My Book / My Family / On Writing / Parenting

On Happiness & The Changing Landscape Of Careers

I vividly remember my first job. I was twelve years old. In Grade 7. The job was to clean a dental office with my mother (she worked there during the day).  I remember being excited about making money even though I wasn’t sure on what I wanted to spend the money. Every Friday night, my mom and I would gather our cleaning bits and head to the office to clean, scrub, shine, vacuum and mop. I don’t remember how much I was paid. I remember that after a while, I started to dread the job. I wanted to play with my friends on Friday nights or at least have the option to do so. However, I didn’t want to let my mother down. At that point, the job was more about me helping my mom than it was about making money.  There was one particular Friday that sticks out because it happened to hold my first French-kiss experience. Oh man. It was Winter. Me and the boy were freezing and I was on a deadline – I had to book it home to meet my mom so we could go clean the damn dental office. The kiss was awful. I was late. My mom was mad. And it was a long time before I tongue-kissed a boy after that.

I don’t know when I quit the job. Likely in the summer because that’s when I babysat like it was going out of style. I read the whole Babysitter’s Club series of books when I was a child so I *LOVED* to babysit. I felt like I was living out the stories I was reading. I had a box of arts and crafts, games, books that I brought with me to every gig. I had gigs that lasted all summer – starting early in the morning and watching two or three kids at a time every weekday. I was only 12-13 at the time. I cooked and cleaned too. And I remember being exhausted and grateful when the kids finally took their daily naps. (What a foreshadowing that was!) No, I don’t remember how much I was paid for these babysitting jobs…I think it’s safe to say though, that I spent the money on books and puffy paints. Remember those? You used them to do art on t-shirts, bags, anything material? I had a ridiculous collection of puffy paints.

When I started high school, I got a job at Burger King. Ah yes, I was a fast-food kid – trudging across the muddy/snowy/tall-grass field behind my high school to work a 4pm -8pm shift…I remember making my resume and thinking to myself I’m never gonna have a good resume. All I do is babysit and work at Burger King. I worked almost every day at the King. The late shift if I had a game or event of some sort. Yes, I was involved in everything in high school. From student council to swimming to plays – I was involved on some level. I have no idea when or where I did my homework because I’m pretty sure I went from school to work – and I wouldn’t get home until midnight some nights. I do remember having a few mental breakdowns over my high school career, however. Sliding down a pee-colour painted wall in some classroom, landing hard on my butt, exhausted and crying. Isn’t that wild?

Working at Burger King allowed me to save up for something specific – traveling. Wanderlust hit me a young age, and I worked my ass off to save money for weekend trips to Toronto or Stratford. I saved up so I could go to Mexico with a bunch of girls when I was 17 (we stayed at the Copa-Copacabana – come on sing it with me!). What a week of drunken, dancing, tanning, eating, sleeping that was! Such memories we made! (Ask me to tell you about the ‘belt’ story…) Lucky for you, I have photos of proof! Indeed, that was back then when we printed out our photographs! (Notice my trusty green LL Bean backpack in the hotel room?)

But the kicker of trips was the 21-day back-packing tour of Italy that I saved up for. (Yes, that’s a giant penis my sister and I are in front of. That was at the sex museum in Amsterdam.)

Over time, I despised working at the King. Not because the people were rotten or anything like that, I just felt like I was wasting my time when I was there – even though I was being paid for it. At one point, working midnights during the school year, I said to myself there is no amount of money worth doing this job. I felt the pull of my friends out dancing at the bars or at the show…just anywhere that wasn’t where I was, and the making money part didn’t feel worth it. Plus, I was really freakin’ tired. All. The.Time.

By the time I was 17, I’d been working at Burger King for three years. The day I quit I got hired to work at a clothing store in Devonshire Mall. It was better than fast food. I was working with the guy I was dating (who then broke up with me…that was awkward), and it was good be working in retail. Once you’re in retail at the mall, it’s not too difficult to get another job in retail because you get to know who’s at what store and who’s hiring. So I worked at several clothing stores over the course of a couple of years.

