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How To Thrive At A Struggle Job

Workin' Girl

Many of us are no stranger to one of the most soul-snatching, obnoxiously annoying, end-of-the-world chambers of career hell: the survival job.


Signs of a struggle job include it being totally out of the realm of your calling, beneath you intellectually and financially, or just a total bore.

When I first set off to freelance and consult full-time, I had on rose-colored glasses, especially since---after just one month on my own---I'd landed a project that covered my everyday living expenses, and another gig that took me to Africa. I thought I was set.

Then I hit a wall: things began to dry up.

I had to downsize and I found myself with barely enough cash to maintain my used car and keep my Wifi and cell phone on. Add to that a medical issue that was a major financial kill-joy, putting my footloose and fancy-free freelance adventures on indefinite standby.

To offset my freelance endeavors being on hold indefinitely, I decided to take an entry-level job in customer service. It was one that had flexible hours, was quite monotonous, and afforded me the awesome opportunity to get cussed out by angry grannies at least four times a week.

It paid a whopping $10 an hour for using my amazing communications skills I'd honed as a journalist interviewing the who's who of Hollywood and business, to master the art of repeating, "Thank you for calling..." or "I'm so sorry that happened. How may I assist you?" at least 50 times a day. I hadn't made less than $30 an hour since high school, and for a college-educated chick who started out freelancing in NYC for $50 an hour, I felt like a total failure.

I knew I had to boss up no matter the circumstance or the pay, and that my mental health and career advancement depended on it, so I put the tears and anger away and did the following:

I visualized where I wanted to be instead of focusing on where I was.

Goal-setting is super-liberating. I set how long I'd do the job, how much I wanted to save, and when I'd (respectfully) chuck my supervisor the deuces. I focused so much on the bigger picture that even when an angry customer called in berating me as if I'd murdered their mama or dog, I'd think about why I took the job in the first place, remind myself that it wasn't the end-all-be-all, and respond with compassion.

I related and became more present with others I worked with.

To be honest, I had a Moses-tablet-sized chip on my shoulder that read, "This job is beneath me. I'm a college-educated, accomplished journalist, not a robot who answers calls all day."

The arrogance was toxic and isolating. I began to open up and chat with fellow coworkers, many of whom were just like me, simply trying to supplement their incomes to reach a goal. There was a single mom who knew how to finesse several part-time jobs, juggle her home obligations, and handle payroll and tax issues. There was a savvy law student who was quick on his feet and great on the phones even after having issues with his hoopty or studying all night for an exam. I also met others who loved customer service and retail and had made great long-term careers out of being stellar problem-solvers, mentors, trainers, and financial systems experts.

I wrote down what I learned and applied those lessons to advance my freelance and client work.

Hey, it takes a level-headed, intuitive, and resourceful person to successfully resolve customer service issues in a timely fashion---especially when customers are calling from all over country, have a variety of issues, and very little patience. Having that job was like getting free anger-management therapy. Keeping my cool with someone who's quite pissed off about a delayed wedding or birthday gift, a duplicate or fraudulent credit card charge, or a massive account debt was a requirement in keeping said job and getting great quality scoring.

I got better in my interactions with prospective clients and current editors, and I was also able to learn more about how credit cards are processed and approved and how to resolve issues related to payment plans, debt, and fraud---very vital skills for a budding businesswoman.

A survival job, whatever that means for you, should be the stepping stone to where you want to be.

I had to pull up my big-girl panties and remind myself to treat all experiences in my career journey with compassion, humility, and shrewd, focused intention.

If you have a boss mentality, your time is valuable. Maximize it and make that survival job work for you. Not the other way around.

Featured image by Getty Images

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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