Our mutual desire for it is the same, but we all have different definitions of what it means. While we can find this fulfillment in other ways — and many people do — it’s most often tied to our jobs. We flock to cities in search of it. We’re constantly redefining it. We lose sight of our true priorities in the name of it.
Our second interview in the Success series is with Ed Reed. He and I took a few classes together at Emerson College in Boston, where we both studied Writing, Literature and Publishing. While we hadn’t spoken since graduation, Ed kindly responded to an online request for people willing to talk about their office jobs, when most others shied away. The last I knew, Ed had moved to Austin to join some mutual friends and pursue a career in improv comedy. Curious to hear how he’d transitioned into office work, I arranged a phone call. Purchasing a land line special for the occasion, I set up shop on my couch and gave him a ring. Excerpts of that conversation are below, edited for clarity.
March 2012 – Austin, TX
We were raised to think we could do and be whatever we wanted. It would just happen for us and we were all going to be famous whatevers. I think that’s a problem unique to people our age, as opposed to prior generations, which had a slightly less self-inflated sense of their own possibility. I don’t think that people trying and reaching for greatness is ever a bad thing, but I do think that maybe the realism was neglected. Only a tiny portion of people are going to achieve success in that way and I think there’s a feeling that the people who didn’t — I’m including myself in that — who just have normal jobs and are getting by and aren’t writing for the Washington Post or producing movies with x famous director have failed somehow. Some people just didn’t get that it wasn’t going to be possible and that’s kind of a tough pill to swallow.
When I graduated, I didn’t burst forth with some great sense of momentum and, “Yes, here I go.” I kind of sputtered out of the gate and ended up without a place to go, or money to go there with, or jobs or a plan. So I ended up moving home for a little while, back in with my parents to a little town called Ellington, in rural, northern Connecticut. That was a pretty severe wake up call, in terms of what my post-collegiate life was actually going to look like. I spent that time at home working at a bar, saved up some money and then got down here when I could. I wasn’t going to break my back trying to find the job of my dreams. I didn’t have the financial luxury of that. I had barely enough money to move down, so I just decided I was going to get the first job I could find and then get comfortable and take it from there. And that’s what I’m doing.
I live in Austin and I work in certificates insurance. Basically when Company A enters into business with Company B, everybody needs to prove their insurance to each other. I put together the documents that provide the proof, basically. Friends of mine already had jobs here and through referrals, they were pretty confident I’d be able to get in here and that’s what happened. I’d always worked in the service industry — waiting tables, bussing tables, that kind of thing. This was my first office job situation. I don’t have to dress up in any way. I can wear flip flops, jeans and a T-shirt if I feel like it. Austin is kind of a college town because University of Texas is here, so there’s a constant stream of young talent looking for employment. A lot of companies saw it as an opportunity to create an outpost and tap into the young creative sector in a place that has tax benefits.
I’ve been working there for coming up on two years. I did a year as entry level and then got promoted to a team lead, assistant manager. It’s one guy and then I’m his right hand man. Then there’s 10 people who we directly supervise. The team runs from 22 to 35 and I actually am one of the youngest there. With that came the expected pay bump, but also increased responsibility and increased pressure. Obviously, it’s frustrating.
What we do is very detail-oriented and can be very difficult. Expectations are very high as far as volume and the quality of the work. Some of the meetings that I end up going to are hilariously funny, in that they sound exactly like you would expect them to. People throw the word “synergy” around and “optimizing profit potential,” etcetera, etcetera. People really talk like that and it’s kind of startling. It comes with a lot of bullshit, but I myself am not required to buy into that. My job has a lot to do with training and team management, not the shitty hiring and firing side of it, but actually helping people out with what we do. My style works for that, but as you start getting up higher into the system, I think there needs to be more of the company tack. You need to buy into the system. I might have reached my ceiling with this company.
I don’t really care that much what I do to make money. I’m not too concerned that I’m not using my major or that I’m not doing the thing that really is my passion. One, because I never got a firm handle on what exactly my passion was and two, because I feel like I still have plenty of time to do that other stuff. I don’t know if anyone’s happy in their job at our age. Even when you have that “dream job,” you’re still gonna be dealing with all the stuff that people always deal with at jobs where you need to get ahead. You can’t just compartmentalize your job. If it’s something that you have a lot of passion about, I think that actually can produce more anxiety. You put all your stock into this one thing, rather than keeping business and pleasure separate. Right now, I’m just trying to get financially comfortable. I don’t know if I need to have my job be some sort of perfect thing for me at this point in my life. My girlfriend is in a similar sort of situation. She also works in a corporate job that wasn’t at all what she did in college, but is now involved in improv with me. That’s how we met.
I’m pretty involved in the comedy scene here. I don’t get paid to do improv comedy for 40 or 50 people once a week, but I love it. I’m happy. I don’t feel conflicted about, “Why aren’t I in New York at UCB every night of the week, just trying to make it?” I’m too realistic, I think. My dad would actually love it if I was pursuing comedy, or writing, or music or any number of things professionally. He’s like, “You could be on SNL.” I say, “I don’t think so, Dad.” I can’t buy into the fantasy of it all and he wants to believe that I can be anything. I think most people would have the problem of they’re trying like mad to get on SNL and their dad wants them to settle down and get an office job. It’s kind of funny.
He’s a very creative guy and I think he’s probably trying to do a bit of vicarious living through me. He was in the Navy and then he was in the postal service for 30 years. He’s retired now. He acts in community theater and paints and does all this creative stuff now that he has all the free time in the world. I think he wishes he hadn’t settled so quickly when he was younger. My mom is happy for me that I’m independent and supporting myself and happy. She’s been a nurse for 20 years and will be a nurse for probably another 20. She’s a hard worker too, but she’s a little more the realist of the family. That makes me wonder, am I gonna regret my unwillingness to go for it down the line? I’m trying as hard as I can to not worry about that type of thing, because I don’t think it’s useful. I want to focus on being happy right now. The best way for me to do that is work a job that allows me to have financial comfort and spend my free time in whatever way I want to.
Me and Lacy have been thinking about getting the preliminary steps started on buying a house. We have lots of friends our age who are working on their houses. I know lots of people who wouldn’t be happy with that, who don’t want to settle for domestic happiness and comfort. If you have that hunger and it won’t go away, then by all means do what makes you happy. If chasing that is what’s gonna do it for you, then go for it. I think it’s all about your personal definition of success. There’s nothing I can complain about in my life with any sense of justification. I’m doing pretty good.
I think that the next thing is probably to take it elsewhere. There have been openings at the supervisor position that I’ve let go by. I can translate my experience into something a little better. I do think that I could have a job in an office situation that’s a little closer to something I like. There’s any number of places that I could go into that are a little more my speed than insurance. There’s a lot of web companies, there’s publishing, there’s music, just in Austin. I’ve left Austin city limits all of three times since I’ve been here. There’s no reason to leave. I’m not gonna drop everything and move to New York City any time soon. I don’t need the rat race, I don’t need the competition.
I know that I need a creative outlet to be happy. I obviously love performing for people, but it’s not like I’m waiting to get noticed. Because it’s improv, it’s different every time. It’s always what you want it to be. I just know I go a little crazy if I don’t have something creative to do. If I just did a show a week for 60 people for the rest of my life, I’d probably be happy. For me, success is being as happy as you can as often as possible, and having expectations for that happiness based in reality.
-Interviewed by Cole Rosengren