Then my high school career was coming to a near-end. I co-oped at CHWI (we called it ‘chewy’) as a television news reporter because I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my career – be a journalist of some sort. I applied to universities with journalism programs. Very quickly, I learned that I could never be a journalist. I didn’t have the heart – meaning, I had too much heart. We had to cover a house fire story and I holding in my tears the whole time. There was no way I would be able to interview people experiencing tragedies…I knew I couldn’t do it. So, I wrote a newsletter for the staff and found peace in writing something that existed to make people happy and laugh.

Always I was writing but never did I identify myself as a ‘writer’. Not yet. In fact, I didn’t even apply to any English or Creative Writing programs! What the? I got accepted into the U of Windsor’s Communication Studies program. I figured I’d learn about film and television, maybe write some scripts, and if I had the balls, take some creative writing courses as my electives. For work, I did work-study at the university. I was a TA (teaching assistant). I was a bus-girl at a mildy-skanky bar downtown, and I waitressed at a Greek restaurant.

Needless to say, by the time I was 19, my resume was good and long – filled with jobs I barely liked but enabled me to help pay for school, entertainment, and a little traveling.

I always had at least two jobs. My time-management skills were honed to an expert level by the time I was wrapping up my first year of university. And guess what?  I was done.

Enter existential-crisis. This is what happens when you near/start your twenties. Your soul becomes bigger than anything else inside of you and shakes you from the inside out. Begs you to question everything you know and ask yourself – what the hell are you doing with your life?! Who the hell are YOU?

My response to this question was a one-way ticket out West. Yes, in Canada, we go West to find ourselves among the clean waters and high mountains of Beautiful British Columbia. (We tend to go East when we’re a bit older…bring the family…eat fish…enjoy the peace…am I right?) I quit my jobs, connected with a friend who was already out there so I had a place to live, packed my green LL Bean back-pack that had friended me during my trip to Europe – and after a haircut, a night of hard dancing at The Loop, and some tearful goodbyes, I was off.

I promptly got a full-time job at Subway. A sandwich artist was my meal-ticket, and this was my first full-time job! I was amazed at the size of my paycheques and how I was able to afford rent, groceries, furniture, movies and a bike…I was one week into my new life when I saw a sign at the library: FEATURE FILM – AUDITIONS! Wait, what? The reason I was in the library was to visit the children’s section and read children’s books for inspiration. I’d packed more writing than clothing in my trusty green back-pack. I promised myself I was going to listen to music, read books, swim, eat healthy, burn incense and write, write, write. You know, when I wasn’t working. But that sign…it drew me in something fierce.

(Photo: Me and Jeanette, one of the directors of ‘Eating the Other’, the feature film I worked on. She and I are still friends today!!) Within a month of my new life out west, I was asked to produce a feature film. Nope. I had NO IDEA what that meant, but I knew I loved the young women directing the feature, and I knew that this was one of the meant-to-be reasons I was on this adventure. So I worked full-time and traveled between Kelowna and Penticton. I made sandwiches for hungry high school kids and basically organized a feature film. I didn’t get paid to be part of the film, but I was fed and housed, and I realized that I LOVED MAKING FILMS. And I was great at producing. Turns out my life-time of organizational, time-management skills were perfect for the role of producer. I made amazing friends (who I still am connected with today! Word up Jeanette!!) and I learned by doing that I wanted to be in the film industry, like, for my career.

Okay, so it probably feels like I was in Kelowna (out west) for a long time, but it ended up being only about 5 months. Two things happened…okay three. 1) I realized I wanted to go back to school and take film classes. Get my degree with a focus on filmmaking, and begin my career as a producer. 2) I was diagnosed with sever Ulcerative Colitis. Mama was very sick. 3) I fell mad-balls in love.  In short, I needed to go home.

My homecoming was bitter sweet. As soon as I got to my doctor, he shook his head and ordered me to the hospital. I was admitted, and stayed in-hospital for close to two weeks. Whilst there, I registered for school, chose my classes and did a few of my first assignments from my hospital bed. It took a long while to heal, but I learned to live with ulcerative colitis, and would end up in the hospital several more times over the course of my university career. Stress is the main factor in an ulcerative colitis flare up for me…and being in university, being in love, being in constant existential yearning (isn’t that what being in your early twenties felt like?!) was hard on my guts.

But I kept on working. I was still a teaching assistant. I was still doing work-study. I was still working at the bar/restaurant, and the movie theatre, and then doing all my coursework. Come graduation, I had several contract jobs lined up in my field. In Toronto. With CBC. With the Weather Network. I was dedicated, hard-working, outgoing and determined to climb that ladder up, up, up to the top.

