Temping at Bear Stearns changed my ad career

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell a little story. Every word of it is true. It’s a story of an event that didn’t mean a lot to me as it was happening, but has come to fundamentally shape my worldview.

I share this because it’s a good yarn, and because it’s a story with a moral that I hope has some value.

In 2007, I was having a tough go of it. I fancied myself a struggling musician. I had songs, a band, and boxes of unsold CDs that I had self-produced. After years living in Oregon, I had migrated to New York City, to live with my girlfriend (now wife/mother to my children).

I kept plugging away in the dives of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I was broke and getting broker (NYC will do that to you). Rather than commit to a real job, I did what thousands of other struggling New York artists did. I temped.

For $20 an hour, I secured myself a gig at a large investment bank headquartered in Manhattan. A dignified operation called Bear Stearns.

My job consisted of making copies, booking travel, submitting expenses and other administrative tasks. For the first few months I was terrified. I came in every day, sat in my cube and waited for someone to ask for my help.

But the thing was, hardly anyone asked me to do anything. Entire days would go by with nary a reservation to call in or a document to scan.

I figured I was done for, that someone would realize I was a waste of money and that would be that.

Instead, my supervisor (handler?) kept telling me what a good job I was doing. Everyone liked me. They moved me around to different floors, different cubes. But the job was always the same. Come in, wait for a task, get the task done, keep waiting.

So I started multitasking. I freelanced. I wrote copy, stories, screenplays and songs.

And so it went.

Eventually, I was transferred to front desk duty.

I watched everyone come, go, get lunch, run off on a smoke break. And I made a friend. Walter was a security guard who spoke with a melodic Russian accent, smiled easily, loved guns and thought of himself as an artist.

He would tell me about his gun collection, about his sculpture. Long, interesting stories about his adventurous life.

And he would tell more about the investment bankers.

He told me about the long hours they would work. About people leaving at 3:00 AM, sleeping in their offices. People just grinding their lives away, all for the sake of the company.

I was sitting at the front desk, and Walter stood at his post in May of 2008, when the shit hit the fan. I had no idea, no inkling what was happening. Instead of looking bored, tired, angry or non-plussed, the people who streamed by my desk looked stricken. Ill. Stunned.

Then the boxes came. Walter and I watched the people of Bear Stearns file out with their belongings. Walter shook his head and told me of worthless stock options, of personal sacrifices made for nothing.

It was a sad sight to see, and one I will never forget.

Eventually, I filed out with everybody else.

But a couple days later, I got a call. Could I come back in for a week or two? Of course I could.

I went back to my old floor, but not for front desk duty. There was no one to let in, no one to watch come and go. This time, my job was to support the last remaining employee on the floor, the HR manager.

In typical fashion, “support” meant sit outside her office and do nothing. In two weeks, she didn’t ask me to do a single thing. So I wrote, and waited.

And that was the end.

I went on to embrace freelance copywriting, and dive into agency life as a writer and strategist. It’s work that I love, and it’s led me to learning experiences and opportunities that I cherish.

But at every turn, at every job I’ve had, on every piece of business I’ve served, Bear Stearns has stuck with me. Because Bear Stearns taught me a lesson, which I’d like to share with you now. It’s the moral of my story:

Never, ever take your paycheck for granted.

The jobs we have and the clients we serve are privileges that we earn every day. And we earn them by bringing out best thinking, by testing ourselves, by never assuming that the hands that feed us will be back tomorrow. We earn them by challenging ourselves to be great.

We all know it’s a crazy world out there. But if it’s crazy enough that a century-old global investment bank can come crashing down in a single day, then it’s crazy enough that any client, any agency, and any job can disappear in the blink of an eye.

Which is why I say that if we want to keep and build upon what we have, we need to earn it. Every day.

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