The Reality Is...

This is probably the worst week I've had in about 15 years. No lie. Work felt like wading through an ocean of honey while under attack from BB gunfire. My boss and I were completely out of sync, likely because he has been booked back-to-back for almost two straight weeks and had a grand total of 8 minutes for me in that time. His second Assistant is on vacation until June and I'm left planning two catered events two weeks apart while handling the ever increasing deluge of tasks associated with a superstar exec and company that are KILLIN' IT. I missed an email in last night's 80+ email haystack that left me with my pants down this afternoon when he asked me about an event happening in 3 hours that I was supposed to have invited someone to. This probably sounds like, "Ouch! Sucks to be you." But for an Assistant, a seasoned one at that, it makes you scope the room for the sharpest, longest letter opener you can find to ceremoniously impale yourself on.

The reality is Assistants are judged less often on the things they do right and more on the mistakes they make. We are held to a standard of perfection-by-perception that is actually unattainable by most air-breathing homo sapiens. For every 1,500 things we do well, mostly unnoticed because we do them with such ease, the one or two mistakes we do make are the ones that immediately call into question our attention-to-detail, work ethic, desire for the job, etc. That one niggling thing that caused the long sigh or the snarky comment or that eery silence will likely find its way front-and-center into our performance reviews as a "miss." Never mind all of the miracles we've created, the impossible reservations we've scored, the conference calls we've set up across 6 time zones, the near disasters we've caught and rectified before reaching our execs. Nope. That doesn't compute when you screw up that one thing that our exec was really passionate about. You failed. And you will know about it. And for months after the fact.

This is the life of an Executive Assistant. We handle so much volume on a daily basis that it's literally impossible to be 100% perfect at all times. Yet we get measured by the same metrics as someone with basically one job with consistent workflow, a couple of weekly meetings to attend, zero interruptions during their workday, and the ability to leave at a decent hour without opening up a laptop at home to, essentially, continue the day. We are forced to smile through near tears when clients walk in, like a good ambassador. We "take it" when something goes awry, that wasn't even our fault, but our name happens to be first on the list of blame. We do our best to stay professional when middle managers speak to us in condescending tones or are outright rude and combative because they perceive they outrank us, so it's somehow okay. The shit that we deal with so that our execs can have as trouble-free a day as possible should have us drinking from golden goblets and being fed grapes by sexy babes. Instead, we're often left to pick up the pieces of a bad day, let go of what we can and drink/cry/exercise/scream the rest away. Eventually.

As I was walking home tonight from my worst week in 15 years, blasting Celine Dion's 1st US album (her best work), and walking all sad-puppy dog-eyed, hands-in-pockets through Union Square (a la Devil Wears Prada pre-"Tell Emily" scene) I suddenly had a flashback of the worst day-turned-year of my life. I want to share it because I think we could all use a little perspective.

I was in my late 20s. Dot-com 1.0 had imploded. San Francisco was a bloodbath. All of my friends were moving home with their parents. Everyone was laid off and there were, like, no jobs to be had, especially in tech. I, too, had been laid off from my cushy $122,000 per year tech job designing freakin' PowerPoint presentations. I remember applying for Unemployment Insurance and actually getting denied. I asked why and was told that with my skill set I should be able to land a job quickly. Despite my pleas, still denied. I asked what I was supposed to do for money until I landed a job and was told to file for public assistance. That's WELFARE, folks. So, from $122K to welfare in just under 2 weeks. Unbelievable. But still not the worst day of my life.

Luckily, I sang in a popular local band a few nights a week after work. It was only $100 per gig, but it was steady income as I looked for a "real" job. I had roommates, so that kept rent relatively manageable. But I also had a brand new Mazda Miata that was eating heavily into the $1,200/mo I was subsisting on. Make that $400 as my rent was $800. Needless to say, I missed a couple of payments. In fact, I could feel my entire financial life imploding as the weeks stretched on with decline after decline for employment. I remember hating my cell phone because it was one bill collector after another calling, demanding their money when there simply was none. I wasn't a dead beat. I'd always paid my bills on time as evidenced in the payment history they had access to. But as my friend Ledisi always said, "People want what they want. They don't care about how you FEEL." So true.

I remember making a (cheap) lunch date with a gorgeous symphony conductor and meeting at a beautiful, expansive park here in San Francisco. You couldn't have painted a more idyllic sky and the weather was that kind of warm where you don't know where your skin ends and the air begins. We grabbed sandwiches from a local market, sat on a hill overlooking much of San Francisco and had one of the deepest and best conversations one could imagine. My date eventually left, but I remained, processing the amazing person I'd just spent a couple of hours with. I remember sitting back on my elbows, legs stretched and crossed before me, closing my eyes, tilting my head back and feeling the sun on my face and the gentle breeze lightly cooling the skin. I remember hearing the blare of a car alarm in the distance but paid it no mind. This was San Francisco. Hear enough of them and they sound like the ocean eventually. I continued to bask in the beautiful afternoon sun but noticed the car alarm was blaring away and getting closer and louder. Cursing the annoyance I sat up indignantly and opened my eyes. And there it was. My new Miata. Hooked up to a tow truck. Making a right turn and heading slowly up the street. Joyous interruptus.

