Dining on The Man

One unbeatable, irreducible, very unfortunate aspect of being even slightly employed is that you get to have interesting, memorable, enriching, maybe even life-changing experiences (not to mention food and drinks) on someone else’s dime, schedule and initiative. Employment is the modern version of patronage and conscription rolled into one. It makes me wonder if Merlin really liked magic all that much or if he just happened to be capable and in the right place at the right time and really liked the nice lab and the free horse. And since work (a.k.a. struggle) of some kind is the only path to growth, it seems obvious that work should be almost universally good. And yet it isn’t. Why? I’m guessing for normal people (i.e. not me) it’s because they don’t end up in the right job. I mean who wouldn’t want to do neat things with electronic gadgets and occasionally fly all over the country for the purpose of talking to smart, interesting, funny people about your common goals? Well, me, as it has turned out on more than one occasion in my life, but I think to many people this sounds nearly-idyllic. But I’ve known many people who did it, including some whose jobs included gobs of down time where they were figuratively (and often literally) “on the beach.” And yet no one loves it for very long. Everyone profits from it, gains huge experience from it, grows as a person from it, then ultimately moves on. And if they look back at all it’s only with an occasional cold chill, like they narrowly got away with something. And I’m not sure you even have to be in the world of high-flying consultancy to do this. I think any job has this curve where it starts out being fascinating and fulfilling and at some point becomes just a job. Of course we imagine there are people for whom life is not like this–artists, actors–but as someone who has had some pretty interesting jobs, I can’t say I totally buy it. Even people who own their own businesses, who have wrested as much control as humanly possible out of the system, don’t typically love what they do. Almost anyone I’ve met and talked to who you could think of as being typically successful will admit that what they do is just what they do… to earn a living. They see it as a bargain: I do this and then I can do _____. Where the blank is filled with almost every non-work thing you can think of: retire, support my family, send my kids to good schools, do drugs, buy guns, run marathons, travel, play video games–in other words all the things we admit to doing or wish we could when people ask us what we “do” and don’t mean “for work.” But why are those lists inherently separate? How is it that most of us have such a fine and yet powerful discriminator to tell us the difference between work and not-work? Why are exciting, novel, enriching experiences on Saturday different from exciting, novel, enriching experiences on Wednesday? We’ll tell the same kinds of stories next year about both the good and bad experiences of work and not-work, but right now, today, something feels different about the things we’re getting paid to do versus the things we choose to do on our own. One possibility is that work is uniquely compartmentalized and indivisible. You can’t quit one part of your job, only the whole thing. Everything else is not like this. You can quit a friend, a hobby, TV, drinking, any, each or all without quitting life. But can you suddenly decide you’re not going to run a particular report anymore at work? Probably not. Which maybe makes for an interesting definition: work is that which must be quit as a package deal. And there could be a corollary: things that present as package deals often seem like work. So does it really come back to choice? Is the definition of work simply that which impinges on our free will to any extent? Maybe. And maybe this is why so many people are willing and able to put up with it. Because we are, sometimes, able to decide, as an act of free will, that we’re going to take the money and the experience and the free food and drink even if it means giving up a parcel of free will. Or maybe we don’t decide. Maybe we deny or evade or engage some other coping mechanism, but the result is the same.

2 thoughts on “Dining on The Man”

  1. This is an especially appropriate subject for me today. My work day began with a brief conversation with my boss moments into my day at 8:04 AM. Some time afterwards, however, my boss apparently spent some time frantically searching for me to confirm that my monthly report would be ready by Thursday. At the time she was looking for me I was away at the local IHOP eating on someone else’s tab. I was in a morning breakfast meeting happily chatting with a corporate VP about IMS, cellular convergence, and WiFi. My day seems to invoke elements of each point in the job arc you’ve described. I have made decisions regarding how I prioritize the components of my job, but my hope is that I have done so consciously. This last element may not influence how I perceive or perform my job but does, as I’ll mention later, probably affect the end result.

    I did once actually enjoy my monthly reports. I had turned terse, mandatory documentation into a sort of literary exercise. My writing gained me some renown, largely because the construction of entertaining narrative is typically perceived as incongruous with technical development work. I’d set aside time for these reports and deliver them ahead of even the announcement of deadlines.

    Lately, however, my report delivery has focused on day to day developments rather than the illustration of a unified directive. As that is all that was ever expected, my work is considered satisfactory. For this reason, I have given report writing a lower priority over just about any opportunity.

    As an optimist, I’ll continue to hope that I’ll be capable of transforming my mundane obligations into personally challenging adventures. This will allow me to complete obligatory tasks in the expected fashion without allowing my job to become a series of empty tasks. In the meantime, however, I’ll continue to take every opportunity to skip out and chat with some anybody. If I’m fortunate, making that choice consciously will allow me to appropriately value and leverage those opportunities for future success without looking like a total slacker. Making the very same choices unconsciously might produce exactly the opposite result.

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