I'm anxious and insecure and paranoid and bored -- but it's such a great job!
(Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)
Two reasons I’m writing to you specifically: a) you’re an advice columnist, and b) I have a feeling you might have dealt with exactly what I’m going to ask.
I’ve just got a new job. It’s an office job, but it’s for an interesting company, it’s young, it’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s even fairly moral(ish). As far as corporates go, it’s pretty right-on, if you know what I mean.
It’s my first job since I went traveling a while back, and herein lies the problem. I don’t like work. I never have. There are three brief parts to this.
First: It might be partly because I’m lazy, and almost certainly because I’m immature, but it’s something about turning up to work every day and being expected to do the same set of actions, have the same attitude and belief systems, have lunch with the same people. It seems crazy to me. I know this is hardly unique to me.
The second part is that I hate business-speak. Even light references to competition, beating out the other players, maximizing profits, make me feel awful. Don’t they realize they’re talking about putting other people out of jobs? Don’t they realize that all we’re doing is taking people’s money for things they probably could live without? I cringe every time someone whoops about getting bigger numbers than the other guy down the street.
The third and final part is this: For some reason there’s nothing like a business environment to bring out all my insecurities. I constantly worry that I’m doing OK. I constantly assume that every meeting by every superior is in regards to how disappointed they are in the new guy. Every time I look over at a conversation between two people, and one person’s eyes flick over to me … I have to spend minutes trying to calm myself down, reeducating myself on failure schemas, social anxiety schemas. It seems like modern office jobs, particularly those involved in the communication of information rather than the construction of goods, are impossible to self-gauge your performance in. You might be making one manager happy, but the guy above him may hate you!
At the moment I’m involved in a project that is just under-resourced, everyone seems to know it is, and yet I can’t help but feel that they’re still disappointed — or angry — that I’m not able to do better. Maybe I should be staying later? Maybe I should be less honest about how difficult the current situation is when they ask? I feel guilty and inadequate all the time, even when I’m doing my best. In my last job, it lasted the entire time I was there, so I know it’s not a new job thing.
Now, if I may, I’d like to cast free from the idea that I seek other work, or make do with a more nomadic, freelance lifestyles: I’ve tried these, they don’t work. I’m in my 30s and the idea that a perfect career will happen upon me has been shelved for reality: I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work, I just need to figure out how. My current job is good, I was lucky to get it, it’s in a field I like, it has a good coffee machine, I like having a paycheck every month, people “oooh” when I tell them who I work for. If I quit this one, I can promise you I’ll just quit the next and the one after.
I know, Cary, that you’ve worked office jobs in the past, and found them less than fitting in all ways. What I’m asking then, is this: how do I reframe my thinking to a) be OK with routine, b) be OK with corporate ideologies, and c) how do I get over the constant, nauseating feeling that I’m not doing well, that I’m screwing up, that everyone secretly wishes I wasn’t there?
And does anyone else ever feel this way? Any clues? Thank you, Cary.
Employed But Uneasy
Dear Employed But Uneasy,
Yes, other people do ever feel this way! And they find a way to keep sucking it up and doing the job day after day. But why? I suppose there are good suggestions about how to make your days bearable, and I guess you really want this job and it is a good job, but frankly, as one human to another, I don’t want to tell you to just suck it up, work hard and be a part of the company. I want you to find what you are looking for.
This is alienated work and alienated work sucks. That’s no mystery. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are just in the wrong job. Until you somehow find the work you were destined to do, no amount of status is going to erase your nagging insecurity. You feel like you don’t belong there because you don’t belong there.
That’s not to say you can’t do the job. Of course you can do the job. But life is short. Every year is a year of your life. You can do it. We humans can put up with just about anything, from boring jobs to torture cages. But should you? Why? Unless not doing this job is going to cause the death of a child or put you in starvation, I think you should plan to keep looking into your soul for what you are really driven to do. Sure, keep working and save some money. But don’t pretend that there is some magical way you’re just going to “adjust.” The reason you’re not comfortable is that this is not the right job. It never will be.
I know what you are saying about the difficulties of drifting from job to job, how the insecurity of not having a paycheck or a place to live can paralyze you and make you literally sick with worry. Yet I know that there is some greater truth in your discomfort. There is something else you really belong doing and it is your larger purpose to find that thing. You may have to do more wandering. Maybe not now, but when you have had your fill. Save some money. Tough it out for a year, save your money and then leave and wander some more.
I mean, you are a citizen of the world and the world is hiding your prize somewhere in its skirts, but not at this job.
Welcome to the reason people start revolutions.
Welcome to the reason people used to grow their hair long and get in vans and drive to California not having a job or a religion or even any relatives to stay with. Welcome to the reason that every day in America someone somewhere gets up from his desk and walks out and gets drunk and calls in and says he’s had an emergency and can’t come back to work that day. Welcome to the reason that every day someone looks for a job in the arts or becomes a police sergeant or a lifeguard or a taxi driver because our technology has allowed us to create these penal colonies of cubicles where spirits rot and emotions die and penises sit limp in the pants of avid young men and women’s breasts fall and their tight asses go saggy and their makeup runs and their bodies grow encased in useless fat from sedentary disuse and anxious eating and blood-sugar highs. Welcome to the reason that Prozac has become the new sacramental wafer. Welcome to the reason that so many of us are wandering around looking for a new car.
