I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Some kids grow up dreaming of being a doctor, a journalist, or an artist. Very few actually grow up to fulfill their childhood career dreams. I went through phases where I dreamt of being a teacher, an astronaut, a ballerina, actress, singer, television host, writer, lawyer, and psychologist. Some of those dreams were more realistic than others. I did not have a lot of guidance regarding career choices when I was growing up. My parents just wanted to me to go to college and get a good job one day, never really pushing me or directing me into specific career paths. I don’t feel like the schools helped provide any sort of direction either. The message was basically that if you did well in school and went to college, you would get a job and do well. That advice is partially correct, but a bit simplistic and naïve, especially in today’s job market. It takes a lot more than good grades and a college degree to get a good job and succeed.
Since getting laid off, I have been busy preparing my resume, references, cover letters, and “brag book” (a compilation of your career accomplishments – practically required in the medical/pharmaceutical sales world). It had been six years since I last updated all of this stuff and it felt like starting over since so much time had passed. On the plus side, I had a chance to reflect on my history of work – during my time with Bristol-Myers Squibb and all the years before. This walk down memory lane helped me realize a few things about myself and what I am looking for in my next job.
I have always been a hard worker. I started babysitting for my sisters at the age of 10 and for neighborhood kids shortly thereafter. I lied about my age to get my first real job at the age of 14 (4 months shy of the required age of 15) at a gift shop at the Virginia Beach Resort Hotel. We were not poor, but money was tight growing up. My dad was in the Navy and my mom ran a home daycare, and they were doing the best they could to support 4 kids. There wasn’t extra money for new school clothes, trips to the movies on the weekends, or even school activities like debate or cheerleading. There was not going to be a car to drive or gas money for me when I turned 16, and I knew I would be on my own for college. I realized from a young age that if I wanted certain things, I would need to work to earn the money to buy those things myself.
I loved the independence and financial security that work gave me. I learned a lot about myself, about money, and the workplace through these high school and college jobs. I worked 3 jobs in the summer of 1994 to buy my first car. Similarly, I worked 2-3 jobs at a time while at the University of Virginia, all while maintaining a very high GPA. By the time I graduated from college in 2000, I had worked in gift shops, the Gap, Abercrombie, worked at the front desk of a hotel, waited tables at a truck stop, waited tables at a fine dining restaurant, been a hostess, bused tables, worked as a secretary, worked in the library, and worked in catering. The lessons I learned through working have shaped me in countless ways.
I learned the value of work. When I was 17, I was awarded Employee of the Month at the Virginia Beach Resort Hotel, possibly the youngest person to receive that honor. During that summer I would work a double or even a triple shift, most days of the week. I was working at the front desk in the morning and working in the nice restaurant of the hotel busing tables or working as a hostess in the evening. If they needed someone to pick up a shift in catering or fill-in at the gift shop I was eager to volunteer. More hours meant more money, which meant more freedom and security to me. I took great pride in doing a good job. I thrived on praise and appreciation from my bosses and loved being part of a team with a tangible goal (even if that goal was keeping tables clean or making a guests check-in process as pleasant as possible). I was hard-working and reliable. I only missed work once, because of a bad case of food poisoning. All of these things made me a valuable employee, and I liked being valued. I realized at a young age that no matter what I did in life, if I showed up, worked hard, and did a good job – and did that job with a smile – I could succeed and eventually move up in almost any job.
I also learned the value of a dollar. I was never the best math student, but I could do the simple arithmetic to figure out how much money would be needed to pay for new brakes on my old car, go to a concert with my friends, or pay my share of the rent and bills in college. Since no one was giving me money for my expenses, I could only count on my student loans and money I earned to pay for necessities and extras. I knew how much free time I had and how much money I needed to make to take care of my expenses. It was frustrating to work at my library job during the day for $7/hour, when I could make $10/hour + tips at my catering job on the weekends. I prioritized the higher paying jobs, but I had to fill as much of my free time with work as possible at whatever pay I could get.
When I was waiting tables, I would sometimes work incredibly hard with less-than-pleasant customers, for $30-$40 at the end of a shift. There were other busy nights with great customers where I could walk away with $150 a night. As a waitress, your hourly wage is primarily determined by how many customers you can see and on the generosity of those people whom you take care of. Waiting tables is hard work and you really do earn every dollar you make. You can make a living waiting tables, but I figured out after one summer that I never wanted to depend on that as my primary source of income. I took comfort in knowing that I could support myself by waiting tables if I needed to, but that I would hopefully not have to do that job again after college.
When it came time to choose a profession, there were several things I considered doing. I am passionate about education and pursued the teaching path for a while, but quickly realized that I would not be able to support myself on a teacher’s salary. I would be coming out of college with piles of student loan debt and the math just did not add up. There was no way I could pay rent for my own place, a car payment, my large student loan bills, and basic living expenses on a teacher’s salary. I guess I could have made it work if I had roommates to share the rent and expenses, or taken a summer job teaching or waiting tables (see previous paragraph), or if I took 30 years to pay back all my loans instead of 10, but I knew there had to be a better way. I thought about grad school to become a psychologist or law school, but many of my friends were getting good paying jobs in the business world, and that seemed to be a good way to go.
After graduating from UVA, I took a job in sales that was filled with risk and promise. The risk was that it was 100% commission – I would only really make money if I made sales. The promise was that there was no limit on my earning potential. If I worked hard and was good at my job, I could make a lot of money. This sounded perfect for me. I did well those first two years and learned that I liked many aspects of working in sales.
I loved the idea of upward mobility – that your income could be tied to your productivity and your skills – in salary and/or in bonus. I never questioned if I would make money in a sales job, because I have a good work ethic and a personality well suited for sales. I liked flexibility, especially as I thought about having a family. I did not want to have to be at a desk at a specific time every day and have to stay in the same place all day. I love working with people and talking to people for most of the workday, and this is an essential aspect of any sales job. I could not be happy in an office or cubicle all day staring at spreadsheets or a computer screen. I decided to look for other sales jobs that would afford me the opportunity to work with great people, make decent money, and have an independent and flexible schedule conducive to having a good work-life balance. Pharmaceutical sales offered all of this and so much more. I quickly realized that I could have all of the benefits of other sales jobs, while getting to talk to smart and interesting people about the science and medicine behind products that really could extend and enhance people’s lives.
Since I did not really know what I wanted to be when I grew up – this sounded like the best possible job – given my background, skills, and interests. I started with Bristol-Myers Squibb in the summer of 2002 and it has been a terrific 10+ years. I have been through promotions, a move, a spouse’s cancer battle, IVF, and the birth of my three children in those 10 years. No job is perfect, but this job has been pretty darn good through it all. I still don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up (thirty-four is not grown-up, right?). Maybe it is ok to just have a good job and a full, meaningful life as a mom, wife, and part-time blogger. Maybe that IS what I always wanted when I grew up – and now I have it and am losing it. Hopefully the lessons of my past will help guide and inform me as I take these next steps toward my future.