Ink-Dipped Advice: Positive Career Re-Shaping

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I realized that last week’s post was more tied to the piece I’m working on about how employers are driving away the skilled workers they claim they want than actually about re-shaping my career.

I’ve re-shaped my career often. I’ve made my living in the arts since I was 18. Sure, I took temp jobs and office jobs in between, and even earned rent a few times betting the horses out at Aqueduct. But the bulk of it was in the arts, and the arts were always my focus.

Any job outside the arts ONLY served to get me through until I had another job inside the arts that paid me enough to live. Then I quit the other job.

If the job got in the way of the career, the job was eliminated when I got a good career opportunity.

A PAID opportunity.

NOT an “exposure” opportunity,

Remember, people die of exposure. Insist on the cash.

I started in lighting, for theatre and rock and roll. I wanted to work more closely with actors, so I moved into stage management.

From stage management, I moved into wardrobe (so I wasn’t on call 24/7 and could have a life and keep writing – through all of this, I always wrote).

I stayed, happily, in wardrobe, working my way up to Broadway, until I started aging out of the physical demands and decided I wanted to leave while I still loved it. I watched too many people age in the jobs, afraid to leave, in pain, unhappy, and bitter. I didn’t want to be one of them.

I moved away from New York to a place I’d always loved. Unfortunately, it’s a place that supports the arts in name only.  They love it when prominent artists come in to visit and do special programs and have second homes here; they don’t believe artists in their community deserve a living wage to do what they do.

I took a job that I thought would be a dream job, but turned out to be a two-year nightmare, with a boss that loved to sabotage anything I did and daily told me that “something” was wrong with me. Because anyone who disagreed with her must have “something” wrong with them.

Still, when I was fired from that job (technically, the position was “eliminated”), I was devastated. I’ve only recently realized how deep the psychological damage is. The boss tried to break me; she didn’t succeed, but it will take a long time before the wounds are just scars.

I went back to a local theatre for a quick summer gig – bad situation in a lot of respects, and woefully underpaid, but still worth it.

Then, I worked to rebuild what I wanted and needed from my career, focusing more on business and marketing writing, which I enjoy. I love to work with people in different fields who are smart and passionate about what they do, and I love to communicate that passion to engage a larger audience. I find it joyful.

All of this time, I was still meeting contract deadlines on books, writing new books, switching publishers, attending and/or teaching at conferences, writing plays, writing radio plays, and so forth and so on.

I found some local clients, and did a mix of onsite and remote work, although, writing-wise, I firmly believe the writer does not need to be in someone else’s office.  Many were one-and-done, some because that’s all they needed; others because they balked at paying, insisted I work onsite, but would not provide me with a professional working environment. A laptop on a board set over two overturned oil drums is not an acceptable desk.

I spent more and more time with clients farther afield. I put a lot of miles on my car, driving for in-person meetings all over New England as I pitched across the country and the world. Interestingly enough, it was easier to land international remote clients when I lived in NYC than where I live now. Part of that is the current political situation, because more and more international companies don’t want to work with Americans right now.  I worked with a mix of profit and non-profits. I worked with solopreneurs and artists. Still writing novels, plays, radio plays. I took the bus into Boston more often.

I was actually willing to set up a regular commuting situation into Boston, even though it meant being up by 4:30 in the morning to be on a 6:15 bus and not getting home until 10 or 11 at night. Boston is only 65 miles from here, but the commute can take anywhere from 2 to 5 hours in each direction, depending on traffic.

On the bus, I could write my 1000 words a day, and read the books I was sent for review. I couldn’t do much more than that, but the clients who paid appropriately for my skills were in Boston, not where I am.

I was at that turning point earlier this spring – ready to commit to ridiculously long commuting hours for at least the next year or two.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we were on Stay-At-Home order. Let me make this clear – people are dancing around talking saying how we were in “quarantine” – we were NOT. Here in MA, it was a stay-at-home order. Yes, offices and stores and libraries and museums and performance venues and schools were closed. But we were not quarantined, and there was no enforcement. We were encouraged to only grocery shop once every 14 days, but we weren’t FORCED so to do. There was (and is) a mask mandate in the state, which too many people ignored, and more and more are failing to fulfil.

The positive part of the pandemic was that, for those of us who already worked remotely, at least a good portion of the time, and for those who prefer it, it proved that working remotely is viable for many “office” jobs.

Now that they’re forcing us back out, without a plan, to Die For Our Employers, those of us who can work well remotely and got a lot of push-back for it are re-shaping our careers so to do. We’re supported and encouraged by those who have worked remotely full-time for years.

