in 1991, I was offered an interview with Proctor & Gamble in
also vaguely recall being asked to come to interview for a
management consulting position in New York (or was it
can't say how serious the management consulting company was
about me because what stands out in my mind years later,
more than the name of the company, was that I'd have to pay
my own way to the interview.
actually been granted and taken one of those two jobs
instead of opting to go to Stockholm, Sweden for an
engineering position I knew would be boring in a small
upstart company, how different my life would have turned
out. Do I think
it would've been for the better?
position offered me an annualized pre-tax salary of $36,000
($56,000-60,000 in 2009 dollars).
I was never given an official offer at Proctor &
Gamble or the consultancy operation to know what I would've
been paid there.
As taxes and the cost of living in Sweden are quite high,
even if the American jobs paid $5,000-10,000 lower, the
take-home pay would've been about the same.
This is all beside
the point. I don't remember dismissing the American job
offers out-of-hand due to the expected salary or accepting
the Swedish job because of it.
lot I didn't know in 1991, but there is one thing, in
retrospect, I realize I did.
Choosing one type of job or education course can lock
you onto a certain path.
While you can always change your mind later, the
consequences can be costly in terms of time and money.
I've known people who chucked out their current
career paths post 30 to go back to medical school to become
Had they realized medicine was their calling fifteen years
earlier, they could have tailored their educational program
and pursuits in that direction all the sooner.
You have to consider that many people later in life
can't grab a second chance.
They can realize they pursued the wrong dream, but
out of circumstances (high living costs, children, family
pressure) don't feel they're in the position to jump off the
in 1991 was as follows.
I had just graduated Cornell with a BS in Applied &
Engineering Physics and a BA in Economics.
The economy was in a recession and job offers, if you
got any, were thin on the ground.
It would be inaccurate to say that I didn't know what
I wanted to do with my life.
I had wanted at that time to become a screenwriter
Yet as I desired this outcome, I knew the odds against
succeeding in any measurable way were immense, as they still
are today. To
pursue that goal I would need to move out to Los Angeles.
I had only been to Los Angeles once as a teen and
absolutely hated it.
I was following the advice I'd read of many
successful Hollywood personalities who said that if pursuing
the Hollywood goal was something you thought you could live
without, do something else.
So I decided in 1991 to avoid LA, do something
else, and if I found I was really enjoying this something
else, then the Hollywood pursuits weren't something I
should've ever been chasing in the first place.
no illusions about the Sweden job being a dream turned into
reality. I was
not a Unix programmer.
I had read through a few Unix manuals before
accepting the job, but the manuals put me to sleep.
Had the job been something which greatly interested
me, I have no doubt I could've learned Unix to proper
didn't, so I didn't.
So why did I
accept the job?
1991 I had a very novel idea.
I viewed life as an adventure.
I saw greater possibilities of future growth and
educational experiences if I took the job in Sweden.
I had studied the Third Way -- Sweden's economic
welfare state model -- in my economics classes, and at the
time, I believed Scandinavia offered some kind of novel
Previous to applying for this Swedish position, I had
applied for a Fulbright to Finland but had been rejected.
The best way to study the Scandinavian system was to
live it. And
lived it I did, to the point where I felt the system's
drawbacks outweighed its minuses.
I haven't been back to Scandinavia in almost twenty
years and would never choose to live there again.
That's another story.
valuable lesson I picked up over there.
It's irrelevant if you're doing a boring job in
Dipschitz, Kansas or in the most exotic location in the
world. If 40
hours a week, probably more, are spent boring yourself to
death and the intervening hours spent dreading having to
return, you're not really living.
This isn't hypothetical mumbo jumbo.
I lived this life.
I was always tired because I spent a large chunk of
my day doing mind-numbing labor.
Sure, if I had to do a boring job, I'd choose
the more exciting location, but I'd rather choose to do
interesting work in a marginal location than a boring job in
an amazing one.
Gamble would have offered me the more interesting job.
I haven't a clue exactly what job I would've been
offered, but it would've had to be better on a day-to-day
basis than the Swedish one.
I denied even taking an interview at P & G because I
felt if I walked down that road, I would then be on a very
predictable career path, which probably, but not
necessarily, would have been:
doing the position P & G assigned me.
an MBA program.
P & G in a higher level management position if they
bankrolled the MBA or accepting a higher level management
30-32; two children by 35.
didn't and still doesn't excite me.
By going off and doing something that, at that time,
was way off the beaten track, I gave my life the character I
wanted it to have.
In that sense, I did something right in '91.
But I didn't
do everything right, not by a long shot.
I was reading about Marc Benioff, the co-founder of
This guy knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur at a very
early age and meticulously plotted the steps he'd need to
take to get there, and this included a 13-yr detour at
Oracle. Now he's
I wished I'd plotted out a very concrete, achievable
strategy in 1991 or, better yet, in 1981.
