Monday, April 20, 2009

Chapter 12: This Jane-of-all-Trades Marches to the Beat of Her Own Drummer (part 2)

MIT is known for recruiting “well-rounded” students. The campus does have its share of geniuses who would prefer to stay in the laboratory or in front of the computer all day, but the majority of students become involved in the wide spectrum of activities at MIT. I can’t think of anyone who did not join any organizations while on campus. My college counselor in high school told me that I would like MIT because “the students play pranks on each other and if you wanted to start a club, even tiddlywinks, they let you.”

I wasn’t much for pranks or tiddlywinks, but I understood what she meant. The students were not only intelligent, but also playful, creative and interesting, making “Word Hard, Play Hard,” the most enduring campus maxim. Basically, anything an MIT student puts his or her mind to will be done to the extreme, whether it is a prank, a children’s game, classes, a night at the bar, or anything else.

During the summer before heading off to Cambridge I received a packet in the mail with flyers from the various organizations on campus. I spent a sunny afternoon perusing the sheets, developing my plan of attack to break out of my adolescent shell and jump right in to all college had to offer. I had decided to take this school by storm. I signed up for a leadership retreat held just prior to orientation with 75 other incoming freshmen, hoping to start my collegiate career off on the right foot.

I arrived on campus for the retreat with an ankle sprained the day before on my brother’s backyard trampoline. Suzanne was the first person I met, and we ended up sitting next to each other on the bus ride to the camp. Suzanne and I hit it off from the start and now more than ten years later, we are still extremely close. By the time we returned to campus, the students from the retreat were already a pretty tight group. I had guys giving me piggy back rides around campus because my ankle was so gimpy (in fact, I even had a nickname – Gimp – which was a first). My introduction to MIT was such a far cry from my initiation at my high school.

The dorm I chose to live in had an “open door” policy, meaning anytime your door was open, people could stop by and say hi. Most freshmen ended up in quads that flanked either end of the halls. These rooms with their sofas and ample space to sprawl out often became gathering places for the upper classmen, and my room was no exception. My roommates and I enjoyed playing hostess to the many visitors who stopped by, and the camaraderie of the dorm helped pull me out of my shell.

During orientation week I rushed the sororities. This was a different experience than simply joining a club as it was a mutual selection process. Not only did you want them, but they had to want you back. Though I didn’t know it during rush, the sorority I pledged, Alpha Chi Omega, had a reputation on campus that matched my personality: “Nice girls who like to have a good time.”

I popped into the campus newspaper office during my first week and sat in on their production meeting. I was assigned an exciting story about the Air Force Secretary returning to MIT. Inexperienced in the newsroom and uncomfortable cold-calling people, I prepared my questions in advance of the interview. Over my time at The Tech this skill was honed, as was simply walking up to a stranger in the student center and asking for a quote for that week’s story.

My editor at The Tech always told us to “keep your fingers on the pulse” of the university, and I think that’s why I enjoyed working there so much. As a reporter, it was my job to be a little nosy and to know what was going on. As Features Editor I had even more freedom to discover interesting things that had happened and were happening at MIT; to interview amazing students, professors and alumni; and to share my findings with others. I never felt more connected to the ‘Tute than I did during that time.

So I had the leadership folks, I had my sorority sisters, I had my dorm friends and I had the newspaper staffers. I had built myself a strong network and, for the first time in a long time, I was genuinely happy. I dated boys, went to fraternity parties, shopped on Newbury Street, and hung out in my dorm room with my roommates skipping classes in favor of watching Sesame Street and Jerry Springer. It was college life, and I loved it.

I am not sure what the made the most difference. Maybe it was the independence gained from living on my own for the first time. Maybe it was because the students at MIT are very self-selecting and have inherent similarities. Maybe I took advantage of the opportunity to reinvent myself. Even though I’d changed throughout high school, I was already and always pigeon-holed by my classmates into the first impression they had of me during my freshman year.

My four years at MIT were not easy, but were bearable because of the people who surrounded me. My activities varied from year to year. To earn money, I tutored children in reading for the first two years of college and kept the students caffeinated at the 24-hour coffeehouse during my last two years. That job was fantastic – I could play whatever music I wanted, work on my problem sets and meet and greet the patrons of the shop. I fielded just about every behind-the-scenes role offered by the musical theater club, and I dabbled in student government. I worked hard to keep a balance of work and play, science and art, solitude and company.