Except…something else was happening during school. Remember all the writing I was doing? Well, I got a job working for the U of Windsor’s student newspaper, The Lance. I was hired as the Arts Editor. To this day, I can say with steady confidence, it was the best job I ever had. (Thank you Christopher!) I was writing every day. I was attending amazing community arts events. I was laying out a whole newspaper section. I was getting free CDs and stickers! I had MY OWN OFFICE. It was truly the best. Oh, and I was getting paid! But the gig ended, and I was about to graduate so I didn’t stay on as Arts Editor. Toronto was calling. My career in the film industry was luring me in.

By the time I was 22, I had produced 4 feature films, countless videos and student films, and I was doing well on a contract basis for the ‘big time’ industry leaders like CBC.

My existential searching was nearing its pinnacle. All these amazing jobs and connected opportunities. This was Toronto! This was the big time! My friends were working their way up the ladder just a rung or two ahead of me, and were able to get me connected quite easily. But at home…in Windsor…that’s where family was. And that’s where my true love was.

I was faced with the biggest choice of all – do I give up the love story and climb the corporate ladder or do I step down, choose love and re-think the ladder altogether? I think you know the answer. This summer will be the hubby and I’s 13th wedding anniversary…We’re two kids, a dog, a house, a car, a business into our love story. That corporate ladder is a memory that makes me smile without regret.

But CAREERS. That’s what I’m writing about here. When I was a child I wanted to be an actress or a mail delivery person. (I know, crazy?!) When I was 12, I was working two jobs. When I was 14, I was working in fast food and wondering if I’d ever have a ‘career’ and other jobs. When I was 19, I fell in love with film and my true love. My current resume is over 10 pages long…and my job at Burger King isn’t anywhere on the roster. I’ve worked so many jobs I can’t remember them all.

Four were absolutely career choices – 1) working as a producer in the film industry (over 15 years now) 2) working in management at the film theatre (3 years. I would have stayed longer but I had Jett…) 3) freelance writing for magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc. and teaching creative writing/doing workshops (currently doing this – but been doing it for 10+ years) 4) published writer (4+ years).

I’ll be 37 at the end of this month, and when I reflect on my working life, it’s clear to me that I’ve already had or am currently living through several careers. I don’t think it’s due only to my Gemini-nature that I’ve already been a multi-careered worker.

When you look at your work life, what story does it tell? My generation of friends is part of the multi-job/multi-career family. Some of us are entrepreneurs because after working in a career that just didn’t feel right (or maybe we didn’t like being told what to do…or maybe we didn’t agree with corporate policies…the reasons go on and on), we’ve started our own businesses or work on a freelance basis.

The generation after mine and even the generation after that – well, sheesh. They are made up of social-media gurus and entrepreneurs who are only in high school. Gone are the days of pin-pointing one career aspect, going through years of schooling and settling into 30+ years doing the same job.

As well, there are people I know who are newly retired (they did work that 30+ year same job) and now, they’re entrepreneurs. Some are opening boutique stores or making and selling crafts, writing or working in retail. The point is – they’re still working, and they’re working at a job that makes them happy. Yes, it’s stressful, but they’re doing it their way, on their time and with their still readily available passion…and they are making a new career out of it.

What can we attribute this to? Certainly, we’re living longer and living better in this new longevity. I think we’re less afraid to try new things, and even less afraid to fail. If we do, we pick up and try something new. I think our relationships to money are shifting as well. People I know who have made loads of money (or who currently make loads of money), still have that same inner voice telling them to do what makes them happy, to dream big, and to challenge themselves. No matter what, at some point, joy comes from not thinking about the money part at all.

I must say something about being ‘happy’ too. It seems as though it’s the ‘thing’ that we’re always talking about and asking each other – How are you? Well? Great…are you happy? It’s kind of a loaded question…and packed with meaning in the response.

When I was a kid, thinking about her future and attached ‘career’…I didn’t talk about doing what made me happy. The shift was slowly beginning…the shift from being educated to work at a job that would ‘pay’…to being educated to work at a job that I would enjoy, but it was still mostly about the money. These days, the conversation is so much broader. And being ‘happy’ and doing what you ‘love’ is very much a part of the conversation. I’m already having these conversations with my children – and they’re 9 and 6!

