EXISTENTIALISM AS A CAREER CHOICE

By Claudia B. Manley

I frequently joke about being in my "fourth" career; however, I realize that it is only now that I am actually starting my vocation. My three previous professions have actually been a long form of occupational education.

Since junior high I've wanted to write and to be a writer. Literature fueled my imagination and writing became the outlet for my creativity. Yet, I wasn't sure that I could just be a writer. My awareness of the financial demands of life didn't allow me to feel that it was a livelihood I could afford to pursue. Therefore, I turned to options that I believed would let me write and eat.

In the grand tradition of Sartre and Camus, I chose philosophy as my first calling. I didn't have any delusions of being an actual philosopher, but thought I would teach. I went to graduate school, worked as a teaching assistant for free, and tried to stay focused. It is still a subject that I love; nevertheless, after managing to get an MA, I realized that love alone wasn't enough to sustain me through five (or more) years of Ph.D. work.

Luckily for me, I was also an ardent activist and found that non-profit (there are many reasons it's called that) seemed to offer the chance to combine philosophy, writing, and work. I put in many years as a volunteer for Amnesty International before realizing that I might never get a job with them. When I was offered a job with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation I thought I'd hit the career jackpot.

What? Do you hear what I hear? The warning whistle of an on-coming train? Yes, alas my dear reader, my sincere Pollyanna vision of working for human rights was thwarted by the cruel reality of money, politics and image. My paid activist career was derailed after a short ten months. It became one of the most demoralizing moments of my professional life. For the second time in my working life, I was faced with the specter of failure. I felt that my choices had failed me and that I had failed them.

I began temping on Wall Street when unemployment ran out. I was scheduled to spend three months covering for a secretary on maternity leave. However, even before my first day, I was worried that I wouldn't last the week. To be honest, while I had the wardrobe, I didn't really have the look. Short hair, short nails, and a nose ring are not exactly corporate staples. I also refused to believe that I had anything in common with the "suits."

Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the bank: I realized I liked getting a decent regular paycheck. I also liked the people I worked with and it was easy for me to do an excellent job. So when they offered me a full-time permanent position, I had no reason to say no. At least working for the Man, you knew what the motivating factors were. I had no more illusions of saving the world, this time I was saving myself.

Amazingly I stayed there for two and a half years, moving from secretary to legal assistant (with my own office for god's sake!). Quite honestly, it was kind of hysterical. I kept thinking that someday the jig would be up and they'd uncover me for the corporate fraud I felt I was. But they never seemed to, and it was then that I began to lose respect for my work and myself. It was time to make a change.

Remember that philosophy background? Well, it's not always easy to be an existentialist. As such, I need to be honest and make appropriate changes once I realize that I'm not invested in what I'm doing. Up to now, all my career choices have had this in common: I believed that they would all pay and allow me to write. Finally I've realized that all along I should have been concentrating on making writing my priority, rather than it being a lucky bonus of another job.

So here I am. Pitching ideas for freelance work, writing short stories, and working part-time at a bike shop. It's hard and money's tight. But, it was time that I took a leap of faith and committed to writing. Sometimes it's okay to be an existentialist.




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