A college admissions officer once remarked at an information session I attended a very long time ago, “Marry what you’ve done with what you want to do.” This is one of the few nuggets I remember from that absurd process (that, and the lady from Duke who ominously, Dukishly kept saying pogrom instead of program at some panel).
Mercifully, I haven’t had to think about the college admissions racket in a long time, but this advice returned to me recently while preparing for a job interview. Marry what you’ve done with what you want to do.
People like narratives. They want things to conform to a realistic perception of reality. Isn’t this one of the theses of Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow (I’m eager to read it)? If you’re interviewing for a job, then, you want to tell a story of how the job fits the trajectory you’ve been on. It’s not an unreasonable criterion; hiring managers are always looking for a “good fit”, not necessarily the best or most talented candidate, so they can find someone who will stick around.
Not surprisingly, when I interviewed recently, I had to explain why I wanted an insurance job in Philadelphia after a consulting job in Boston, a campaign job in Missouri, and a teaching job in former Soviet Georgia. You might be wondering the same thing. To some extent, I am too.
In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about ten things I’d do with unlimited time. A worthy exercise for a rainy day, I’d say. Looking back, I’m pleased to report I’ve completed or made good progress on four of those ten in my 17 months of wandering, but there’s a lot left over (I don’t speak Arabic yet!). Wandering I certainly did, though. I visited 20 states and ten countries, and slept 96 different places (almost biscuit level!), an average of more than one per week. Besides the obvious financial considerations, why stop the adventure now?
I’ve had ample time to consider happiness in the past 17 months. To think about life trajectories. Interviewers like to see their place in your narrative (Where do you see yourself in five years? - gag me), but life rarely happens like that. It’s more like a Plinko chip on The Price is Right. You come to a fork in the road, and you take it.
It’s been 514 days since I last sat in a cubicle, but tomorrow I’m ending the streak. I’m in Philadelphia and starting a job in insurance. That sounds like the opposite of happiness, you protest. I’m not so sure myself, but I hope that’s not the case. At very least, I’m embarking on another big experiment.
I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, which unfortunately doesn’t live up to the hype, despite Mr. Franzen’s enviable talents. I enjoyed it nonetheless, although you can skip the book and just listen to Janis Joplin instead. But one passage stuck with me, about a privileged, conflicted youth named Joey.
This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.
The fictional Joey Berglund and I don’t have much in common. This passage comes just after he has just rescued his wedding ring from, well, his own waste. Plus he votes Republican. But the idea of narrowing choice and committing to being someone with a goal is an important one. Towards the end of my funemployment, I had lost my way amid the illusion of freedom. Committing to a structured job and lifestyle I hope will remedy this. This is not to say I know where I will be in five years, but that I feel comfortable telling and believing in a coherent narrative.
Last week I went to see a talk by Anita Hill, who apparently has accomplished quite a lot since being harassed by Clarence Thomas and the US Senate twenty years ago. Her new book is about home, since where we live is a powerful determinant of the opportunities available to us. I’ve never faced foreclosure or eviction, so I can’t relate personally to Professor Hill’s primary subjects, the lower- and middle-class, predominantly minority Americans who have been ravaged by predatory lending and the housing bubble collapse.
While traveling, I learned to make temporary homes in myriad places, thanks to the gracious hospitality of many wonderful hosts, but I can say that I felt a yearning for the comfort of my own abode. The routines that home enables – walking to work, going to church, cooking delicious meals – are some of the rewards of stability. Plus lots of natural light and a sweeping view of the Delaware.
When I began my adventure, I thought it would be difficult to settle down again, that I’d have to (metaphorically, of course) dig around in my own shit for the ring to marry what I did with what I was going to do, but it hasn’t felt like that at all. In my interview last month, the narrative I told about my adventures – a time-out to learn some new skills, test out alternative careers, and quench the wanderlust – sounded plausible. More importantly, I believe it.