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New Year’s Day always makes me philosophical. Also, I watched Oprah on Friday, New Year’s Eve Day, and that always makes me philosophical too.

On Friday I watched Oprah interview J. K. Rowling in my favorite foreign city, Edinburgh, about her life and work. J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) is the first writer to make a billion dollars from being a writer, and Oprah is the first TV star to make a billion dollars from being a TV star.

I mention the billion dollars that each woman has earned because even if money is a lousy, awful, often arbitrary, and spiritually demeaning way of keeping score, you have to admit that when someone earns a billion dollars they must be rather good — in fact, very, very, very good — at their work.

So I was fascinated, watching these two mega-successful women talking to each other, thinking that they are the only two women on Earth who can talk to each other about what it’s like to have become who they are. They both seem to be more than merely self-made billionaires: they both seem to be gracious, still ambitious, and almost ludicrously, impossibly self-actualized. Off the charts self-fullfilled — at least as far as work is concerned. And the work is what I’m interested in. It was very inspiring.

Because I’m all about work. I celebrate work. I admire people who are very good at what they do for work, because it signifies that they have figured out what their true work is. (Isn’t it impossible to be very successful at something you hate to do?)

It took me a long time — 52 years — to finally get down to doing the work that I think I was meant to do (this illustrated autobiography thing that I do to communicate my peculiar joie de vivre) and I thank my lucky stars that I finally figured it out. Yes, I wish I’d figured it out sooner, and not wasted so much time doing work I so dearly loathed, but you know how the fate thing works: In Its Own Sweet Time.

So I watched Oprah and J. K. Rowling and thought back on my work history. I’ve had many jobs, and done many different kinds of work, and some if it was really shitty and some of it wasn’t half bad, but it all led to this New Year’s Day, with me putting finishing touches on my second book, so all in all, there’s no hard feelings between me and my resume.

In fact, I’ve had two bosses in my past who I’ve always held in very high regard and within the last five years I’ve written notes to both of them to tell them about the lasting impressions they made on me, and how much I admired them then and how I continue to apply their examples of leadership, work ethics, and decency to my current work. One note was to the ex-president of Christie’s auction house (where I worked as the  Faberge expert) and one note was to Bill Marriott (my first job in New York City was in the Marriott Essex House Hotel) and Mr. Marriott sent me back a very nice hand-written note in reply! The Marriotts are great people.

So on this New Year’s Day I was thinking of where I was tenyears ago: starting a new job, a job I didn’t much like, but the job that after three years gave me the chance to meet my husband, for which I am thankful every single day. And I thought, Gee: I really owe a lot to that job, to that boss. And I thought, Heck: I should drop him a line to say I hope all’s well with you and by the way, thanks.

And then I remembered that that was the boss who, one day, came out of the men’s bathroom and said to me that he’d seen a “floater” in there, and he made me to write a memo to all the men in the company to instruct them to always flush twice to ensure proper disposal of all turds.

And I thought: Oh, the hell with him.

And I trashed the idea of writing that note. 

But I’m still thinking about true work, and the joy and purpose and honor it gives a person when they are doing their true work. Because, now that I’m finishing The Damn France Book, I’ll need a new project. I’m looking for the next true job…

Are you looking too?

11 comments to Brain Trash

  • Maryann

    absolutely. :)

  • Thoughtful blog post – and while thinking about my life, I am thankful that I had a job that I truly loved for 40 years. And now I really love retirement just as much! Hope to finally meet you Wed.

  • august

    They don’t need to be all that world-shakingly excellent. (I know, because they aren’t.) They need to be good, that’s all. The rest is luck. Someone wins the lottery, every time.

    The almost ludicrous self-actualization is due to the same fallacy you make here. They think they earned their money. They don’t realize that if they went back in time and worked just as hard and did exactly the same thing, 999 time out of a hundred, they’d be hacks and B-listers.

    We think success is earned. We think the Facebook kid did something smarter and better than the Headpage kid; look at the evidence. One is worth a billion, one is worth nothing at all. It’s bullshit. The chance of any individual writer making more than any other writer has ever made is one in a bazillion. The chance of some writer making more than any writer has ever made is one in one.

  • Deborah

    Love the title and the illustration for this entry.

    It’s the “In its own sweet time” that seems especially true to me. I don’t think I’d be reading this blog if you hadn’t had all the experiences you’ve had.

    After having a “still wondering what I want to be when I grow up” conversation with a friend when we were in our early 40′s, I realized that as a kid I’d wanted to be everything; and my schizophrenic resume reflected making a dent in it.

  • In Australia, a floater is a meat pie served in a bowl of gravy or mashed up peas. The vilest thing I’ve ever eaten (almost). You could flush one of those five or six times and not make any progress. Anyway, what a disgusting task to ask somebody to do. I had a boss that wanted me to have one of my staff people cut her hair!! He kept asking me to think of some way to get the point across to her without actually asking her to cut it. Shortly after that I quit and became a consultant to avoid this kind of problem.

  • Nadine

    I’m with August — luck is a huge factor in any success. Oprah and J. K. are talented, but mostly they’re lucky, and I’d rather be lucky than talented any day.

    Me, I’ve been lucky with my jobs in that I’ve never had a memorably awful boss. I wish I had a good story like “The Floater.” “Turd” always makes me laugh.

  • Well, you could always write comedy.

  • Vivian, congrats on finishing the damn France book.
    I would love to see that interview.

  • Deb

    I am rolling, Helen. Too darn funny. Luck has a lot to do with things but I wouldn’t discount the work ethic school of thought. Most of the time it comes down to how far you are willing to go to accomplish something. Whether you will choose A over B, A over C, and so on and so forth. You want to succeed at your job. Maybe to be mildly successful you can be home for dinner every night. Maybe to be highly successful you’re never home. Which do you choose? Which life is more important to you?

  • I love reading Vivian,s commenters almost as much as I love reading Vivian’s blog. Helen’s comment made me laugh out loud and then I realized it was my friend, Helen, not a blog friend but a real live (not that bloggers aren’t live) friend. I highly recommend reading Helen’s blog. Just click on her name to go to “Guacamole Gulch”.
    Vivian, Thanks for writing about bosses, billionaires and “floaters”.

  • Ooops! I just clicked on Helen’s name and it didn’t go to Guacamole Gulch. Try this instead:

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