The Tyranny of a Happy Accident

Although I didn’t know it until now, how one great month in my early twenties pretty much ruined my career.

For one brief, shining moment when I was in my early twenties, the sun and stars and all the planets aligned and I was able to bill $5,000 in one month. In 2017 dollars that’s over $15,000 or, if you prefer, $180,000 a year. Through what turned out to be a happy accident, I believed I had officially hit the big time.

It turned out to be a disaster.

The background is only slightly relevant to the bigger arc of this story. I had been teaching Apple BASIC at a local ComputerLand store based on nothing more than I had managed to figure out the computer language on my own and had some modest ability to convey rudimentary lessons in the subject. An instructor from a local technical school happened to sit in on one of the classes and had the crazy idea (back then) of putting on similar courses at the institution with which he was associated. That ended up happening and before I knew it I was standing in front of a post-secondary classroom looking for all the world like a fully tenured professor. At least I thought so even if nobody else did. The quirky way I was paid for those courses meant that in exactly one (1) particular month $5,000 showed up in my bank account. I quickly did the math: $5,000 times twelve months: $60,000 per year. At that time and at that age, it was all the money in the world. It would from that one month forward become the standard by which every other career opportunity would be judged.

The fact is, well over 30 years later, I have yet to make the equivalent of that salary at any point in my career.

In other words for this entire time I was always looking to be paid a little — and in some cases — a lot more than I was worth. As the decades rolled on, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that my yardstick was hopelessly out of whack. Candidly, I simply could not countenance that thought because the professional world around me would collapse in an instant if I did. To be fair, those feelings would recede into the background and things would appear to be normal for years at a time. Subconciously, though, they were always there, grinding away at the muscle, bone and connective tissue. “You’re worth more than this”, I would think, as one great job after another eventually slipped through my fingers. The real damage from that one deliriously happy, alcohol-and-sushi soaked July in Vancouver continues to careen into my career to this day.

The most lasting echo of that time was my derisive dismissal of the value of a formal education. For a good ten or fifteeen years I was able to outrun — salary wise — my ‘foolish’ high school classmates because they had spent two, four, seven or twelve years in school after graduating. “They’re paying it out, while I’m raking it in!” I used to think. Hell, I had taught ‘university’ — why on earth would I ever bother attending one? Boy, I really was an asshole. And a stupid one at that. To all those that were subjected to that I am so, so sorry. My penance came the first time I wanted a job a little more than the job wanted me and — horrors!— I had to submit a resume. Here’s how I have come to realize how that works:

Any HR department receiving a resume for a job they have posted immediately sorts them into two piles: one pile for everybody who has met the mandatory requirements, like a university degree, and worthy of further review. The second pile is for those who can’t read. If they had been able to read then they would have understood what the word ‘mandatory’ meant and not bothered to submit a resume at all. I suspect the second pile is actually a virtual one — resumes therein being summarily shredded on receipt without a further glance.

The second and in some ways more damaging reverberation of that time may be more suprising. It was that I never really, in a conciously and cognitive way, chose a career. I just let it choose me. For some people that’s great — when we meet somebody who is entirely in love with their profession we often refer to it as ‘a calling’. Kind of the way my parents obliquely referred to being ‘called to the priesthood’. I can finally be honest with you, Ma and Pa. That was never, ever even the remotest possibility. But I’ve met and talked with an astronaut, a cardiologist, a stem cell researcher and many others who absolutely fit that description. They were chosen by their profession at a very young age and then by shear force of will harnessed it to breathtaking energy, tenacity, patience and courage. Here’s the impressive result: they absolutely cannot wait to get to work each day. The common thread is they all knew what they wanted to do very early in life and never, ever took their eye off that ball for one second even against seemingly impossible odds.

For me, it was much less noble. Software was a way of making a lot of money quickly. What a terrible, terrible way of looking at your career. The irony is that if it had turned out to be true — it wasn’t — I would never had a chance to get to this point. As my traditional career augered in like a plane crash from Dawn Patrol, I was finally forced — but in a good way, honestly — to think about what I really want to do. Better yet, what was it that I was born to do?

The answer? Frankly, I’m still not sure. However, the dramatic shift that has shaken me to my core is that I finally — finally — realize it’s a question I have to ask and answer. Here’s what I do know for sure:

When I finally make that choice, and hopefully get it right after all these years, it will be day zero, the sun will be shining and it will be a great time to be alive and get on with the rest of my life.

©2017 Terence C. Gannon