I was also proud that my friends hailed from every dorm. MIT’s “East” and “West” campuses are divided by Massachusetts Avenue. West Campus was where you would find my dorm, the on-campus fraternities, the cultural houses, and the dorm with suites. West campus was the “normal” side of campus. East campus is where you would be more likely to find those pranksters my college counselor spoke of. Residents there were likely to be extremely intelligent, sporting all black and a funky hairstyle. The two sides of campus didn’t face off in some West Side Story showdown, but inasmuch as MIT was already an inherently self-selecting community, it was even more so internally. I was proud of how often I found myself crossing these barriers.

I decided to declare Environmental Engineering as my major. Chemical Engineering as a career sounded good in high school, but in Boston I realized I was more curious how chemistry works in the real world, not in a test tube. I was (and still am) a bit of a tree-hugger, so I figured after graduation I would go out and save the planet. My high school AP classes earned me enough credits that I was able to take whatever electives interested me. I focused on poetry and Victorian-era literature classes. I took as many classes as I felt I could handle, five or six a term.

I quickly realized if I kept up that pace I could easily pull off a double major in Literature. The best part of choosing that major was their leniency in deciding what a “Literature” course was. History, Art, Writing and Theater classes all counted towards the degree. My poor, confused brain was thrilled. It meant that my junior and senior years I could study just about whatever I wanted (or whatever gave me a schedule with a three-day weekend!) and walk away with two degrees from MIT.

It took a little convincing to get my advisor and the department chair to sign off on my double degree forms. My advisor questioned whether I could handle it; I suspect she did not think I was a very strong student. She knew I only passed my fall term freshman physics class because the professor, upon realizing I had the lowest test scores in the class but the highest homework and lab scores, took pity on me and encouraged me to learn how to study better for tests.
The chair asked me, “Well why don’t you just take the classes for your own benefit? Why do you need the degree?”

Why? Because I am paying for an MIT education, and everyone loves a good buy-one-get-one!

Plus, I argued, these humanities classes were all that kept me sane amidst the rigors of my technical classes. In fact, my poetry writing class and my sex roles and relationships class were downright therapeutic!

Senior year I focused on recruiting for a post-collegiate job. I still didn’t have a clear idea what an “Environmental Engineer” was exactly let alone what I wanted to do with my life! So, I interviewed with any company that would see me and also applied to graduate school. I knew I wasn’t cut out for finance (my supervisor at my summer internship at Ford told me I “lacked business acumen”), but thought consulting might be a good fit for me. I also interviewed for industry jobs. After what felt like hundreds of interviews, I received four offers and two graduate school acceptances. They were all wildly different career paths, and I’ll always wonder where those paths would have taken me, had I chosen differently.

I was accepted to both the MIT and Stanford Masters of Engineering programs but decided another year’s tuition was not worth it when I wasn’t sure how fervently I wanted to pursue environmental engineering. I had offers from Schlumberger and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad doing environmental work in the field. But the locations were in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t sure wearing a hard hat was what I wanted. I had an environmental consulting offer with Malcolm Pirnie, a large firm in White Plains, New York, but the job description primarily included overseeing wastewater treatment plants, and after the first time I set foot in one, I vowed never to again.

Lastly was an offer from a supply chain consulting firm in New York City. The job was interesting to me because I liked the idea of increasing efficiency. One of my favorite books growing up was Cheaper by the Dozen, about an efficiency expert with twelve children. I loved the idea of using logical systems to minimize the amount of time, money and energy a company wasted. Plus, the people where culled from the best schools, the salary and benefits were great, I would be able to travel, and the office had a foosball table! Best of all I would be in New York City where many of my classmates were also landing after graduation.

I spent the summer after graduation working in Venice, Italy doing FORTRAN models of environmental systems, before moving to Manhattan on September 1, 2001. I would be renting a room an amazing four bedroom apartment on 28th Street. It was a great neighborhood, and I was excited to be living with three complete strangers with interesting careers. I started at my new job, which was walking distance from the apartment. I was on my way to work ten days after I moved to the city, when I saw people looking down Sixth Avenue at a building on fire. I thought to myself “Gosh, I wonder how people in those big apartment buildings get out when there is a fire.”

It was only when I made it upstairs to my office that I was informed those were, in fact, not apartment buildings but the World Trade Center. We watched from our office window as the towers crumbled and debated whether it was safer to stay put or go home. I ended up heading home and after a failed attempt to donate blood at St. Vincent’s Hospital, returned to my apartment to seek solace in my new roommates.

