First jobs and masks

I just got a frantic sounding e-mail message from a friend. She’ll be OK, because she’s got a strong personality, but she’s a bit down right now. I understand.
She just graduated college about two months ago, and she’s a few weeks into her first job, and this week her boss and her senior sat her down and gave her a talking-to. It basically comes down to a personality conflict. And they gave her a list of things she had to change. They’re almost all personality traits.

I used to wear a lot of masks. I refused to wear them for a really long time. In grade school, I was what I was, take it or leave it. And what I was was a Kansas City native in a small town in eastern Missouri. I didn’t want to be a hick, and I didn’t want to grow up to be a farmer, a miner, or a truck driver. (I wanted to be CEO of IBM, or president of the United States. I had ambition, probably too much ambition. Some people didn’t like that.) I was the ultimate outsider, and by the time I was in 7th grade, my best friends were my dog, my Commodore, and my notebook.

Mercifully, we moved to St. Louis the next year. I got to start over. And I started over by wearing a mask. I got in trouble by showing ambition. So I stopped showing it when I was around most people. That was the biggest thing. St. Louis was a lot better, because I had friends who were actual, real, live human beings up there. But I wasn’t happy.

High school was tough, especially at first. It was jarring, so I forgot to wear my mask all the time. I had friends–the lunch table I sat at was always full–but I had plenty of enemies too. I got in fights. And if I had a nickel for every rumor that circulated about me… Eventually I learned to be entertained by that. Those rumors were a whole lot more interesting than the life I was living, or for that matter, the life most people were living. Eventually I reached a point where I didn’t wear masks around guys all that much anymore, and in my sophomore and junior years, I only got into one fight apiece. I didn’t get into any my senior year. But I still tried to figure out what girls wanted me to be, so I wore masks around them all the time. Needless to say, I had a hard time getting dates. Who wants to date a faker?

College was more of the same. No one really knew what to make of me, and at this point, I only have one close friend that I made in college that I’m still in contact with. I was wildly successful–one of the most prolific and widespread writers in my class; I nearly graduated with honors; I was treasurer, publicity, and scholarship chairman of my fraternity; I was the longest-running columnist of the 1990s in the official student newspaper; and after they kicked me off staff for being too conservative, I jumped ship and became managing editor of a rival Greek-targeted newspaper. I was successful and lots of people wanted to have a beer with me. But I didn’t know who I was anymore and I was always depressed.

I took my first job, with the university that gave me my diploma. I started dating a girl who knew who she wanted to marry. But that guy was engaged, so she decided to make me into him instead. I let her. I figured the mask she designed wouldn’t be any worse than the masks I designed–hey, she was a graphic designer, after all. My first job bit. I hated going to work. She made a nice distraction, so it was tolerable for a while. But her mask made me lose credibility. Everyone knew me–I’d been there four years as a student–and they knew that thing walking around in Dave’s body wasn’t really Dave. Eventually she realized she wouldn’t be able to make me into anything but a counterfeit, so she told me to take a hike. For whatever reason, I kept on wearing the mask. The depression kicked in harder and heavier, and my work performance tanked.

I went to a grueling 4-session seminar after I bottomed out. They helped me uncover the real me under those 10 years’ worth of masks. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But once I got out, wow! Someone actually saw me smile once. Work became mostly tolerable. I still wasn’t Mr. Popularity at work, but most people were a lot more pleasant. And when it became evident that I couldn’t advance and that certain unpleasant people weren’t ever going to cease being unpleasant, I left. I took a job in St. Louis.

I wasn’t Mr. Popularity there either, but my current employer values a job well done, and the majority of people I work with like me. And even though sometimes I’m short, I usually look like I’m distracted (I usually am), and I’m always vocal and always eccentric, they learned to live with it. I get the job done, get it done well, and it’s hard to find people who are good at what I do. They’re satisfied, and I’m happy most of the time.

I learned the hard way that wearing a mask for a girl is never worth it. And these days, when a lot of us change jobs faster than we change girlfriends and boyfriends, it’s definitely not worth wearing a mask for a job. If they can’t deal with you the way you are, they’re certainly not going to like you any more when you’re fake. Fakers are less likable and far less respectable. I guess I figure that if they want you to be someone else, you’re better off letting them deal with someone else.

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