Monday, June 22, 2009


It’s Wednesday morning. I am car pooling to work, and my ride will be in front of my apartment in four minutes. I am slapping peanut butter onto whole wheat bread, because I woke up too late to prepare a proper lunch. We have to be at work at nine, and work is a half-hour drive away. We can’t spare the extra twenty minutes it would take to cook the pasta with vegetables and tofu that I was supposed to get up early to make.

There is no actual reason we have to be at work at nine. My coworker’s first class isn’t until ten, and mine is at twelve-thirty, but my office hours officially start at nine. If I were twenty minutes late, my boss—the college dean—might walk by my office and find I wasn’t there during the hours that are part of my contractual obligation, and then he would have to have a talk with me and it would be awkward for everyone. Maybe a student would come looking for me, and I wouldn’t be there. Or maybe I wouldn’t get last week’s quizzes graded before my class, and the students would have to wait two more days to find out their scores.

Looking at the sad peanut-butter-and-nothing sandwiches that will be my breakfast and lunch, I ask myself: does it really matter if I’m twenty minutes late? Which begs the inevitable question: does it matter if I come in at all? And if not, then what is it I am spending my life doing, exactly?

This is the question that haunts us as workers, caught in the conflicting ideologies of working for survival and working to make our lives meaningful. Do we work to support our basic physical needs, or to feed some deeper need in our souls? Ideally both, our culture tells us: do what you love, and the money will follow.

But if we do what we love and the money doesn’t follow, we will be told: get a real job, you lazy bum. So the next best thing is to find a job that is bearable and pays okay.

On this same morning, my friend David is riding public transportation to his job at a nonprofit organization. He hates his job, but he can’t imagine a job he would like better. His believes that his job is important—he writes grants and solicits donations for a fund that supports indigenous workers in developing countries. The main thing he hates about the job is that it feels like begging. Also he hates having lunch meetings with wealthy philanthropists. And finally he hates the fact that he feels as if he is just moving money around, rather than producing anything tangible of worth. Then again, most of what gets produced at jobs is useless junk, like video games and whitening toothpaste and “flavor-blasted” crackers. So the problem may be less his particular job and more the simple fact of having to work at all.

This is what David thinks:

Once our jobs mattered in a tangible way, because if we didn’t do them, our communities would suffer in a visible way. If the tailor stopped working, the villagers went without new clothes. If the baker stopped working, there wouldn’t be any bread, and if the farmer stopped working, there wouldn’t be any food at all.

Imagine the gratification of knowing exactly why and how your profession benefited your community.

In a modern, capitalistic society, we bear the burden of choice, and the burden of having chosen our professions. If the tailor hated his job sometimes, that was just an inevitable part of life, like hating his family sometimes. His family and his job were the same thing, because that job had been handed down to him like his brown eyes and curly hair, and there was no point in hating any of it.

But when our work is a choice, then we are responsible for it, and when it is miserable, we can only blame our own poor judgment.

My friend Ruby is already at work; she has to open the office at eight every morning, so she gets in at seven-thirty. Ruby doesn’t mind running the office; the engineers are pretty nice and she finds the organization and paperwork kind of gratifying. But almost every day when she comes back from her lunch break, she becomes overwhelmed with the meaninglessness of what she does for forty hours a week. I’m wasting my life, she thinks, doing little chores to support a company that has nothing to do with me. What could be more spiritually empty than sorting legal papers and payroll documents for a company that builds machinery whose purpose you can’t understand?

Usually these spells of malaise only last about forty-five minutes; after that, she falls back into the rhythm of the work, and before she knows it, her work day has ended and it’s time to go home.

There are only sixteen hours left to work this week, she thinks as she walks to her car. And then seventy-two hours until the end of the month, payday. And 992 hours until her Christmas vacation. And 59,520 hours until she can retire—but of course, the company will probably be long gone by then, along with all that paperwork that she has spent the last three years of her life organizing.


Anonymous said...

Gosh, I'm pretty happy with my work. The biggest agony I feel is the limitation of my own laziness, which I'm trying to overcome with increasing work and planning. I mean, what I'm producing is technical documents, but the process of doing it involves personal growth and struggle every day, so I feel like I'm doing something important. And when I'm unhappy with work, it feels like a painful personal lesson I'm fighting.

Also, I get along with my boss. For most people, that's the main index of job satisfaction. My boss is rad.

-- Ted P.

P.S. this is a lovely blog! Thanks for announcing it!

Olive Green said...

Well of course you like your job, Ted--you work at heaven on earth (google)! Actually I like my job, too, except on days like today when I have to teach at 8. Glad you like the blog so far. I've definitely been motivated by yours.

brain said...

I am alternately optimistic or pessimistic about the utility of 90% of our jobs, depending on how you look at it.

I'm pretty sure all the code I've written is no longer running. 99% of people wouldn't be able to understand what the product I'm working on actually does, and while 50% of internet users might be subtly inconvenienced with the failure of my product, their lives are going to be for the most part unchanged.

What makes certain high-flying companies a little exasperating (I'm not just picking on you Ted; I worked at Sun during the "Java wars" years) is that when times are good, the Puritan ideas start kicking in, where financial success = an indication you are implementing God's will, and now all the worker bees decide that what they are doing must be really important. All kinds of crazy rationalization happens. The whole idea "we're saving the world by optimizing web searching!" is patently ridiculous.

But on a more general level I think most people trick themselves into inflating their jobs' importance to avoid this kind of existential angst you're describing. This must be really important, otherwise why would I be spending so much time on it? I know I didn't get to see my family much over the last few years, but I've really made a difference at ConglomoCorp!

Look around any Sales organization and you'll see all kinds of malarkey glamorizing their sales effort. Last quarter we had a whole area of the office covered in superhero paraphenalia because our sales and marketing teams were apparently "saving the internet." This quarter it's G.I. Joe-themed.

The optimistic part: none of this job routine has to matter. Perhaps the very idea that there must be a reason for everything is based on a sense of entitlement; real life is a swirling chaos where order is nothing more than a convention people expect you to follow. The promise of meaning is a lie, but realizing this will make you free.

Olive Green said...

Those are seriouly great examples, Brain--why aren't you writing this blog?

I am lucky enough to have an exceptionally "rewarding" job--it's a privilege to have the kind of job where your customers write you emails explaining how you changed their lives, even if they also sometimes flame you all over the internet when they don't like you.

Still, this is an idea that I can never get my brain around, Brain, that in a free market society, we all need to work but don't actually need most of what we create. So we need to generate demand and compete for capital...meanwhile there are actually enough resources to go around for everyone.

It also seems crazy to me that we can have a recession and housing crisis when we have enough food to feed everyone in the country and enough houses to house them all, but that's a whole new post topic I suppose.

Marnie Elizabeth said...

"He hates his job, but can't imagine a job he would like better."

I think that sentence needs to aired out in the open for a while. We can stand here, silently watching, as we at once concur and tremble with fearful awe.

Olive Green said...

Wow--that is the most poetic comment I have ever read. I myself tremble in awe and gratitude.