Career advice: three ways to survive as an offbeat employee in an onbeat job

By on Sep 5th

As a creative working an office job, you may come to love that copy machine. Illustration by Summer Pierre, from her book The Artist in the Office


In honor of Labor Day, I figured I'd veer a little bit from our usual in-home content to talk about some outside-the-home career realities. I spent five years working in corporate staffing, so this sort of thing is oddly near 'n' dear to my heart.

The Empire must be filled with people who have to make an offbeat personality fit into a very very non-offbeat job and workplace, and I'm curious as to how they do it. I'm only 23 and am looking for work and even having to fit myself into the norm for interviews etc is (warning: overly dramatic and kind of ridiculous statement ahead) kind of killing me inside a little. Applying for jobs with companies whose ethics I question, and whose goods I don't believe in and wouldn't buy makes me feel sick and suffocated, and like I'm trading in on my own integrity. How can I deal with these feelings? Everyone tells me to suck it up and get on with it. I feel like I'm being completely ridiculous, but this is important to me. -Arlina

Oh man, Arlina. I relate to this question so profoundly. With the exception of a few lucky periods of freelancing, I spent over a decade (between ages 22 and 34) working corporate jobs. Some of my greatest moments included a temp job for MDA where I spent all day on the phone calling taverns that were selling paper shamrocks for charity, another temp gig where I was word processing documents for a company producing urine testing kits, and dozens of shitty copywriting jobs writing ad copy for terrible products I'd never use. I spent year after year, sitting in basement cubicles writing crap like this. Every once and a while I would snag a "cool" corporate gig, like the couple of years I spent as an editor for Movies.com — but they were still 9-to-5 jobs where I was required to sit through corporate training programs and felt like a fraud.

All those years of toiling away taught me some critical coping mechanisms and ways to make myself feel ok about what I was doing. I will share these with you.

Always know your big-picture goals

Think ahead five to ten years and picture where you want to be. Try to identify the ways your current day-job job can help you get there — are you paying of your student loans so that you can start your own business? Are you building up experience so that you can go freelance? Have clear financial and career goals, and work to find ways to make a seemingly unrelated day-job feel relevant to those goals.

For me, I treated all my low-level copywriting jobs as a way to hone my writing skills. My big picture goals were to work full-time as an independent writer/publisher, and so I viewed every cheezy marketing collateral I got assigned as a opportunity to test my skills. Could I write compellingly about an ear and nose hair trimmer?! Well, goddamnit, if I could write about THAT, then I could write about ANYTHING.

For me, it became a challenge: I worked to do my don't-give-a-shit-about-it jobs really well, so that once I was in the place to do the work I was passionate about, I had my skills DOWN.

Think of it as reconnaissance

A few years ago, a young lawyer friend of mine needed to find some work. He'd been focused on energy reform law, but all his contracts and dried up and the only work he could find was working for a multi-national oil company. In other words, he had to go work for the enemy. How does a progressive energy reformist justify working for a conservative oil company?

"I need to understand how these people think," he told me. "This is one of the largest, most successful petroleum companies pulling strings internationally — whatever they're doing, it works. If I'm going to stand a chance in reforming this industry, I need to really understand how things are run."

He spent six months working for the devil, as it were, and came out with his debts paid off and a glint in his eye. "I get it," he told me. "They all work 80 hours a week. They never sleep. They're tirelessly dedicated to what they're doing. I totally get it now — if I want to beat these guys, that's how I have to work."

Another anecdote: Years ago, I had an editor job once where my manager was an aging tabloid journalist from Los Angeles. My fellow editors and I, all Seattleites who couldn't STAND cheezy journalism, rolled our eyes constantly at the headline suggestions we got from our boss — so tabloid! So cheese! So lame!

But I had drinks with one of my former fellow editors a few months ago (now an editor for a mainstream news outlet) and we both confessed that the old tabloid headline methods we learned from that cheezy aging manager were some of the most useful editorial tools we had in our arsenal.

And those awful AWFUL employee reviews I had to do in old corporate jobs? As much as I hated them (and dudes: I HATED THEM) the methods I suffered through back in the day have become really useful to me now when I'm talking to my own employees. I realized that the methods were right on — it was just the application that was grossing me out. Ultimately, employee reviews can be a really awesome way to talk to staff about what they want out their job. Who knew!?

Cast yourself as the artist in the office

My friend Summer Pierre spent so many years working office jobs while living a double life as a creative that she wrote a book about it. It's a great read for those of us who are living double lives, working a boring day-job while also actively scheming toward something bigger, better, more creative, or just different.

My experience of being the weirdo in the office was generally positive — as long as I did my job really well, I found that my coworkers got a kick out of having an offbeat type at the next cubicle over. Sometimes my 40-something coworkers would come talk to me about their teens ("So my daughter wants to dye her hair pink…"). Sometimes I felt like my managers used me to boost their own cultural credibility ("Yeah, I hired this Burning Man type 'cuz, you know, I'm forward-thinking like that…").

I've written about this elsewhere before: as long as you do your job really, really well, you might be surprised at what you can get away with culturally and appearance-wise at work. Granted, I'm coming from the perspective of someone who works A) in the tech industry and B) on the West Coast, both microcosms of relatively relaxed, progressive workplaces. But seriously: if the Goth in the Office can get away with it? You can too.

Not that every office is a sitcom, but it sometimes helped me to think of it that way. By letting a bit of myself shine through in my at-times culturally stifling day-jobs, sometimes I felt like I was just doing my part to fill a role that was needed in the microcosm of that office's culture. It helped to pass the time.

Knowing when to draw the line

I don't want to mitigate the fact that there are jobs that are an intolerable cultural mis-match. I'm thinking here of an atheist friend who worked for a very conservative office in Texas. The culture of the office was heavily religious (prayers at meetings, etc) and it became clear that my friend was more than just the "weird one" — she was seen as anti-Christian, and therefore untrustworthy. This was a case where culturally, I don't know if things were ever going to be reconciled. The heathen in the office isn't as much fun of a role as the artist.

This is all to say, while I think there are methods you can use to feel less icky about working a job that's a perfect fit, ultimately there times when you're confronted with working for a company that you hate. Sometimes, you have to stand strong — I once turned down a job for a company called x10, who were famous in the early '00s for being among the first businesses to use "pop-under" ads. I also turned down a job at the corporate offices of an international multi-level marketing company — I wouldn't have been active in the scamming, but my work would have been supporting the scam.

That said, I did spend almost three years working for Microsoft, a company that makes lots of products I won't use. How did I feel ok about it? Well, I was working in staffing marketing, and so the product I was selling was working at Microsoft… and Microsoft offers some of the best employee benefits in the US. Basically, instead of thinking about how Windows Vista or Hotmail or Windows phones made me want to barf, I thought about how great it was that I got to help people get jobs that gave them great benefits. (And, of note: it was ultimately the health benefits at Microsoft that made it possible for me to conceive, so, you know: thanks for that, Microsoft.)

Ultimately, it's up to each of us to figure out where the line is when it comes to making cultural or ethical compromises for a job. And let's not ignore the fact that at least in the US, we're in the middle of what may be a long, double-dip recession. Especially for those just starting their careers, it's not an easy time to be picky about work. If you have your long-term goals in mind, there can be something to be said for being able to get a job (any job at all) these days.