The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.
I’ve been thinking about work a lot lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what kind of work I’m meant to do.
Our recent relocation from Mississippi to central Texas is truly a new chapter in my life. I’ve left behind the city where I grew up, where I met, married, and marked ten years of life with my husband. I’ve also arrived in my new home without a job, my only real plan to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
This isn’t exactly like me. I’m a planner, an organizer, a list–maker. I thrive in order and structure and under a healthy dose of pressure. In fact, given a hefty to–do list and a clear deadline, I can move metaphorical mountains.
The best evidence of the above claim? Graduate school. Beyond question the most difficult thing I’ve ever taken on. I had more to do in less time than I’d encountered before or since, and my years as a graduate student stand out in memory as the most ordered, efficient, and effective period of my life. I’d think twice before doing it again, but I can’t deny that I was at my type–A, organizing, list–making zenith.
The pace and load of it all offered what Tom Hanks’s character in You’ve Got Mail referred to as “a defining sense of self.” True, he was talking about the existential nature of a coffee order, but the concept holds true.
Our work and the 8–5 job titles that accompany it carries that same existential quality Joe Fox pointed out. Our jobs tend to be a primary way in which we define ourselves both to self and to others and for both good and ill. Think about the last time you made a new acquaintance: after exchanging names, what was your first question? I’d lay odds it was something along the lines of “So, what do you do [for a living]?”
What I’ve been contemplating in the absence of this ready self–definition is the intersection between work and a job. Work as something more than an 8–5; rather, as a calling or vocation. When I joke with friends and family that the move to Texas is my chance to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, I’m joking–not joking. I’m talking about some serious soul–searching around the work that want to define me.
There’s a great TED video touching on this issue, actually part of their Best of the Web series, delivered by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. The show aired on Discovery Channel from 2005–2012 and constitutes reality television at its best, following Rowe in unedited real time as he performs various dirty and dangerous jobs ranging from worm dung farmer to roadkill cleaner. Rowe’s talk, entitled “Learning from Dirty Jobs,” steps back to reflect on one particularly dirty task and the existential lessons he gleaned from it.
If you haven’t seen this video, check it out here. It’s well worth the twenty minute viewing time. In it, Rowe addresses a primary lesson of his experiences on Dirty Jobs––there’s a lot he’s gotten wrong. Given the show’s commitment to documenting each job in situ and unedited, Rowe himself has had to acknowledge and confront personal presuppositions about the nature of certain jobs at hand especially when those presuppositions have threatened to derail the prime directive.
Rowe recounts his tale with humor and self–deprecation and in the process embarks on an intriguing exploration of the Aristotelian notions of anagnorisis and peripeteia as they pertain to the dirty job of sheep farming. He proceeds to unpack one of those pesky presuppositions and underneath discovers myriad “other notions of work that I’ve just been assuming are sacrosanct.” His anagnorisis? They are not.
Following behind this realization is a moment of peripeteia, a reversal of perspective as Rowe declares that as a society we have declared war on work. The costly casualty of this war are “lots and lots of jobs” we marginalize as a result of a societal presupposition that dirty work is undesirable work.
I definitely grew up with the implicit understanding that there were jobs I should want more than others. There were lots of reasons why I should want them more––more money, more benefits, more status and privilege. Or as Mike Rowe bluntly suggests because these better jobs hold out the real or imagined promise of less work.
What if my life isn’t necessarily better because I work less or not so hard? If I get home earlier or retire sooner? What if the really satisfying work I’m meant to do offers none of these so–called perks? What if it’s dirty and difficult and poorly paid and offers little status or privilege? What if I find that, doing this work, I’m happier and experience more real moments of joy and self–understanding that I’d imagined possible?
In essence, what if I never find a job title that defines me? What if I need to be looking for something else altogether?
I’ve spent the last two years of my life in food service. It has difficult work, often dirty and frequently a ton of fun. Although it paid rather well, it also definitely represents one of those jobs Mike Rowe talked about. One of the marginalized jobs that are a casualty of our war on work.
I mean no disrespect to my former coworkers or to anyone else who provides for themselves and their families working in this industry. I’ve personally known servers, busboys, line cooks, and dishwashers with stronger work ethics and better attitudes than many others I’ve known in cushy positions that earned ten times the money.
Still, when did you last hear a parent celebrate a child’s desire to be a waitress when she grew up? Come to think of that, how likely are we as a society to consider waitress or dishwasher as part of the line up of job titles any child should consider? These titles just don’t resonate with typical responses to the question what do you want to be when you grow up? To what extent do we condition ourselves neither to expect nor to accept them?
I have a friend and former coworker who greets every table by introducing herself and asking How are you today? Customers typically reply with Fine and How are you? To which she atypically responds So good I can’t stand it.
I want work that makes me feel so good I can’t stand it however dirty or undesirable that work may seem. I don’t require it to be either dirty or socially undesirable, but I’m open to anything that gets me out of the bed each morning excited about the day and ready to pour myself into the task at hand.
I’m a doer and a planner and a list–maker. Type–A to the core. That’s how I go about work, and I’ve always known that there are lots of people like me out there. To my fellow type–As, I raise a salute! What I’m just beginning to realize (here comes the anagnorisis) is that my sweet little organizing, list–making soul may not find bliss inside the neatly prescribed box of work I should want.
The whole world of beautiful, messy, real work lies before me. At this point, I have no idea where in it I’ll end up, and for now I’m embracing the uncertainty. Embracing, too, the dream of some unimaginable opportunity beyond its pale. Who knows but there’s some moment of soul–defining peripeteia in store.