It felt like it was happening in slow motion. I'm sure my mouth was wide open. I wanted to get up and run, chasing the tow truck down the street, waving my arms frantically to get him to stop. But I was frozen. And quickly the reality set in. You just watched your dream car, the one you'd always wanted and saved for, get towed down the street. And not even on a flatbed like it should be! You just had the most amazing day, with an amazing date, on the best weather day of the year, but now you're about to walk home and have to figure out how you're going to get your car back. You have no job. You spent through your savings just surviving to this point. And your rent is due. Whatchu gon' do?

I love my mother, but we'd always had a bit of a contentious relationship when I was younger. If she wanted me to go left, I would choose right. We never really saw eye-to-eye about most things. And we were always just a little bit competitive with one another. (Long story. It's in the upcoming book.) So the thought of having to humble myself to go and ask her for the money to bail my car out of jail was something I absoutely lamented. The "I told you so's" and the long sighs, lectures about finances, all of it, I really didn't want to endure. Plus, as a man, maybe foolishly, you feel compelled to figure that shit out on your own and take your lumps. So that's what I chose to do. I didn't even tell my mother that my car got towed.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. I never found the money to get my car out of impound so it was repossessed, while in car jail. Our band gigs started drying up so I was living on about $600/month. My debt grew exponentially with late fees and the calls became more and more combative and downright abusive. And my roommate who was employed decided that he really didn't want me as a roommate anymore because he was hoping for someone a bit more fun and able to actually afford going out to dinner and bars together. Since I was making less and less money and falling behind on rent I completely understood.

So going from making $122K/year months prior to making $600/month and barely having enough for a meal each day, did quite a number on me. Big time. To the point where I seriously considered suicide. More than once, in fact. When you're that low, especially as a man, whose honor is so tied to his ability to provide for himself and his family, you really feel as if you've failed. You are the ultimate a failure. And there's really no reason to continue being abused, feeling confused, and feeling as if you have no one to turn to. Just end the noise. End the pain. And end that ache that starts in the pit of your stomach and resonates to the ends of every limb in your body.

Luckily, my car was impounded so I couldn't do anything stupid. I cried. A lot. Alone. But, luckily (?), I'd also had a good friend who'd chosen to take his own life. It absolutely gutted me because I found out via a flippant comment over Thanksgiving dinner at a mutual friend's house.

"Did you hear that stupid Jeremy hung himself?"

The tears I cried over my financial situation paled in comparison to the tears I cried knowing that my friend who I hadn't seen in awhile but was going to pop by and surprise that night since I was in town, was no longer on this earth. And had left so horribly. I still can't get the imagery out of my head to this day. But it brought about a shift. In my demeanor and in my attitude. Jeremy would have slapped my face and told me to snap out of it. He was my biggest fan and I, his. We had some hilarious conversations and some so deep that most people couldn't hang. Even in my worst moods, that kid could say something so inappropriate that I'd almost pee myself laughing every time. And for the first time in months, I felt a smile reluctantly stretch across my face.

The very next day, I found a lawyer and filed for bankruptcy. Like so many of my friends were forced to do. I never felt so pathetic. I still felt like the ultimate failure. But the one thing that made it bearable? I WAS ALIVE.

So, walking home tonight, I remembered this turn of events in frightening detail. Emotions in tow. Even wiped a couple of tears while passing Tiffany & Co. No matter what mistakes I made this week. No matter how much I feel I let my boss down. No matter how many people didn't sign up for MEGA Assistant University Seattle. No matter what the world of Executive Assisting throws my way, I AM ALIVE. And there is no greater gift. None.

How that story ended:

I eventually told my mother. She was pissed. She wrote me a check, tho. To move to New York City. Which I did. And while sitting on the steps of one of my favorite parks for about a month, I wrote the song for the video I attached to this post. Listen closely to the words because they're autobiographical.

A HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who reads my posts. I decided to write something a bit different this time. We all have challenges in life. We all suffer tragedies. And we all (who decide to stay) find ways to persevere and eventually thrive again. Our jobs are a conscious choice. The professions we choose reflect what we are and aren't willing to put up with. But the goal is to never let your job force you to lose your perspective. Never let that paycheck morph into your worth as a human being on this planet. Money has nothing to do with life. They are mutually exclusive unless you blur the lines. Life is a beautiful, rich journey filled with every possible emotion, twist-and-turn, and opportunity. Often it throws us a curve ball just to make sure we're paying attention. When things get crazy or if situations degrade to the point where you lose sight of the beauty of life and it starts losing its value, let that be a wake-up call. CHANGE YO SHIT UP. Life is everything and should always rule any decision you make. Never allow your life to lose its luster over a job, a boss, a lover, a relationship, none of it. You get exactly one. Don't waste a minute of it on anything that goes against what you've determined to be a good life.

 

Phoenix Normand