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Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Quitting Jobs, Part 1

Friday, March 16th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(Carmichael's Grocery, my first jobsite)

They say unemployment is falling. Of course, a good economy is usually bad for the environment. And any time I hear about the job market, I think of how hard I’ve tried to stay out of it.

I wasn’t like that at the beginning. I started working for wages at the age of 8, as a stock boy in my grandpa’s neighborhood grocery store. A couple years later, I started working as an after-school mail courier for the local eye doctor. I kept that job through high school. And in the summers, I mowed lawns and painted houses. That’s how I was able to buy my own musical equipment.

In college, I was trying hard to be an adult. I believed that I needed to support myself. I believed that my parents expected that, and personally, I needed to become independent of my parents. I didn’t think it was an option to continue living off their hard-earned dollars until I finished my degree and presumably used that to get a real job. A friend found me part-time work compiling data for a geography professor, microfiche records of slaves who were freed after the Civil War, at minimum wage. I still remember my head hunched for hours in the dark world of the machine, and the golden parchment scrolling by, with thousands of lines of elegant old fountain-pen script evoking people and families long dead, their Biblical names repeated over and over again.

That project ended, and in the summertime, I moved into an apartment and needed more income. My grandpa had taught me a lot of construction skills, so a friend and I started going to construction sites in the dark before dawn, hoping to get hired. We did that daily for weeks, with no success. The economy was in a deep recession. But I did experience a miracle one day. A foreman at ground level of a new skyscraper told me to ride the crew elevator to the top to find the hiring boss. And I rode the open cage 30 stories into the sky, and walked across loose plywood laid over temporary scaffolding, with no guard rails, nothing but empty air around me, 30 stories above Chicago.

My girlfriend and I were living on junk food purchased in bulk on sale at supermarkets: a dozen macaroni and cheese dinners for $2 would last us a week. I had been planning to transfer to art school, but that was clearly impossible. My science and math skills would qualify me for an engineering career, and engineers could always get jobs. So I transferred to engineering school instead, and from then on, high-paying jobs were miraculously handed to me on a plate. Part-time jobs during school, designing an amino acid analyzer with little buckets that moved around on a miniature conveyor, processing and testing samples. Full-time jobs during the summer, running a block-long, multi-million-dollar machine that took raw metal and turned it into Coke cans, experimenting with liquid nitrogen wearing insulated gloves. We moved into a nicer apartment and I opened a savings account.

But during my lunch hour at work, I was writing short stories, which I kept submitting to magazines and contests until finally I won a literary prize. At night and on the weekends, I was painting and writing songs. And in my last year of engineering school, I interviewed for a bunch of prestigious jobs at places like NASA’s Ames research center, and couldn’t imagine taking any of them. So I changed course for a while. I worked in a music shop as a craftsman, then quit that job to join a friend’s band and hang out at his art school. That experience was a turning point in my creative life, the point when I became a mature artist – if not a mature adult!

I moved to San Francisco and took an engineering job, strictly on the basis that the job was a way of paying my bills while I reserved the best of my energy for the arts. The work was incredibly boring, so I cheated by writing poems and songs at my desk. After six months, I had saved up a few thousand dollars and quit to work on music and art full-time.

I lasted another six months, then went broke, but it was worth it. I got so much work done during that break. I went back to my former boss, a sympathetic, fatherly type, and he gave me my job back, and the pattern was set.

Travis McGee, the hero of a pulp fiction series by John D. MacDonald, always told people that he “took his retirement in installments,” rather than waiting until he was too old to enjoy it. Over and over again, he worked hard for a few weeks to save up a nest egg so he could play for months until the money ran out. I would do something similar, except that instead of playing during those breaks, I would work hard on something I loved. The idea of retirement was meaningless to me, because my goal was to spend my entire life doing creative work. Maybe someday I could just do that, and stop taking jobs!

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Quitting Jobs, Part 2

Saturday, March 17th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(Deep in the bowels of the oldest commercial nuclear plant in the U.S.)

Four months after returning to my first engineering job, I ran into a guy on the subway who offered me a better job, so I quit the first one yet again. The new job involved earthquake safety studies at nuclear power plants, and that’s a whole ‘nother story! My first assignment was to explore the basement of the oldest commercial nuke plant in the U.S., and after discovering some kind of vapor leak and triggering alarms, I refused to go back in the plant. My boss relented and I worked for him for two more years, saving up enough money to buy equipment for a home recording studio and take a full year off. So I quit again and temporarily moved to Los Angeles to live with my new girlfriend and write a bunch of new songs. That was another big leap forward in my creative work.

Again, when I went broke, my former boss – who viewed his company as a family – received me as a prodigal son, and even allowed me to take on a new, non-engineering clerical role with less responsibility and scaled-back hours, so I had more time for band rehearsals and recording sessions, and I could arrive at work late the morning after a gig the night before. What a life! My engineering colleagues were envious and fantasized about me onstage biting the heads off chickens, like Alice Cooper. Their lives were so conventional in comparison, most of them didn’t have a clue about what I was doing.

Although a job normally saps your creative energy, this sweet deal supported one of the most productive periods in my life as an artist. Plus, I had the use of office computers and copy machines for self-publishing and postering. This time, I stayed on for six years, during which time I made hundreds of new works of art, played hundreds of gigs, recorded an album, produced multimedia shows and conferences, and published a book. However, I was burning the candle at both ends and it was not the healthiest lifestyle.

I also evolved, outgrowing the band and falling in love with the desert. Finally, I quit the job again to move to the wilderness. The company held a big going-away party for me, and they all brought appropriate desert-inspired gifts. For a serial quitter, I sure have been blessed!

