THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Stupid job? A recessionary job can boost your career

In the early 1990s, when the job market was as bad as today, I had a college degree that was getting me nowhere. So my friend got me a job signing Esther Williams' autographs for fans. 

Esther who? That's what I said. Esther Williams was an Olympic-qualifying swimmer in the 1940s, and she took her bathing-suit-clad body to MGM where she was the star of water musicals. If you've never seen a water musical, think Ginger Rogers with nose plugs.

Esther was hot in her day, and believe it or not, she's still hot among nostalgic old people, young girls who like swimming, and gay men who like kitsch.

I worried that the job was illegal, but the person who hired me assured me it's a common practice in Los Angeles. After all, no one would squander life as a movie star by sitting around all day writing autographs for the gobs of people who request signed photos. 

At the time, I was upset that the only job I could get wasn't even significant enough to have a title. (Question: "Uh, what do you call this kind of job?" Answer: "I don't know.") But now I realize that even though I hated the job, I learned a lot from doing it. In fact, I'd have to say that Esther Williams was my first marketing mentor, and I built my own marketing career around rules I learned from her:

Quality control is important. During my first week, Esther gave me three copies of her signature (from pens of different sizes) and told me to practice. I submitted my best shot to Esther, and she said, "Make the Es loopier."

I looped and resubmitted, and she gave me the go-ahead.

Give the customer what they want. When I started working for Esther, who is now 89, she was already pushing 70; so when someone requested an autographed picture, you just knew they weren't asking for one snapped the week before. So we had a stack of old MGM promotional photos: Esther as Olympic swimmer, Esther as showgirl– there was even one of Esther in a sort of kiddie porn motif. But for the die-hard fans who requested it, I also had a head shot of Esther when she was about 50.

Cut costs. We had 8x10s, but I sent those only if the person enclosed postage. Otherwise, Esther instructed me to send a 5x7. Sometimes people would request an 8x10, and even if they didn't send postage, I'd send the big one. I figured it would make a happy customer, and it wouldn't break her bank. After all, she still received residual checks from Million Dollar Mermaid.

Stay out of court. One guy sent three pristine Life magazines with Esther on the cover and wanted each one signed. He wrote a note that said, "The last time I asked for an autographed photo, I am sure it was not you who signed it. You better not let anyone mess up these magazine covers, or I'll sue you." Esther had warned me to send professional requests to her, so she signed the covers.


As soon as I found another job, I quit working for Esther. But working for Esther Williams taught me that any job can help your career– if you let it.

Each job, no matter how weird, has something to teach you. And each employer has a gem of genius because, hey, they're making enough money to pay you, aren't they? So don't be so upset about the crummy job market; you're about to start your own Esther Williams experience.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.