This week I’m continuing my list of every job I’ve ever worked with my first four years after college. If you missed the high school and undergrad years, check out Part I here.
Lake Protection Internship
This was the first post-college job I applied for while still a senior, the first one I interviewed for, and the first one I got—fortunate for me, since I wasn’t eager to spend a bunch of time to job searching during my already super-busy last term. This was also the first job I got as a direct result of having some other job, since I’d already worked as a boat checker with the same lake protection agency (see Part I) and they trusted me to run the program I now knew inside and out.
I was the only one on the team without a Biology degree, but this didn’t matter because I just picked up the job as I went along and wasn’t shy about trying new things. The job was a mix of days in the office and days boating or driving around the lake, and the variety made every week more interesting. At this job I learned a lot about a lot of things (Read: got a lot of job skills), and on another level it helped me transition to the big scary post-college working world.
Effect on Creative Work: This was my first consistent full-time job, and no way was I ready to do outside work on top of it. Besides work, I kind of did jack else for those six months, since getting up early, commuting 35 minutes both ways, and working forty hours was about all I could handle.
Sleep Study Participant
Pay: $3,000+ for two weeks in the lab and pre-study visits, minus expenses
My post-college life got a lot rougher after that first summer: the lake protection agency didn’t have the money to keep me on during the winter, my initial round of job searching crashed and burned spectacularly, and the brake lines on my trusty Oldsmobile Cutlass chose that same summer to rust apart all over the lake agency parking lot, leaving me without a car. This combined with my looming student loans (6 month grace periods go by fast…) left me needing money, and fast. I also lived in a rural area 45 minutes from a city and 1+ hour from a lot of online job postings, and I knew I was being passed by for some of them by sheer virtue of my living too far away, though I didn’t yet have the money to move closer to the work.
One of the only promising callbacks I got was from a sleep research study in Boston I’d applied to on a whim from Craigslist. The gig was simple: three thousand bucks for two weeks in the sleep research lab at Brigham and Women’s hospital in a room without windows or clocks doing alertness tests while sleep scientists measured my circadian rhythm. I jumped at the chance, since I’d done medical studies before for easy money, but I soon found the pre-study interviews to involve a flurry of visits to the Boston hospital (a 4+ hour round trip) and more scheduling nightmares, since I couldn’t apply for other jobs knowing I’d just have to take a two-week break my first month.
The actual study wasn’t bad, though—aside from being hooked up to an IV and having to take a few dozen computer tests every day, this was some of the easiest money I ever made, and I met a bunch of cool (and young!) lab technicians who were happy to have someone interesting to talk to. If you’re in the Boston area and looking for extra cash, you might consider doing one yourself, since they still offer them all the time.
Effect on Creative Work: Driving down to Boston for so many pre-study visits left me with little energy for anything else, and my plans to do a bunch of reading while in the lab ended in failure when all I managed to finish was a copy of Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri.
I did a lot of thinking when I was in the sleep study, and realized I needed a direction and a goal to get out of this financial hole I was in, and preferably one that didn’t involve staying in rural New Hampshire. I’d stumbled on an ad for teaching English in Asia a few weeks before, and started thinking about this more seriously, since the pay was decent and teaching abroad meant new adventures, which I was really starting to crave after too many weeks at home.
Getting a teaching job seemed to require some sort of experience though, so again I took the first opportunity I came across and signed on as a substitute teacher at my old high school. The gig was easy: if the organizer called you around 6 am, you could come in and sub, and if not, you slept in and had the day off for other things. I wore a shirt and a tie every day so the students and teachers would take me seriously (I was only 4 years older than the seniors at the time), and after a few rocky starts fell into a solid swing of taking charge of the classroom. The days ranged from showing the same movie four times to leading actual class discussions (including the day someone scrawled a racial slur in the bathroom…), and once the faculty figured out I was actually competent, they started requesting me, which meant more working days and bigger paychecks.
Effect on Creative Work: Having at least one class period off per shift was nice, and getting home by 3:00 was the perfect way to start an afternoon of writing, especially since I’d started working on a script for an adventure game I was hoping to make with a friend. Working high school hours also got me back into the rhythm of working at my own pace in the afternoons and on weekends that I’d developed back in my own high school days, so I felt more and more like I was taking charge.
Pay: $25 per tutoring hour, minus expenses
Another gig I found on Craigslist and figured I’d check out for the experience; I tutored three kids individually twice a week, which involved more driving and a lot of outside lesson planning and talking to teachers. It was a cold, hard slap in the face that TEACHERS DO A LOT and that my $25 bucks an hour was basically cut in half with all the planning I had to do, not to mention the paperwork and driving all over the region to the kid’s houses, which took up a lot of time. Looking back, I’m glad I got the experience, but I took the first chance I could to bow out once summer came.
