Prompted

Fall 2017

Prompt: Tell us about a job you’ve had, either while at Grinnell or afterward.

I wanted to try something different, so one December I worked in the order-packing department for Signals magazine orders. We stood at a station and got orders in bins, chose the right size box, packed the items as efficiently as possible, affixed a label, and sent them in a bin to someone else. I enjoyed being busy, having time to think, and the constant challenge of packing each box just right. I hated the way all those people moved together like sheep when the bell rang for break time, their souls draining away with each shuffling trip to the dreary break room. Office work seemed pretty sweet after that.

Like many Grinnellians, I worked in the dining hall, which had some high highs and low lows. Getting busted in the walk-in cooler, giggling hysterically, with a co-worker sitting on my shoulders to grab mushrooms off a top shelf was a real high point. Meanwhile, the time a supervisor told me not to pick up the big box of onions because I “have to have babies” was a definite low. Another time, during a particularly tough week, I hid in the freezer and ate a whole unbaked big cookie. Still not sure if that one’s a high or a low.

I lived for my Grinnell paycheck of  85 cents an hour from working 20 hours a week.  I had the highest-paying job on campus, 20 cents more than waiters got at Cowles Dining Hall. I washed pots and pans during Saga Foods’ management of cafeteria services in the 1960s. This paid for my daily coffees at the Union and my 3.2 percent beers at the Rex off Route 6. 

When there was an opening for another pot walloper, I invited my roomie George Santoni ’61 to join me. Fifty years later, after his retirement as a professor of French at SUNY-Albany, he said, “Walt, that was the worst job I have ever had!” 

The work wasn’t that bad, except when the cook made scalloped potatoes. Then I needed a putty knife to clean pans of baked-on food. If they’d given me anything sharper, we’d have had a mortally wounded cook.

By graduation day, I still had no postgrad plans, but I did have increasing anxieties about “success.” I found a job selling ad space in a local Yellow Pages-like publication. I was too relieved to finally have a plan and enticed by their awesome “success stories,” promises of “promotion within,” and potentially high salaries to see all the red flags. I was constantly pushed to undertake “successful” sales tactics that made me uncomfortable. When I realized I needed to quit, I promised myself I would only allow myself to quit if I put more thought into this job search. I found a new job that I loved and thrived in within two days of searching and have vowed to never prioritize my anxieties over my professional comfort again.

Summer 2017

Prompt: What's the best advice — or worst advice — you've either given or received?

I was moaning about studying for my Russian final and my high school principal, Dr. Bill Youngblood, a wise and good man, told me simply, “Hate it later.” 

It was crystallizing, and since then I’ve gone back to those three words more times than I can count. Someday I’m going to needlepoint them onto a pillow.

[My] first boss post-Grinnell said she only brings to work what she can put in a box and carry out on her last day. She meant never get too comfortable where you work because you never know what may happen with you or the position.

In his youth my grandfather was a boxer. He taught me how to follow through on a punch by advising “always aim for the back of the skull.” It’s served me well and I think it could be a good metaphor for going all in. 

He also taught me to know my limits, though, through his example of declining an offer to box a kangaroo. He said the guy who did was never quite right afterward. The ’40s were a different time, indeed.

Before applying for the promotion that would take you the next step up the corporate ladder, take time to deeply consider whether you really want that job or not, including careful consideration of (1) what it will take to get that highly competitive promotion and (2) whether you are prepared to meet all of the demands it will impose.

My parents always reminded me that, “You can’t get what you don’t ask for.” I always take this to heart in everything I do. Take advantage of new opportunities (of all sorts), don’t wait around for the world to come to you.

When my mom passed away, a good friend said, “Be gentle with yourself.” Especially good while grieving since it is a strange creature that shows up in unexpected ways. I need to heed it far more often.