It's never too early.
P & G might then have been the job to take, provided
it fit into the longer term strategy.
One of my
goals in taking the Swedish position was to see how a
Most of us never get the opportunity to work for a
startup, let alone one that's actually making profits.
This was not a successful startup in the vein of the
Paypals and Netscapes which came later, but it was a startup
all the same, something a massive corporation like P & G was
Unfortunately, once I got to Sweden, I was able to learn
very little about how the startup functioned, and the
managing director had very little desire to let me see how
the broader operations worked.
I had been brought over to Sweden on a student work
permit to do a very specific job.
They would've hired a Swede if they could've, but
pre-European Union Swedish labor laws were very rigid.
It was more cost effective for them to hire contract
employees like me from abroad whom they could terminate at
any time. In
hindsight, P & G would have offered better chances for
growth. I'm sure
But I didn't
want to work for a huge conglomerate in 1991 and I still
don't -- unless it's something huge I had a stake in
that philosophy is what's guided me, for better or for
worse, since then.
just interviewed me for a school paper she's writing, and
one of the questions she asked me was "Did you know as a
child what you wanted to do when you grew up?"
I was quite honest with her.
I knew the kinds of things I wanted to be
doing, but it wasn't easy to pin a labeled job title on
those activities, not like if I'd said I wanted to be an
optometrist, lawyer, or engineer.
In my college prospectus from way back in 1986, the
details that stand out the most aren't the effusive praise
the book gave to the school's brilliance ("if you get a C at
Cornell, you're an average brilliant person," -- what
rubbish), but that many of the jobs we would all be doing in
the next twenty years were jobs that hadn't been created
yet. They were
jobs society had yet to create or ones we would have to
create for ourselves.
part of that last sentence pretty much describes me in a
I was always a better executor when I was able to create my
own agenda and act upon it.
During my high school American history class, we were
given a tremendous number of boring written assignments.
I was able to persuade the teacher to let me hand in
Had I turned in written answers just like everyone else, my
papers would have been much like everyone else's.
By moving the work onto my own "platform", I was able
to separate myself from the pack, as little worth as that
was in the class.
I wasn't much in the way of a star choir pupil.
I participated in the choir for just one year, eighth
grade, and was kicked out for reasons that would amount to
another long story best not spelled out here.
But had I remained in choir and pursued it through
high school, I would not have blazed new trails.
I wasn't a future American Idol winner in the
making. I got
more mileage out of my own musical interests composing and
performing my own songs.
when I say that I am definitely not trying to toot
my own horn with these anecdotes.
There's no golden
horn to toot. I
probably would've fared better as an adult had I merely been
the great performer of tasks prescribed by the superiors.
When I got out to Hollywood and wanted to work as a
TV writer, my 'assets,' if we'll be generous enough to call
them that, were ill suited for a straightforward climb up
the rungs of success.
The usual route for landing a job on a TV series is
to write a spec TV script.
This is an original script using an existent
television show's characters.
I wrote several with serious effort, none of them
very good in my honest opinion.
I felt limited trying to fashion compelling plots and
dialogue around characters I didn't create or have a stake
in. The two best
TV scripts I wrote were mockeries of shows I used to watch
regularly in the 1980's,
Three's Company and
But since these weren't specs of existent TV
series and not a genuine attempt at writing a real episode
for the show either, they were tantamount to nothing.
argue that my way is THE way.
In our world, being a decently performing
optometrist, lawyer, or engineer pays more reliable
dividends than creating your own agenda and executing on it.
If you care about getting respect (and who doesn't
to some degree?), seeking a role as a reliable performer is
better understood and accepted by others; and if you have a
concrete agenda to pursue, working as a reliable performer
for others first can be highly recommended in order to
acquire the skills required to execute on your own agenda
really an agenda setter, of course.
Back when I graduated university years ago, it seemed
the majority of people I knew were all off to law school.
Not a single one going this route said he was doing
so because he loved the law, the art of debate, the process
of researching precedents.
From more than half I heard that a law degree would
open up so many different doors.
They were referring to fields outside law.
Having a law background can be beneficial for
pursuing later careers in management, engineering,
entrepreneurship, or even Hollywood.
The creator of Ally McBeal, The Practice, and
Boston Legal had been a lawyer before going into TV.
Fifteen years after graduation, however, when I
checked up some of these guys via the internet, all to a T
had been working at the same firms, doing law.
They hadn't been opening up as many doors as they
American Thanksgiving holiday just a few days behind us,
it's apposite to mention that the original American pioneers
left Europe behind to carve out a life of their own
devising, to endeavor to mold circumstances in their image.
It wasn't easy and many of them died in the effort.
Most of the people I grew up knowing seem content
with letting circumstances mold them which, to me, is like
dying a different way -- without a cause.