THE BLOG
01/08/2016 02:39 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2017

What the Wrong Job Can Teach You

Chivonn had ordered me a nameplate and pinned it to my cubicle wall. This girl was implanting me permanently into the organization although I had only been on the temp-to-hire job for two days. I stood there gazing at the thing, my head cocked to the side--a posture my Labrador takes when she is trying to make sense of a situation; I wanted to believe the job would secure my place in the daily grind, but I wasn't sure what I was in for.

During the bathrobe-clad days of unemployment, this had been my fantasy--a sense of belonging and purpose. I envisioned sitting at my desk amid the office hum, sipping a cup of coffee, astutely engaged and juggling many tasks. I would be a reliable resource--the person to come to when you need a solution or when you need a laugh--a chick on her toes.

I first heard about this job when Tom, the recruiter, presented me with the senior executive assistant role at Angel Heritage Life Insurance Company in little detail and big pay. He asked if I could interview in an hour. I scrambled to make myself presentable-a quick blow out of my daringly short cut, a fast swipe of liner--lips red, eyes black--and I was off!

Tom, and Angel's elegant human resources manager, Pihu, waited for me in the lobby as I swirled through the revolving glass doors. Tom shook my hand, then disappeared; Pihu met with me briefly, her voice choppy and laced with an Indian accent. She took me to meet my prospective supervisor: a 42-year-old man from Cape Town named Fitz. He was a good-looking guy with a charming British accent. He ranked as a top salesman in the organization, affording him three residences, a flock of high-end sports cars, hand-tailored suits and fancy cologne. Impressed with my credentials, Fitz and I conversed for 20 minutes; then, he had a plane to catch.

Since Fitz traveled 90% of the time, I voiced concern about getting the details right--managing international travel is not a highlight on my resume. He looked my credentials over and said he had confidence in me. He stood, slipping paperwork into the fold of his briefcase, and asked me when I could start.

A week into the job, free from Chivonn's steady training ("do you watch Scandal?"), I began pulling 10 1/2-hour days without lunch; I wanted to get acclimated quickly. I reviewed the travel plans for Fitz to make sure all the dots connected--flights in and out of Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai; car service to all points; accommodations at The Four Seasons and The Fairmount; meetings with executives in topsy-turvy time zones. I was on top of it!

I felt so good I even let a bit of the genuine me shine through as I attempted to develop a rapport with Fitz. "GM" I said when I walked into the office. He had been looking intently into his computer screen, his brain formulating an elaborate pitch. Numbers, figures, big words, big deals. He looked up at me, half perturbed, half surprised that I interrupted him: "GM?" he repeated. "Good morning," I said. "Morning," he answered into his screen with his lovely voice.

I was so organized in week two, that when Chivonn whisked by my desk on her way to lunch, giving rise to the corners of my paperwork she told me, "Chicka, you're all over this job!"

Even if Fitz didn't entirely get my sense of humor, I was back in the game, stressed as hell, my brain fully engaged, and there was money coming in! It was well worth the tradeoff of forgoing lunchtime hikes with my dog Sabrina, the gym after work and quiet evenings with my man--wasn't it?

At the end of the third week on the job, I was home with a cold, dripping mucous all over the company's laptop organizing a call in Jakarta when I got a bad feeling. A cloak of doom infiltrated my being. Then an email came in from Tom: "Call me at your nearest convenience."

Before calling him--the convenience wasn't near enough--I ducked into Fitz's email Sent folder where I found two notes to Pihu entitled "reservation catastrophe!"

Before coming home with my cough drops and tissues, Fitz had asked me to change a reliable car service for a complimentary one. I canceled the existing reservation with its confirmation number, for the free car service that seemed vague in my opinion. "We guarantee it," the agent told me when I asked for concrete evidence.

No driver held up a white sign marked "Fitz" in black sharpie at the Shanghai Airport. But, the Gods interceded to save the day. Dongmei, a representative for Shanghai U for which Fitz was slated to speak, unbeknownst to either of us, arrived with a driver and a translator. Being a gracious host Dongmei transported him wherever he needed to go. Despite the fact that all his needs were actually met, Fitz sent Pihu the two emails, the first entailing the botched car service, and the second, explaining how he wasn't expecting Dongmei and his supervening "discomfiture."

Clearly, Fitz's halo didn't shine for me anymore.

I connected with Tom and of course, I'd been canned. My heart sank and I felt the shame creeping in, the income trickling away, the return to my unemployed languish...but then my heart rejoiced as I saw myself curled up with Sabrina and a good book on the sofa and taking hour long walks again in the morning.

I texted Chivonn to tell her that I was coming in to drop off the laptop. An hour later, I got out of the car carrying bags of obvious office stuff--a picture of my dog, a five-pound container of whey protein, an extra pair of black heels, an African violet-- and collided with my upstairs neighbor. She couldn't have summed up the predicament more perfectly. "Congratulations," she said.

The day before, Chivonn had spoken into our common cube wall asking me how to spell warp. "You mean like bent or distorted?" I asked. She didn't answer. "W-a-r-p," I said, "as in warp speed, Mr. Sulu." My voice carried throughout the busy sales department, over the cubicles, infiltrating the honchos in the offices with the cool frosted glass and sliding doors. The tapping on my colleague's keyboards ceased, voices paused, just for a moment. I smiled to myself. Did the new girl just say warp speed Mr. Sulu? Typing and sales pitch resumed. I wondered if anyone got me? Did anyone ever let their real self pop through--crack a joke, say anything other than oh fine, thanks? Where is the office where I can unbutton a little, or laugh or even make a mistake--and be allowed the space for connection, redemption? Next time I will find this place. Now I'm on the lookout.

I worked for Angel Heritage for a total of three weeks. The job would have taken over my life, with its long hours and standby on weekends. In my short tenure, while I was counting every dollar coming in, paying gobs to doggie daycare, I was wearing down. The martinis began making a comeback, the olives bruised and moldy from June when I had stopped drinking and started exercising.

So here I am where I started, but richer in knowledge. I instinctively knew going into a job with my confidence teetering predestined a crash and burn outcome. I didn't listen to that little voice, to my intuition. I wanted to fit in, I wanted to find the validation that comes from doing my job well and being in an environment that appreciates what I can offer. This wasn't Angel; I knew it from the beginning--but those dollar signs and the echo of my own heels clicking on the tile floors seduced me.

The takeaways? I am a skilled individual with good experience, but I have my own set of requisites too. Next time I will pay attention to those instincts and remember that finding a good fit takes more than simply thinking about what Fitz needs. I also have to ask myself what I need. It's as important as anything on the job description. I know I need to have a bit of fun, develop and nurture camaraderie with my boss who can display on occasion, humility. I need to collaborate with colleagues and not feel tethered to a 4-foot area like a sheep grazing on a picket line. I want to do my job well and I want to be my authentic self--something I am particularly good at!

The day after the ax came down, I emailed Pihu giving her a broader perspective on the "reservation catastrophes." Out of fairness to me, with Fitz's request to switch to a free car service and the language barrier experienced with Dongmei, it's no surprise that things got botched. "But what's really disappointing in these two scenarios" I wrote, "is the blame resides wholly with me. I understand Fitz's VIP status, really I do, but when it comes down to it, we're both human beings, aren't we." Period versus question mark.

Pihu emailed me back, quite graciously, calling him a "tough customer." Then in her lilting Indian accent she added, "I'm sure you will excel in your next role."

I'm going to bet on that Pihu.