Driving in to work this morning I was thinking about my life. Where I am. Where I came from. How I got from there to here. Where I’m going next. It occurred to me that this story might be educational, instructive, or inspirational to someone, so I thought I’d share it. For those who live their lives as perpetual victims of circumstance, for whom no solution is possible or even desired, this story will mean nothing to you. You will chalk it up to luck or privilege, shrug and move on. Which is why you will continue to fail, and I will not.
In 1988 I came home from school and told my mother, “these morons can’t teach me anything, school is a waste of my time”. She agreed to sign the paperwork for me to drop out if I would get my GED within 90 days. So I quit school, got my GED, and went to work. Big mistake! I should have went to college. But my dad was a career NSA cryptologist, and I wanted to be anything in the world other than a white collar cube weenie. So I headed out in to the great big world, and pursued my blue collar dreams.
At the age of 19 I married my first wife. Big mistake! I loved the woman, and still do. But, we were too young and inexperienced. We were diametrically opposed in many ways, and the marriage didn’t last long. So we got divorced and I immediately remarried.
I can’t say the second marriage was a big mistake. We had some good times. I have two wonderful children and a pretty awesome extended (albeit ex) family. Nevertheless, we drifted apart for a long time and then we split up.
At the point in time of my second divorce I was driving a local delivery truck for a vending supply company. I was making $400 a week. I had child support payments to make. I was living in a roach infested studio apartment in a income restricted apartment community on the wrong side of Newport News, Va. I had no health insurance or any other type of benefits. I had no education, no connections, no opportunities for advancement, and no hope for the future. (Pause there for a moment)
I have, for a very long time, used a man walking in shadow as an online avatar (one of many). That’s because for most of my life I have walked in a grey area between two worlds. There are two different people thought to be “me”, and which one you perceive depends on the place you are standing when you look.
On the one hand I am “street” Doug. I am a big guy with tattoos and earrings. I ride a Harley-Davidson. I own a number of guns. I wave the flag, spit tobacco, and cuss like a sailor. This side of me is very much like my uncles from my mother’s side. There’s a lot of Eddie and Bill in me I think, though I never really spent much time around either of them.
In that environment I am seen 100% of the time in blue jeans and black Harley shirts. I live in a modest 1800 square foot 3bed/3bath home on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Va. I keep mostly to myself, except for online gaming. And I am the most successful person I know.
To the people in this environment I am “rich”. I am also “lucky”. The people I know best have made an utter mess of their lives, most of them are so broke they have to think about whether they can afford McDonald’s or not. Almost none of them have the freedom to simply do whatever it is they feel like doing on any given day. Because I do, in their eyes, I live a charmed life.
It was thinking about this thought process that made me sit down to write this post this morning. Because it is how I am perceived in the second community, and how I perceive myself there, that gets to the heart of what I’m thinking about.
In the other community where I am perceieved, I am one of the least successful people I know. I trade in the Harley tee-shirt for a polo and report to work in an office full of suits and ties. I am a high school dropout surrounded by people with Bachelor and Masters degrees. As a result, I am one of the lowest paid individuals in my workplace. I know people who pay cash for brand new cars and own their homes outright. I cannot do those things. I know people who travel the world, own vacation homes, pretty much “living the dream”. I cannot do those things (yet).
In this environment I am tolerated. Mainly because I have endeared myself to the upper management. I am not a yes man or an ass-kisser. I will walk in to the boss’s office and say, “You’re fucking up”. Some don’t like that…so I have lost some jobs. But, some like the breath of fresh air that comes from hearing the truth. I was in fact hired for my current position specifically because the VP of the prime told me to my face, “I need someone who’s not afraid to tell me I’m making a mess of things. You’re that guy.”
So what I wanted to get at this morning is…why I was able to make the transition when so many others appear unable to do so. The answer is simple to say and difficult to do. Mainly because it is related to character, and that is something few people are even aware of, much less have the ability to modify.
Too many people these days seek the easy way out. Too many of my associates over the years have adopted a mindset that since they don’t have anything, they don’t have anything to lose. So, they make stupid choices that result in painful consequences. Sometimes these consequences have a permanent, life-altering effect. In the professional world I live in these are called CLE’s (Career Limiting Events). An example would be telling your boss to go fuck himself, or getting caught stealing from the company (or in my case the government).
I have associates that are convicted felons. They are struggling financially because work is hard to find when you are a felon. But they believe I’m “lucky”. As if it was luck that I didn’t rob a liquor store, or shoot somebody, or assault my ex-wife.
You chose the friends that put you in front of the liquor store that night, and then you chose to go through with the robbery. You chose to have sex with the 3 women you have kids with, and now you are saddled with back breaking child support payments. You chose to date or marry some crazy bitch that you ended up punching in the face during a heated altercation. I simply made better choices than you did. Luck had nothing to do with it.
In conjunction with making better choices most of the time, I also refused to accept the permanent negative repercussions of my mistakes. I did not look around at my section 8 housing and my beat up used car and figure, “Oh well, this is how my life is going to be. I may as well smoke a joint and bang a couple of crackheads”. I looked at those things and thought, “This is unacceptable. How can I change it?”