It means I can re-shape my career yet again. I am more productive, more creative, and more focused in my home office. I have it set up for maximum benefit, in a way NO office in this area has ever served. (I admit, I’ve had some pretty sweet offices in both New York and San Francisco).

It also means I can live anywhere I choose, as long as there’s a good internet connection – and one I can afford.

When I worked on Broadway, I had to live in a commutable distance from Broadway in order to work there. When I moved, it was a conscious choice to move beyond a commutable distance, because I knew I wouldn’t really give it up unless I couldn’t physically get there.

I’m also looking at different types of work.

I write.

I’m not a graphic designer, although I can put together ads and social media posts. I work WITH graphic designers well. So when I see a listing that tries to give the position a fancy title, but really wants to save money by hiring one person to do two or more jobs at less than that one person should earn, I skip it.

I’ve managed plenty of teams – I’ve been a wardrobe supervisor, I’ve been a production manager in both theatre and film. I can manage a full production, so managing a content calendar and other writers is cake.

But I don’t necessarily want to.

I want to write stuff.

Given the right circumstances, environment, team, and, most importantly, PAY – yes, I’d be a manager. But a lot of different factors would be involved. There are theatres, arts organizations, and museums for which I’d be willing to work onsite, once it’s safe so to do. It won’t be safe for a good long while, especially with the way the numbers are going up.

I’m more cautious about working for non-profits. When I worked in NY and SF, I often temped or even long-term temped at non-profits. They were run like businesses and understood that you pay for the skills you need.

Here? The constant dirge is “you should be honored we demand you to work for free.”

Um, no.

Some positions that I would have thought were fun and interesting and exciting even a year ago no longer grab me. They contain elements on which I no longer want to spend time. That’s nothing against the companies – they need what they need. But it means companies to whom I would have sent an LOI or a proposal packet even a year ago are no longer on my list.

I grappled with this for a few months. I felt that I was failing, that I was “less than” or that I was being lazy.

Then, I realized most of that was the voice of the toxic ex-boss still running a subscript in my subconscious.

People grow and change, and so do their careers.

It’s not a failure.

It’s a natural process.

Growing and changing is a positive, not a negative.

It doesn’t mean you have to start in the mailroom and wind up as an executive. It means you add skills and credentials and experience, take that, and CHOOSE what and where you go next.

Yes, there’s an element of privilege in that choice, and our current government wants to make sure we have NO choices and are the peasants to their feudal lords. Which is another reason we need to get out the vote and overthrow these dictators-in-training.

But deciding to take one’s career in a different direction is not a failure.

It means you are integrating all of what you’ve done, learned, and experienced, and turning it into something wonderful. It doesn’t have to conform to someone else’s agenda or convenience. It means you’ve outgrown where you are and it’s time to move on.

It also means that when you find that next career situation, you are more productive and engaged, which is better for both you and your employer.

One would think/hope companies would be excited to find enthusiastic, engaged workers rather than someone who just shows up every day.

You look at your life and decide what you want and need. Work is such a large part of our lives that how and what and where we work factors in a great deal.

Maybe you can’t change your situation today. But you can start figuring out what you want and need, do some research, and take small steps regularly.

Small steps lead to big change.

That’s a good thing.

How have you re-shaped your career?

One thought on “Ink-Dipped Advice: Positive Career Re-Shaping”

  1. Not a failure at all — a good business decision.

    Funny, as I read through your journey, I saw how you’ve grown and how you’ve weeded out what doesn’t fit anymore. You try. That’s a message so many writers need to learn. If you try, you’re doing something. Not trying is failure.

    How have I reshaped? I started with the low-paying gigs to get clips. Then I moved up. Then up again. Then a few compromises to take easy work, but when it stopped feeling right, I moved on.

    Right now, I ask for, and get, my fee without apology or hesitation. I’m too busy to quibble. In another market, I’d be much more willing to negotiate. But my husband said something years ago that made total sense — “If you’re too busy, you need to charge more.”

    I’m trying right now to reshape again. I want to retire soon. I can’t until I can collect a decent amount of Social Security. So I have to keep earning. The thought is to put together a writing firm with specialized writing talent. When I get too much work, funnel it their way for a small referral fee for me. I can still earn, and everyone benefits. But I will vet like crazy to make sure the writers are serious pros. I have a few folks in mind.

    It’s about life balance. Right now, my life is not balanced enough, and I’m stressed. That’s not why I started freelancing, and I won’t let it kill me. So the solution — the reshaping — is in the works. 🙂

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