In Praise of Jobs

I recently had a long exchange with a reader who felt that I was giving poor advice when suggesting that people start a side business or find ways to become self-employed, whether part time or full time, by following up on something they’re passionate about. Her argument was that such a perspective was self-entitled and incredibly selfish, because it convinced people that they didn’t really have to do the hard and un-fun work that many jobs entail.

Here’s the reality of the situation: there is no work out there that will allow you to do nothing but what you enjoy doing. At some point, you’re going to end up doing things that are un-fun. You’re going to have to do paperwork or negotiate a contract or interact with someone you don’t like. You’re going to have to accept unfair criticism or deal with technical problems or handle drudgery. Unless you are incredibly rich and have people that buffer you from these things, there is no job that is free from drudgery.

From my perspective, it’s really the drudgery that we get paid for. In my eyes, I do not get paid to write. I earn my income from other things that fill my time: handling technical issues, negotiating contracts, and so on. I don’t like these things, but I recognize that without the drudgery, I would not earn enough money to live on.

My definition of a job, then, is earning as much as you can for every hour of drudgery that you put in.

Notice I didn’t say hour of work or hour in the factory or hour at the office. I’m talking about an hour of drudgery. That’s the real distinction.

I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve worked in a factory setting. I spent many, many hours in a workroom doing such enjoyable tasks as sifting tons of dirt through a manual sifter, looking for specific items in the dirt. I earned about minimum wage for this work.

While the work involved doing some things I didn’t like, there were other things I didn’t mind at all. The vast majority of the time was spent just running a manual sifter, which required no active thought at all. What I often did is think about something that was on my mind and get the kinks of whatever problem was worrying me out of my head. It wasn’t drudgery.

The part that was drudgery was evaluating all of the pieces that came out of the sifter, refilling the sifting chute, labeling interesting items I found, and other such tasks. They took up perhaps a third of my time there and it was boring work. I had to focus on that task at hand, but it didn’t excite me or interest me in any way. I couldn’t let my mind wander, either.

In my eyes, that’s what I was really paid for. I wasn’t paid for the time where I got to reflect on my life while running a manual sifter. I actually somewhat enjoyed that part, though I would have probably enjoyed it more spread out in the grass somewhere. I was paid for the drudgery of the job.

I’ve also worked in an office environment. I loved the camaraderie with my fantastic coworkers. I loved the times when the work was intellectually engaging. Those times were enjoyable for me.

The drudgery was sitting in a hotel room desperately wishing I was with my children instead. The drudgery was the paperwork, which often felt endless. The drudgery was the maintenance work on projects I’d already deployed. In my eyes, my pay was for those things, not for the time hanging out with coworkers or working on interesting projects.

Woman factory worker files a machine part while piped music plays on loudspeakers.  / Une ouvrière d'usine lime une pièce de machine pendant que des hauts-parleurs diffusent de la musique
Thanks to Library and Archives Canada for this wonderful image

I have an incredible amount of respect for people who go out there and do several hours worth of drudgery a day. If you loathe every aspect of your job, but you keep doing it because you have people to support, that’s an incredibly impressive thing to do.

However, it’s a joyless thing to do. I’ve watched friends of mine wilt under the pressure of a drudgery-filled job and the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. I’ve seen people resign themselves to the fact that many hours of their day are going to be filled with drudgery until their health fails them.

That is simply not a recipe for a joyful life. The more of your day you can spend doing things you at least enjoy doing (even if it’s not the perfect thing, it’s still a good thing), the better off you’ll be.

That’s where frugality comes in. That’s where time management comes in.

If you can find ways to spend less money, you can find yourself doing a job that has less drudgery and more fun. If you can channel your extra time into learning a new skill, you’ve widened the range of jobs available to you.

I can’t help but think of one of my friends who was perfectly happy for several years working the graveyard shift as a gas station attendant. Most of the time he was there, he just sat around practicing his sketching. Today, he makes his living as an artist, doing all sorts of different pieces on commission.

His first job didn’t earn him much money, but it didn’t have much drudgery, either. It provided his mind and his hands with ample free time while on the clock, and he used it. Now, he still has a bit of drudgery in his life (negotiating commissions and so on), but there’s less of it, there’s more flexibility, and there’s more income, too.

Jobs can enable the life you want to lead. They can earn you a lot of money in exchange for a lot of drudgery, an equation that some choose. They can earn you a little money for just a little drudgery, a path that others choose. In either case, they earn you the income you need to live. They also often leave you with some time each day to do whatever it is that you want to do.

The real secret, though, is when you find yourself in a low pay and low drudgery job, you use that freedom of thought and energy to build something new, something that can earn you more money or open up new opportunities for you. Maybe what you build is a promotion. Maybe it’s a new job, or an entirely new career path, or a side business. It’s all up to you.

A few weeks ago, I was in a coffee shop where I saw that the barista, when she was free of customers and other tasks, would pick up a notebook and start jotting things down. She did it at least three times while I watched her.

I went up to her as I was leaving and asked her if she was working on anything interesting. She blushed and told me she was writing a novel. I clapped my hands, told her that was the most awe-inspiring thing I’d seen all day, and encouraged her to keep it up.

A job is what you make of it. It’s income, of course. But often, it’s also opportunity.

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