Someone once hinted to me that he was a young professional and I was not, because he put on a nicer pair of shoes to go to work. At the time, I worked with my dad. I wore sneakers.
The guy's comment pissed me off, not because I felt slighted, but because he thought status came down to a person's shoes.
That notion seems even more out of touch to me now, because it has nothing to do with being a young professional as I understand it.
My first assignment as a Cleveland Magazine intern was a profile for our sister publication, Inside Business, of a young Northeast Ohioan doing interesting things. Squeezed into the magazine's intern room, I conducted a phone interview with Jose C. Feliciano Jr., a leader of a young professional group and advocate for Latino issues. We bonded over sportswriter Bill Simmons, essayist Chuck Klosterman and the folksy indie band Fleet Foxes.
At the end of the conversation, he invited me to a young professional networking event that night. To be polite, I said I'd consider it.
Then while working on another assignment later that day, I chatted with a woman who was also going to the same holiday happy hour that evening.
They knew each other, but not because they were co-workers or college friends; Feliciano worked in banking, the woman worked in the arts. They were civically involved and frequently attended events such as that night's holiday party at Battery Park Wine Bar or a Saturday morning conference.
I didn't go to the event that night. I wasn't sure I belonged there.
I was just an intern — and a 31-year-old intern at that. I was still cleaning houses with my dad. I was taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College and a bit sheepish about my lack of a college degree. I wasn't sure I could relate.
In another life, I managed a video game store. I wore sneakers. I was 25. It was in a strip mall in the burbs. Game boxes lined every inch of wall space. It looked like some millennial kid's dream walk-in closet. The store brought in about $800,000 annually. I managed inventory, marketing and a staff of about six.
Our repeat customers came in to shoot the shit about gaming, movies, TV and sports. We'd talk about games as an art form and their ability to tell compelling stories. This wasn't a group of adults who were wasting their time playing with kids' toys. We'd also talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while gunshots rang out from looping demos of Call of Duty on a TV near the yellow counter. A customer and I even lamented the temporary shutdown of the Cleveland Museum of Art for its big renovation. I told him I hoped the Interior Garden Court, my favorite area of the museum, would survive the changes (not so much, it turns out).
Our chats weren't too different from the conversations at young professional networking functions about current events, local policies or the arts.
At the time, I was preparing for training to become a district manager. I really pictured a professional career in retail. Then the company's biggest competitor bought it out, and it was time to move on.
But I never considered myself a young professional.
After that, I worked with my dad, who owns a house cleaning company. The work was more laborious than slinging video games. But even at wealthy homes in Beachwood, Pepper Pike and Orange, I chatted up customers.
One taught pop culture at a community college in Columbus. We'd discuss the Cleveland Orchestra and jazz, Jack Kerouac and the Beats. She rode a bike, and we got into a lengthy conversation about bike advocacy and the bike-friendly parts of Greater Cleveland.
But I still never considered myself a young professional.
Around this time, events led me to my magazine internship and the interview with Feliciano. That led to freelance writing for both magazines, and eventually my job here.
Even then, it wasn't until a tweet about my hiring that I accepted and understood my own young professional status: "Congrats to #CLE #YP @thebrilla who is starting his first day on his new job as assistant editor of @IBMagazine!"
The unexpected jolt of encouragement from Engage Cleveland, a young professional organization that helps bring different groups together, made me more comfortable at networking events. I've become friends with other young professionals. I see them out and about and look forward to interacting with them.
It's not that I was looking for the validation of that tweet. I wasn't waiting to be included. It's not that you become a young professional when someone recognizes you as one. There's no rite of passage. It's not about your shoes, your job or your education. It's really about connectivity. It's about being engaged in a community — something beyond yourself — whether it's focused on policy, arts, music or heck, even video games.
And now, at 34 years old, I realize I could have considered myself one sooner.