Last week while having lunch with my sister and commiserating about stress at work my sister mentioned that a recent study shows that Event Coordinator is the 6th most stressful job in the US. The jobs that rate higher on the stress-scale are: enlisted soldier, firefighter, airline pilot, military general and police officer. That explains our stress; we both organise events for a living. But how did we end up here? We have Master’s degrees in different subjects, my sister in Interpreting and me in Philosophy. Neither of us imagined a career in events management when we graduated.
As I finished my studies I was at a loss. What was I to do now? With a degree in a totally useless subject (career-wise) and no work experience, I was not feeling particularly optimistic. And these were not my biggest deficiencies. I was living in a bilingual country where I was fluent in neither of the official languages. Finally, I ended up subscribing on a website that showed my profile to prospective employers. I started getting calls. Yay! No… wait a sec! The calls were all for the job of call centre agent…
This was the beginning of a period of lying. The lies I told were many and they were big. (On a scale of truthfulness they were right up there with, “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”). The first lie in the long list of untruths went something like this: I am very self-confident and extrovert. Truth: The invisible child (what? You have not read the Moomin books??!!) has nothing on me. Lie number two was just as outrageous: “I absolutely adore talking on the phone.” In reality saying that me and phones don’t get along is a gross understatement (“Hallo is this the phone-phobics helpline?…aargh!”). Lie number three: “I am great at ahem… um… co-co-communica-ca-cating with er… hrmmm…people.” You get the gist. Of course I also told some truths. I really do get on well with most people who I meet. But, as I am only mildly social and prefer staying at home and reading instead of conversing with my fellow humans, the number of people who I ever get the chance of getting along with is quite small. Naturally I neglected to tell the interviewers the last bit.
But lies are powerful. And the strange thing is that slowly you learn how to convince, not only others, but even yourself. As the weeks trudged by, my level of self-deception deepened and the real me (timid, mumbling, don’t-you-dare-give-me-the-receiver!) was buried under a layer of, well, lies. Of course this is the most common of phenomena. We all do it, it’s just that some are more successful than others. Not many of us are brave enough to turn ourselves inside-out and wear our inside like a skin for all to see. Instead we all cultivate a thick, and preferably impenetrable, skin of deception, and our true selves are hidden and maybe forever forgotten, even by us. This is where the line between the true self and the construct begins to blur. Consider the word “person.” Its origin lies in the word persona meaning “mask.” The person we are is the mask we wear, the character that we play in the great theater of life (which incidentally appears to primarily stage farces). In fact the person we are is not fixed, but develops through our relation with what is outside us. It is a complicated recipe. There is a little bit of the self (if there can even be a self-in-itself), mixed with what we want to be, all muddled up in a process of projection and reflection. We project an ideal image and get back a judgement by others, after which we modify our projection in hope of getting back the image we want. Well, something like that at any rate… The point is that in the end, the “person” is not just the “true me” or a complete construct, but both influence each other and grow together.
The outcome of all this is that my self-deception was successful and I got a job. As a Coffee Specialist at Nespresso.
This was ironic. Firstly because, at that point, as an idealistic Philosophy graduate, I boycotted Nestlé. For years I suffered a lack of After Eight chocolate, my principles winning over my cravings in a very close contest. Now my poor principles were left gnashing their teeth. Well, I guess we all have to sell our souls at some point.
The second irony is in the job title. Coffee Specialist. Me? The same Matilda who had drunk about two cups of cheap instant coffee in her life (2 parts coffee 8 parts milk). If people talked about tea-people and coffee-people in the same way that they do about dog-people and cat-people, I would definitely be a tea-person. It is not that I have anything against coffee per se, it smells quite nice and cappuccino has always looked good (from far off, god forbid anybody put that bitter stuff in my mouth), but in the global contest between tea and coffee you will find me championing the rights of the waning group of tea drinkers. And those who know me well have probably (quite reasonably) worried that the teacup might one day fuse with my hand and become a permanent extension of me. Would I now betray this beloved and loyal friend and turn to coffee when I was in dire need of consolation? The danger was real. Part of being a coffee specialist (read: help desk agent for coffee and related machinery) was knowing about coffee, and hence I would have to drink coffee as part of my job. And as everybody knows coffee is persuasive, it has conquered the west easily. Would I now also be conquered?
Luckily things did not end up that badly. I stayed at Nespresso for almost two years, getting better aquainted with the telephone, although we never became close friends. I was only reduced to tears once, during a conversation with a particularly difficult customer, and I never gave up on tea.
After 24 months of answering the phone I decided that I’d had enough, and went to an agency who arranged an interview for me with a Think Tank in the field of economics. It was the only interview I did, and it was successful. The reason for my unexpected success was twofold, firstly a relaxed interview with a minimum of questions, and secondly, the busy travel schedule of the director of the institute. If he was not travelling at a time when the Think Tank was in urgent need of additional staff things might have turned out differently. But as it was, I never had to have the second interview where my non-existant knowledge of economy and barely acceptable French were tested.
Now I was administrative assistant, ordering office supplies, arranging travel and welcoming visitors. This, however, did not last long. Half a year into my new job, a new Communications Director was recruited. For some inexplicable reason she took an immediate liking to me and decided I was to be her personal assistant. When she took ill and resigned half a year later my bosses did not know what to do with me, so I was made Event Coordinator. Whether this was a lucky break or quite the opposite remains unclear. But the outcome was that I now have the title of Event Coordinator, and find myself just behind Police officers (in the US!) on the list of people holding stressful jobs. I guess it beats catching bullets!