It is just a job

I read somewhere that the idea that you have to ‘love your job’ is a capitalist myth. I can’t remember the last time I agreed with something so wholeheartedly. I always hear about these mythical people who love their jobs. Someone, somewhere has a friend of a friend who is really happy in their job and love waking up on Mondays.

Now, I’m not trying to bring the mood down. I am sure there are some people who have been lucky enough to find work in a field they enjoy. But even so, the minute you attach money and deadlines to any activity, it can’t help but lose some of its charm. At least, that is what I think. Like, I used to love painting. And then people started paying me for it and commissioning stuff. And then all of a sudden, I didn’t want to go anywhere near my paints. And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I mean, isn’t this the dream? That you have a hobby you love, and then you commercialize it. Isn’t this what everyone means when they say, “if you love what you do, you won’t ever work a day in your life.” Sure, yes. Or you could be working all the time. And as much as I like something, I can’t constantly be doing one thing and feel happy about it.

Which I feel is the central issue with how our jobs and lives are structured right now. And it took me some time to realize this. The first time I quit my job (the only time, but it feels more dramatic saying it like this) I thought I hated my job. That I couldn’t imagine going the rest of my life only doing this one thing. Then I realized that that was the issue. It wasn’t that I hated my job per se (I’m actually half decent at it, and when it comes down to it, the actual work I do is enjoyable enough). I just hated that the only thing I did was my job. There was no time for anything else in my life. I wouldn’t say I ever fell into the category of people who ‘love’ their jobs (if indeed such people exist) but I could tolerate it well enough if it gave me the resources to do some of the other things I liked. The most important resource being, of course, time.

Which got me thinking. Why did I feel like I never had the time to do anything else? I’ve come to the conclusion (and this is a work in progress, so I might come back and tweak this conclusion a few times) that it is the way we are trained to think. The way they make us think about our time and how much of it we owe to our workplaces. By ‘they’ of course I mean our omnipotent capitalist overlords. From the moment I started working the overwhelming consensus was that people who went ‘above and beyond’ what was required were the ones that will succeed in this field.

Like my orientation week. I was fresh out of college and very excited to be starting this job – my first job. I remember we were flown out to a new city and put up in a fancy hotel and made to sit through a bunch of talks in some fancy convention center. All designed to impress new recruits, which it did. During the course of the many talks I attended one of the speakers started talking about what it means to be ‘successful’ in this job, in this field. He started off by saying all of us have to have our own definition of success. This was not a one shoe fits all situation. Fair enough. Then he spoke about how to someone success might mean executing the best deals (whatever that means) and working round the clock to have the highest profit margin. To someone else success might mean not working on the best deals (again, whatever that means) but instead having time to spend with their family on the weekends. The way in which he spoke, it was clear that he thought the first person was normal and the second one was the kind they didn’t want at this firm. Spending time enjoying yourself outside of the office? What a dud.

This talk was followed by a lady who spoke to us about ‘firm perception’. She told us the story of a fresh associate who, while initially showed a lot of promise, turned out not to be someone the firm wanted to invest in in the long run. The reason? He didn’t understand what ‘loyalty’ meant. In the end, the actual offense turned out to be entirely anti-climatic. The poor kid had made a post on his social media at 3 am on a Sunday night talking about ‘late nights’ in the office which, in the eyes of the firm, made them look bad. So where was the disloyalty? Was it in talking about an actual thing that happened? Was it in talking about how you were spending all your time in the office? I think it was in not enjoying the fact that you spend all your time in the office. Because to my firm, this was the worst thing someone could do. Admit that they didn’t want to be spending all of their time doing this one job.

And even after the orientation, the idea that you have to make your job your entire existence is driven home to the point of exhaustion in so many ways. I have had superiors tell me that the best way to judge how well you’re doing is by looking at how much work you have. If you’re overworked, you’re doing well. What a twisted way of looking at things. Not only did it make me put in more hours than I needed to, it also made me feel guilty for not being worked to the bone all the time. And that stuck with me till I had to quit because of a burnout.

While I was unemployed, and when I tried to commercialize my hobby, I realized a couple of things which I think have helped me in coming back to work with a more balanced perspective. Firstly, that I didn’t want to get paid to paint. It would be nice if someone at some point liked the things I made and wanted to buy it. But I wasn’t going to turn it into a commercial enterprise. Because that turned it into a job, and I found out that I didn’t love any job. Then I realized that I actually liked having a job that gave me a steady income, as long as I wasn’t expected to love it and dedicate all my time to it. So, basically, I wanted a job I could just about tolerate for the most part and like in bits, and then have some time and mental headspace out of it to do the multitude of other things I enjoyed.

I take exception to how people at my job still want the newer kids to go ‘above and beyond’ for the job or give it their ‘150%’ and what not. I think it might be a lot nicer to tell the kids to treat it as a job. Just something you do on weekdays to make some money to enjoy your actual life. Something you can, and indeed should, switch off from whenever you can. You may not love it, but you can like it for the other things it does for you.

