Yesterday, I kept wondering why the date July 26 was sticking out in my mind. It seemed monumental to me in some fashion, and by the end of the day, I finally remembered: my first column for USA Today ran on July 26, 2001.
That summer nine years ago was challenging in many ways. I’d just graduated from college, and moved to Washington DC to start an internship at the nation’s newspaper. I spent the first month I was there sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a house I was sharing with four other girls (until one of them moved out mid-summer and I could have her boiling attic bedroom). I was torn on my decision to take the USA Today internship. On one hand, it was great to work somewhere that people had heard of. On the other hand, my take-home pay was about $1200 a month, and my job description involved fact-checking columns, scrounging up quotes for the “Feedback” section on Al Neuharth’s column, and emptying outboxes. (I kid you not on the last one — one of my tasks was to haul reader letters over to where they filed them).
In other words, I wanted to be a writer, and it did not look like I was heading in that direction. When I’d told classmates about the job, some had suggested that I start writing columns (I’d been a Daily Princetonian columnist for 4 years, and my affinity for spouting my opinions on, oh, everything was well-known). But I pointed out that none of the previous interns in my program had written columns, and USA Today already had a “blond conservative Laura” (at the time, Laura Ingraham was writing for them frequently). I wondered if perhaps I should have tried to find a different position where I’d be writing frequently, even if I’d be writing for a small publication that no one had heard of.
But anyway, I started my job and, somewhere during that summer sleeping on the living room floor and then in a boiling attic, I decided that I was creating a false choice. Just because writing wasn’t part of my job description didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. Through fact-checking the columns that my editors approved, I started to understand on a sentence level what accepted columns looked like. After a few weeks of this, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of it. I decided to write a column at night that looked like the accepted ones. I showed it to my immediate editor, who liked it. She made a few quick edits and sent it up the chain of command, where it got a thumbs up. My first USA Today column ran on July 26, 2001 as the feature piece in the Forum section, and was even touted on the newspaper’s front page.
Looking at the piece now (“Hook-ups starve the soul,” in case you want to Google out) I don’t think it’s particularly good. But writing it taught me that the job you have can be turned into the job you want. Over the year that followed, I took on new duties like headline writing, and began writing columns more frequently. I was eventually named to USA Today’s Board of Contributors, which was a far better outcome from an internship than I’d anticipated.
In Chapter 3 of 168 Hours, I write indirectly of that experience, noting that “any existing job description has been conceived of by someone else. Expecting someone else to have conceived of your perfect job is roughly similar to expecting someone else to read your mind. It’s better to build your career with the idea that you will always be responsible for creating the right job for each stage of your life, whether you work for someone else or on your own…”
I go on to say that “Yes, you can change your job description and working conditions in a million ways that will get you closer to the right job. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you were hired for. Fundamentally, most employers want you to make more money for them… or whatever the currency of your profession happens to be…An entrepreneurial mind-set can get you a long way toward creating the right job in a way that makes everyone happy. If you think hard enough, there is bound to be some way you can spend the working chunk of your 168 hours solving your organization’s problems in a way that aligns, neatly, with what you want out of the job….
“If you like something enough, you will find a job in an organization that you think will be flexible and open to your talents, and then you will figure out a way to concoct your dream job within it, remembering that it is often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
It turned out that USA Today, like all newspapers, was trying to augment its coverage of issues that people under age 40 might care about. Hence, having an intern who was willing to take the risk of submitting columns was a benefit for the newspaper. Likewise, wherever you work, if you’re not happy in your current job, you have a choice. Obviously, you can quit. But you can also think long and hard about what it is you’d like to be doing, and if there is any way you can change what you’re doing to look closer to that.
Maybe there isn’t. But maybe there is. A fireman who loves painting might start a program painting fire safety murals in schools. A HR specialist who wants to be a puppeteer can start staging humorous puppet shows aimed at employee retention (hey, stranger things have happened). An engineer who likes to write can start a company blog which, if it is original and insightful enough, could eventually lead to different writing gigs. It may not happen, but it definitely won’t if you don’t try. And that’s a risk too — that you won’t have the job, and life, you want.