When I was 25 years old, I got my first "real" job—a salaried job with benefits—at an ad agency in San Francisco. I had decided that I wanted to be an account planner, and was ecstatic to land the job after a long search and turning down offers to be an administrative assistant in industries like finance, real estate, or accounting. I had ambition and drive to succeed, and I was confident in my writing and research abilities. After all, I had gone to a competitive college, gotten a handful of As—in very hard classes, from semi-famous professors—and had experience temping at one of the well-known qualitative market research firms.
The job was not what I expected. It was a small firm, and I worked mainly for one of the partners, a middle-aged woman who must have wished I was her daughter, but a daughter I had never learned to be, a daughter who dressed in the latest fashions and enjoyed lunches at Neiman Marcus and getting pedicures and going to Gump's just up the street on Maiden Lane. She was nearly scandalized when I let it slip that I thought Gump's to be "an overpriced ornament store." My mother didn't wear a bra, high heels, or makeup, and didn't shave her armpits. We had done our shopping at flea markets. College had taught me that intelligence, physical ability and hard work were to be valued above everything else: after graduating at the top of my high school class and leading our cross-country team to a state championship, I suffered from a four-year intellectual and athletic inferiority complex at Middlebury College, where I worked my butt off to get decent grades and barely make the varsity X-C team. There were no sororities (as if I would have joined one!), and no classes in etiquette or kissing ass. So I did my best to look the part at this little agency by shopping the sales at Banana Republic and combing the racks at Ross (all I could afford on my $28k salary), while politely listening to my boss and the other women yak about their resort vacations, their favorite 5-star dining experiences, and their latest purchases or remodeling efforts.
Still, I was confident in my intelligence, and I worked hard. I wrote reports, I put together presentations, I learned how to analyze data, to set up market research studies, and write creative briefs. There was one piece of advice however, a piece of advice that made me believe that I was a complete lost cause in the business world, a piece of advice that I internalized and made myself wrong for—for years.
"You need to write in bullet points."
Now I had majored in American Civilization—a major with six more required classes than most majors—because what, I thought, could be easier than reading a lot of books and writing a lot of papers? I found I loved historical research and I could bang out papers faster than an hour a page, and get As on them. Here's an excerpt from my journal in 1998, during my agency days:
I have been told by several people that I can't write in paragraphs. It's the dumbing down of society. UGH. I think in complete sentences and in paragraphs. Often artfully. I can't be in a career with all this bullet point bullshit.
Luckily I was laid off from the little agency/sorority after less than a year. I felt emancipated, though it was months later, on a freelance project for another agency that I wrote the above. I sucked it up and learned to write in bullet points, doing my best to distill complex concepts into PowerPoint slides. My next agency job proved my former colleague right: my clothes and lack of ass-kissing ability weren't that much of a detriment—I was promoted after a year—but I rarely had the opportunity to write in prose. I became a bullet-point-making machine, and there was too much work at this big agency to fret about it.
After being laid off in the dot-com bust of 2000, I landed at Levi Strauss, where I was sent to a class with Edward Tufte, who in his essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" writes,
By leaving out the narrative between the points, the bullet outline ignores and conceals the causal assumptions and analytic structure of the reasoning....Bullet outlines might be useful in presentations now and then, but sentences with subjects and verbs are usually better.
The essay also includes a PowerPoint derived from the Gettysburg address, showing us how ridiculous the format is in the face of artful narrative. Finally, I was vindicated, in theory if not in practice. My next job, at Hitwise, had me writing press releases, lengthy reports, and blog posts, all mostly bullet-point-free.
Yet there was still a sense that I couldn't be myself. I had finally figured out the clothes, the hair, the jewelry. I had even gotten my first manicure and pedicure at the age of 32, and had gotten over my fear of the makeup counters at Macy's. I got an even better job, and rented a house and bought real furniture—though I did score some brilliant vintage pieces at flea markets. I looked the part, but I felt like an impostor. Who was I, analyzing data and writing facts about the Internet, going around acting like an expert on stuff that seemed so obvious when you just looked at the data and twisted it around in Excel a bit? All I really wanted to do to was write about people. The people at the conferences, the people in the news, the people at the office, the people I met at parties—now they were interesting. For a while I unconsciously created lots of drama in my personal life, but stopped when I realized what I was really doing was collecting stories. I had become so outrageous that my persona had become a caricature of itself. Without it, I felt like an empty shell.
Still, it seemed the career should be the thing to fill me up. I didn't have a husband, a family or even a pet at the time, so what else was there? The world tells us success should make us happy, and for years I had been reading the alumni class notes in the quarterly Middlebury Magazine, wondering when I would do something important enough to be mentioned. A gazillion press mentions didn't seem worth bragging about, but then again I wasn't someone to brag, despite having spent years among braggarts (aka. account managers and salespeople) pitching parity products and uninspired ideas.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a series of essays for Esquire in 1936 called "The Crack-Up, "I began to realize that for two years my life had been drawing on resources that I did not posess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually to the hilt." My résumé and salary said I was somebody, but I wasn't buying it.
Perhaps it wasn't the best choice, the sane choice, and it certainly hasn't made my life easy since then, but it was the only option I could see at the time. During my last weeks on the job I had a dream I was inside an Excel pivot table.
Like Fitzgerald, I was physically and spiritually bankrupt. I had all but given up cooking, I could barely make it to the gym, and the spiritual practice I had done up to that point had ripped apart the values I had used to measure my own success. My life had become a single bullet point of one word screaming at me:
Perhaps if I had ended up at that same place—the high pay/high physical and spiritual cost job—from a different path, I might have been able to view it from a different perspective. If I had had the wisdom to overlook that early advice from people whose values I didn't share (advice that I had internalized, advice that led me to believe it was impossible to be myself in a corporate environment), I could have chalked it up to the necessity of what you need to do to get a paycheck. I might have been able to enjoy myself, and I wouldn't have taken it so seriously. I might have worked and saved money for another year, and had a bankroll to fund my graduate school education, a master's degree in creative writing.
Then again, perhaps the cost of being somebody else, a somebody who was a construction of every boss I had ever worked for, as first-rate as she might have appeared to the outside world, was too second-rate for me.