25 Stories About Work – From College to Work

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Chicago, early 1990s

Today it seems like everyone goes into college after taking many Advanced Placement (AP) courses with a lot of college credits. When I did this in the late 1980s, however, it was much rarer. I was able to cut out an entire semester with credits from high school and with summer school and a heavy course load I was able to graduate with an undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting in four years.

I remember finishing college at the end of May. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning in our house nor in the buildings on campus and I remember just sweating so much that my arms stuck to the coursework. In graduate school we had a number of group projects which were harder to schedule back in the day before email and cell phones; we had to pick a time and actually stick to it in order to collaborate. Exams were long and we had to turn in all of our projects and I was kind of exhausted.

Immediately after completion of exams I took the CPA exam. Today the exam is much different and it is commonly taken “in pieces” but back then most people sat down and in two days tried to knock out all four sections at once; you needed a score of “75%” to pass each section and I passed all four the first time, although one of the sections was right on the edge with that “75”. The exam was in McCormick Place, South of the Loop, and on Friday around 6pm I decided to take side streets (Ashland) up from the South Loop to the North Side. That turned out to be a terrible decision; at that time Chicago was extremely dangerous and this was before gentrification of the South and West Loop; there were large groups of people milling about in the street and burning trashcans like that scene out of “Rocky”. I got through it but it was something I’d never recommend trying again.

By the middle of June I was starting my first job. The accounting firm tried to get me to start in the fall, when the vast majority of new staff joined, and asked me why I didn’t want to just take the summer off.

“Because I don’t have any money” was my answer.

I started working and it was grueling; I traveled out of Chicago almost every week from Monday through Friday and during “busy season” we stayed over the weekends in the client city, usually in Iowa due to my client base. We stayed in Iowa for six weeks straight at one point, never coming home or taking a day off and we usually worked from about 7am through 10pm every day.

The main point of this story was one Friday night when I was lugging my travel bag through O’Hare and I saw some friends from high school who were still either in college or (wisely) taking off the summer post graduation before starting work. They were laughing and obviously looking forward to flying off somewhere to party. I had been working over a year at that point and it kind of broke my heart to see them all so bright eyed and happy which after only a year of being an auditor had effectively been crushed out of me.

It isn’t that being an auditor or a doctor or working in manufacturing was bad per se, and I’m sure some professionals had it worse than me. At that age, however, you start to peer into the future and see decades of work and responsibilities and toil and in the words of the Allman Brothers,

The road goes on forever

Another element that changed over the years is that you started to realize that it didn’t get any easier as you moved up the ladder of responsibility; being a “supervisor” is hard and especially since you were just kind of thrown into it without any training, it often ended badly before you got the hang of it. The word “manager” implied that you had responsibilities, and those responsibilities usually meant juggling impossible, competing objectives like completing the work on time, don’t exceed your planned costs, and oh by the way utilize this sub-par team of newbies to get it done. At the time I couldn’t have understood the job of “partner”, which really meant “sell, sell, sell” and bring in new money and clients to the firm.

It is important to always remember what it felt like to join the work force and the kinds of thoughts and fears you first experienced, because there’s a new generation coming up and going through that right now. To some extent I can see the end of my career, although I hope to go at least another decade or more, but it is great to try to capture that fear mixed with enthusiasm and being slightly punch drunk that makes up the “new hire”.

Cross posted at LITGM

19 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – From College to Work”

  1. Hah. I grew to detest the term “working supervisor” after a time. It meant that you had all the duties of the worker bees, but none of the relative freedom of being able to walk away at the end of your shift … and all the responsibilities of being a supervisor, but none of the privileges.

  2. “you started to realize that it didn’t get any easier as you moved up the ladder of responsibility.”

    My first marriage was destroyed when my wife figured out that private practice was even harder than residency which was harder than medical school. She was completely demoralized and our marriage ended about 6 years after I finished my training. We had married as students and she was OK with medical school but began realize that her college sorority sisters had married guys who were home every night and weekend.

    Medical students are rebelling against the hours we worked but, of course, they see that most will not make the kind of living that we could 40 years ago. The compensation today is that many male medical students marry female medical students and two incomes make up much of what was lost from the one income days. Even though many female doctors work reduced hours, it still adds up to about the same as we made in the old days.

    Charles Murray has written about his concerns with the sociology of two college students, especially with good degrees, marrying and attaining a higher income level than the traditional guy who married “the girl next door” did.

  3. }}} The word “manager” implied that you had responsibilities, and those responsibilities usually meant juggling impossible, competing objectives

    This, more than anything, is why I laugh at the idiots who whine about people making six-figure salaries. They all derive from the notion that somehow, they get this salary for telling other people to work… the Dilbert pointy-haired boss notion. In my own observation, the people “making the big bucks” are usually workaholics who work 50,60, 70, even 80 hours per week. They deserve what they get, not just because of what they do, but how they do it.

