“Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.”
1 Corinthians 3:13
Baked potato, pass it on. Careful, it might be hot. Or you may choose another cooking method altogether.
So take your pick. Baked, boiled or fried? In case you were wondering, I am boiled. There are expressions which account for this. Stewed in your own juices, drinking your own bathwater. It’s the reflections that come to mind thinking back over the course of my career. I am older, and maybe a little wiser. Also, not done yet. They say there is an act three that flows naturally in the wake of all your best efforts. It’s the stuff you would do without behest. It’s the stuff you don’t do for money. It’s all those things that survived the refiner’s fire in spite of you and everybody else.
Boiled is an interesting concept, because it makes a thing even more of what it was in the first place, takes it down to its essence, just like boiling all the extra water and impurities from buckets of sap to get maple syrup. At a certain point things begin to solidify beyond all that is indistinct and watered-down. It can take a LOT of fire, to get down to basic maple syrup.
I am likely not alone if I expressed with some surprise that my career has not unfolded the way I first expected. There have been twists and turns, and the nature of the business is a vastly different landscape than was sanguinely augured in my schooling. That would include both good and bad surprises. There was a naive idea at school that everyone would end up as an art director, smoking a pipe and talking over a campaign with the boys, like Darren on Bewitched. If you were lucky, you would get a cigar from your boss as sign of his approbation.
It’s not like that in real life. You find out very quickly you are a small fish in a large pond. More than that, you are surrounded and at the same time, somewhat alone. The one best suited to help you in the end, is you. Let there be no false illusions here. The old adage God helps them who help themselves is perhaps never truer than in the workplace. Like my mom used to say, if it was all fun, they wouldn’t call it work.
There is the miraculous fact that somehow throughout, you managed to put bread to your mouth, which in the shifting fortunes of time, is something. There is also the matter of people, since none of this is lived out in a vacuum. Here comes a bit of fate, because your journey will be quite affected by those you come across along the way. I have worked with some quite fine people who were traveling companions here and there. The best of these keep popping up like a recurring theme in different points of your journey. They are the good stuff, good as it is going to get.
There is also something you did not expect. You will make some enemies whether you like it or not. It’s the grab bag of life, the surprise at the bottom of the package. You will have to figure out how best to maneuver around some malignant characters who want to do you in out of jealousy, or simply the idle desire to be meddlesome for entertainment. It’s what some people do in the workplace.
There is also the fact of basic stress. I have noted one art director who was a very nice guy, who had a bottle of crown whiskey in his side drawer. It was not only winked at, it was considered somewhat a badge of honour that he was so squeezed dry at times, that he could only get through his day with a bit of lubrication. In the course of your career, you will have to find coping mechanisms to fill up the gas tank for those times you are feeling empty and depleted. If you are wise, you will be sustained by good stuff that lasts and does not destroy you along the way.
The rudder that keeps me in a straight line throughout all this, is understanding a fairly simple concept. You will go through the fire. And you have to be good with that, to survive. You will come out in the end with the tools you went in with. Yourself. And like Job, you may have a sense that you survived by the skin of your teeth. In the end you will have whatever tangibles you have produced along the way. It’s the judgement from the work of your own hands that you will be left with. Along the way you will get beat up, do some navel gazing, and at times fixate on what others think. At some point you will gird up your loins and understand that those things don’t really matter. Expect the refiner’s fire. It will shake out the dross along the way.
I have seen a lot of things I never thought about in art school. For one, I have seen a fair amount of monkey business at work, which always surprised me. What did not surprise me was when it blew up colossally, and no one seemed to see that coming even though a child might have predicted it. There are some stories I witnessed but could never tell. They are the kind you just couldn’t make up. Like the boss whose personal assistant wore a Marilyn Monroe wig and dress, and sat on his lap singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” when it was his birthday. We were all bidden to come and enjoy a slice of cake, as if this was somehow normal. We were not invited to the after party, although it looked like the unwrapping of presents had already begun.
I have seen a fair number of sociopaths and serial liars, in high positions. They seemed to somehow navigate a world where they produced nothing of value, used people like fodder for a cannon, created a bafflegab of chaos, talked their way out of things, and moved on leaving only carnage in their wake. They seemed to have a lot of meetings, and they knew how to look important in the most hollow ways that regular people see through but can’t do anything about. Those kind of people seem to talk their way into high positions. Business people love their jargon, but the end is always the same, blood in the streets. Nothing says savings like canning half your staff and calling it an original concept. What is forgotten temporarily at least, is that it is not all meetings. Someone has to do the work. I have always concluded that it is best to be the guy whose output can actually be measured in tangibles.
I have seen a few along the way who blatantly choose to colour outside of the lines, also thinking they would get away with it. I can recall going to the home of one guy for lunch. He was in charge of a big warehouse, which collected the odds and ends from photo shoots and commercials. Everything from soup to nuts seemed to pile up. Top of the line clothing ordered in for models, things like brand-new barbecues and other appliances. The guy whose home I went to it seems, had half the company in his house, and he was selling it off for cash. He bragged about it. It put me in an ethical dilemma whether to rat out someone I was on friendly terms with. In the end, it seems he was being photographed by a private detective, putting stuff into his trunk at the end of the day as if no one was watching. At that point it became a police matter and he was walked out and taken away in a cruiser.
There has also been some comedy. I can remember in my first job, I would be working at my desk and would smell the lingering aroma of marijuana. I would say to the guy in front of me. “Doug, don’t you smell it? Somebody is smoking a spliff. It’s in the air vents.” He would come over and then tell me I was nuts and had an overactive imagination. Later on I got to know the photographers. They had a darkroom downstairs, where photos were developed on site. When the red light was on, you were not allowed to enter. Oddly enough, there was a stray broom closet behind the darkroom. Once the light was turned on and entry forbidden, the photographers cracked a joint with the assurance they would not be interrupted or found out. Their broom closet vented directly upstairs to my desk.
I have also come to understand that companies exist for money, because of money, and in the end operate with only that in mind. If you become road kill along the way, no one will break a sweat except for you, as long as they are making money. Money has no conscience. It’s where ethics disappear, sometimes into a land of smoke and mirrors that is only peripherally legal in outer appearances. I have seen a lot of people done in, who likely had a legal case should they care to pursue it, discouraged perhaps by the notion that a company has deep pockets and good lawyers, and they will outlast you by attrition in a lawsuit.
If you are wise you will also lose the idea that you are a total original. In every craft or discipline, we follow in the footholds and tricks established over time through trial and error. There are ways to do everything, and if you are wise, you will observe, and not try to make it up on your own and do things the hard way. We follow in the footsteps of our forefathers. For everything well done, there is someone who has done it before you. If you doubt, this, observe the buzz words of any business trend. It seems that the trained seals of life, are eager to find something new enough to sound original, but safe enough to put into play because it has been done. True originality is rare, especially where money is on the line. It’s the clarion call of the business world, to gleefully step into paths already trod and imagine it is original and will earn someone a bonus. It’s the reason focus groups exist, making money out of never ending iterations before something finally comes to market.
In the end you will come full circle, in possession of what you went in with. Yourself. Maybe a bit battered, but safe and sound in the knowledge of what it’s all about, and no longer naive. You will be in the end, what you were in the beginning, only passed through the refiner’s fire, what was worthy to last, now in a purer state.
Baked boiled or fried? A lifetime of work affects you in profound ways you could never have predicted. What shall I do with my life? It’s a world they could never really prepare you for in university. Just know that you will be baked, boiled or fried. Take your pick.