked as a computer hardware engineer. They offered him a generous retirement package, and he took it. Better to take the parachute option than risk going down with the plane.
I learned from these experiences and many others like them to be realistic and unemotional about my jobs and career. I am always eager to work hard, because I like my work, but loyalty is something I reserve for family and close friends, never for an employer. And family always comes first.
I have not always had such clarity. My pursuit of career initially led me astray. At the beginning of my academic career, I allowed the work to warp my entire life—sixty to seventy hours a week, seven days a week. Work can be seductive, especially to those who through privileged upbringing or early success discover the dopamine hit that sometimes comes with it. Like sugar, sex, social media, cigarettes, or heroin, work can go some distance to filling up the empty spaces in a person’s life.
The antidote to overzealous careerism has always been perspective. It comes in different forms—a lay-off, a death in the family, an illness, the birth of a child, a sudden disability. Some existential reality pierces the faux grandeur and self aggrandizement that swirls around our job, that glittery fog we call a “career.” In these moments of clarity, career easily loses its luster.
Sometimes that moment of clarity comes only near the end of a life. This is the theme of an excellent book I read a few years ago—The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. Written by palliative nurse Bonnie Ware, the book shares her observations of the things her dying patients wish they had done or not done In their lives. Number 2 is spending too much time at work. She writes that every one of her male patients had this regret:
"They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
This book affected me deeply because I could see myself in it. My wife enjoys ribbing me about how I worked from her bedside when she was in the hospital, nine months pregnant, crampy and uncomfortable from Pitocin, the drug she had just been given to induce labor. We were just a few hours away from the birth of our daughter. My wife was about to be cut open through a planned c-section, and there I was, with a laptop in my lap answering work emails.
Not a pretty picture.
She was not happy, and I am almost too ashamed to admit that it even happened. But I keep that sad image in my mind always as a reminder to put work in its proper place and to not take my career too seriously.
You can't learn perspective. All you can do is be open to it when it inevitably arrives in the wake of that thing that is much bigger than your career. And there are so many things in life bigger than a career