It’s Safer Outside

This is the season when people finishing college or grad school begin to wonder about how the heck they’re going to get gainfully employed. It seems like such a hurdle – and, from the point of view of a new graduate, almost anybody who has a job doing something related to what they want to do appears to be so safe and secure.

I remember when I was just finishing theater and film schools, envying the technicians on the sets of television shows. They had a place to come in every morning, knew their jobs, got to play with knobs and keyboards, and were part of the production of a creative product. Until I manged to get my own writing career going, I took a number of jobs like this – even running the sound board for a musical in LA with Sam Harris (the 1980’s Star Search winner), for $35/hour. It was heaven – working three or four hours a night, getting great pay, and being part of a theater production, even if it wasn’t in the most creative capacity.

I remember during a matinee performance I was sipping a juice in the sunny alleyway (alleys are sunny in LA) when one of the producers of the show looked at me and said “is that a joke?” He was pointing at the old Princeton t-shirt I was wearing. “No, I went there,” I said – for once not employing the sheepish embarassed tone I use when admitting I went to such an institution.

“Yeah, right,” he replied, laughing. He couldn’t believe that someone with a Princeton education could end up so low – doing sound for a Star Search winner’s musical play instead of…working for Goldman Sachs, I suppose.

But that job – along with the massive schedule of SAT tutoring I did during those years – was precisely the right thing for me. The career of no career, if you will, total freelance, no commitment, and the time to develop my own set of qualifications and properties. I wrote a few screenplays (some got optioned; none made) met interesting people, found out about the whole ‘cyber’ thing long before other journalists, began to write about it, got a book deal…

And to this day, I’ve avoided associating myself with an institution, or even getting a job with a W2 (employment) instead of a 1099 (freelance). (Even my teaching at NYU is a part-time gig.) The few institutions with whom I’ve attempted to engage have seemed corrupt to the core. Not corrupt in the Republicans-rigging-elections sense, but in the sense that they no longer stand for whatever it was they were supposed to stand for, they stand for themselves. Even the non-profit foundations I’ve been invited to participate with have seemed more concerned with themselves and their reputations than their missions. Corporations, well, the problem with working for one is that they treat people like cogs rather than autonomous being. Even though corporations are not real – they are agreements, almost like computer programs – they are treated as more important than the people in them. This is intrinsically de-humanizing.

And it’s not even secure. Which is what I wanted to explain in this roundabout way: jobs are less secure than building your own franchise, of yourself. I’ve taken the department store model: write for a number of different places, teach a bit, do some movie stuff, even create some music. Sometimes the jobs are less fun (like writing some kind of analysis of business, or editing a medical report) and sometimes they are more fun (like writing a novel). But everything I do adds to my own resume and list of achievements in a very real way.

Investing one’s time an energy into a single corporation isn’t necessarily less creative – but it is, ironically, less secure. Corporations just let people go. They give severance and all, but then it’s over – and all you can say is what you did for that company. You don’t have things out there with your own name on them. And because all of your income came from that single source, once it’s gone – it’s gone. You are back on the street.

What I’ve come to realize is that the street is the safest place to be. There’s no fear, here, because you’re already here. (It’s where you are, anyway, even if some company has given you cubicle space – but that’s a bit existential for spring.) Your employment is as diversified as your ability to multitask. And the more different kinds of work you take on, the more media in which you can play. It’s not a jack-of-all-trades problem, at all, since the more different arenas in which you work, the more clear it gets what you bring to each one of them.

So please: think twice before you let the fear of the unknown pusch you towards a totally encompassing job that molds who you are rather than letting you define your existence from the inside out. A bad economy is no excuse – it exposes the false promise of employment, and suggests just how much safer it is outside.

Find security in your freedom, and true industry in your independence. You’re out.