Everyone was in shock that day, and I couldn’t help think to myself that I had asked for this. Raised in a blasé MTV generation, in college I couldn’t help but feel that we didn’t have an event that defined us. I would look through the old editions of The Tech and wonder what it would have been like to be at the sit-ins staged on campus in the late 1960s. Activism seemed to be dead as we entered the new millennium, but in a few brief moments on September 11th, 2001, all that changed. We had our Pearl Harbor, and one day I will tell my grandchildren that I was there, but to be honest I would have preferred to just put flowers in my hair and rolled in the mud.

The tragedy that was 9/11 made New Yorkers more compassionate, thus easing my transition to the new city. Because we had an apartment well-suited to entertaining, friends of all four roommates, who were seeking to “nest” in those hectic times, would come over to our apartment. Amidst the chaos, the dot com bubble was also bursting and the economy was unstable. As a result, only three months after I started, my company declared bankruptcy and laid off our entire staff.

I had moved to the city with certain expectations (financial, career path, etc) and suddenly found myself in a completely different situation. I hadn’t even worked long enough to be eligible for unemployment. I returned home for Christmas, and regrouped back in New York in the New Year. I was lucky to land a job at a restaurant that January – I had a little experience, but the manager hired me because he “liked my vibe.” And thus began my third job and third field since graduating six months earlier.

I continued applying to jobs while I was a waitress, eventually landing one at an environmental engineering consulting company doing precisely what I’d tried to avoid when choosing my job out of school. The company had over-hired, and as last one in I was first one out. In short-order, I landed another similar job with a similar firm. And sure enough, I grew to despise that job over my year there, and tried to seek the balance in my life that I had enjoyed so much in college. I had started watching home decorating shows on cable and redecorated the apartment I lived in, to much acclaim. I even registered for a few evening classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

One of my only regrets in life was my decision not to major in Architecture. For years I have held on to an article from Elle Magazine in which business woman Barbara Roberts was quoted as saying, "The secret to success is remembering the Girl Scout Badges you were most proud of ... they'll tell you what you should be doing in life." The badge I earned for the model apartment I constructed from a cardboard box with bits and bobs from around the house was always the one I remembered most fondly. Somehow my eight year old self had more foresight than her eighteen year old counterpart.

All signs clearly pointed to the fact that I was in the wrong career. I pinned the quote up in my cubicle, continued taking classes, and waited for the opportunity to make the career switch. I began applying for interior design jobs, even though I was wildly under-qualified for most of them. Entry level interior design jobs are oftentimes unpaid internships, and part of me actually hoped I would get laid off from my engineering job so I could go on unemployment to pay the bills while I started out in interior design.

In March of 2004 I finally got my wish. I make an annual pilgrimage back to Boston to celebrate Suzanne’s birthday. I made plans to go up for her birthday weekend as always, but also to support her following a break-up. The Wednesday before her party my boss told me I needed to work on Saturday at a job site. I told him I was unavailable as I had to be in Boston on Friday night, but he told me nobody else who could be there. So, reluctantly and angrily, I cancelled my plans.

I awoke to pouring rain Saturday at five in the morning. I called my boss who confirmed work was still on. I put on my steel-toed boots and Gorton's Fisherman rain suit before hopping on the train for the hour-long commute to the job site. I arrived at the site where my boss said they were scheduled to be working, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. I checked in at the field office, and learned my client was at a different location on the property. When I finally reached him, he was surprised to see me. It turns out the area I was scheduled to oversee had been taken care of the weekend prior, and I wasn’t needed for that day’s work.

I stormed back to the train, furious at the miscommunication. Not only had my boss ruined my planned trip, but I was schlepping around the city in the rain at the crack of dawn. Adding insult to injury was that until two weeks prior, I had coordinated my schedule directly with the client. My boss, in some sort of power play, decided he had to act as middle man and began telling me when I needed to be there. And he screwed it up - royally.

Luckily, the next week I had jury duty so was able to cool down a bit. When I returned to work, I asked around the office to see if there was any new work to be done, but everyone seemed hesitant to give me a project. I knew in my gut that the end was near, and even told some friends I thought so. Sure enough, that Friday, I was called into the conference room and let go.
For most people getting laid off is a disaster. For me, it was exactly what I wanted and needing to begin my career transition. They asked the office manager, a friend of mine, to escort me from the premises. As we rode down the elevator together he asked me, “Why are you smiling?”

Because this is the beginning of the next phase in my life!