You know this. I know. You have wandered. You want to settle down. But I don’t think you’re truly ready to settle down yet. If you were, you’d know it. So your discomfort speaks to me. I’m sorry if you just want to be shown how to fit in. If you stick around you will sort of fit in a little bit. But I don’t want to see you just fit in. I want to see you find your destiny. That’s not crazy talk. It’s very real, down-to-earth talk. It’s just that your destiny may not be some world-shattering discovery. Your destiny may be something quiet and true, but you will know it. It won’t make you insecure. It will come with a kind of “aha” feeling, and a sigh of contentment.
Meanwhile, your story gets my ire up: What are we doing in this country about building a culture? What are we doing about building the kind of cities and towns where children can look around and say, Daddy, I want to do that! If the choice is to be Derek Jeter or a telemarketer, one will choose to be Derek Jeter — broken ankle or no — but there is only one spot for Derek Jeter and he’s already in that spot. So what is left are these prairies of desolation where human heads are fastened to glowing screens by stroke-counting software and surveillance is the norm, where phone calls are recorded and video cameras watch over the workers as though they were cattle in pens, where you wonder when every now and then one worker is singled out and culled from the herd, you wonder what they did with her until you see her installed in the marketing department with a new title and an Audi.
Why do we live this way? Do we have no choices? Is making a living the most important thing in life? Why don’t more of us just give up and sit in the street? Is it any wonder that to many, many of us, it recently made more sense to encamp outdoors and call ourselves a movement than it did to continue to work day after day in these apparently clean and comfortable environs?
Clean and comfortable? What is clean and comfortable to the questing soul? What is clean and comfortable to the spirit that needs adversity and difficulty and triumph, that needs the sun and wind and the hard muscling work of ranches and the digging of meadows, that needs to be in the body, working under a car or hailing a cab or making cheese? What does it mean to be clean and comfortable if you are dead in the spirit?
It takes a lot of courage to have no program and no plan for economic security and to trust your heart, to know that you might not have all the answers but that this shit is just wrong and go outside and sit in a tent near Wall Street or in front of the Federal Reserve Building for months at a time, to not know the answer but just to know that the answers given are not sufficient and to have enough faith in humanity, in our innate sense of need and desire and truth, to just say, Man, this is not it. This is not what I need. It takes a lot of courage or maybe you could call it cowardice, sometimes they look like the same thing, depending on whether you’re walking toward something or away from something, so I think the essential thing is just to be walking, and it takes courage to get up and walk.
But sometimes you just have to walk out. You just have to say I don’t know what it is but this is not for me.
And walk out.
And maybe you spend a lifetime leaving this and leaving this looking for the one place where you feel at home. And maybe after a lifetime of leaving you say, well, you were a little irresponsible gutter punk is what you were. And yet I had wisdom! I had the wisdom of the stars! I had the wisdom of the poets and of Jesus and Mohammed, who never would have sat in a cubicle selling time shares in Waikiki, who would have gathered in the lobby and said enough is enough, my spirit says to go now so I’m going.
So, listen, my man (or woman?!), you have articulated the angst and terror of our age and I just want to say it is real, and there really is something wrong with our culture and the way we live, and nobody has to live this way. My mother, bless her heart, said she had had enough and just packed up and bought some land way up off the road and lived up there in blessed quiet and solitude for 25 years. You don’t have to just do what they say. You can be a punk and move to San Francisco and get a mangy dog and live on the streets until you figure it out. You can go down to any marina and hang around until somebody will take you on as crew and you can sail around looking for your reflection in the water, waiting for the moon or the fish to speak to you and tell you what’s your next step.
You don’t have to do this. So keep being discontent and keep trying to figure it out. Take your own discomfort seriously. Don’t just stuff it down. You’re uncomfortable there because you really don’t belong. You are going to have to get out of there eventually.
Go somewhere where you meet people who seem just a little crazier or just a little less crazy than you and make friends with them and follow them around for a while. Maybe they’ll be following a band like people used to follow the Dead, or maybe they will have some magical way of making money by selling people dreams.
Go deep into your heart and ask what you want. Follow the waking dream that is your active consciousness.
Who you are is what is going on in your head from moment to moment, and what is underneath that, and underneath that, and underneath that. Follow that. Narrate it as it speaks to you. Speak into a tape recorder what is going on in your head from moment to moment. That is who you are. Be like one of the ancient saints. Listen for the voice that tells you where to go and just pack up and go there. Your life might end up as a ragged mess but it will be a beautiful mess. My travels often ended me up as a ragged mess, but it was where I had to go and I am glad I did not stay home counting my vacation hours on my time sheet, waiting for my 401K to vest, hoping for a good golf game.