Effect on Creative Work: Prepping for tutoring was just one more thing to distract me from my writing (which I was doing more and more of now), but it also gave me the added responsibility and deadlines I needed to stay focused. I felt busy all the time, but in a good way, since I was getting more and more done.
In August I took the train to New York and interviewed for a job teaching English in Japan—the adventure I knew I wanted and my quick ticket to both work experience and lowering my student debt. Unfortunately the job didn’t start until February, which left me scrambling for more Craigslist gigs, housesitting for a month with the high school’s new Chinese teacher, and going back to my old job checking boats, where thankfully there were more hours available.
When the weather got colder I took a job through my dad’s carpentry business to paint a house whose interior was being redone due to lead paint. I’d never used a paintbrush in my life but picked it up pretty easily, along with all the caulking, spackling, and sanding that goes with it. After I’d been trained I could work solo while tracking my own hours, and my days consisted of getting up early and working alone in the old house listening to NPR all day on an old boom box. Painting’s probably the best example of an activity that takes focus but very little concentration, so while my body attended to a repetitive task that didn’t involve heavy lifting, my mind was free to wander while the walking and physical motions improved my creative process.
Effect on Creative Work: Painting was hands-down the job I’ve had that was most conducive to writing after work, since it didn’t tire me out and instead left me full of ideas I’d been reflecting on throughout the day. I got a lot of writing done during this time, both on my first real blog and on my game script. Knowing I had the job in Japan all set up was also a real boost of positive energy, since I didn’t have to worry about the future anymore.
Door-to-Door Voter Activist
Like everything else I’d stumbled into, my housepainting gig couldn’t go on for forever, so I took another Craigslist job helping people register to vote in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. This was before the 2008 election, and the group was a nonprofit bipartisan effort to get more people out and voting. For two weeks I knocked on doors in the city from the most decrepit neighborhoods to the richest suburbs, talking to people about voting without even mentioning the candidates’ names. I’d never done anything like it before, but learned right away not to follow the organization’s script (“Do you have a few minutes to talk about voting today?”) and instead talk to people like they were living, breathing human beings with busy lives. The honesty went a long way, and the pay was good—plus, learning the layout of the city came in handy when I moved there a few years later.
Effect on Creative Work: The job had a variable schedule of mornings and afternoons, which meant it was harder to develop a routine for doing creative work. Consistency is key to planning your workdays, and this job didn’t have it.
English Teacher in Japan
Pay: ¥2,800,000 Japanese yen/year (between $26,000 and $35,000 depending on the exchange rate), plus occasional overtime for Sundays and a contract-completion bonus.
Japan was my first really big adventure, and there was no way a few weeks studying Japanese grammar could prep me for it. I worked for a large eikaiwa, a for-profit chain conversation school (I won’t list the name here since they’re still in business, but drop me a line and I can share the specifics), which made it easy to get the job but came with a TON of rules about what I could and couldn’t do in the classroom. I taught 25-30 lessons a week for fifty minutes each, plus doing paperwork and helping the school sell textbooks and new lessons, PLUS prepping for lessons (which, though they were meant to be easy to teach, still took a lot of time for a first-year teacher) so there was a crazy amount of work to do all the time.
Fortunately though, I liked what I was doing, I liked Japan, and I loved the experience I was getting. My coworkers turned into super-fun party animals who loved to go out drinking as soon as work ended, and since I mostly taught adults, the eikaiwa was a great way to meet people (who you could then go out drinking with). I learned a ton about Japanese culture (which then became material for this blog and my novel about Japan), had three weeks a year for vacations, and became a better teacher. Being abroad in this strange environment also meant I was hyperfocused and learning new things every single day.
It was a hard but fulfilling life, and in the end two years at the eikaiwa was enough, though I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything.
Effect on Creative Work: Two years of a consistent work schedule and plenty of alone time to focus led to my first successful long-term creative schedule. Since my eikaiwa shifts ran from noon to 9pm, I’d wake up around 9 am, eat breakfast, then study Japanese three mornings a week and write the other two mornings before I went into work. After work I’d eat dinner, relax, then work on my blog or on a simpler project until I went to bed. There was a hell of a lot to do, but I was a machine about doing it, and though I still wasn’t ready to start a novel, I was good about posting my Japan adventures on my first blog during this time.
Whew—so that was my first few years after college, which was not only the most financially destitute I’ve ever been, it was also the most I’ve ever had to scramble to find work. My big takeaways were learning to handle adult-style bills, be even less shy about taking new opportunities, and, for the first time, juggling paid work and self-motivated creative work, including the major project that was my adventure game script (a project we didn’t end up finishing, but one that taught me the discipline I’d need to tackle larger endeavors).
In Part 3 I’ll talk about the hazards I faced in trying to push my writing to the next level, which I’ll be back at you with next week.