Hey, I’m holding on to my promise and I’m posting a new post this week! Yay! Yes, its still autobiographic but I’ve got gaming stuff coming on the horizon and I’ll return to good old gaming posting soon.
In part one, I mentioned how cathartic it could be to write without boundaries (although I often write better when I have creative constraints). Just to prove the point, what was supposed to be a post about freelance writing advice more or less morphed into an autobiographical piece about what led me to acknowledge I was a writer.
So why not take things where we left off?
Of Water, Sludge and Paperwork
Armed with two diplomas and all the aspirations of a young wolf pup, I took a part-time job as a water samples analyst for a company that manufactured and sold pumps. Working 20 hours a week allowed me to bring back together the old RPG group I had left behind when I moved to the Great (mostly) White North. I called back Math (with whom I’d played RPGs since we were 13), Yan (from Pre-college) and Baboune (from my college years, he since moved to Sweden).
We played a bitchin’ Gurps campaign about sick dragon monarchs, scheming scaled siblings and daring heroes rising from the ranks of indentured humanoids (and a wight named Barry). I’m getting sidetracked again, and I’m sure I mentioned that in my “Gaming DNA” series a few months ago.
My stint as a water tester didn’t last very long, I made a few newbie mistakes and the signs of 6-months-itis started to show, a condition my new wife would soon learn to dread.
I left the company for a job as “research agent” for an environmental consulting firm. I was following the footsteps of 2 of my former Graduate student colleagues who’d held the position before. In fact that’s how I heard about the job in the first place…
Phil (on phone): So I hear you’re going back to do a Ph.D, how was the job? I’m interested.
Ex-Employe: It sucks rotten balls, don’t take it!
But I had set my mind and I took the job. I worked as a research microbiologist, writing academic-sounding material on the results we got on this huge bio-reactor contraption supposedly able to treat contaminated soil with bacteria.
I mostly remember getting up at 11 PM every other night to go and check on the reactor, which often spilled and lost all its content on the floor (that’s 400 liters of hydrocarbon-contaminated sludge as I recall) which I had to vacuum back into oil drums so we could restart the “monster” the next day.
For those keeping tabs on my players, that’s where I met Franky, then an environmental tech and Steph, the lab tech in charge of hydrocarbon analyses.
I did that for about 6 months, (yeah, that’s a pattern all right), before I started growing bored with it… Fortunately, the company’s ISO 9000 coordinator left the company and I applied for the position and got it.
And thus started a decade-long history with Quality Assurance and the wonderful world of auditing processes and writing reports. Most importantly I started writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), lots and lots of them. Ask anyone in an ISO environment, they’ll tell you SOPs are boring as hell to read, and people usually HATE writing them…
But I don’t, I actually like writing them a lot. However, writing things no one ever really wants to read only gives you so much job satisfaction.
About a year after joining the company, I felt the urge to leave it… badly. Oh look, another 6 months gone by!
I joined a Montreal-based generic pharmaceutical company as a Compliance Auditor. I was the guy in charge of inspecting pharmaceutical plants and paperwork against regulations and document non-compliances in reports. Oh boy did I go to town with reports, emails, quality agreements and, again, SOPs. I developed a lot experience in the next years as an SOP writer and reviewer. Trying to make them interesting, complete and, later, simpler and less verbose.
(That’s what pays my bills as a freelance writer and consultant now ).
I’ve learned many lessons during my tenure in that company, the main one was, again, linked to editing one’s words…
One day I was working at my desk when the director of purchasing, this big german guy, came into my office and asked me if he could “borrow my computer”.
Phil: Well sure…
Herr Director (Fiddling with my Outlook): I know English is not your first language, and you are a good writer, but have you ever heard about spell-checking?
And he turned mine on and left my office.
Humiliating? Yes. Did I start hating the guy? No. He was right. And he had approached me face to face, not in front of my bosses, nor, as many assholes do, during a meeting. I appreciated that. He would later give me many more lessons about life in a large company… and an unplanned one about how NOT to talk to Parisian waiters… but that’s a story for another day.
I eventually became supervisor of the compliance group. One of my teammates, Eric, even joined our D&D 3.5 crew!
One of our team’s responsibilities was to oversee the writing, approval and publishing of all of the company’s 700+ SOPs. That’s where I learned another peripheral lesson:
Not everyone’s a writer…Nor is everyone a reader.
I didn’t stumble on long form blogging by accident, I started my short management career by writing emails that went on FOREVER. When an issue would creep up at work and I wanted to address it, I would often turn to writing ponderous emails first and go in excruciating details about the things I wanted fixed and how to go at it. Most of the time, people replied in (shorter) kind and we fixed things.
But every so often, I discovered that some individuals just.didn’t.get.it. They’d fly off the handle completely misinterpreting some of the things I wrote, ignore most of it or just get everything wrong. At first I became really frustrated and had dark thoughts about those colleagues; I put in doubt their intellectual prowess and willingness to do actual teamwork in the enterprise.
Then, one day, I set a face to face meeting with that one person that gave me the most trouble… and everything got cleared within minutes. That’s when I realized that the written media is not the best communication tool out there… it just was the one I had the most affinities with and that many struggle with it mightily, from both sides of the keyboard.
Chaos sets in
This brings us to the mid ’00s and where signs of my first severe depression started to show. During that period, I changed jobs three time. Fleeing stress and unresolved work issues became a sure sign of psychological distress. I kept telling my wife that the next job would be the correct one, that ‘this last company sucked” and “the next one will be perfect”.
I even left the generic pharma company and came back…
Herr Director (Sent by the company’s owner): You understand that by taking you back, the company is clearly saying they value your work and potential, but you leave again and you don’t get to come back.
Phil (gulp): Understood…
I left for a second (and last) time 15 months after my return. In that time I learned more about project management that I ever want to learn, but at least I now have many tools to plan and execute complex, multi-part projects, something that’s VERY useful when dealing with overlapping freelance assignments.
After having left Quality Assurance to try my hand at corporate training and Project Management , I returned in its loving arms and joined a human genetics research lab in late 2006 as a Quality Manager… shaking off my last depression symptoms.
I stuck around there for 4 years… the longest I ever held onto a job. During that time I built a whole quality system from scratch as I saw one should be built. It was also one of those academic places where things moved so slowly and expectations were set very low. So much so that I initially bristled at it all.
That’s when I realized something fundamental: Having an insufficiently challenged set of talents was not so much hindrance as an opportunity. While I found the job decreasingly satisfying (while still achieving great success), I could not, yet again, switch jobs without putting my credibility as a worthwhile employee at serious risk.
Or my marriage.
That’s where I started shifting my “untapped” potential into a blog……and the light finally lit up.
What about you, what lessons from work and day jobs has given you good lessons for later careers changes?
Up next: Lessons from blogging about RPGs and bipolar disorder.