"I'm a terrible assistant."
This I said to my mother last week as we left my cousin, Josie's, graduation lunch. I sat in the passenger's seat gazing through the window at the cars gathered before the stop light. My mother looked at me from the driver's seat with a raised brow. I gesticulated.
"I mean, I'm a good assistant. But in my head, I'm a terrible assistant. I don't have the personality for it is what I mean."
I unraveled a few explanations as to how I came to that conclusion. In one scenario, I lament the overcomplicated, inefficient process one of my colleagues enlists my help for. Instead of using one order to request all necessary documents for a tax record, she asks me to order everything separately, costing the company more money for information that will come back in the same format regardless of how it's processed. In a different scenario, I am asking another colleague multiple times to please provide all pages of a form that is 2+ pages in length per the request of our investors, only to have said colleague argue with me about its necessity, then completely ignore me when she enlists my help later on for similar work, and only for me to have to remind her yet again that she has to organize all required documents before sending them on to me. The former scenario is not of much concern. We've all worked with someone who will ask us to complete a task in what seems the most tedious process possible, but since it is their particular preference it is good ethos to complete it as requested. The latter issue, however, is one that continues to annoy.
It is one thing to be peppered with pleas for help on a daily basis. This is the purpose of the assistant. And yet, as much help as the assistant offers there's little room for her to take any authority, for either herself or her work. This is because her work is not her own, but that of everyone else's. If she asks a colleague to do something a specific way before transitioning the task to her hands for completion she is tempered, if not altogether ignored. In order for her to be taken seriously she has to transfer the issue to a senior member to resolve the issue, all the while wondering if there will be backlash from said colleague. This is hierarchical office politics. This is normal. It may not even seem a matter worth writing about. Until I realize that, through all of this unnecessary ping-ponging, I've managed to outgrow my assistant job in a little under two years.
So what does this mean for me? When I say I don't have the personality for an assistant it's because I prefer to do things my own way. From my perspective, I'm a capable adult who can adequately discern the method used to execute a task for maximum efficiency. On the one hand, yes, I was raised an only child with helicopter parents who liked to take control of her activities and dictate what they deemed proper social responses. As an adult, I've outpaced that girl, growing steadily into a person who struggles with answering to someone rather than being the someone who is answered to. In other words, the way my personality has developed I need to be the boss, and instead of accepting that this may never happen for me in a corporate office I want to take this idea in a different direction. One of the most fortuitous aspects of being a writer is that writing gives you purpose, a sense of control and authority. The more you write, the more inevitable your influence, the more power you wield, the more gratitude you develop for the practice. This effect ripples into contact with numerous aspects of our lives and, in the past, has helped me better bridge my identity as a writer with that of my identity as a working professional.
My job has been a source of emotional discord since I began with my company in June of 2015. As I am wont to do, I envisioned a much clearer path of promotion for myself than what's been offered to me. I've tried blaming this on myself, but I know that I've made my goals clear to my boss. I know that I've expressed to him exactly what my issues are, the areas I'd like to grow into, how I'd like to get there. On the surface, we seem to be on the same page about my concerns and how to rectify them. And yet, I find that I’m unwilling to let things end there. In a way, I guess, I realize I’m unwilling to accept my boss’s word, to trust that I’ve conveyed myself properly and that he’s understood exactly what I’ve said. This may be my own fault more than his, if he is to blame at all, which, placing blame on anyone but myself has always felt counterproductive—I can’t control other people, influence them yes, but ultimately they are of their own mind. I am learning more and more that if I want something done for myself I have to be the one to do it. This is base knowledge, of course, but you’d be amazed by how willing we are in our subconscious to let other people dictate our lives because we can’t stomach potential conflict or intimidation or what-have-you. Especially in the corporate economy, and especially when you’re a young woman in the corporate economy. Regardless of location, this can be a hard lesson to learn. But the truth is that we often have to make diplomatic demands of others within our company in order for anyone to acknowledge that we exist and have a voice, otherwise we are ghosts who float about the office for coffee and a bathroom break and lunch, but not of much consequence to the culture at large.
Amid all my other interests, my interest in the corporate sector has remained in tact. Even before I secured my job as a mortgage assistant, I was obsessed with the idea of getting onto Main Street in the Business District downtown. Yes, I’ve dealt with a substantial amount of creative unease and depression since I’ve been in this position, but I owe that more to my failing at routine and discipline and seeking proper help. I also failed at conjoining my interests. I’m interested in myself as a business woman, but I’m also interested in myself as a writer, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur. If I’ve been mentally unhinged over the last two years, or ever, it’s because I’ve fought with the idea that all of my varying interests could successfully inhabit this one body. In the past I’ve tried to make myself one-dimensional rather than pulling my curiosities together and sending them in the same direction. Last week, I read an article by Oliver Emberton in which he discusses the "great" idea and how having more than one can impede our goals. He says:
This resonated with me as a piece of neglected self-knowledge I was vaguely aware of experiencing, but didn’t try very hard to understand. And maybe that’s because making a firm decision about which direction to take my life could provoke unforeseen consequences. It would also mean I’d have to make a serious commitment. As I write this, I’m vacationing with my parents in Myrtle Bech. Yesterday afternoon, as my mom and I were walking against a heavy wind, I stated, “I want to do something entrepreneurial.” “Like what?” she asked. “I don’t know exactly. But I do know that I want to work for myself and I want it to be digital. I want to work online.” With more deliberation, however, I realized that the digital sphere would merely be a component to the overall ideation of my creative pursuits. Yes, I want to build an online community, create a digital space where people like to drop by for interesting, insightful, and entertaining reads. For too long, though, I’ve had this idea that I could only have my creative life or my professional life. I also have to acknowledge that part of my entrepreneurial desires is sensing a lack of control in my career trajectory, which doesn’t need to be as wayward as I’ve made it. Oliver goes on to list this bullet point in his article:
In college, professor Heidi Nobles gave me a collection of Dana Gioia poems, Daily Horoscope, that she found especially profitable for me. I’d just turned 19 and was working at a small community bank outside of campus. I often felt disconnected with university culture and worried that I’d made a mistake venturing into even the slightest realm of corporate America. However, she assured me that important creative work could be done by people even in the business world, as Gioia spent over a decade working for General Foods as he worked toward his first publication. Why this became such a revelation to me is astounding, and still more astounding that I am, to this day, struggling to fully realize it. It’s not that I’ve gotten myself into a position where my interests are in conflict with each other, it’s that I’ve failed to see how they complement one another. I’ve been woefully unable to send all of my interests in the same direction toward the same goal, namely because I haven’t spent enough time with them to even figure out what that goal is.
