Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.
The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.
Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.
For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.
By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.
Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.
Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.
A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”
So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months, I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.
But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.
I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.
I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.
Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.
More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.
This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.