Series Entry #2 – Engineering, School, and Writing
I am absolutely, positively, not the first person to state this.
The problem is that I can’t quite find anywhere that it has been recorded in just this way.
When I went looking, I found lots of articles and information about choosing a job that you love and I found lots of examples of how it’s important to work with people you respect, but nothing that quite captured the lesson I felt I learned.
Who has had a job they absolutely hated? Or a period of time in their profession where they detested their work? I’ve had both.
The first was my very first job as teenager working for a department store as a shoe sales clerk. Interacting with people wasn’t bad, it wasn’t super strenuous (except for my feet – ironically the shoe guy didn’t realize he had really tall arches with no arch support in his shoes), it paid better than other options for teenager work, it was indoors, and the schedule was flexible enough to keep me in good grades. Didn’t matter. I still hate that job. It was useful for getting my experience and useful for teaching me that sometimes, work sucks. Good lesson – not the one I’m talking about though.
The second – a period of extreme dislike for job I should enjoy – came a few years into my time as a working engineer. I was not the only person at my place of employment hating this time period. The company was not doing well financially. The individuals I supported as part of my job hated their jobs, made worse by the fact that decisions I was required to make often made their lives harder. My fellow engineers were in the same boat; a couple had even been shoved over to our group from other (supposedly) more prestigious groups – something which they did not like.
It was hell. I hated it. My colleagues hated it. Every minute of every day, for months. Petty politicking and backstabbing was common activities leveled at me – I was constantly being blamed for others’ problems without a real way for me to make things better. This was all happening right in the middle of the Great Recession in the United States; even though I looked, finding work near where I lived was problematic, even as an engineer. I developed a very deep loathing of my professional life.
After being in this situation for about a year, my group was reorganized for other reasons. We were split off on our own, with a new manager’s position added, a new lead engineer position, and several new engineering positions. The new manager was someone I had known through other professional interactions, but was an unknown quantity from a leadership perspective. He’d been promoted into this role without being a manager previously and none of us were sure what was going to come of all this.
During the first few weeks, he came around and started really getting to know the team, the work we were doing, and the struggles we were facing. He called me in one day to sit down and chat. The last year of pain and frustration had knocked a lot of the faux polite edges off me and when he asked how things were going, I told him, blunt and to the point.
He listened, asking a few clarifying questions here and there, and let my unload for a while till I ran out of steam. He asked me if I was thinking of leaving the company (I was). He validated a lot of what I told him, letting me know of his own frustrations, and then sort of sidled up next to me and confided how much he had hated working for this same company at times, giving very specific examples of how things had gone in the past and how things had changed. Then he basically said, “I feel like things will be changing soon; cycles come and go and I think we’re almost to where things will start to turn around. I want you to stick around and I think we can fix some of the problems on our own. If you’d like look for work elsewhere, I’ll see what contacts I have that can give a leg up. But I think you could do well here and I think you’re a valuable member of this team.”
It was so matter of fact, so pointed, that I was taken aback. He genuinely seemed to care and genuinely seemed to think that things could be changed.
Somehow, that conversation changed me inside. I went and told the whole encounter to my wife. Together, we decided to stick it out a little longer and see what happened.
This manager then went out of his way to hire onto this team people who he said “fit”. He wasn’t looking necessarily for the “best” engineers, from a technical standpoint (though no one we got was a slouch by any stretch – all very capable), but instead, he was looking for those with right chemistry that would mesh with those already in the group and with each other. He made a choice of a new lead engineer, also newly promoted, and slotted him in. We grew from 4 engineers shoved of on our own into an actual engineering core of two groups a team of 7 with with this new lead, and another group at a different building.
Of the original eight in our group, all them still work at the same company nearly nine years later. Four of us (including me) still work together on the same team, having found our niche and groove, and having built friendships that have weathered funerals, car wrecks, weddings, babies, economic down turns, moves, new houses, and changes. Those who moved to other teams at the company are all still friends. We get together regularly for lunches. We hang out. It’s the weirdest group of co-workers I know of. Since those initial hires, our team has made it cultural habit to bring people in, take care of them, build them up, and send them on to new heights – always looking for the right “fit”.
And yet, with all of that said, I still don’t like my job. Day to day, the actual work I do is only marginally interesting to me and the extra stress it sometimes induces is not enjoyable. I tolerate it because I really enjoy the people I work with. I like supporting them, helping them to grow, challenging them to be better as they similarly challenge me.
Passion for a job will get you a long way, but I remain convinced that for the vast majority of the people in the world, work will always be work – difficult, annoying, boring, strenuous, or otherwise unpleasant in some way; that’s why it’s called work. Yes, I think one should strive to find meaningful work, but meaningful doesn’t always mean loved. My engineering is fulfilling because I get to see those solutions being applied. I get to see myself making a difference. But I don’t have to love my job in order for that to be true.
Applied to Writing
There are a couple of applications I feel this lesson has for my writing career.
On this past week’s writing excuses about choosing an agent, the homework centered on taking a personal inventory to figure out what one would want out the author/agent relationship. A lot of the episode touched on these ideas of choosing an agent that would have a similar approach, desire, or goal for the author’s career. I’ve been pondering on what kind of agent I’d want, and I think I’d want one more like the group I work with in my day job – invested in helping each other.
That leads to my first application: find the right tribe.
There are other ways to put it, but that’s the one that resonates with me. My writing group is exactly the same as my work team: friends, invested in making sure that each person in the group is getting alternately supported or challenged, and all pushing towards getting better. They hold me accountable when I’m slacking off, they encourage me when I’m frustrated, they help me fix story problems, they help de-stress me when I need it, and they help me level up in all areas of both writing and life.
Normally, I would say that finding both an engineering team and a writing group that are similarly supportive seems like a happy accident. But it isn’t. It was something I actively influenced in both groups to be this way. And it’s something you can do in the relationships you have, if you make it a point to do so.
The second application I’ve found from this is that loving what you do will only carry you so far. Doing what you don’t like is skill that has to be strengthened regardless of if you like what you do for work.
I like being writer – I love seeing other people enjoy my work, knowing that I made someone feel better, or let them have a good time for a while. But there are aspects of writing whick suck. I procrastinate drafting. Editing (especially doing cuts) can be downright nightmare-ish. I don’t look forward to the “marketing” part of writing that I know will be in my future as a published author.
I’ve learned to be disciplined enough to get through those on my own. But it becomes so much easier knowing that I have others who will be all over me if I don’t keep trying to live up to my potential. Those who encourage me to push through those difficult activities.
For me, liking who I work with isn’t a side benefit – it’s one of the primary focuses because of the effects it has on how I work. I hope you have similar people you can rely on. If not, reach out. I’ll try my best to support you in your efforts. No promises that you and I will become friends, but I hope we will.