A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Neckties and other Rewards of a Virtuous Life

I will always be grateful that I know how to knot a necktie.

For the first 22 years of my life, the process was a mystery that tended to culminate in a public restroom, with me desperately trying to work out something that looked vaguely correct so that I would only be five minutes late instead of ten minutes late.  In college, I was invariably saved by a business major emerging from one of the stalls and verbally guiding me through the process in a matter of seconds.  When I was 18 and my mom was roughly 40 minutes away from getting remarried, I was on the verge of tears because I had been trying to knot my tie for the last quarter-hour, and couldn’t figure it out.  I don’t remember which member of the groom’s family found me and knotted it around his own neck before loosening it and passing it to me, but I’m still grateful for that small gesture.  (Don’t ask me why I always refused to get help before it became an emergency situation- friends, family members, and most people who talk with me for more than 10 minutes always insist that I have a stubborn streak, but I’ll never believe them.)

So when I graduated from college and got a job at a bank, I printed out a diagram from the internet on how to knot a half Windsor and taped it to my wall (I learned a full Windsor, too, but either my ties are too short or my torso is too long to make that practical).  After a few weeks of banking, the motions were almost natural, and by the time I left the bank for grad school nine months later, it felt like I had been putting one on for years.  I still wear a tie as a teacher, partly to separate myself from my students, but mostly because of what the motions signify:  I am preparing to work.  I will conduct myself in a professional manner.  I will take myself and others seriously, and expect the people around me to do the same.  As anyone who has bothered to look up the title of this blog probably realizes, I have an affection for the classical, patrician, and anachronistic elements of culture, and for some reason the necktie seems an especially potent talisman- possibly because it’s not yet an artifact, and still retains some significance in the present.

As my hands moved through the same instinctive motions this morning, it was perhaps natural to think back to the job that forced them to learn.  After all, the reasons for my attire was two-fold today: I would be teaching in the afternoon, but that morning I was going to a job interview.

The one life lesson my necktie problems reinforced was one I’ve since been slow to apply to other aspects of my life: you learn how to do something by doing it.  I spent my entire college career vaguely thinking about writing, and planning to write, but at the end of it all I had six short poems to my name, along with two short stories I composed in England and left there, on a university hard drive that would doubtless erase any evidence of those collections of words that completely failed to cohere as interesting plots or examples of effective writing.  One followed me back with a grade attached, but I didn’t take pains to save it.  I continued to think of myself as a writer, and even took a summer to try to write stories, but nothing ever came of them.  I was struggling in the bathroom again, only the business majors weren’t coming to help (and, based on my experiences with business majors, they wouldn’t have been much help with writing anyway).  But did I keep at it?  Did I print out a daily word goal and tape it on my wall?  Of course not- nothing was forcing me to get out of bed each day and put my writer tie on.

School, unfortunately, largely followed suit.  For somebody who’s spent 20 years in the educational system, I have never had much curiosity for anything that wasn’t due within the next week, and the upshot of this is that I’m unlikely to get into a Ph.D program after I earn my Masters degree next semester (knock on wood).  So it’s back to the job market, where my experience with sales and cash handling seem to guarantee that I’ll land a job in a market for which I am fundamentally unsuited.  I can’t handle any aspect of sales- the need to constantly be “on,” the non-reflective nature of the job that tends to reward people who take risks because they don’t know any better, the five-percent success rate of sales pitches that forces you to endure nineteen doors slammed in your face before one comes through, the uncertainty of commission-based salaries, the management that acts as a steel grip on the back of your neck- I just can’t deal with it.  I tend to desire stability and pursue introverted activities.  I probably gained 20 pounds when I was working for the bank, and it was around the same time that my health really started going to hell.

And before you comment, yes, I am aware that being a professional writer would entail all the same things I can’t handle about sales- constant self-promotion and rejection, uncertain pay, risk-taking behavior, all of that.  But it wouldn’t have that steel grip on the back of the neck, it wouldn’t have anyone holding my feet to the fire, and without that enforced discipline I tend to simply not do my job.  I need a manager to do my job- especially a job I’m terribly unsuited for.

But here’s the interesting thing: I might not like sales, but I’m actually pretty good at it.  I’m not Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but as I was finishing up my paperwork at the bank, I looked over my previous sales reports and was surprised to find that, after a rocky start in the first month, I had been regularly hitting most of my numbers, in the middle of 2010, which, you may remember, was not the best time to be in banking.  But every day, I had to get up, put on my necktie, and go to work.  And when I was at work, I had to work.  And so, despite being a terrible fit for my job, I learned how to do it, because the only way you learn things is by doing them.  It’s exactly that simple, and exactly that hard.

The interview was for a position opening up in the summer, and I’m not going to be done with school at that point, so for all intents and purposes it was a mock interview.  Maybe I was a little more relaxed because of this, or maybe I should make a habit of downing a Starbucks iced mocha exactly ten minutes before each interview.  Whatever the reason, I felt like I went in there and killed.  I had answers to the interviewer’s questions prepared before she finished saying them.  I got her to laugh multiple times, and told involved stories that never quite seemed to wander off the path.  The one question that stumped me, I tried to turn into my prepared “what’s your greatest weakness?” answer, and I think I succeeded.  I asked some pointed questions at the end, and actually went over the time limit for the interview, which in my experience is a good thing.  I’m not sure if I’ll get a call back, but after being off the private job market for three years, being able to go in that loose was its own type of victory.

But something crazy happened to me halfway through the interview- I found myself thinking, I could do this jobI have the skills, and if there’s a manager over me I will find the work ethic.  I knew that if I wanted to quit grad school after this semester and go into the car rental business, I would be a stupid and insane person, but I would be a stupid and insane person who would be able to hold down his job, who would be able to move up in the company, who would work at a career he was completely unsuited for and who would nevertheless get better because he was putting  in the work.  And as I was navigating the demolition derby of midday Tucson traffic back to the university, I wondered what would happen if I could do that with something I actually have some natural talent in- something like writing.

I love the title of this blog, and don’t regret it for a second.  But now I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t have named it The Necktie.  Probably not- there’s kids out there holding a three-foot piece of silk with desperate bewilderment in their eyes, and they need to print out that diagram.  I’d just get in the way.

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This entry was posted on 3 April 2013 by in Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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