Keep at It

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photo credit: Deb Achak Photography

photo credit: Deb Achak Photography


I graduated from college in 1991. It was not the best time to be young, overeducated, under skilled and unemployed.

In the early 90’s, there just weren’t a lot of jobs to go around. We had not yet entered the dot-com boom (and eventual bust) of the mid to late 90’s and were just emerging from the S&L collapse of the late 80’s. In 1991, inflation sat at 5.1% and for the next several years high unemployment, massive government deficits, and slow GDP growth affected the US until well into late ’92.

Good times.

At that time you did the best you could with the hand you were dealt, which meant taking jobs you probably didn’t see yourself working at during your college years.

You were forced to sift through some seriously brutal opportunities as you built your career. It was easy to give up back then but if you were desperate, hungry and gritty enough, as well as willing to keep at it, opportunity was there to be had.

I’m not sure why, but I have been thinking about my early career quite a bit lately – I wound up interviewing for and working at a number of interesting companies. As a result, I thought it would be fun to rank each employer using my own “Level of Depression” scale:

1 =  Doable, potentially fun, there’s money to be made and I think I will like my colleagues

5 = Maybe I can do this for a few months but after that I’ll probably go crazy so I better stop there

10 = I’d rather eat my own tongue

I am listing them in the order of how long I lasted at each company.

  1. Door door sales and multi-level marketing of water filtration systems. Level of depression: 8.7 There was no salary or benefits. All commission. Not many redeeming qualities about the work. Even the guys making money seemed miserable, probably because the only sales they were making were to family members. I would rank it higher except the guy on top seemed to be actually making a little money. I lasted an hour before I fled.
  2. Business to business sales of coupon books. Level of depression 9.7 Tough to find a worse job. Again, no salary, no benefits. Straight commission. Working in teams, you walked into business parks and tried to sell receptionists on advertising in their coupon books. They wouldn’t tell us what we were selling until we actually went on a sit with them. That meant hopping in back of their pickup truck and being driven out into random business parks. When a fellow interviewer and I finally found out what they wanted us to sell, we told them thanks but no thanks. They refused to drive us back to the office so we were forced to walk those miles back to get our cars. I lasted two hours, but that was only because it took us that long to get back to their office.
  3. Knife salesman. Level of depression: 9.3 Even my father questioned this. This was the one that almost broke me because I interviewed for it after the coupon book debacle. They brought everyone into a large room, told us nothing, then proceeded to take us in smaller groups into side rooms where they explained the “secrets” to selling their knives door to door. Apparently it had to do with family members again. At least they let us leave when we begged. I lasted 3 hours. It took them that long to get to their “secrets”.
  4. Outbound cold calling of shady insurance to small businesses. Level of depression: 8.0 I wasn’t certain this work was legal so I can’t rank it higher or lower – the idea that you might actually get raided adds at least an interesting bit of intrigue to any job. We operated out of a nondescript warehouse with no sign out front and were not told much about what we doing other than our job was to get people to agree to a sit with one of our “salesmen”. You were paid by the appointment. I lasted a week. I don’t think I managed any appointments.
  5. Office assistant for acting agency. Level of depression: 3.9 I worked for a small agency that didn’t appear to be making money. My responsibilities involved filing, stapling and sorting through mountains of head shots of actors and actresses. The people were very nice, the pay was decent and the bonus was that I received a key card to their downtown Los Angeles office which meant anytime I was downtown I always had a place to park my car. Of course I had no money which meant I rarely went downtown. The down sides were that I was simply a temp, had no benefits or stability and eventually they ran out of things for me to do, thus I was let go. I lasted 3 months. The highlight of my time there was seeing Linda Blair’s headshot come across my desk.
  6. Warehouse employee. Level of depression: 3.5 My job involved packing medical supplies, sweeping, and listening to old timers complain about their lack of OT. Many pros – nice managers, solid company, dependable hours. Unfortunately the cons eventually outweighed the pros – low pay, no benefits, zero upward mobility. I lasted 4 months but wanted something with more opportunity. Which led me to…
  7. Marketing Assistant. I worked in the HVAC industry for a provider of radiant floor heating materials. Level of depression: 2 This was the one I finally settled on and committed myself to. I wound up working there for more than 2 years. I did everything from writing press releases to attending trade shows to building CAD models to packing and shipping piping materials through Yellow Freight. It was great, I worked my butt off and I learned a ton. It also laid the foundation for my eventual career in sales, and I met a whole host of really good people. My salary was $19,000 a year but I didn’t care about the money. I finally had someplace into which I could put my full energy. I’m glad I didn’t give up on the process.

Now, I’m not going to wax poetic or glorify any of this. There is nothing fun or memorable about struggling to find work and interviewing for terrible jobs. This isn’t about seizing the day or embracing your opportunities. I also have no interest in using this as an excuse to complain about a lack of work ethic among kids these days.

I was no better then than they are now. The jobs just weren’t there, so if you were desperate and hungry enough (which I was), you simply swallowed your pride and did whatever it took to keep moving forward.

My biggest take away from this process concerned me personally. To this day, I am overly paranoid about anything economy related. I don’t like leaving a thing to chance because you never know when the markets will turn. I figure that the harder I work, the better I set myself and FCR up for success, no matter what happens outside my sphere of control.

I sometimes think about what life will be like for my boys if and when they graduate from college and are out on their own. It’s a scary thought for parents. I don’t think I have any answers for them yet.

I’ll probably just tell them to keep at it.

Matthew Achak

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