My first jobs as a teenager were all in a shopping mall. I ran from store to store making popcorn, serving ice cream and covering children’s birthday cakes with really terrible frosting art. I smelled like fast food and came home early in the morning covered in fake cheese and customers' tears.
Despite the mundane and frustrating aspects of these jobs, they instilled in me good work ethic, the ability to keep a clean living space and customer service skills that would serve me well into the future.
They also made me sure I was going to college. And sure that once I graduated, I would never work in a mall again. I appreciate and respect people who work in that type of customer service, it just made my high energy, multi-project loving ass bored enough to want to stab my eyes out with a waffle cone.
Fast forward to after college. I’ve just graduated and am all over the nonprofit job web. I’ve been a part of every social justice group I can find and participated in community activism all of the hopes of landing my dream job…and I’m working in the mall again. The same mall. Cleaning sticky finger prints off the same counter tops and making up excuses to take breaks so I can sneak into the storage closet and eat way too much chocolate.
My whole, “This is what I will be doing when I graduate” plan hadn’t quite turned out like I’d hoped.
Then one day I got a call from one of my favorite social justice non-profits of all time. Just before I had graduated school, I'd applied for a job with them. They put my resume and information on file and told me they would contact me if they had something I was qualified for in the future. This job seemed to be it.
They needed someone to start in an entry level position working on the phone. Job duties would consist mostly of scheduling and answering questions about the organization.
I was pumped. This was a job that I hoped could eventually lead to my doing even more for the organization. Things like education and speaking to policy makers.
They offered me an interview. I passed stage one and stage two and took the job. Taking this job wouldn’t just be doing something I figured I would love, it would be a way to prove to everyone that all my liberal arts degrees had been worth it! I was going to be an activist. As a job.
It’s day one of my new job and I’m super excited to no longer be dipping fruit into a vat of day-old chocolate in a store window. I’m enthusiastic, energetic and ready to kick some ass. I introduce myself to everyone I see, set up my desk like I already live there (cat pics and all) and get out my notebook and the T-Rex pen I use when I’m ready to get to work.
My first line of training is to take calls and direct people to the resources they are so in need of. The person training me took me through the steps of answering calls, inputting information and answering questions. I’m told that I’ll have two days of listening to them before I begin performing duties myself. Once the two days were up, I said I was ready. It’s just typing right?
Turns out, I’m not great at typing or listening. Despite my living in a time where I used a laptop all through college, I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with what someone was saying on the phone. Despite my having spoken to other human beings on the phone before, when I couldn’t find what I needed I got panicky and began breathing like Darth Vader and made listeners uncomfortable. I hated the dress code. I hated sitting at a desk all day.
After several months of taking typing tests in my free time, coming in early and staying late to try and improve my skills, and crying on my hour-and-a-half bus commute, I realized I had a decision to make.
I could continue to try to get better at something that was clearly, though embarrassingly, difficult for me or I could quit and find something that I was actually good at.
My boss, sensed I was experiencing difficulty too. They had already dropped a couple of hints about my seeming flustered before I was called into the office.
“During your interview, we asked you if you had competent typing skills and could multi-task and you said, yes, so naturally this is what we expected from you,” My boss said.
I knew what was coming next. I had been caught fumbling my way through scheduling software, unable to type as quickly as I had said I could. I thought I would pick things up quickly on the job and I hadn’t. My boss was going to give me one more week to prove I could actually use a phone and a computer before letting me go.
I took a deep breath and told them they didn’t have to.
“It’s OK,” I said, choking back tears of shame, “I’ve been thinking this over. I quit.”
It wasn’t that it was easy. I spent hours agonizing over my decision, I knew that I sucked and was kept awake by fears of being let go.
Despite being aware of the reality, I felt like a failure. When I deleted my Facebook update, I felt like I was letting down all the people who had been so pleased at my job change. I was embarrassed of myself and my obviously overzealous preconceived notions of my abilities.
Once I had packed up my things and made it the hour-and-a-half ride back home though, I found myself feeling relieved.
The job, it turned out, had been causing an incredible amount of stress. I was stressed because I didn’t want to be a failure. My partner was stressed because I was stressed and unhappy. Even my cats were stressed because I forgot to feed them a couple of times because I was so stressed.
Just because you think you want something doesn’t mean it’s what is right for you. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you are going to excel at it. Just because you’ve used a computer before doesn’t mean you’re actually good at it. And all of that is OK.
After quitting what I thought was my “dream of dream jobs” I only applied for jobs I thought I had the skills for and landed the job I have today. I am doing something I not only enjoy but can tolerate for long periods of time and happen to be very good at.
Now that I’ve been with my current job for over a couple of years, I see that the decision I made was the absolute right one. Not only am I benefitting myself but I’m benefitting the people that I serve by being a public educator. I’m still an activist. It’s just different than what I thought it would be.
Even though it was difficult, and worries about what others would think about my decision made my teenage self curl up in a ball and weep, I ended up doing what was best for me and don’t regret it.
At the end of the day, I was the one leaving a job I didn't excel at and couldn’t stand. It doesn’t make me wrong or untalented. It means there are some things I could work on and I don’t have all the mad skills I thought I did. Luckily, I have other skills and I’m at a place where I get to use them.
I don't even smell like fake cheese.