Essays on Technology and Culture

On the Vocational Wheel and The Intersection of Work and Work

A little over a year ago, I lost my job. Actually, it was taken from me, not that I wasn’t more than willing to be rid of it. It wasn’t a job I liked, or was even any good at.[1] They let me go just before lunch, so I was given a nice send off from my coworkers at a nearby bar.[2] A few months later, when I saw a few of my former coworkers again, the conversation turned to the job, and I expressed my dislike of the place and how glad I was to be rid of it–while still searching for a new gig. One coworker mentioned that I seemed pretty heartbroken at the time. I remember that day. I was nervous, shaky, confused–and by the end of lunch, a bit drunk. I attribute my reaction less to heartbreak and more at the shock of freedom. That day, I was an animal, born and raised in a zoo, now being released and seeing the plains of the Serengeti for the first time. It was pure, animalistic fear of my newfound freedom.

What some would imagine were the biggest fears could be easily addressed. I could get Unemployment, and I had a part time job I could use for extra money. Since the handwriting had been on the wall for months, I had already been working on my résumé and searching for opportunities. I was ready, or so I thought. In fact, I was ready for more than just finding another 9-to–5. I would use my downtime productively: finish my novel, pick up some freelance web design work, and lay the foundation for my eventual severing of ties with the idea of working for “the man”.

Fast forward about eleven months, and I hadn’t accomplished a thing. All I had were two job interviews, no prospects, and a ticking timer to the day my Unemployment benefits stopped.

Not long after that point, I was working full-time again, now in the lucrative world of civil service clerical work. It’s not a dream by any stretch of the imagination, but I find it far more tolerable than my previous job. Yet, I feel as though I’ve driven into a cul-de-sac. Consider again, the zoo animal metaphor released upon the mighty Serengeti. The fear can be most adequately explained with two words: option overload. In short, having the option of everything quickly lead to paralysis.[3] Taking the job I have now, at least has restored the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and dispelled that specific existential fear endemic to the long-term unemployed, but at what cost?

The preceding is a rather long-winded prelude to something more personal. As I counted down the days to rejoining the working world, an Internet Hero of mine, Merlin Mann started a new podcast, Back to Work, which does more-or-less what it says on the tin. The common theme in the first few episodes was that of getting started, getting finished, and actually making things. I listened, weekly, with Merlin and Dan providing a vitamin-infused dose of inspiration right in the middle of the work week. As I listened, I noticed there was been an itch they hadn’t scratched yet. The first few episodes of Back to Work had started from the assumption that the listener had committed to something, be it a personal project or a professional obligation. Where I felt a bit lost was less about getting started and more about knowing what to start on, especially on any sort of meta-level. Again, like the zoo animal, I was confused, and overwhelmed, and needed a prod to step out of my cage. So, I e-mailed Dan and Merlin asking for their advice, and providing the backstory.

It seemed to have struck a chord. The Monday before they record, Merlin sent me an e-mail indicating that he would be more than happy to turn the darn thing into an episode. I was floored. Now, I was no longer shouting into the void. The episode, “Vocational Wheel”, was surprising–inspirational, but useful too, and I’m not just saying that because it’s about me, at least in part. There’s a lot to take away from it, not the least being the stories Merlin and Dan share of their 20s, and a similar lack of direction. The discussion of Saturn’s return also hit home. It summarizes a feeling that I’ve had, mostly in the last year, but even before I lost my job, not only of desiring change but also finding motivation to change.

I neglected to mention this in my e-mail to Merlin and Dan, but a couple of years ago, I set up a good college friend of mine with a good friend from high school, who is now his wife. Last March, they discovered they were expecting a child. This got my college friend, who was notoriously slow to rouse, extraordinarily motivated to accomplish things. I was envious–not of him now having a wife and family–but of how having a wife and family lit a fire under his ass. The major motivating factor for me at the time was making sure I had something full-time before my Unemployment ran out. I made the buzzer shot, but it wasn’t anything special. I was motivated enough to get the necessary stuff done, but not motivated to get the cool stuff, the creative stuff done. Fear, it seems, is only enough of a motivator to end the fear.

What I took away most from “Vocational Wheel” was, beyond the sympathetic stories, the practical advice–and in the intervening weeks and months I have tried to take it to heart. It’s hard to get into a habit, but Merlin made a good point: “Everyone has three minutes a day to do something.”[4] I grabbed a leftover Moleskine notebook from my college days when I assumed that spending big money on a notebook would convince me to use it. (I didn’t.[5]) This essay is proof of the failure of that assumption–I started it in my notebook not long after the episode aired, and picked it up with this exact sentence almost four months later. There has been writing on other topics in the interim–bursts of work on my novel, some articles for Kittysneezes, and stabs at what I intend to make a long-term project of music journalism. Everything is a start.

There are still those questions that spawned my yelling into the void, and no podcast can truly answer them as they are more philosophical and rhetorical. As I try to figure out what to do with my life, they pop into my head–questions like “What motivates me to get up in the morning?” and “What would I do even if nobody paid me?” There’s a lot here that balances on the meaning of “work”, which has two potential meanings in this context. The first is work in the sense of “going to work”, something you have to do for the purpose of paying the bills. The value of that kind of work is that it pays the bills (one hopes). You sacrifice your x hours for y value of currency, and that is how you feed, clothe, and shelter yourself and your family. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that, and it is all the better if you quarantine work to that x hours. Certainly, I prefer to take that approach with what I do now.

The other way to view the question is in the focus of work as what one chooses to do of their own free will, whether it makes them money or not. Certainly, this definition places more value on “work” than currency can for the first. This is the world that professional artists and other creative types inhabit, wherein what they do is what they want to do. A professional artist does the work they choose to do, for them, and hopefully they make enough bread to keep it up. Even if they don’t, they probably still do the work, augmenting their artistic work with a straight job as in definition one.

What interests me is where these definitions intersect; e.g.: what can I do for a living, either for myself or someone else, that I would gladly do for free, or at least find fulfilling on more than a financial level? I know that I am the sort of person who is motivated by three things. The first is knowing that a job is done, the second is being mentally engaged in an activity that challenges me–something that is not repetitive or rote, and the third is having a sense of control over what I do and when. Of these, the third is where I am most flexible, especially since my unemployment experience showed that I am a terrible manager of myself–or perhaps the lesson to take from that is how to be my own boss, do the work, and take responsibility for myself. In either case, finding that nebulous intersection of work as means to and end and work as an end to itself is going to be the greatest challenge.[6] At least I am not going at it alone, and I am not the first to undertake it.

  1. Business-to-business telemarketing and lead generation for IT. I would, in all honesty, rather put a bullet in my head than go back to that line of work.  ↩
  2. The people I worked with were really the only thing I liked about the job, save for regularity of pay and health insurance.  ↩
  3. By way of a more academic illustration, check out the book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz  ↩
  4. For example, I have an hour for lunch, two fifteen minute breaks, and the downtime between my two jobs, plus weekends.  ↩
  5. “The Weight of a Notebook” from The Bygone Bureau describes this problem far better than I could.  ↩
  6. My reasons to seek this are myriad and run the gamut from concerns over economic factors to personal experiences in the workforce. There could be a whole essay on that.  ↩