Settling for your dream job

Author: Josh Bradley ’12

My name was brought up during our 2 p.m. Thursday meeting. My name never gets brought up during our 2 p.m. Thursday meeting.

Picture the boring, generic office meeting depicted in so many movies, shows and TV commercials. That’s basically our 2 p.m. Thursday meeting. Understandably, I’m spacing out, but hearing my name snaps me back. My boss, Jenny, announces that it’s my five-year service anniversary next week. She hands me a frameable certificate (which I won’t frame) and a label pin with the company logo on it (which I won’t wear). There’s a smattering of applause from the 12 other people spacing out in the room.

I sit back down with my certificate and our 2 p.m. Thursday meeting continues. Instead of listening to discussions about planes and engineering, my mind instead goes to the screenplay for which I’m currently trying to break story. I have a good idea of what the first and second acts will look like, but I don’t know how to finish it, what the ending should be. I’ve read that you should find what your character fears the most and then do that to them; I’m trying to decide what that would be for my characters.

The certificate I hold in my hands is what I fear the most: the symbol of — and reminder of — how many years I’ve wasted at this job.

A lot of people hate their job, around 70 percent of Americans, according to some studies. I don’t hate my job so much as I hate myself for the decisions I’ve made that have put me here. What separates me from the literally tens of millions of people who similarly have trouble getting out of bed in the morning is that this is exactly what I signed up for.

I’m not underemployed. I’m not underpaid. I’m not working outside of my chosen field. I’m not being denied a promotion I deserve. I didn’t settle for my job because I struggled to find work after graduation (like so many of my classmates did). I’m not working a temporary job waiting for the real job offer to come in.

My degree is in aerospace engineering, and I work as an engineer for an aerospace company (and a damn good one). I had the job offer before I even started my senior year, in what was still a recovering economy; I never even had to interview thanks to a past internship. The company paid for me to get a master’s degree. I live very comfortably, and I never really have to worry about being able to pay bills.

This makes it super difficult to complain about my job, my career, rather, that I’m now officially five years into. Whenever I have those despairing I’m-going-to-be-doing-this-the-rest-of-my-life days, I think about my freshmen year RA, who went on — no joke – 26 fruitless job interviews his senior year (during the height of the recession); I think about my fellow Class of 2012 Notre Dame alum who wrote an essay for this very magazine about being severely underemployed delivering pizzas after graduating; I think about my girlfriend, who recently spent six hard months trying to find work, eventually landing a part-time job for which she’s overqualified. Relatively speaking, I have absolutely zero right to complain about my well-paying, respectable job.

Five years ago, around the time the stopwatch on my career began — culminating in the service anniversary certificate I was just handed — I was an engineering intern with my senior year still ahead of me. One day during lunch, my middle-aged coworkers were discussing what they would study in college if they could go back and do it all again. I chimed in and I said, “I’d study film, I think.” Everyone exasperatedly pointed out that I still could do exactly that; I was still in school after all, not in my 40s and 50s like they all were. But in my 21-year-old mind, I’d already sunk three difficult years into aerospace and I wasn’t about to throw that away for a new major with far-from-guaranteed job prospects.

Three months later, I had a job interview with Boeing’s satellite division in Los Angeles. Even though I was only in town for 23 hours — long enough to go to In-N-Out twice — it was intoxicating to be in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world. I said as much to my friend Elisa a week later as we walked out of class (Intro to Film, incidentally — my long-awaited, carefully chosen Fine Art requirement). She half-jokingly said, “Most people move to L.A. and wait tables while they write their screenplay. You can work as an engineer while you write yours!” I laughed at the time, but it flipped a switch in my head.

I ended up not getting that Boeing job in Los Angeles, so I took my original job offer back in the Midwest. Within six months, I started writing my first screenplay. Little by little, I chipped away at it during the rare breaks in my busy post-grad schedule, finally finishing after a year and a half.

For the record, it was a terrible script. And yet, I had never been more proud of myself.

My mom’s an accountant. Growing up, I didn’t know much about her job; I just knew that whenever she talked about it — and on the rare occasions I saw her office in person — it seemed like the most boring, soul-sucking job one could have. So while my chosen future profession vacillated from professional baseball player (elementary school) to marine biologist (middle school) to whatever-includes-math-and-science (high school), the one constant was that I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant.

What no one told me when I was judging the utter banality of my mom’s work, what no one told me when I was picking a major when I was 18, what I didn’t learn until my early 20s is that most office jobs are boring and soul-sucking, not just my mom’s. I may have hated on her accounting profession and sworn off it for myself, but I can now see that my engineering job is no less boring than hers. Accounting wasn’t the problem; adult life was the problem. If she had been an engineer while I was growing up, I almost certainly would’ve reacted the same way, and I might well be an accountant right now (ideally for PricewaterhouseCooper — they’re in charge of counting the Oscar ballots).

The simple truth is I sentenced myself to this life when I was 17 because I loved physics and I was really good at calculus. That’s it. I chose what would take up such a large portion of my effort, attention and time for the next 50 years based on that simple criteria before I was even old enough to buy a lottery ticket. And we wonder why 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs.

The comfort I have is that I’m actively working to change my situation. Despite missing out on that original job opportunity years ago, I’ve since made the transfer to Los Angeles. I haven’t given up on my engineering job — despite my fantasies during 2 p.m. Thursday meetings — but I spend my evenings and weekends writing screenplays, reading screenplays, going to screenings, attending Q&As with screenwriters and taking sketch writing classes. Particularly in my sketch classes, I’m extremely secretive about my day job; all the other writers, who make ends meet as baristas and waiters and freelance video editors, might judge me if they knew that I have “a real job.” I don’t want them to think that just because I have no financial need to write doesn’t mean I don’t need to write (for my happiness and sanity). It’s like a bizarre, parallel-universe high school reunion, where the guy doing literal rocket science is ashamed of his work and the underemployed people own their low-paying jobs as a sign of legitimacy.

After I got my 5-year certificate, I made a silent promise to myself that I won’t be getting a 10-year certificate. By then, I’ll have built up the courage — and the writing portfolio — to take a chance on screenwriting. And if a producer ever takes a chance on me and I have a movie in theaters, please support a fellow Domer and go see it. Sorry in advance if it sucks.

After all, I’m just an engineer.

Josh Bradley’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2016 Young Alumni Essay Contest. See all the results here.