Zen and the art of employee maintenance

What is the sound of one hand filing? Or, can the Buddha help the temp workers of the world?

Published December 23, 1998 7:04PM (EST)

Temping, by 10 o'clock, seems to pare itself into things. There are
files, 382958239 through 3819834576-b, plus sub-folders. There are marks
of a more permanent life, photos on the cubicle walls from the cubicle
regular, now in Cancún. There is the cubicle itself, too flimsy to be
stuffy, the much-maligned symbol of everything wrong in corporate
America. There is the half-hearted realization that the cubicle's fine;
it's just fabric and angles, after all. And for the recent college
graduate, plucked from the library to a place of envelope licking, there
is the abstract sense of something good getting left behind.

But also at 10, something happens. A thought arrives, a dogged stowaway
from the classroom looking for air. The thought is Everythought for the
recent grad -- an idea puffed up and recondite involving Heidegger and
cubicles, or Woolf and bosses, maybe the meta-narration of data entry. It
flurries in like thoughts do, all quickness and excitement, that feeling
of being alive on a bike on a hill. Connections flash like a copy
machine but, suddenly, as suddenly as it appeared, the bike vanishes
behind a startling realization: I really ought to be filing.

If temping is anything, it's structured time to think about temping.
Temps love nothing more than considering the nature of their non-career.
Me, I've even learned stats: More young people -- and more college
grads -- are punching the temp clock than ever before. Seventy-two percent of America's
temp population is under 35, and the percentage of temps with a college
degree has risen from 33 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 1997, according to a study
released in April by the National Association of Temporary and Staffing
Services. What's more, one in five temps is currently enrolled
in school. Why are recent grads so enamored of the unstable and
short-lived? They're not, a 1997 Department of Labor survey reveals: 59 percent
of all temps would prefer to have permanent, full-time work. So as a
growing number of ex-students clamor to find temp jobs they'd rather not
have, I wonder, between faxes and amid dictation, how this business
can be made more palatable.

The day slows down for a while and I'm free to wonder more. With the
rising popularity of a "blended work force" -- corporate America's cozy
term for an office temped to the gills -- the structure of contingency
work could settle itself permanently into the ex-student's life. More
and more, temp culture is spilling out of the cubicle and into the
world. And the Department of Labor's numbers aren't the only evidence of
overarching discontentment here; the proliferation of temp zines -- Temp
Slave, Urban Tempo, Temp Tales -- evinces a frustration that runs deeper
than grumbling ennui. The nation's dispensable staff, indispensable in
our new global economy, is poking around for a new way of being.

From the temp rumor mill -- we don't do memos -- comes word that some might
have found the new way of being. Zen, they say, can help us temps.
The being's in the being. I imagine the inevitable Time article, something about Zen and
the Art of Employee Maintenance, but I am also curious. Throughout
California and even America, Zen priests are taking their show on the
road and into the office. They publish books, organize corporate
retreats and lead workshops at such high-stress venues as Mountain View (Calif.)
City Hall and Apple Computers. Zen is offering the possibility of
being in even the most tedious moments.

It's noon now and I'd rather be being. I get into research mode and
make some long-distance calls on the company dime -- if I'm going to work
for the man now and then, the least I can do is run up his phone bill.
For the next half hour, abbots, sitters and meditation center
receptionists spread the good word to me. They anticipate my little
skepticisms. If the politicians and geeks of City Hall and Apple seem
unlikely candidates for enlightenment, I'm told, think again. Zen, in
its various incarnations, makes room for everyone everywhere. Even
temps? I ask, glazing over the now-familiar photos tacked in front of
me: a dog, a man on a beach, two women laughing in cocktail dresses.
Even temps, they say.

Someone hands me a memo now. Five hundred copies, she says, lightly, and
I take a break from daydreaming. Five hundred. I wonder about my sense
of scale; is this job unhealthy? The copy machine jams, of course, and
my question is forgotten. I straighten a tray, extract some chewed
paper, restart the job, add paper when it runs out, watch it finish.
Where is the Zen?

Back at my desk, I learn it's all over cyberspace. I shuffle around the
Internet. Most of a temp's work amounts to shuffling around anyway. I
learn that Gerry Shishin Wick Sensei, director of software development
at Merriam-Webster, wants me to change. In his essay "Zen in the
Workplace: Approaches to Mindful Management," Shishin Sensei urges
members of the work force to "see everybody as the Buddha," "hear
everything as the dharma" and "reveal every place as nirvana." I sort
of look and listen for a moment, then distribute faxes until 1:30.

