The Best Career Advice I Ever Got: Don’t Be Your Job

I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was in 4th grade. When I told my mother this, she said, “Well, maybe you can go to school for pharmacy, and you can write in your spare time!”

I realized that we were not speaking the same language.

Also: My mother is a pharmacist. So is my father.

At any rate, I did not take my mother’s sage advice. Although I did attend my parents’ alma mater, Duquesne University, I did not go into the pharmacy program. I got a liberal arts education. I majored in print journalism — yeah, that’s right PRINT journalism — with a minor in American literature. I also took several women’s studies classes, which probably explains a lot.

My last semester of college was 1992. I had two classes on campus, and I had a full-time internship at an alternative newspaper as the editorial assistant. As editorial assistant, I pretty much was a girl Friday — typing other writers’ copy; I took dictation over the phone on occasion — writing headlines and photo captions, helping with print production, and also writing articles.

I was in heaven. It was what I wanted to do.

I was who I wanted to be.

I graduated from my program in December of 1992 — and got laid off in January 1993. My position was eliminated. I managed to wrangle another three months out of the job because the listings and events editor went on maternity leave.

My last day at In Pittsburgh was March 19, 1993.

I went home and sobbed. And called my mother.

Now, let me explain something about my mom. She entered a male-dominated science field in 1963. She started college at Villa Maria College in Erie, PA, taking mostly science classes. She transferred into the Duquesne University pharmacy program in 1965. (This is where she and my father met, which is a whole nother story.)

She graduated in 1968, one of three women who graduated from the program that year. She and my father married in 1970, and I was born in 1971.

When I and my siblings were little, my mom stayed home. (They did not call them stay-at-home mothers in the ’70s. They were just moms.) She had a part-time job, about one day a week. My father worked full-time, and more than full-time, opening and managing pharmacies in the area.

My mother eventually did go to work full-time, I believe when my little sister was in 1st grade. She and my father became business partners, and worked together. In pharmacies. My mom continued her education, taking classes in geriatric medicine and nutrition (I think). She and my dad eventually sold the business they had built together, and my mother became a pharmacy consultant to nursing homes in the area.

My mom was a freelance pharmacist.

In any case, when I called her on March 19, 1993, sobbing into the phone, she did all the motherly things. And then she said something I’ve never forgotten.

“Dawn, remember: You are more than your job.”

She went on (and I’m paraphrasing here, I’m sure), “Don’t identify too strongly with the job you have. It’s important to have a career, but it’s also important to realize you are bigger than any job you have at anytime.”

In other words, a job is a means to an end — money, healthcare, building a career.

But it’s not the be-all, end-all of WHO YOU ARE AS A PERSON.

I am a writer. I said so right here. It’s very much part of my identity, and has been since 4th grade. But I am not my job as a writer. I have held several writing positions; I have freelanced; I have written just about everything from poetry to feature articles to marketing copy for KVM switches.

And I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. These roles, too, are very much part of my identity.

Jobs come and go. They change. My job is not who I am, it’s just what I’m doing right now in service of my career as a writer — and in service to my partner (Dan) and family.

I think my mom’s advice goes hand-in-hand with Kim’s advice. Work is an important part of who we are as people — but don’t be so essential to your job, or identify so strongly with it, that it’s hard to leave.

Like my daddy says, the graveyard is full of irreplaceable people.

What’s the best career advice you ever received?

My mom on her 70th birthday.
(h/t to Kim Z. Dale for the subject matter.)