    The same idiots also rail against The Rich, because their concept of being rich is strongly based on Scrooge McDuck. They think rich people toss their money in Money Bins and it’s doing nothing at all but laying there… while the Rich Bastard goes swimming in it once in a while… so it’s ok to “steal” it, because it’s not doing anyone any good. Anyone with a semblance of a brain — or a clue about big money — knows how laughably wrong this is. All “stealing” the money usually does is to take it out of the hands of those who know how to put it to good use, and puts it into the hands of someone who, generally, knows nothing at all about how to put it to good use… case in point, Obama and Solyndra. There was a reason legitimate investors didn’t want to touch Solyndra, and it wasn’t because they didn’t like “Green” technologies — it was because they like to MAKE money and Solyndra — and Green tech in general — was/is a recipe for losing it.

  4. “the people “making the big bucks” are usually workaholics who work 50, 60, 70, even 80 hours per week.” No doubt, but when I was a junior academic I worked those hours for small potatoes. When my daughter was eighteen she worked those hours for six months to let her save money to go travelling.

    Early in my industrial career I had a couple of months working 12 hour shifts six days a week, while completing and writing up a large, intricate calculation “in my own time”. At least the company had the decency to shell out treble-pay for the second month.

  5. “…50,60, 70, even 80 hours per week.” – I own my own business and have worked my butt off for every penny I have so I, of course, bristle when I see demonstrations against the 1% or whatever. I think the last time I worked less than 70 hours in a week was back in college. Not complaining, just saying how it is. Most people can’t or won’t make the sacrifice. Which is fine, but don’t bitch to me about it if you are a bit short someday.

    HOWEVER – I have been taking some awesome vacations over the past few years and it is liberating and wonderful and I need and want to take more. And will. I will still be working a lot of hours, but I can’t bury my head down in exhausting slaving weeks over and over any more. I am hiring more people.

    I figure I have maybe 30 years left on earth and need to make the most of them.

    Hey, if I was a teacher or government worker, I would have a cushy pension by now and could literally not work any more. Now that’s depressing.

  6. To those who put down the hard grinding work I offer this observation. My daughter was born with a heart defect in 1991 (a VSD for those medically inclined). A top notch cardiology/surgery team repaired it when she was 16 months old. I spent the obligatory time in the ICU and Pediatric wards and saw a lot of Medicaid kids getting the same care as my daughter (but without constant family support). I realized then that only a hard working, wealthy society can afford to lavish this care on children. To do this you have to make the effort which is why the increasing entitlements cannot succeed. Now I’ve run my own company for 20 years and think of this duty when I put in the extra hours to make things work.

  7. 70-80 hours a week, must be the norm. My take on running a business was that you had to be in the game day and night. I was a government drone for quite a number of years, everyday, every week was Groundhog Day, the same problems arose time and again, petty disputes carried over for decades, nobody ever got fired, just shuffled around. A fraction of the staff performed, everyone else coasted for twenty. I would have been retired with an SEIU pension had I stayed on.

    When we relocated, I took on a manager position in a business I knew nothing about. I quickly found to be effective I had to work six-seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day, just to keep the doors open, let alone turn a profit each week. Had an absentee owner, who insisted on doing the hiring, and this was to his detriment, and eventually he lost the business, but it was a good experience for me. I learned to make contacts, and develop relationship with vendors, listened and learned as I went along. I then went on to relative success at another company. So, yeah, “They Built It”. All the best to those that succeed.

  8. ” I spent the obligatory time in the ICU and Pediatric wards and saw a lot of Medicaid kids getting the same care as my daughter ”

    When I was spending time at Childrens Hospital, we had parents who complained that their children were in wards instead of private rooms. They perceived the wards as being for the Medicaid kids. I would often point out to them that kids don’t like to be alone. They were happier in a ward and the ward meant their kid was getting more attention and observation. This was usually enough to satisfy them and happened to be true.

    There are some stories about this in the book.

  9. When I took the CPA exam I was aiming for the “300 Club”, which means study each section just enough to pass all 4 parts in one sitting. It was a very hard test but I passed on the first try. I don’t remember my exact scores but I think my highest was an 85 or so. Everything else was in the high 70’s.

    My second year out of college I was doing a stint in Tax and the week before April 15th I booked 112 hours over 7 days. It was dark when I got to work and dark when I left. My Dad always told me that the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.

  10. I finally quit the Trauma Center when I had four out of five weekends on call and went two stretches of 40 hours without sleep. I was over 50 and this was ridiculous. That was after 24 years of private practice.

    My second wife was an ICU nurse and she told me after we were married that she had had no idea how many times the phone would ring at night.

