Do We Ask Too Much From Work?
The best job I ever had may have been the first job I ever had. I was sixteen, and a friend invited me to apply to work where he worked, at a small grocery store in a small town. His uncle owned the store. If I applied, I’d get it. I did (and I did).
What made that job great? For one thing, it existed in the protected bubble of my teens. The stakes were low. My parents still provided my food and shelter and health insurance. So there was none of the desperation or fear that often attaches itself to work later on. Besides, I was on my way to my future! This job was for a short time, then, off to college. So I never felt trapped or limited or stifled.
But forget all that for a minute: The job itself had some things going for it.
First, it was work that needed doing. I stocked shelves. I carried out groceries to customers’ cars. I crushed cardboard boxes. I played air guitar in the back room with the other young employees. I mopped and oiled the wooden floors at the end of the day. It was satisfying work, and not physically demanding (especially at sixteen). I always had clarity on what needed doing, and what “done” looked like. There was always plenty to do, but never the crushing burden of too much.
Then there was the money. Three dollars and thirty-five cents per hour. Every hour!
But the best thing about that job? The people I worked with — 15–20 employees, many of us part-time, and varying ages too: Adults, young adults (all of whom seemed old to me) and just a few of us high-schoolers. We did our jobs (for the most part) and we enjoyed each other’s company.
I realize now how rare that is, and how good we had it.
The crucial part of any good job is the people. If you can be yourself, if you can joke around without worrying too much about offending someone, if you feel that your co-workers are in this thing together with you, and that you aren’t in a cutthroat battle for survival against one another, then you have the most essential ingredient of a good job.
I began to learn that on my second job. It was much less satisfying.
I went away to the University of Akron, and was assigned a work-study job in the periodicals section of Bierce Library. (Years later, when I heard of the great writer Ambrose Bierce — now one of my favorites — I assumed the library must be named after him. It wasn’t).
Bierce had a massive collection of periodicals which, in those days, were bound into hardbacks and kept on the stacks for years. Periodicals on science, engineering, philosophy, and literature as well as popular magazines like Time and Rolling Stone — these occupied thousands of lineal feet.
And how did all of those periodicals, which arrived monthly or quarterly, and in paperback, get bound into hardback volumes? That’s where I came in. I worked in a basement room preparing all four editions of, let’s say, last year’s Quarterly Journal of the Society of Astrophysicists to be shipped off to the Heckman Bindery in Indiana, where they would be turned into, perhaps, Volume 38 for the year 1981, and then returned to sit on our stacks, maybe to be consulted now and then by students looking for a good out-of-context and probably misunderstood quote for a term paper.
I actually have no recollection of what exactly I did to prepare these journals for shipping. I just remember that it was tedious and dull, and I worked alone in an unappealing warehouse-like room. And it was too hot.
The money was the same as I made at the grocery store. And in both places, the work was worthwhile, even if the library job was a few steps removed from meeting basic human needs, compared to putting food on shelves. Yet it’s no mystery why this second job was less satisfying. The surroundings were unattractive. The work was boring. But the main thing is that I was alone. At eighteen, who wants to work alone? Though I have always enjoyed solitude, it’s a fact that dreary or tedious jobs become less so when you do them with others. How much better, I often lamented, to work at the library front desk where I might flirt with girls or joke with my buddies! And did I mention that it was too darn hot?
We are trained these days to expect a lot from work. Ideally, we’d all be making a difference at work, tapping our inner creativity every day, occasionally changing lives, and making good money. I’m not against any of that. I eventually had a job that I thought would be world-changing in a good way. That’s another story, but suffice it to say that for all its benefits, it was missing many of the simple joys of working at the grocery store.
Sometimes it’s enough just to do work that needs to be done. All the better if you can do it with people you like. And finding people I like at work becomes more probable when I take ownership of my own power to be a better person myself, and to cultivate interest in the people who are in this job and in this life with me.
About halfway through the school year, the periodicals department lost some funding, and I got moved out of the back room and onto library floor, tasked with picking up periodicals from all the floors of the library and returning them to their home in the basement stacks. I got to interact with other students too. And I had co-workers.
It was still rather dull. And too hot. But I couldn’t have been happier.