Quitting my job without a plan

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

OK, maybe the title is a little dramatic. I didn’t leave without a plan per se. I had a plan in my head. The plan just happened to be ridiculous. There was nothing I had done in my life leading up to the day I quit that would suggest I could go through with the plan. I wasn’t the type of person who quits her job. I was the person who did well in school, did well in university, was earmarked to get one of those high-paying jobs straight off of campus and then stick to it for the rest of my life (accounting for maybe a year’s worth of break when I would presumably go off and get a masters from a nice school). I upheld my end of the deal till the time of getting a job. I got a great job out of university. Paid very well, made the parents proud. And then, a couple of months into the job, something broke. I don’t know how to describe it to be honest. It was like a seismic shift in perception. I’d seen it happen to favourite characters in movies and in the books I read, but I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.

I thought to myself, this can’t be all there is. I mean, yeah it is a nice job and I do love the people I work with, and I get paid enough to support whatever little unnecessary luxuries I think I want, but this cannot be it. I can’t keep working on things I don’t care about – and things no one else cares about either. There is a famous essay online theorising about ‘Bullshit Jobs’ and while I don’t agree with it completely, I do think my job qualifies as one. You see, I used to work as a corporate lawyer. And I completely agree with what the article had to say about corporate lawyers – that if all of us were to disappear off the face of this earth today, no one would miss us, including our clients. The clients who, incidentally, pay through their noses to keep us on. No hate though, if you’re someone who works as a corporate lawyer, and you like your job, please don’t take this in the wrong way. You’re one of the lucky ones. This is for everyone who took up a job because it was the ‘done thing’ and didn’t know what else to do with their time or life.

This is not to say that I was miserable at my job. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed my time in office. But it wasn’t enough. Now this is a tricky place to be in. Till you can convince yourself and others that you are leaving a situation because you are downright miserable, you will always feel guilty leaving. To admit that, ‘well yeah, this is okay, but I want more’ is a lot harder. It isn’t a black or white premise on which one can base decisions. And for this reason, it goes against every reasonable bone in your body. I remember having multiple conversations with my parents on why I want to leave and it always came down to one thing – “if you don’t hate it, why would you leave?” I understand the logic behind the counter argument too, its safer to stick to something you know then to venture out into the unknown in the hopes that the next thing will be “enough”. I get it. And yes, there are many reasons (family obligations, financial situation and what not) that would make people stay on in situations that they would rather leave. But I didn’t have any of these constraints. I don’t have a family to support, and my parents were kind enough to agree to support me while I took time off to decide what else I wanted to do with my life. So, yes, while I did leave without a plan, I didn’t leave without a security net. And I know there are a lot of motivational speakers and books that talk about how “you only have one life” and “it is now or never”. I agree with all that, but sometimes, moderation is needed. There is actually a really good video on this exact topic by Struthless. I saw this video so, so many times before finally sending in my notice. It talks brilliantly about how ‘quitting your job to follow your passion’ needs certain caveats and may not be for everyone, and why that is ok.

Anyway, with my research in place, and with my parents agreement backing me, I did manage to hand in my notice in the May of this year (2021). I told my boss (who I like and respect a lot) that I wanted to quit. Not because I had a better job offer, or because I had graduate studies planned or anything else. I just wasn’t convinced this job or this career was ‘it’ for me, and I wanted to take some time to figure things out. For anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world, you know how flaky this sounds. But there it was. The whole truth, laid out. I neither had the energy nor the will to make up an acceptable sounding professional reason for leaving. I wanted to see what else is out there, and that is exactly what I did.

First, quitting is a lot scarier than it looks. I know that the kind of world we live in, quitting is made out to be the easier option. And yeah, sometimes it is. If you want to be a ballerina but you can’t manage to go to classes on time or put in the work required, maybe then. But I don’t think its the easier option when you are labouring away at something you don’t want because it is easier than going after something you really want. In that case, I do think quitting is the better option. All said and done, it is scary. Especially when you don’t have a back up option. The nervousness and anxiety you feel is all real. Believe me when I say I didn’t sleep for two days before handing in my notice. What if I never get a job as good as this one? What if I never figure out what I want? What if I stay unemployed? How bad will a gap on my CV look? I thought of all of this. But in the end it came down to my assessment of how much sunk cost I was willing to take. If I didn’t this now, it’s unlikely I would want it in another five years. So, why wait.

Second, it wasn’t as hopeless as I thought it would be. Inertia holds us back from doing a lot of the things we want to do. But once you do get over it, you’ll see, as I did, that the situation isn’t as bleak as you (or your boss/peers) made it out to be. If you are reasonably good at your job, and you aren’t a total pain to be around, you will always have a job if you want one.

Third, it gave me a lot of time. Not just to figure out what I want to do next in life. I hope I can do that too in some time. But apart from that, I have spent the last couple of months doing things I always wanted to do but never really had the time for. I started making art again (I’ve spoken about this before briefly). I took a couple of short courses on art history and animation. I am currently doing an online masters in fashion industry essentials from Parsons (this is a little pricy, but the credentials are solid – I’ll write about my experience with this some time in the future). I have been contemplating starting a YouTube channel – and I’ll probably get into that. I have had time to seriously consider if I want to do my masters, and spent a lot of time researching universities and courses (this has honestly been a mammoth exercise, and I would love to write more on it). I also spent the time travelling with my friends. Yes, I realise these are privileges not everyone has access to. But if you do, then do yourself a favour and take advantage of them.