Do what you love, even if the money doesn’t follow by
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Prompted By The Road Not Taken

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There were so many twists and turns in my life right after college and through my 20s that it’s hard to pick one, but there were a few that seemed crucial in retrospect. I left graduate school without finishing my master’s in English, thus eliminating a career path in academia. My parents were very disappointed (after all, that would be a nice career for a woman at the time), but somehow I could not envision myself as a college professor, especially because I’ve never relished teaching.

[he] said that it took a special person to handle this job. The last woman left to become a nun. What an outrageous and fun way to start an interview!

While I was a graduate student I had been working part time as a secretary (that was the term in 1976) to the director of personnel (another 1970s term) in a small electronics company in what was then a very bad neighborhood in Oakland. Turned out I was having much more fun at the job than at my studies. When I told my boss that I’d be leaving grad school to search for a full-time job, he offered to “take me with him” (another convention back then) as a secretary to his next position, with the opportunity to have a career in HR. Somehow I couldn’t see myself liking being an HR manager, so I politely turned him down.

There had been a bad recession in 1975 which continued through the next year, and jobs, any jobs, were scarce. Given my strong English background, the employment agency I consulted sent me to an interview at a large law firm in San Francisco. I remember going up an elevator to a large conference room that had a spectacular bay view. There, a woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a brownish tweed suit, discussed the job with me. I’d be part of the typing pool, at least at first, with the prospect of becoming a full legal secretary. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? There was a good chance I would meet (and marry) a lawyer. The starting pay was $750 per month, which, while not great, was reasonably good for a woman at that time.

The next day I got a call from another recruiter who told me that a small San Francisco advertising agency was looking for a receptionist. She coached me that I would need to make a stellar impression and would have to discourage them from hiring a fashion model for the job. This wasn’t a rare practice in those days, when these agencies were conscious of their image and wanted to impress clients, who were overwhelmingly male. I met the agency’s office manager and immediately felt comfortable in the 12-person office. Fortunately, I aced the skills test they gave me. Besides answering phones, I would need to be the secretary to the creative department. I smiled as I sat in the art director Darren’s barber’s chair and enjoyed the amazing visuals in his office.

Karl, the copywriter, came in and joked back and forth with me and said that it took a special person to handle this job. The last woman left to become a nun. What an outrageous and fun way to start an interview! I replied that it wouldn’t happen to me, because a nun wasn’t a job for a nice Jewish girl. They offered me the job at a starting pay of $600 per month. What to do? The pay difference between this job and the legal secretary was huge. Everyone I talked to encouraged me to take the legal secretary’s job–it was a no brainer! Somehow my gut told me otherwise and I accepted the agency receptionist job.

I scraped by financially for a while but loved the laughter, creativity, adventure, and overall wild ride of the agency. I could not, and still cannot, imagine myself being happy in the legal environment. Thus began my introduction to communications. Had I not taken that job, I would not have been able to get the writing job in industry that truly launched my professional career.

Postscript: About a year into the job, I was at my usual position at the agency’s front desk when in walked a small woman in a full nun’s habit–black robe, white wimple and all. I was used to seeing strange things at this job, but this one stopped me in my tracks. The woman said, “Hello, I’m sister Penelope, and I used to have your job. I’m here to say hi to Darren and Karl.”

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great story Marian…tough choice, but sounds like you made the right move, despite less money. You must have lots of interesting stories from those days. I hope you will share them along the way.

  2. John Zussman says:

    Marian vs a fashion model? So glad you won out! I’m impressed by the way you made your decisions according to what felt right for you. The legal community’s loss was technical communications’ gain.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John. It’s amazing, in other ad agencies I did see fashion models decorating the front desks. British accents were highly prized as well! My favorite part was when my predecessor walked in and I discovered she really had become a nun!

  3. Susan says:

    Ad agencies in the seventies, what a free-wheeling place to get started! I took a secretary job after college (I’ll have you know my level was Secretary II, ahem) and it led me into a field I didn’t even know existed. Gosh, how do young folk get their starts nowadays? Looking forward to office hijinks stories.

  4. Marian says:

    Well, a secretary II, you outranked me (:-). There is a lot to be said for starting at the bottom. I did a lot and had such fun. Stay tuned for stories about the funniest Japanese translation and buying fresh fruit in Chinatown.

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