Now, every year when Suzanne’s birthday rolls around and I head back to Boston, I am grateful for that singular year I was forced to miss her party, because it meant I could re-invent myself.
The career change wasn’t easy. The owner of the first interior design company I worked for hired me much like my former restaurant manager did. He only cared that I was smart and had a good vibe. He put his faith in me, and I learned more from that job than I had in all my classes at FIT. After my unemployment ran out, I bounced around quite a bit and ended up back in restaurants for a few years while trying to get my footing in design. A recent count revealed that I’ve held twenty-four jobs in the last fifteen years, and fourteen of them were after graduating college. I challenge any of my classmates to top that!

The upside to switching careers is how much happier I am in my current job than I was at any one previously. I work for a small interior design company (it’s only the owner and I who do the design work) as a project manager of sorts for high-end residential and hospitality projects. I shoulder most of the responsibility for making sure the projects are completed, and oversee a half a dozen projects with budgets ranging from half to a million and a half dollars. I generally work independently, and have learned quite a bit as a result. I have been with this company longer than any other – almost two years. However, I am looking for a new challenge because even this position is flawed. For one thing, I don’t get to do as much of the actual designing as I’d like, I hope to work for myself.

The downside to bouncing around so much is I haven’t really had the chance to advance in my field, especially when it comes to financial compensation. Over the past six years I have been on unemployment more than once, and even on public assistance for health care. I am still paying off my student loans, have credit card debt, no retirement savings (or any sort of savings for that matter), and must live an hour commute from my office to have a place I can barely pay for. My current job doesn’t even offer affordable health insurance, and because design jobs generally start at a lower pay scale than consulting, I make less now than what I was offered out of college.
People always tell me how much they respect and admire me for following my dreams, going my own way, marching to the beat of my own drummer or doing what makes me happy. I think from the outside, when you have a job in say finance or consulting, my pseudo-bohemian lifestyle is easily idealized. I think people think I am brave for bucking the stereotypes of MIT and doing something in a creative field that I enjoy.

The truth is, I don’t think it’s bravery at all but quite the opposite. I think after a string of bad luck coupled with unhappiness, I just gave up trying. I spent so much of my life striving to be the best, to satisfy myself and others, that I think I just grew weary. I was not used to being laid off, and certainly not fired. I was used to success, whether it came easily or through hard work. I have let myself internalize my post-collegiate failures to the point I believe them, and am afraid to ask for the responsibilities and compensation that I feel suit my abilities. My desire to switch careers was genuine, but I have also let myself take the easy path instead of pushing myself towards excellence. With that has come a string of jobs that I am vastly overqualified for in some ways and a novice in others. Ultimately, I think my current situation is much more the result of cowardice than the so-called bravery people credit me with.

I am on a certain career path now, but sometimes wish for the strength to just jerk the wheel and send my jalopy careening off that path and into the unknown wilderness. I haven’t been brave enough, and haven’t had the means or client base, to incorporate my own business and strike off on my own in interior design. I’ve developed three different business plans over the years, but never fully followed through on any of them. I looked into a dual masters program at Yale that would leave me as, essentially, a “Green Architect,” but the four years of time and tuition was daunting. I don’t apply to any of the corporate jobs that would have hired me out of college, because how would this MIT graduate explain the last six years of my resume?

Because I have been, for whatever reason, unable to see any of these dreams through, I have devalued myself to the point I accept my current situation as the best I can do, almost as if I were “settling” in a relationship. Ironically, I would never let a boyfriend speak to me the way my boss does, yet I put up with it willingly in the office. The downturn in the economy could not have come at a worse time. Just as I’d learned everything I could at my current firm, after spending enough time there to show on my resume that I could actually hold down a job, when I finally grew tired of my boss’ condescension, and came up with the ideal job for me, suddenly there were no jobs to be had. I feel trapped at my current company, where I am trying to make the best of it. I hoped to have a backup offer to use as leverage my two-year review rolled around, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

Lest I sound like a Debbie Downer, I know the future holds great things for me. I just don’t know what they are. Part of the problem with having so many interests is that no one thing dominates my passion or skill set so I haven’t had one clear road to travel. I remember when I interned at Ford; they had something called a “Six Sigma Black Belt.” I have no idea what that means, but every manager wanted to be one. I realize today that I am not the kind of person to have just one black belt. I have, and always will have, a closet full of yellow, orange and green belts. It leaves me feeling as if, even at the age of thirty, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to chop up my credit cards, chuck my cell phone in the trash, pack up a sarong and some seeds and go practice sustenance farming in a village somewhere.