By 2, a hasty lonely temp lunch over and forgotten, I'm filing again.
Numerical ordering leaves little brain space for thought. I no longer
wonder whether they do this on purpose; considering corporate conspiracy
is only one degree less boring than temping itself. Where is the Zen? I
ask, then remember I already asked that.

I talk to other temps now and then. We compare notes, anecdotes and on
our poorer days, salaries. These conversations have the grade school
feel of something illicit: What did you get for No. 3 on the social studies quiz? The temp
agencies don't encourage our fraternizing and do their best to maintain
a team of strangers. When we do talk, it's easy to see the ideas they
don't want us getting. We are a people in need of a revolution, or at
least some good old-fashioned Eastern philosophy.

"The advantage of temping is that nothing matters," former temp and
recent graduate Jessi Klein says. "The disadvantage: the unshakable
malaise that results from weeks of thinking that nothing matters."

"It's hard to get out of the school mentality of being the one who
creates, who designs. You're demoted into this position where you have
no responsibility," says Jed Livingston, who temped in London after
graduating. "In your most arrogant moments, you may feel like you're the
smartest person there, but in other moments, you realize that this is a
completely different kind of thinking than you're used to, and you
deserve to be where you are."

If graduation inaugurates a kind of paradigm shift, temping condenses
this shift into a tidy, mind-numbing event: I'm not in school, I'm in
life, and I am my typing speed. Once the cultivated plunder of a good
liberal arts education, the headful of thoughts suddenly becomes a
hindrance in the copy room. Ideas, exiled from the intellectual sympathy
of the classroom, assume the ridiculous and naive air of luxury. They
are the blond who packed heels instead of sensible walking shoes. They
put 8,329,835 before 7,932,862.

From Shishin Sensei, we uncentered temps just might take a memo. I don't
know if I'm shooting for enlightenment or just some temporary grounding,
but I could stand to resolve -- or transcend -- that inner tension that
seems to flex with every cup of coffee fetched. And the intersection of
Buddhism and temping may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In many
ways, something like Zen is already structured into the temp lifestyle.

"I always felt like it was a desirable state of nothingness, my brain
congealed like a jello mold," former temp Amy Standen says. "Temping is
something you just show up for: I'd leave a temp job exactly the same
as I started, as if the last eight hours had been spent in a coma."

"When you start thinking about how you can possibly go on typing, you
distract yourself from that thought by typing a little more," Livingston
says. "There were moments when I was in some sort of mindless state -- a
half hour would pass by and I wouldn't feel like a person, more like a

But Zen, of course, is not about congealed brains and machinery. It's a
way of cultivating an awareness of reality, my informants tell me, a
harmony. They are quick to correct the grinning idiot myth. Did college
cultivate an awareness of reality? I wonder. It cultivated something.
But those critical faculties honed over four years can end up too sharp
for temp success. Harmony for the temp requires a sublime dulling of
certain senses that college only refined. The happy worker, after all,
doesn't cut through to the subtexts of a phone message, the double
meanings within a shipping invoice. In fact, Zen suggests, the happiest
temp, well, just temps.

With Zen I am to ask, "What is in front me," to acknowledge only the
present. I look at the permanent employees around me, and the permanent
photos tacked in front of me. These people don't seem to be calling Zen
priests. They seem content, or content in their discontent, or some
other nuanced way of being, but they aren't complaining. Maybe temps are

By 4:30 I'm winding down (ha!) and lining up tomorrow's assignment. A
two-week position at an investment house falls through, but I get
something for a day at an ad agency. Do you mind working uptown? Jenny
from my agency asks. She's perky. I'll work anywhere, I say. Terrific,
she chirps. Now tell me your name one more time and we'll be all set.

I call a couple more agencies in the remaining minutes of the workday. I
want to hear them talk about temping. They are places I've worked,
places for whom I've logged hundreds of hours, but to them I am a
stranger with strange questions. They answer like talk-show hosts, like
cheerful robots. They cannot fathom a dissatisfied temp.

"It's just a great way for recent grads to gain exposure to certain
industries," says Laurie Palau, staffing consultant at Advantage
Staffing in Manhattan. "We're not looking to make people slaves."

A staffing consultant from Best Temporaries in Washington, D.C., who
wished to remain anonymous, speaks of students-turned-temps with
equal confidence. "They're definitely pretty satisfied, I'd say ... They
stay with us for at least a few months, usually."

I pack up at 5, shove some pens in my coat pocket and take one last
look around. My exit will go unnoticed, much like my presence over the
course of the day. That's OK, I decide. What matters is what's in
front of me. In front of me are the dog, and the man on the beach, and
the two women in cocktail dresses, all of them sort of winking at me.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

MORE FROM Chris Colin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College