So I signed up for CCNA classes at ECPI. I took out a student loan for $6,000 and overpaid by half to take 7 months worth of classes. I drove that truck all day, and went to school 5 hours on Friday night and 5 hours Saturday morning, every week for 7 months. On the last Friday of class my boss called me in and fired me. I went to the testing center the next morning and took the CCNA exam with knots in my stomach. My head was hurting, my eyes were burning, I had sat up all night trying to both study and figure out how I was going to pay the rent. Nevertheless…I passed. And so, in 2004, I very proudly announced that I was a CCNA, unemployed and looking for an entry level position as a network engineer.
What I got instead…was crickets. And here came the only place I can identify in my entire life where “luck” played a part.
My girlfriend at the time lived about 2 1/2 hours north of me. She groomed dogs for a living at Petsmart. She had a customer that was fanatical about caring for his dog and he wouldn’t let anyone but her touch it. She told the man that she was moving to live with me and would no longer be able to groom his dog. He reacted by asking her what he had to do to get her to stay. She kinda flippantly said, “That’s easy, just get my boyfriend a job here”. So he did…
And now you’re thinking “Aha! See! You WERE lucky!” I guess. Except the job I got was not in networking. He got me a job as a cable installer. Standing on a ladder 8-10 hours a day pulling wire over my head. 10 years later my shoulders are all fucked up. I have already had one surgery to repair damage to my neck, and shoulder surgery appears likely in the not too distant future.
But it was “technology”, and it paid better than what I was making driving the truck. It was also a job with benefits. So I took it. I packed up my life, moved to my girlfriend’s apartment, which she shared with another guy and his son, and reported to work. I pretty much lived my entire life in a bedroom, in someone else’s apartment.
Six months later the contract ended and I was let go. So I called a man I had had some contact with previously and asked him if he was still hiring. He asked if I could start Monday. I did. And went right back to doing more cabling.
So follow me for a second. I was making about $10 driving the truck (based on a 40 hour week, even though I put in way more than 40 hours). The first cabling job paid $14 an hour. The second cabling job paid $20 an hour. Eventually I wound up working for a third company doing cabling and making $24 an hour. But, I hated what i did for a living…
So one day, while working on a classified site, I asked the guy escorting me around what he made to stand there and watch me work. Long story short, I applied for his job and got it. And I took a pay cut from $24 an hour to $19 an hour, and spent 19 months standing around watching paint dry (literally sometimes) just so I could get a clearance.
Eventually I was offered a job punching down patch panels for 80k a year. I was simultaneously offered a job working in a NOC/Helpdesk for 72k a year. I took the NOC (Network operations Center) job. I wanted to expand my horizons and open up future opportunities, so I took the lower pay for the brighter future.
A series of similar decisions led me to where I am today. Always working hard and earning the reputation that got me the next opportunity. Always moving in to a position with more responsibility, more stress, and more new things for me to learn. I haven’t actually held a job I was qualified for in about 10 years. I just get in because someone knows someone I worked with on the last project, and then I earn my right to be there once I arrive.
In 2004 I made about $20,000 and my wife made about $18,000. In 2012 when we filed out taxes our combined gross income was $192,000. Which makes us “lucky” to all those people stuck in dead end, minimum wage, aint gonna be shit, jobs. But I would propose to you that it is not luck that put us where we are, and I will tell you why.
My wife works nights. I work days. We see each other for a few hours twice a week. We both drive 150 miles round trip every day to get to work and back. We were both willing to make sacrifices with regard to positions and salaries, locations, travel time, etc., in order to get to where we wanted to be. I, for example, wake up at 3:45 a.m. 5 days a week to drive in to work.
Too many people are unwilling to take a step backward or sideways in order to correct their trajectory.
As an example, I was offered two openings on the next contract I am going to. One paid what I am making now, and involves system administration, which is what I am doing now. The other comes with a $20,000 pay cut, and is a position as a junior network engineer. I chose the $20,000 pay cut, because finally, after all these years, I will have a chance to do what I wanted to do in the first place, become a network engineer. In a couple of years I will move from a junior engineer to a senior engineer and I will command more money than I am making now. I am willing to make the sacrifice.
In contrast, I have a former associate who got thrown out of his apartment and was living with another friend along with his baby mama and the friend’s girlfriend. He’s broke. He lost his apartment because he could not pay the rent. He has failed to pay child support for so long that he was served with notice that he will be going to jail (back to jail actually) if he does not catch up.
So finally, after months and months of searching he finds a good job at a 3M plant. He can finally pay his bills and take care of his kids. Hell, maybe he can even afford a game every now and then for his PS4 (don’t get me started on a guy with a PS4 that doesn’t pay his child support).
So what does this titan of intellect do? He quits the job. Why? Because 3M makes adhesives, so once you report to work for the day you are not allowed to exit and reenter the plant (because of dust). This guy couldn’t take smoke breaks…so he quit. Presumably he is now taking all the smoke breaks he can fit in to his busy schedule…in prison.
So what is the “secret” to my success? Make smart choices. Persevere through tough times when things aren’t going your way. Be willing to step back or sideways if need be when you need to get around an obstacle blocking your path. Be VERY careful about who you associate with and who you allow to have influence in your life. Most of all, if you’re not happy with your life CHANGE IT!
I guess REO Speedwagon could have summed this entire post up in one line.
If you’re tired of the same old story…baby, turn some pages.