In that vein, for several years I considered moving out of New York. I visited Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Tucson, Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami, Charleston, and San Juan, taking each one into consideration as my next home. But nothing stacks up against New York, especially for a Jane-of-All-Trades like me who wants a taste of everything.

When I moved to New York, a city with a much stronger pulse than that at MIT, I still strived to keep my finger on it. I started a mailing list, dubbed “Hot Times: Summer in the City.” Each week I scoured the web for free events happening in New York and compiled them into an e-mail I would send to all my friends. I didn’t actually attend many of the events I wrote about, but just knowing they were going on made me feel more connected to the city.

In an effort to take advantage of all the city has to offer, I worked hard to cultivate relationships and establish a clear work-life balance. That balance is what resulted in my layoff from the environmental consulting company. Friendships and cultural pursuits are great but as Liz Phair sang, “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid.”

Getting divorced and turning thirty have motivated me to better my situation in all aspects of my life including career, finances, and relationships. It is a tug of war though between the investment and the potential gains, and I have been trying to feel my way out of this quagmire. The Catch-22 presents itself as such: if I don’t have a good job, I won’t have money. If I don’t have money, I won’t have the means to be social or look good. If I don’t look good and socialize, I will never meet someone which whom I can share the rest of my life. If I am alone, I will be unhappy. If I am unhappy, I will not be confident enough to seek out a better job. Let me explain.

When I was depressed from the break-up, all I wanted to do was be out amongst people rather than cooped up in what I referred to as my “haunted house.” But going out cost the money I shouldn’t be spending, but did anyway. I figured without insurance to go see a therapist, a friendly face on the neighboring barstool was the next best thing. That lifestyle is tiring, and I became distracted from my job which in turn may have endangered my chances of a positive annual review. Just in case that were true, I started thinking about finding a new job, in a happy, safe corporate environment where there was middle management, a 401K, and the occasional Excel spreadsheet. I began fetishizing my friend’s careers they way they had mine.

The stress of the split also resulted in significant weight loss, so my old clothes look ridiculously baggy. As they say, “dress for the job you want,” so unless the job I want is the “after” model in a Dexatrim ad, I need some new clothes. I have slowly begun replacing my wardrobe, but feel like I need a second opinion on what looks good on my new body before investing money on clothes. The only pants in my closet that fit properly right now are two pair of jeans unsuitable for my current dream job of “Sustainable Design Consultant.”

Another motivator to improve my life stems from the realization that as I get older, so do my relatives. My grandfather has been showing his years lately, and had a stroke recently. I truly hope that I can turn my life around before his ends, because his approval means the world to me. He provided the financial support that allowed me to attend and succeed at private high school and MIT. At my graduation from college, I remember thinking that this man who shows so little emotion seemed proud of me. I know he disapproves of my current career. His sister was an interior decorator, and I don’t think she spent four years at a technical college to become one. I would like him to know I am in fact directly using my education, and hope there is some job description out there that allows me happiness and an intellectual challenge.

My grandfather also disapproved of my ex-husband, something he made very clear throughout our relationship by giving him (and me!) the cold shoulder whenever we visited. When I went home for Christmas after my divorce, we celebrated the holiday at my grandparents’ house. At the end of the night, as my grandfather tottered off to bed, he said to me, “Next time, ask me first.” This abrupt and pointed comment from a man of few words shocked me, as I didn’t realize just how fervently he disapproved (and I still am not sure why exactly he did). It’s like when Silent Bob speaks in a Kevin Smith movie. You are so shocked to hear his voice that you just have to listen. I guess there is something to be said for a guy asking a girl’s family for her hand in marriage. Mine probably would have said no, and I mightn’t be a divorcée today!

My abnormal desire to please others may have waned over the years, but my need to show my grandfather I am, and always was, a worthwhile investment, has only increased. It all seems quite daunting, but that is the hurdle I am seeking to overcome before my next birthday. If you wouldn’t mind sending your drummer over for me to march to, I’d appreciate it – I fired my own.


emmablue said...

I only finished reading half of this right now.

I always wanted to go to MIT for all the reasons you describe, but I was busy being a pothead in high school and had missed credits from transferring from Canada and plus I am not good with fractions =(

My mom just got her masters in architecture from Pratt. She is in her 50's, its certainly not too late!

emmablue said...

Katie love, thank you for sharing all this!

I dont know what you believe it, but wether you believe in God or a creative higher force...try praying for guidance!

love you