    I could wake up, give a sensible order to the nurse and go right back to sleep. I can’t do that anymore.

    Although on one occasion (not in the book. I had forgotten it), I was on call when I had the flu and had taken something. I got a call and gave an order and then, I said “And get the patient a California environmental license plate.” I hung up and looked at my wife who was sitting on the bedroom floor looking at me in horror. I said, “Did I just say what I think I said ?”

    She nodded and I called the nurse back and told her I wasn’t crazy. I had just taken some cough medicine. I don’t think they called back that night.

  11. “It was dark when I got to work and dark when I left.” This is routinely familiar to those of us who have worked at a high latitude. :)

  12. “This is routinely familiar to those of us who have worked at a high latitude.”
    Most certainly. I spent a year in Greenland, and in December, it was dark around the clock, with maybe about half an hour of twilight at about noon.

  13. During my year of active employment, I learned a few things apropos.

    “I don’t know anyone on their deathbed exclaiming they wished they had spent more time at the office.”

    “A corporation is like a bucket of water. You are a hand in that bucket. Remove your hand and the bucket of water is still there.”

    “The corporation will take all the excess hours you are willing to work. They will not tell you to go home and have a life with your family. They will not give you anything but an “attaboy” for all that work.
    One ‘Oh Sh*t’erases 100 attaboys. Attaboys cannot be cashed. They just are.”

    “Some times, what is sold as a ‘promotion’ is actually a subversive way to lower overtime costs and reduce pension & benefit expenses.
    A ‘promotion’ to management may exempt the employee from overtime work rules. The same ‘promotion’ may obliterate previous retirement and pension obligations.”

    I have tried to pass this on to my younger siblings.

  14. Working 80 hour weeks meant I was a lot less effective as a manager, worker and owner – after a while. And days without sleep. Perseverance saw me through those first years, but my head was down so much I missed some lessons. And it also sucked the life out of me and sometimes the heart from my family. Still, making it yourself pulls from you strengths you never knew were there – and flaws.

    Business education like pedagogy often seems full of untested theory. But surely it helps: writing a dissertation using Jung to analyze Henry James in August, started a business in October and by spring hiring full-time three or so and part-time 20 or so forced a cramming & risk-taking for which little in academia had prepared me. The fact that 13 years later I sold it, not at a great profit but ensuring that the twenty or so that depended on it for a paycheck could count on that for at least 6 months and more if they met the new owner’s expectations was useful.

    The other thing about small business – and farms – is that the family’s wealth is tied up in the business. One of my brother’s friends in high school was talking about his parents’ fights over allocation – you can always buy a house with a tractor but you can’t buy a tractor with a house, his father would say. But that can eat you up, too. Freeman’s “Revolt of Mother” captures that tension and the bullheadedness that builds a business.

    I love the dignity and quiet eye of those realists from that period with their understated ethics – the ethics that come from the discipline such work can give:

    Sarah Penn’s face as she rolled her pies had that expression of meek vigour which might have characterized one of the New Testament saints. She was making mince-pies. Her husband, Adoniram Penn, liked them better than any other kind. She baked twice a week. Adoniram often liked a piece of pie between meals. She hurried this morning. It had been later than usual when she began, and she wanted to have a pie baked for dinner. However deep a resentment she might be forced to hold against her husband, she would never fail in sedulous attention to his wants.

    Nobility of character manifests itself at loop-holes when it is not provided with large doors. Sarah Penn’s showed itself to-day in flaky dishes of pastry. So she made the pies faithfully, while across the table she could see, when she glanced up from her work, the sight that rankled in her patient and steadfast soul — the digging of the cellar of the new barn in the place where Adoniram forty years ago had promised her their new house should stand.

  15. “A ‘promotion’ to management may exempt the employee from overtime work rules.”

    My nephew has gone back to hourly service work because of overtime that he was not eligible for as a manager. This may inhibit further progress in the company for him but he has a wife who is telling him she wants a larger house.

    I know that feeling.

  16. “This may inhibit further progress in the company for him but he has a wife who is telling him she wants a larger house.”

    And how will she feel in 5 years or so when people they know in the company are doing much better than her husband…in part because they chose to stay on the management track?

  17. “And how will she feel in 5 years or so ”

    Assuming they are still together. She is a space cadet and is now into “whiteness.”

  18. Most of these stories have in common an individual being paid for their labor – meaning the limiting factor is their time. More time spent working equals more income, regardless if you are a highly skilled doctor or that doctor’s janitor.

    The key to being free of this is when accumulated assets can be deployed to create earnings – and those earnings come whether or not the owner is engaged.

    Many business owners are simply working for lousy bosses – themselves.

    The moral here is to accumulate capital as quickly as possible, and hire these eager beavers to make you money. And enjoy your life.

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