I knew I’d blown the interview as soon as I’d said it. My prospective employer asked about my biggest challenges, to which I replied that a therapist once told me my personality at work was like wild horses that needed to be harnessed and brought into line together. I watched as the interviewer blanched and slightly recoiled from me across the table.
Was it my cavalier mention of therapy? My direct and rigorously honest self-assessment? Or was it the image of my wild horses running amok in her shop? Well, I gotta be me, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career, trying to hide or downplay my outrageous personality doesn’t work. Stuffing leads to resentment, which leads to hostility and acting out, followed by righteous resignation. No, it’s much better for anyone considering hiring me to know upfront who they’re getting–a dynamic, driven, ambitious, outspoken and high-maintenance individual who will work like, well, a team of draft horses for the right boss. The wrong boss, however, can expect to be trampled by the herd.
I really don’t belong working for other people. I know my best life will be lived when I’ve at last made the leap into self-employment, but fear and overhead expenses keep me employed by others. I’m a damn pain to manage, and I should know, because I live inside myself. I consider myself exceptionally lucky that I’ve at last crossed paths with the boss I’ve been searching for all my career, the final person for whom I intend to work. When he joined the organization about 18 months after I, I sensed he was the manager who could help me bring the horses in line. He hired me onto his team without discussion, and I knew I had to tell him upfront what he was signing on for, taking me.
My first job was working as a counselor at a summer camp in the San Juan Islands when I was fifteen. I’ve been in the workforce for 21 years, and had 21 jobs. My shortest stint was two weeks at Starbucks when I was 18, my longest is my current job, an eternal 38 months. Second longest was the 28 months I spent at the University, where I struggled and fought to differentiate, rise, and land a promotion. I succeeded at the first and failed miserably at the other two. I soldiered on because it was the best salary (and was a salary!) and benefits I’d ever received, launching me way past the meager hourly wages I’d earned in retail previously.
The wild horses had driven me from job to job, employer to employer, restless and ragged, year after year. At 29 I was exhausted by their blind drive, determined to stay and make something happen. But the University was such a toxic and frustrating environment (think “but we’ve always done it this way” and death-by-meeting) I hauled ass to therapy to cope. Why couldn’t I ever just go to work, do the job and let things unfold? Why was I always pissed off, railing against authority and utterly certain I knew better than everyone?
My new therapist listened attentively to my career war stories–the myriad positions, the bad bosses, the lazy colleagues, the negative cultures, the inert staff structures, the unfairness of it all. Well, she diagnosed, professionally you seem to consist of a herd of wild horses; tremendous energy and power but zero control. It was her sense I’d not find what I was searching for until I could wrangle the horses, get them harnessed and trotting alongside each other. And, as good therapists do, she pushed me to understand I was not a victim of the evil employment empire, but rather a self-destructive participant. I wasn’t going to be able to change anyone’s management style or organizational structure (certainly not overnight, anyway), but I could gather and channel my abundant energy toward positive development. Until I buckled down with the whip and the bridles and the reins, I was likely to continue my fruitless, frustrating, interminable search for the perfect gig. Which, by the way, doesn’t exist.
I sat with my new boss in our first one-on-one meeting, looked him in the eye and told him I wanted him to understand my challenges. I told him I have a big, bad problem with authority. I told him I’ve been accused of being arrogant and overly-ambitious (and how fucking sexist is that?). I told him I tend to bite off more than I can chew, that I recklessly run ahead to get things done. I told him about my tendency to become infuriated by perceived ineptitude and inefficiency. I told him about the wild horses. He did not blink. He did not recoil. He listened impassively until my pressured speech slowed and I was done. So, it’s my job to clear the path so you can do your best work, he replied. I sagged with relief. Finally, someone who understood.
Wrangling the horses hasn’t been easy. In the six years since I was diagnosed with having them, I’ve worked to bring them together into a cohesive team. And of course, being me, I have to regularly reassure myself I’m not doing it for The Man, but to ensure my livelihood, my economic future. My ability to remain housed, to access healthcare, food and comforts depends on careful management of the herd. My folks worried when I was in college and on my eighth job in four years that I was going to be a career ne’re do well; transient. I began to share their worry after I finished graduate school and was seventeen jobs in. When would the chaos end?
The horses are wily, yearning to run free. I made a deal with them–they could be as free as they wanted in developing creative solutions to problems, as long as they didn’t buck and rear and strain against the hand that signs the paychecks. Until I’m ready to make the leap into self-employment (and I hope against all hope my writing will take me there, thanks for reading!), productive use of their energy is key. So I look for ways to game the system, manipulate the players, stay above the below and below the above. The exciting challenge is to do these ends for the common good. The horses love it. And there’s my boss, clearing the path, removing obstacles, and caring for us as promised. Unexpectedly, yet obviously, the horses aren’t so wild anymore with less to fight against. On the smooth path they fall in step with one another, pulling forward, integrity and collectivism the way.
Perhaps I will unharness them soon, encouraging them to use their boundless, spirited energy to rocket us past my wildest dreams.