If you need help building a shed or laying a tile floor or growing a vegetable garden, my father is your man. But if it’s career advice you’re after, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Not that it’s his fault he doesn’t give good advice. He spent most of his career as a corrections officer, a union job that, in many ways, bears little resemblance to most positions in corporate America.
But despite having to work with some pretty unsavory characters, my dad always insisted that he had a good government job – so good that he thought I should return to Northeast Pennsylvania after college and work with him.
“No, I like Philadelphia,” I said. “And I don’t want to be a prison guard.”
“You don’t have to be a C.O.!” he argued. “They have office jobs. You can work at a desk!”
To sweeten the deal, my dad also pointed out that there were several young guards who I might be interested in dating. He even went so far as to introduce me to one lieutenant when we went for lunch at Applebee’s one Sunday afternoon.
“Look, he’s eatin’ a salad,” my dad pointed out. “You like salad!!”
He was right – I do like salad, but that didn’t make me any more interested in this lieutenant. And I was even less so in working with him in a Pennsylvania prison.
“Well we’ll see where you end up,” my dad said over lunch, not unkindly. “Communications is a risky field. Big question mark there!”
Insensitive as that comment may be, it wasn’t a totally unreasonable thing to say. After all, who among us really knows what one does with a Communications degree?
But as it turns out, my dad’s sideline career planning was all for naught. Upon graduation, I got a job in the media department at Comcast.
“Did they give you the book?” my dad asked when I told him the news.
“What book?” I replied.
“The book!” he said. “There should be a book that’ll list what they pay for every job and how much of a raise you get every year and the vacation time too.”
“There’s no book,” I replied. “I think that’s a union thing.”
I heard him cover the telephone receiver with one hand and say to my mother, “She don’t have the book yet.”
I wasn’t waiting for “the book,” of course. There was no such thing at Comcast or any other company that I interviewed with. Not that my father believed me.
“There’s a book,” he insisted. “If they’re not showing it to you, don’t trust ‘em.”
It wasn’t just me that my father was worried about. When my older brother switched jobs after a few years, my dad got equally concerned.
“You’re going to have to start at the bottom now,” he said. “You’ll have to work your way back up all over again.”
My brother didn’t argue, which father took to mean that he was right.
“Where is this place anyway?” he asked. “Did you see the office? Did you check it out?? Is it in a real building?!”
“What do you mean is it in a ‘real building’?!” my brother yelled. “Of course it is! Where else would it be?”
Importantly, my brother did not tell my father where that building was located, lest he show up unannounced as he was sometimes apt to do. And when I decided to take a job at a PR agency in New York the following year, I followed suit.
“Don’t worry, it’s in a building,” I joked. “I saw it myself.”
But before I left, my father pointed out a few surprisingly valid reasons why this new job was a bad idea, namely that New York was expensive and that he had never heard of the company I’d be working for.
“At least everybody knows Comcast,” he pleaded. “This new one – what’s it called, I forget already – no one’s ever heard of them!”
It was a fair point. But I hadn’t been listening to his advice up until that point and I certainly wasn’t about to start. And it’s a good thing, because I ended up loving that job. I’m still convinced that taking it was among the best decisions I ever made and the only reason why I have a real career today.
It was at that agency that I got promoted twice, doubled my salary, and traveled all over the country. Comcast, I’m certain, never would have given me the same opportunity. And neither would just about any job in Philadelphia.
“Sounds like you’re doing good,” my dad said. “Stay there.”
But I didn’t follow that advice either. I was always looking for the next best thing. In the twelve years since I graduated, I’ve had seven jobs. Some, like the first agency, lasted three years. Others, just six months. But every time I left, I left for something better.
For the most part, it turned out well. But my father still gets nervous whenever I make a move.
“This new place is going to pay you more?” he always asks. “And you get benefits too? Because that’s the main thing. You need those.”
Sometimes I try to explain how corporate America works, but he doesn’t seem to understand the rules of the game. How could he? He never got a chance to play.
Truth be told, I’m almost as surprised as my father by my good fortune. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve gotten much further than anyone ever expected.
It seems especially foolish then to throw it all away – which is essentially what I did this past summer when I quit my current job and decided to take a year off to travel.
“I’m going to work for myself,” I told my dad. But even as I said it, I knew that it was more of an aspiration than a real plan.
“Great,” he said, barely looking up from the Eagles game playing on TV. “If you can work for yourself, that’s the best thing.”
I sat on the floor, slack-jawed, wondering if I had misheard him. Then, a few minutes later, he perked up.
“Wait a minute!” he said. “What do you mean, ‘work for yourself’?!”
“I’m going to do consulting work,” I replied.
“I don’t know, Nova…” he said. “Do you really think you’re that good?!”
“There it is,” I mumbled under my breath.
I did think I was that good. And I was going to stick with my decision. But in that moment, it seemed like I had come full circle a decade after finishing school. I was heading down a whole new path and things were once again “one big question mark.”
With my departure date now just two weeks away, I should be a nervous wreck. But I’m not – because things have since become much less questionable.
I did, in fact, line up some freelance work. And, to my surprise, my current employer offered me a part-time position, which they’re letting me do while traveling.
I won’t go into all the details of the offer – you never know who’s taking notes for “the book” – but I’ll say that it was a good deal. One that even I found hard to believe.
“Well, Nov. I guess I was right,” my father said when I told him the news. “You really are that good!”
“That’s not what you said,” I corrected him. “But thank you.”
Regardless of whether I’m good enough or not, I have a new plan for the year. For all my talk of quitting my job and “sticking to it,” I have to take it back.
Turns out, I only half quit. And I hope that this is the one time that doing something halfway turns out to be the right thing.