Keep an Open Mind about 20somethings
This past year, whether I was interviewing an expert whose career was in full bloom or a young adult struggling to find his or her first real job, at some point I usually asked the question: How did you get here from there? What brought you to this point in your working life? I never tired of their answers.
Every story was its own rich broth of luck and timing, of family circumstance, of mistakes made and learned from, of dozens of choices both wise and regretted along the way.
A parent figured in most stories, too. No surprise there. Young people turn to their parents first for career advice. But parents also send their children unspoken messages about ambition, achievement, status and happiness. And so it was with me.
Having asked the question of so many others, I began to contemplate the trajectory of my own working life and try to make some sense of it.
On an October morning when I was 32, my assignment editor at CBC called me over to his desk.
“The police are on the phone for you.”
I raced to my parents’ house. Two squad cars were parked outside. An officer steered me away from the back door, which led to the kitchen. My mother met me at the front door.
Never sick a day in his life, just turned 64, my father had collapsed on the kitchen floor. His body was still sprawled on the linoleum. He had died of a heart attack.
When death strikes suddenly and so close, it is disorienting. Time is out of joint. Routines are broken. You are numb one moment, and then grief crashes like a wave, and you are left asping for air. Burial arrangements, endless phone calls, the lamentations of amily and friends. There is little time to reflect.
After the funeral, after the ourners had left my parents’ home, there was, at last, silence. I sat quietly with my mother. She gathered her thoughts. After a time, she said, “Well. He was a good provider.”
This was her summing up. I was stunned. It was not, “He was a loving man,” or, “He was a good father,” but “a good provider.” She meant it as a high compliment. He had provided for his family — not with luxury, but with a roof over our heads and food on the table.
He had been steadfast despite a job that ground him down for more than two decades.
If that was what she had distilled from his life, what had I?
My parents had grown up on the Prairies during the Great Depression. Work was scarce. Any job really was a good job. If they dreamed about careers, it must surely have been a yearning for security. Achievement or fulfilment would have ranked a distant second.
My father served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war. After he was demobilized, he worked at a fur factory, and then as a Fuller Brush salesman. Soon he was married with two small children. He found a job selling life insurance door to door. He hated the job, but he did it for 25 years.
Could he have aspired to something greater? The economy was booming after the war. There was opportunity, had he seized it. But the Depression had taught him not to take risks, not when it came to work. He held onto his job for dear life.
My father was tight with a dollar. But he bestowed many gifts on me that I fully appreciated only later. A stable home life. Frugality. An ease with numbers. A love of baseball. He refused, in his words, to “chauffer” me to lessons or organized sports. But every week he drove me to the public library. I think, at some level, he was sending a message: your brains are your ticket to success.
His unhappiness at work sent another message, unintentionally. Work at something you love. Do better than me.
When he died, I had already found my passion — journalism and radio. But it took me eight years of trial and error to get there. It was never a waste of time except for one nine-month eriod. I was unemployed, and it seemed like an eternity. I looked for jobs, but in retrospect, I was too picky. I was holding out for the perfect job. I lashed myself for not finding it. I fell into depression for the only time in my life.
I suppose a social historian would fit my story into the grand narrative of the ’60s and ’70s — baby boomers coming of age desperate not to become their like parents, feeling entitled to a job with meaning. But I did not think of myself as being swept along by the currents of history. It was simply my life. And the universe was taking its sweet time to unfold as it should.
I see now that looking for work I loved had morphed into an impossible quest for perfection. I had become my own worst enemy, just as my father had been his own worst enemy when he stayed at a job he hated. I was indeed my father’s son.
Once I escaped my depression, I decided it was better to get some experience — any experience — than sit paralyzed on the sidelines. As the years unfolded, what seemed like settling at the time led to something better down the road.
A few years after my father retired from selling life insurance, he grew bored. He returned to selling, this time at a carriage-trade furniture store. He told me it was easy because the people who walked through the door were at least thinking of buying. He became one of the company’s top salesmen.
He loved the job. But I think he harboured regret. Why had he not tried something different earlier? It was another lesson I took to heart.
It was said of George H. W. Bush that he was born on third base but went through life thinking he had hit a triple. He had been born into privilege without acknowledging that privilege. He had had the wisdom to choose the right parents, just as some of us have the foresight to be born in a province endowed with oil, or a country blessed with peace. We rarely credit our success to the hand we are dealt with at birth. And that is understandable. We want to see ourselves as masters of our destiny. But that isn’t the whole story.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how success is not just a result of hard work and intelligence. Good timing and cultural
influences are at play. If you were born in the 1930s in Canada, for example, you avoided the risk of dying in the Second World War. You came of age in the 1950s when the supply of good jobs tilted in your favour. Finding your first real job was easy compared to now. Or maybe you came of age later, in a recession, and you struggled.
Here’s the thing: we all feel entitled to judge others when it comes to work, and we judge none so quickly as the young. We use our own experience as our guide. My father could have said to me, “I sucked it up, kid. You should, too.” But he didn’t, and that was a gift. He let me work it out myself, without imposing his own sour experience.
So here is my plea to you who are no longer young adults. Consider how you got here from there. Consider your missteps, and what help you got along the way. Keep an open mind about 20-somethings.
Don’t rush to judgment.