After a year in the desert, I was broke again. My former job was no longer available; the company was in decline and my old career was basically obsolete. This time, I struggled for six months, working part-time as a carpenter with a musician friend. Then I miraculously landed a full-time job with a multimedia startup. I discovered that there was a whole new industry that required new skills that were not being taught anywhere. To get a job in the new industry, you only needed to show that your background somehow prepared you to do these new things.

It wasn’t easy. The first multimedia job was a false start and gave me my first lesson in getting fired. The startup was a hothouse environment, with rapid changes in management, people getting hired and fired on a monthly basis, an excess of ambition, insecurity, and backstabbing. After six months, a new boss fired me so she could install her friend in my position.

I had saved up another six months’ worth and started a new band, but I didn’t really have a footing in the new industry, so when I ran out of money, I was really in trouble. A few days of carpentry per month wouldn’t keep me alive. I managed to get on unemployment, which carried me through the rest of the year as I evolved creatively with my new band. Then I outgrew that band, ran out of money and started living off my credit card. A friend might have multimedia work for me in Los Angeles, so I moved there. That work didn’t materialize, but I joined an elite new media salon, taught myself digital animation and made some interactive art, and through other friends, got a contract to design a CD-ROM for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which significantly reduced my credit card debt. The new media salon, run by Art Center’s Peter Lunenfeld, got me back in touch with the art world: Bob Flanagan’s supermasochistic performance art; Chris Kraus’s wacky and wonderful Chance Conference at a Nevada casino, with legendary academic Jean Beaudrillard rapping in front of a live band, DJ Spooky from London, and a Paiute visionary leading a sunrise hike into the desert.

Suddenly the Web was the hot new thing, and it was happening in San Francisco, so I returned there. I had no experience, but neither did anyone else, and there were new companies opening every day, hiring people with no experience. I was still deep in debt and really discouraged, but a friend talked me into cold-calling the new companies and bullshitting my way in. To my surprise, it worked! The top internet design agencies in the world actually took me seriously. A creative director at Studio Archetype asked me if she could copy my white paper on new media to show her boss, Clement Mok, the guru of new media design. My “career” was starting to feel like an epic graphic novel…

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Quitting Jobs, Part 3

Sunday, March 18th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(The carefree Dotcom Boom: Partying like there's no tomorrow!)

After years of poverty, debt, and frustration, I entered the Web industry at the point when the swell begins rising and you realize it’s going to be a big wave. It was such a heady time that I temporarily lost touch with who I was. Many people in the industry believed that the Web was their generation’s revolution that would solve the world’s problems through technology. There was an internet collective called Cyborganic that courted me from the beginning. They were all young, arty and over-educated and trying to use the new technology to spread knowledge democratically. Amazingly, they got venture capital and leased a flashy building in the heart of downtown San Francisco where they threw massive parties and exhibited Web art.

After a full-day interview, including a presentation to staff that I had cobbled together the night before out of photos of my old art work, I was shortlisted for the position of director of IDEO Product Design’s new interactive division. For years, IDEO had been the most celebrated design firm in the world. But at the same time, the hippest web agency in the industry, vivid studios, offered me a job as information designer. I took the latter because although IDEO was more prestigious, vivid seemed to represent the future, and their culture seemed more idealistic and less corporate.

I excelled in this new field, learning by trial and error and helping invent a new profession that would rapidly become a foundation of the Web industry. The first project I was given leadership of was a big hit, with rave reviews in the national press. But a few months later, I was fired under mysterious circumstances which I attributed once again to the hothouse environment, excessive ambition and insecurity. Ironically, a few weeks after firing me, management begged me to come back to lead a project that I’d pitched before being fired. My pitch had won the contract and now they needed me after all!

After finishing this project, which won an international award, I quit again and started my own business. The Fortune 500 clients I had worked for at vivid now brought their design projects directly to me. I opened an office in North Beach, hired an assistant and recruited hot young designers and coders for the challenging, high-profile projects that kept flowing my way. All of downtown San Francisco hummed with energy; dotcommers met for cocktails in trendy bars then went back to the office to work all night. Twenty-somethings were paying cash for hot city property and becoming slumlords. I worked on one project with a kid who had his own NASCAR team.

On warm evenings in my neighborhood, you could hear laughter and the tinkle of drinks at rooftop industry parties overhead. I was flying all over the country, advising billionaire investors and CEOs. Again and again, powerful companies offered me prestigious positions which I turned down. I had so much work I was blowing off new contracts, and I believed that I had finally found a solution to life’s financial rollercoaster. I would grow my business, meet my soulmate, get married and have a family, sell the business for a fortune and retire early, and figure out what to do about all my frustrated dreams and passions.

But of course the wave had to break, the boom had to end. Everyone knew that, but we were all going to ride the wave as long as we could. Instead of a soulmate, I met an idealistic neo-hippie girl who cared nothing for the Web industry lifestyle and had no respect for what I was doing. And as the dotcom crash unfolded, a strange thing happened. Although the girl and I were traumatically incompatible, she shocked me out of the megalomaniacal Web industry delusion and back onto my own true idealistic life path.

What little I had saved ran out quickly, and more years of struggle followed, with even longer periods of unemployment and deeper credit card debt, living in dramatically reduced circumstances. I started a new art project, looked into organic farming and other idealistic careers, did backbreaking habitat restoration as a community volunteer, chopping acres of invasive plants out of nature preserves. I fell into depression and my health began to deteriorate. But eventually, after three years, the Web industry revived, and the few old colleagues who had survived the crash started calling me with new projects, bless their hearts.

This time, I had a more realistic long-term plan. Instead of using my profits to live the dotcom lifestyle, I would continue to live cheaply, save money, and look for a place far from the rat race, with low cost of living, which would allow me to work less on the Web and more on my dreams.

That brought me to where I am today.

And yes, I quit again!

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