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Doug Knell


Your career path can depends on the education you choose. You want a job and career that bring you joy, right? Doug gave up a Proctor & Gamble offer for a boring job in Sweden so he could set his own agenda

Home / Success & Failure  /
Mini Biography Of An Attempted Agenda Setter
Goal Agenda

Even though I regularly seem to be missing the final piece, I have always preferred to build my own bridge

Years ago, in 1991, I was offered an interview with Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati.  I also vaguely recall being asked to come to interview for a management consulting position in New York (or was it Boston???).  I 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. 

Had I 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?

My Swedish 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. 

There's a 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 future doctors.  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 conveyor belt.

My situation 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 and filmmaker.  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.

There were 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 competency.  It didn't, so I didn't. 

So why did I accept the job?

Because in 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 economic system.   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.

Here's a 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. 

Proctor & 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:

  2-3 years doing the position P & G assigned me.

   Enrolling in an MBA program.

   Returning to P & G in a higher level management position if they bankrolled the MBA or accepting a higher level management position elsewhere.

   Married at 30-32; two children by 35. 

That path 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 a billionaire.   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 startup operated.  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 not. 

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 of that.

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 building.  And that philosophy is what's guided me, for better or for worse, since then.    

My niece 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. 

The second part of that last sentence pretty much describes me in a nutshell.   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 videos instead.  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.  

Believe me 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 Diff'rent StrokesBut 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. 

I hardly 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 later.   

If you're 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 professed.

With the 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. 

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