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Letter from Santa Clara

“What’s your Dream Job?”

By Bill Costley

Yesterday I caused a stir at a breakfast meeting when I called the question “What is your dream job?” infantile. I was at Scott’s Restaurant in the Town & Country Mall in Palo Alto for a monthly meeting attended by out-of-work or entrepreneurially re-converted marketing people (now working as independent consultants) after the great blow-off of jobs here in 2001. It’s the regular Bay Area Marketing Association (BMA) breakfast I’ve attended as often as I’ve been able to as an occasional bi-coastal commuter/contractor; this, however, was my first time as a South Bay resident.

Perhaps by semi-chance, I was the last one asked to introduce myself. Explaining that (compared to everyone else in the room) “I’m new here,” I asked for some general guidance on how to answer the dream-job question when it’s been asked in an interview. Apparently I misperceived the value of the question by calling it infantile. Answers ranged from: “It’s just an opportunity for you to highlight your best features” to “Tell them it’s the job you’re interviewing now for with them.” Frankly, neither answer is quite me. Let me explain.

Back where I’ve just come from (greater Boston MA), the comparable “wildcard” question is: “What’s your greatest weakness?” My equally as disrupting answer to that implausible question is: “The PR guy who tells you his greatest weakness never gets the job. You really want to know his greatest strengths. That’s really why you’re hiring him.” I’m right; the question’s actually intended to probe one’s humility in Boston’s vestigially pietistic-theocratic culture.

But what’s the dream-job question intended to probe in California’s utterly different culture? This requires that you know that there is such a culture. Not a literary fantasy, not a Hollywood parody, but an actual culture and that it’s maybe even specifically Northern Californian (or as they call it here, NorCal.)

Let me give you an interesting example. We recently enrolled in this country’s oldest HMO (Kaiser-Permanente), so we each chose a primary doc. Mine’s a product of UC-Davis and the University of Chicago. During my first visit, he scheduled my annual examination for my birthday in late May, so I said, “I may be working then, so I may have to change it.” Instead of saying as I’d expected, well, if so, just reschedule it to suit your availability, he suddenly said: “Well, I might be gone by then. I might win the lottery and sail the South Pacific!”

Is that a Californian answer, or what? Carolin now tells me that when she’s asked the dream-job question, she says: “I’d like to be a snorkel guide in the tropics.” She’s already made the NorCal transition without telling me! And there I was, still saying boringly eastern things like “Interesting trend work.” (The current trend in the PR work is to get clients mentioned in industry-trend stories about multiple companies doing similar, if not identical things, because the copy-inches in magazines are down, so you’d better take a trend-mention, because that’s about all you may get for now.)

Now what is my dream job? Frankly, it’s writing things like this for the Call. I really mean it! It’s interesting trend-work! Where would I like to do it from? Santa Clara. Well, maybe Bonaire, too. I already call this little house on Maria St., between two large cemeteries, our Bonairean Cottage, because it has four banana, a peach, apple, almond, nectarine, fig, loquat, guava, Chinese pear trees. It gets semi-tropically hot here from about 11am to 4pm every day, when the evening cooling-breeze kicks-in. For my modest purposes, it’s Bonaire, with the South Caribbean semi-replaced by the South Bay, an attainable NorCal dream. But, of course, I’m not Larry Ellison, who fantasizes that he’s a reincarnated samurai warrior.

Bill Costley really enjoys the South Bay. Really!