Because we are recognizing what we ‘love’ to do and learning what we’re good at, we are able to see if there is a connection between the two – and then making our dreams based on these conclusions. Sometimes, what we’re ‘good at’ is not what we love. Or it’s what someone else is telling us we should do because we’re good at it. Sometimes, it takes years to hone a skill or reach full potential on a talent…and we don’t know if we love it or not. Certainly, I think it’s a tragedy to have to figure out ‘university or college’ tracks when you’re just finishing elementary school. Good grief, I was more worried about where my boobs were when I was 13 – forget about what career I was supposed to think about having…

I’m not about to take a stand on our education system but because we’re in school for so (damn) long, I can’t leave it out of the conversation. Being happy starts when we’re children. We’re happy with abandon and freedom. I think this is the happy or part of it that we’re striving to feel again when we’re grown-ups.

Being happy, however, must include challenging oneself. Yes, it would make me very happy to lie in a hammock and read all day. And only eat chocolate. But…how long could I sustain this lifestyle without my body, my friendships, my bank account changing…so much so that it affects my happiness?

Part of being happy is feeling that rumble in your chest when you achieve a goal or accept and find success after a challenge, right? Writing makes me happy – but it also makes me angry and frustrated and elated and, it makes my feet really, really cold. Part of happiness is in equal part the pain and failure that comes with the territory.

When it comes to our careers – finding that balance or at least as close to balance as possible – between the happy and the hard – takes years and years. Especially when our careers make us money. And we need money to survive…and beyond that to live well and feed, clothe and shelter our selves and the ones we love. Of course, take care of our health as well – which can cost all kinds of money especially if we get sick.

My long-winded, many-worded point is that I believe the landscape of ‘career’ is changing. We’re living the change. We’re living longer and better and happier, and this is being reflected in our careers and our subsequent life choices.

You know, there was a time in university when I thought I’d live out of a hut and build schools and homes for poor children/families in Africa…or become an activist and travel around the world being part of whatever cause I felt needed my time and attention. I think about the world on the scale that is really exists in – all the time. About people who wake up and wonder if they’ll die of starvation – and that’s all. I think about where our garbage goes, about toddlers picking through mounds of it in hot countries so they can get pennies for food. I think about metal and technology graveyards making river waters rust red and poisoning the people who search through it…again for low wages. Where is the ‘happy’ there? And why aren’t ‘we’ as a human race, putting our attention to helping stop these realities we see on t.v. or we almost choose to help when we’re young…why aren’t we making equality a priority? What would happen to ‘careers’ if we all stopped to help?

I don’t know. Maybe because it’s hard. And dangerous. And the hard would outweigh the ‘happy’ for many, many years.

Or maybe…we’re all doing our best, and slowly but surely, we’re paying attention to the things and then making choices that will help the things that can bring everyone happiness.

Maybe we build careers when we’re young, so we can build families and teams that will help us use the money we make to help solve these problems. These global problems….

I think many of us attempt to find the ‘full-circle’ pleasure of working hard to help people – whether it’s family members or a family we buy a goat for in Africa…and that we’re living in the major shift that will eventually see us helping each other fully on a global scale.

What career are you on? Are you happy?

Thanks for reading. (This was a long one…)

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7 thoughts on “On Happiness & The Changing Landscape Of Careers

    • I don’t know. I think my circulation does weird things when i write. My feet and hands get really cold. No matter what the temperature around me. I think maybe all my blood is rushing to my brain and heart?

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  1. I haven’t been here for a while – life – you know, but this was an awesome reflection – It brought me to reflect on my roller coaster of a career path and how things always seemed to fall into place – thanks for being in my universal space when I started into my writing career! Ps I thought the cold feet was metaphorical – so I had the same question as Penny-Anne – because the Vanessa I know would rather get the gurgling stomach and jump in than have cold feet and chicken out! :0)

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    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Karen! I’m so glad that we’re in each other’s writing lives! One of the things I love most about ‘teaching’ writing…is the connections and inspirations that come with it!

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  2. Thanks again for the reminder that its ok to feel the way I do, as things take its course. But more importantly thank you for letting me know its ok as long as your chasing “happy” you will get there.

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