There are a few things I’ve come to understand, though. If I want to get anything valuable done, I’m going to have to make some commitments. What I’ve tried to do in the past is create astronomical goals that were grossly unattainable. I constantly set myself up for failure, languished in the aftermath, and spent an unhealthy amount of time nursing my wounds before being able to restrategize. But the commitments I’m about to make don’t have to be so damning, and if done with patience and diligence, could actually become a liberating personal trinity for living. Here’s what I have in mind:
1. Commit to Writing
And the glorious realization, or acceptance rather, that I’ve made is that writing for this blog or in a journal can be enough. Do I want to write a book? Yes. But I also know that, as Emberton lightly touches on in his article, there is a season for our goals. They don’t all have to be done at once, and in fact, when we can push more than one of them toward a larger goal we will create more velocity to attain that goal, and its subgoals, quicker than if we try to propel ourselves in too many different directions.
2. Commit to Education
My education is something that can be more simplified than it is. Apart from the job I get paid to do, I am a writer at heart. But I know that I don’t have to get an education in writing through formal schooling nor do I think it’s necessarily the right path for me. Though sometimes I want it to be. I fought so much with myself after graduation that academic writing, or a terminal creative degree, was the direction I needed to take my life. But the truth is that I much prefer to fulfill that education on my own terms than through preordained course requirements. While there a few classes in college I enjoyed enormously, and which benefited me in ways I can appreciate on a daily basis, I struggled with the academic environment. I even ran away from an offer of tuition coverage, textbook assistance, and a fellowship at Winthrop University when I was 23. Something about it simply didn’t feel right and that is a feeling that still resonates to this day. However, that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t be a writer. I truly believe that this blog could touch a lot of people if I gave it the proper attention, and where I want to create that online community and work with a digital brand, this space could supplement that entrepreneurial craving and even help identify whether that is something I want to take on as a business commitment in the future. I don’t deny that I might benefit from some avenue of formal education—I’ve actually wondered at times if an MBA might help me not only professionally but creatively and entrepreneurially as well—but certainly writing, therefore doing the work of understanding my thoughts, would help me gauge more specific commitment decisions I need to make about my education and my future.
3. Commit to Community
I’ve also fought with myself a lot over the years on whether or not Columbia is THE place for that future. Many of my friends and family think it is too economy poor, still too lacking as a consumer environment, most likely never putting itself in a position to be on the same level as a Charleston or an Asheville or a Savannah. Maybe it is because I work downtown but I have lover’s eyes for Main Street, therefore I will always want to think the best of Columbia’s direction. And it does have direction. The city is growing, and there is something fascinating to me about being in the middle of that. I’ve wanted to make the commitment to Columbia for a long time, but I always worry that this decision will disappoint people, that maybe they’ll see it as an unwillingness to try harder for another solution. Maybe there was a time in which that would’ve been true, but the only thing I’m desperate to give into is the choice I want to make for pure, self-developing reasons. I want to live in the throng. I want to engage with its people. I want to join communities where I can share my ideas and listen as others share theirs. That will involve putting myself out there more regularly and in the areas of my own particular interests so people will know I’m willing to engage with them individually and as a collective. This also means better developing my personal communities, making sure that close friends and family remain a healthy part of my life while I seek to grow my network.
No, I’m not a bad assistant. I complete tasks quickly, I make myself available to my team, I practice good follow-through habits, I stay organized and prioritized, I’m diplomatic but firm. These things make me a good assistant. But being an assistant won’t sustain me forever, and I don’t think anyone, my boss included, really expects it to. I need to put myself in a position where I feel like I’m allowed to take charge, where I don’t become barred down by relational dynamics, where I can practice friendliness and openness and grace with everyone I come into contact with, regardless of status. Yes, I could thrive in the corporate world with the right step stool. I actually don’t doubt myself there. And it’s not that I detest the corporate work environment. What I detest is the way the hierarchy makes you invisible or lesser to certain people, the way it makes them see you not as who you are but as your job title ranks you. I am lucky that even though these people do exist in my working life there are also people who see that I’m capable of more. But the trouble I’m having now, the part that makes me a potentially “bad” assistant, is that, after a while, I start to deflect and resent the politics of the corporate office. They make me hostile, unapproachable, bitter even. Maybe I think more of myself within my company than I should, given the lower rank of my position. And yet, I feel rather inflated. I refuse to act as though I’m “just an assistant.” I refuse to be seen as someone who’s willing to stay lodged in a cubicle for the next five years. I don’t know if a self-owned business will ever happen for me. I think that’s a matter of readiness, and while I know it’s an eventual goal I also know there are steps to take. I’ve grown up in a world of instant gratification, so the urge to make it happen now is often strong, which means the urge to give up is stronger because things rarely happen on command. I need to learn better how to take my time and put in the work. I want to allow myself the opportunity to personally develop through all the necessary stages of life and work, and the relationships it will take to get me there.