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The Wrong Tribe

How failed work friendships helped me escape my corporate career and find my true calling.

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On my first day of work at my first job out of college, I mouthed the words “I am a financial analyst” and told myself to feel grateful for landing a job in a recession. But in meetings about audits and quarterly results my mind wandered to happier days when I was a creative writing major devouring David Sedaris essays. Staring at the sea of beige cubicles, wearing a pencil skirt and stiff-collared top, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere along the way I had made a wrong turn.

I moved from Chicago to Milwaukee to work for an enormous U.S. industrial corporation in a rotational management program, which hires a crop of fresh college graduates twice a year. While my creative writing classmates scrambled for temp jobs at graduation, my second major in economics helped me bypass their fate. It also led me to a windowless cubicle, endless spreadsheets, and an emptiness I could not bear. I thought friendship could fill the void, but I quickly discovered that in this corporate world, true friendship was hard to find.

I was alone in Milwaukee. My college friends went on to lead hopping post-college lives in Chicago, nodding their heads at indie rock shows and sinking into greasy diner booths in the wee hours. I knew no one in my new city but took the job because the offer came early and accepting it seemed like the responsible thing to do. I landed the job before most seniors and negotiated a six-month deferral so I could spend time abroad in China, and then in Spain. I briefly considered a career as a writer, but the voices of my parents—and myself—told me that such a path was impractical, silly. I wanted to be a grownup. I took the job. I bought a car. I opened a 401(k). I envisioned throwing dinner parties that began with soft cheeses and bottles of wine.

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But in this new world, grownup life and grownup friendship had a different set of rules for which I was completely unequipped. Most co-workers seemed to be reading off a social script I had never laid eyes on. They gossiped about colleagues I barely knew, swapped inside jokes, and sized up each newcomer with a cheerful yet critical gaze. At a work barbecue I chatted up another recent grad who seemed genial enough, but quickly discovered we had little in common. My nerdy interests in obscure bands and Hong Kong film noir made for lousy conversation, I knew that much. Defaulting to common ground, I peppered her with questions about her job, which was a mistake. Three minutes into the conversation she heaved a big sigh and said: “My God! Can we please talk about something other than work? I’m here to have fun!” She picked up her plate of hamburger and chips and rejoined her friends.

I hadn’t always been this socially stunted. In my pre-pencil-skirt days, friendship had come easily. In college, I could run into an acquaintance on the quad, swap life stories, and we’d be best friends by day’s end. We were all cute puppies at 18, eager to cuddle and sniff each other out at first glance. And we lived spontaneously. Dancing! Indie shows! Poetry readings! I’d go with anyone who asked, and I made friends along the way.

Adulthood was a rude awakening. I thought if I just went to enough work parties, my luck in the friendship department would improve. I smiled, sipped cocktails, and tried to have a good time, but I struggled to connect. When colleagues bonded over frat memories, suddenly that experimental Flaming Lips listening party I went to (where the DJ played all four discs of the Zaireeka album at once!) sounded ridiculous.

At a corporate lunch, the CFO of one division nearly choked when I confessed to not following my Big 10 alma mater’s basketball games. “What do you do with your time?” he exclaimed, shooting a wild look to his audience for support. I laughed at his outrage and shrugged. “I guess I’m too busy reading books.” A pretentious response, I know, but I had spent one cold, lonely Wisconsin winter with Dostoyevsky and felt it counted for something.

Even though I knew it was the wrong move, I kept defaulting to work talk. I did it because 1) it was an easy common ground, and 2) I was surrounded by energetic graduates who seemed determined to build a future at this company. I wanted to understand that drive. What was I missing? How could I have the passion they seemed to possess? I thought if we were friends, they would fill me in on the secret.

But each conversation left me deflated, not because it highlighted our differences, but because it revealed that, like me, many of my young colleagues shared my career doubt. I realized that most people did not possess the “passion for finance” I thought I saw in them—and they hated me for pointing that out.

Perhaps my anxiety brought their worries to the surface. Perhaps my questions awoke the doubt they had tried to put to sleep. Or maybe I was just projecting.

Over cocktails with one smartly dressed colleague I couldn’t resist asking: “So … why did you take this job? Do you really enjoy finance?”

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Deborah Jian Lee is a New York-based freelance journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her here.

 

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