I had a hard time understanding work when I was a kid. Not the semantic meaning of the word, but what people actually did when they were “at work.” My father has been a pharmacologist for over twenty-five years, but he didn’t tell me his title until I needed to enter his occupation for college applications. Until then, all I knew was that he worked at a drug company. I jokingly wondered if that meant he was a drug dealer, but knew he was too nerdy and goofy for it to be true. Whatever he did, he seemed to have a lot of free time. He liked looking up NBA statistics and potential universities for me to attend. Since the office was less than twenty minutes away, he frequently came home for lunch and a nap. My one memory of Take Your Daughter to Work Day consisted of a hazy image of a dry-ice freezer and little else.
The jobs I understood reasonably well were doctor, dentist, teacher, firefighter, musician, actor, athlete, chef, and taxi driver. My mother said I was too squeamish around blood to be a doctor, though I didn’t consider myself so. Musical employment was too capricious and therefore out of the question. Instead, her dream was for me to be a lawyer. I didn’t feel particularly enthused about this because I didn’t know what it entailed on a day-to-day basis, and she couldn’t say, either. So I went through high school and even college trying to get through classes just for the sake of getting through them, with no end goal or career trajectory. The concept of life after school confused and terrified me.
Unsurprisingly, then, my first job out of college was at Starbucks. For a year, I wrote orders on cups; “hand-crafted” lattes and Frappuccinos; and plastered on a smile in the face of complaints, insults, and demands for free stuff. I heard one could make a good salary after a few years of climbing the store ranks or transferring to corporate, and wondered dully if this was going to be it for the rest of my life. One supervisor who was a couple years my senior had already been with the ‘Bux for six years, supporting her disabled mother and sister on this income. A middle-aged woman joined the team when she lost her office job and the recession made it too difficult to find a similar replacement. Another barista had worked there for three years, quit to pursue a dream, and returned a few years later when it didn’t work out.
These people were hardworking, bright, hilarious, passionate, and team-oriented. Their struggles, and those of other colleagues, inspired yet frightened me. After an insular, middle-class upbringing and expensive liberal arts college education, this was my first time really getting to know folks like this. We were all in this together, dealing with this job that was far from ideal. We just didn’t know how else to pay the bills, get affordable health insurance, and make it to the next month. Survival had never felt so overwhelming. It was eye-opening, to say the least. And though it was embarrassing to have my own naiveté smack me upside the head, I was extremely grateful for the experience.
I got a massive break when one of my closest friends gave me a life-changing opportunity that set me on a career path I could actually feel excited about. For the first time, I felt a drive to succeed for my own sake, not for the amusement of besting others. I had tangible goals and felt capable of contributing something real to a business. I finally felt worthy of ambition. With this job, I was busy, productive, no longer on my feet all day, and making an annual salary that would have taken multiple barista years combined to match. For this, I will always be grateful to my friend.
The thing about ambition, though, is a tendency to feed on itself. The more I learned and achieved, the more I knew I still had much to learn and achieve. Once adrift at sea with no concept of what land looked like, I soon not only found it, but wanted to leave my personal flag on it and even reshape it. I started experiencing brief spells of discontent, doubt, and obligation regarding my career path every few months. I wondered if this was truly the best application of my talents, if I was truly helping anyone. The scope of responsibilities and accomplishments felt trivial. My employee presence was merely a cog in a colossal machine, a voice shouted into an abyss. The money was never enough. I should have been an engineer. I should have been a doctor.
Two weeks ago, I attended a Meetup about colonization of digital spaces and structures, hosted by the group Ethical Tech. The panelists led a fascinating discussion about a broad span of topics, and it was one of the best Meetups I’ve attended to date. The gist was that modern technology has been trending white, male, and English-speaking. How many of the rest of us feel empowered and helpful in the industry? How does this affect potential development, innovation, and contributions from others? How does this distort other cultures and worldviews? What can we do about it? Does it really matter? As I walked to Penn Station after the session, my head swam with insights, reflections—and renewed guilt over the nature of my full-time job.
When did you become such a capitalist drone? admonished my inner social justice warrior. All you’re doing is helping big corporations save some money so they can get even bigger.
It doesn’t have to be such a bad thing to enjoy this kind of position, another side retorted. People should contribute to the betterment of society however they can. We’re not all cut out to be protesters and rioters. Right now, your job gives you free time to push social messaging through your writing. You’re gaining experience, influence, and wealth to use someday to effect more powerful change.
Not like those social justice groups have been offering to hire you, anyway, a drier voice remarked.
The existential unease has been harder to shake this time. I guess what it comes down to is: do you work to live, or live to work? I’ve grown to prefer the latter, so it pains me to feel my work isn’t meaningful. One of my patriarchy-smashing, anti-capitalist friends from college would say, “You are not your work. Productivity does not equate to happiness.” Oh, but it does—at least for me. It’s wild, how much of a role jobs can play in people’s self-esteem, happiness, relationships, life goals, and more. When I think back to my aimless days, I’m surprised and pleased by how much I’ve changed. Yet there are still days when I feel aimless in a different way. All I want to do is change the world, you know?