Thursday, November 10, 2005

I Don't Wait Tables Anymore

Ten years ago this year, I started something that can’t end soon enough. It’s something that most people I know do, and the few who say they enjoy it are under suspicion of lying like dogs. I would say I’m indifferent about it, but the better word is ambivalent. There are moments I like it, because I always enjoy a feeling of accomplishment. Most moments, however, it gives me a hollow feeling.

I’m writing, of course, about working in an office job, the sole purpose of which is to help make somebody richer. If you do not do it and never have, then I hope that you are working as a stay-at-home parent, or enjoying fresh air somewhere while you earn a living. I’ve held other kinds of jobs, and I can think of nothing that compares to being stuck at a desk, staring like a drone at a computer screen, typing and clicking in random rhythms in an effort to please the company. I didn’t say nothing worse; I said nothing comparable. The occasional meeting breaks me out of the familiar, but breeds an ennui all its own. Although the company I work for is one of the best, it still has all the trappings of the corporate world and its bureaucracy.

Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t work itself that I dislike. When my efforts result in some sort of positive achievement, I feel satisfied. That last part is where the rub lies. Positive in relation to what? Teaching the starved to grow crops? Thriving on hostile takeovers?

Here’s where I assure you I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal. I love my electronic gadgets and am in other ways just as materialistic as most people I meet. And, although I do drive a rental-blue Ford Contour with 150,000 miles on it, it is not by choice.

Put simply, I would like my motivation at work to be something more than money. Whether it be expressing myself artistically or helping others, I know that I have more to give than a small bump in the bottom line. If increasing the company’s profits or trading personal or family time for a higher salary is what makes someone happy, then I cannot judge that. It just doesn’t fulfill me. There are some very close to me who I’m sure cannot understand that, and that’s fine.

That said, I know that there is more to a career than just supporting oneself while of working age. There’s preparing for retirement, in which I do not want to be a financial burden to anyone. I also know that there are other ways to make a difference, and I take part in some of those.

I am not the only one who wants something more intrinsically rewarding on the job. One long-time friend earned an art degree, and briefly struggled before becoming a computer helpdesk technician. Now he’s in an architecure program. More than 10 years after graduating college, perhaps finally he will be able to create for a living. Someone else, whom I met recently, would love to be an anthropologist or a writer, but like me is in the computer industry. Another close friend from decades back pursued his dream right from the start, and is in a well-paying recording studio job I often fantasize that I could do well and enjoy. The only catch? He lived with his mother until his late 20’s. Everybody’s situation is unique, but I’m fairly certain neither of my parents would have accommodated me. They gave me everything I needed and more in my childhood.

Certainly, there are hobbies, but time for them has dwindled greatly since my wife and I started a family. That last thing, by the way, is the best thing I’ve ever done. Being a father is more rewarding than a wordsmith of my meager talent could hope to convey.

I’m sure that part of my professional discontent stems from my lack of friendships at work. The first man I tried to make friends with spent exactly 3.2 minutes on pleasantries, then launched into gossip about various men in our company. I don’t care to know who cheats on his wife. That’s one part of my childhood innocence I think there’s no harm keeping. Once his usual lunch crowd arrived, they all absently ingested their pack lunches, and then passed out photocopies of that day’s New York Times Crossword. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” one of the ladies said. I can think of more enjoyable ways of keeping my mind tuned up than gang-tackling a crossword puzzle. Other available personalities obsess over sports, dating, cars, hunting, and other things that hold little to no interest for me.

There are two people with whom I can hold a mutually interesting conversation.

One is a very cool 50-year-old man who likes much of the same music I like. His sense of humor is similar to mine. He would be the perfect office buddy, except that his job description includes the pesky detail of being my boss. In one regard, I’m more fortunate than many -- he’s arguably the best boss I’ve had, and I can’t count them all on my fingers.

The other “guy” I buddy up with at work happens to be a woman. Though I suspected it within .05 seconds of meeting her, she and I did not breach that most personal aspect of her lifestyle until I was three months into the job. She is one of the nicest people I know, and if she harbors any of the stereotypical ill-will toward men in general, then she hides it well.

I have friends outside work, so making them at the office is not a priority for me. I suspect that as choosy as I am, having a different type of job would make little difference. When I start thinking like that, however, I remember the proven adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Never building bridges is just as harmful to a career as burning them.

I keep coming back to that deeper meaning, that meaningful individuality -- the desire to have a job that yields different results depending who does it. Data does not care who manipulates it. It all comes out as bits. The company will go on and my presence or absence will be transparent to the customer. On some level, I know that I also have a somewhat selfish need to be noticed.

I’m not sure how to make a change, but I know that I don’t need to do it right now. We need some stability for a while.

Each time my son names out loud a fire engine or a firefighter, he says, “help people.”

I like that he knows that, and I hope that if he doesn’t now, he will grow to understand just what it means. I smile and reply, “Yes, that’s right. They help people.”


Simon said...

THAT hit home on so many levels, Mark.

Nice. Just... nice. I wish for all that as well. From my desk in front of my computer.

Jim said...

Although the company I work for is one of the best ...

Very prudent ... you never know who is reading your blog!

Put simply, I would like my motivation at work to be something more than money.

Ah, yes indeed!

Someone else, whom I met recently, would love to be an anthropologist or a writer, but like me is in the computer industry.

Hmmm... sounds like someone I know.

I’m not sure how to make a change, but I know that I don’t need to do it right now.

This year I reached the point that I DO need to do it right now ... I'm still in baby steps, but change is underway. Wish me luck!

Jim said...

Simon said:

THAT hit home on so many levels, Mark.

Nice. Just... nice.


Mark said...


I'm sure it speaks to lots of folks out there, but I'm also sure that few of them will speak up.

Mark said...


Of course I would never slam my company online. Just not smart. And, in this case, not warranted. There I go again.

Keep me updated on how your efforts go. Wait! I'll just keep reading your blog.

an old fart said...

"The grass is alwas geener....." Nobody's ever where they want to be at that particular time. "If only I had ....." But life, jobs, relationships, friends, associates, etc. are what YOU make of them, not a corporation, a boss, an associate, or a loved one. If you do the best possible job of whatever you do, better than anyone else, you'll still get f*cked. But YOU will know you did your best, and in the end, that's what's important. So go feed the hungry, heal the sick, write a book, or make a profit. Do it well.