Sunday, July 11, 2010

the meaningless 9-5

“You need to speed it up,” is my boss’s favorite criticism. And he spits it out so frequently that it had lost its meaning to me. One day, though, the phrase sounded more severe than usual because he had closed the door behind him to warn me privately. This, he had never done before. Luckily, the paper I was proofreading was extremely time consuming and my boss seemed a little more understanding when he gave it a quick glance. However, he didn’t fail to remind me a second time to “speed it up” before he opened the door again. In my stomach I felt a huge urge to scream.
Melville’s character Bartleby came to mind. It’s hard to associate boldness and courage with a character whose existence revolved around inactivity. Nobody knows what it is that Bartleby liked to do, but whoever has read the story certainly knows that he never did anything he didn’t want to do. When his employer asked him to complete a task, he NEVER said he WOULDN’T do it; he just said, “I prefer not to” and left the task undone. This pattern landed him in an asylum. Ironically, Bartleby is one of literature’s most sane characters; his actions were true to what he really felt as opposed to those of us who commit ourselves to obligations that leave us unfulfilled. Aren’t we the ones who are ridiculous running around and stressing out to please people we don’t like by doing a great job on things we don’t like doing?
I suppose in the greater scheme of things we aren’t working explicitly for our boss or because we are masochists. There are things outside our lives at work that are funded by the work we do: our independence, our families, our leisure activities. But somehow, work seems to dip into these areas of our lives and while not taking them away from us exactly, it limits the degree to which we enjoy them. Our jobs make us irritable, tired and apathetic and although we have these other areas of our lives, we run out of energy to devote ourselves to them fully.
To some extent, the individual is also responsible for his lack of fulfillment; he has the time to devote to the more meaningful areas of his life and I am a strong believer of the phrase “if there is a will there is a way.” But balancing our interests and passions with our obligations takes almost superhuman discipline. However, it CAN be done. The incident with my boss happened a bit before I took off for vacation. I was rundown and exhausted because the situations in the other areas of my life had priority at that time and I decided it was work that was going to have to suffer. After spending two weeks unplugged from the system, I came back rejuvenated and determined to do what I want to do. After all, not every job is spiritually meaningless. But because we live in such a frenetic world where the system requires us to labor at work we hate doing, for people we hate doing it for, I realize I will have to slave while I pursue what I want. I enjoy living in my apartment, doing my martial arts class and going out with friends and family. And although Bartleby was right, I don’t want to end up like him.
Likewise, I don’t want to end up like my colleagues where I work now. I’m the youngest in the office and unlike them I haven’t given up on life. I still see that I have a chance to do what I want to do. I still consider myself free and I realize that I should not tether myself to a job I dislike. Life is full of stepping stones which we tread on swiftly and quickly. The point is not to get complacent with a stepping stone that seems to be only “good enough”.


  1. Le travail éloigne de nous trois grands maux: l'ennui, le vice et le besoin.

    Of course, Voltaire was a man dedicated to writing who lived off the wealth he earned through wise investments. Since he was well connected in high society, one might be reluctant to attribute the wisdom of his quote to “the meaningless 9-5.”
    Nonetheless, all work posses at least two of the positive attributes noted above: work keeps one out of trouble (unless one’s work is illegal) and work provides for basic survival needs.
    I believe you post takes issue with the third element Voltaire mentions, reflecting the change in opportunity available since the 18th century. Boredom may be eliminated by work (but only if the work’s demands keep one really busy and one rejects existential thoughts.) Yet, people today commonly look for self-fulfillment in the workplace. Having so many options of how to make oneself productive and contribute to society is a luxury. Most people get to evaluate their capabilities and passions and have a greater say in which path they choose.
    However, the contours of that path remain the same. One is educated. One enters the workforce and gains respect and positions of authority based on accomplishments made in the workforce… in society.
    Bartleby’s lack of effort resulted from his choice to rebel (implicitly and subtly) against society (if not the task at hand). Once one leaps into the world, ready to show off & (hopefully) prepared to take a beating, one’s present and future can be influenced by one’s preferences. Your current job may not be suited to your tastes, but others’ maybe satisfied with the same tasks. I agree that no one should settle for “good enough” but I also believe that meaningfulness is perception based.

  2. i suppose i should have made the distinction that the people i work with are either unhappy or stupid! I do say they have given up on life, that is because the majority of them are fat and continue to slap on tablespoons of fat in various forms all over their food. That's a sign of giving up (and a topic for an essay!) A lot of us are kind of forced into a job we don't like depending on the climate of the times, what skills are necassary in the environment you are living in. But no one is forced to stay, which is the optimistic point in my essay. I will take issue with one of Voltaire's points, that work keeps you out of trouble. I believe that anything used as a way to manipulate behaviour is deceiving and unethical. We should behave the way we are, and we have the law to take care of the rest. Lastly, i know that my tastes are not the same as everyone elses, thus i don't go into detail abt my job (which was actually 8-4). Meaningless 9-5 is just to set a sign of recognition for those who are familiar with the spirtually draining impact a job may have. Maybe you can help me come up with a better title? I'm not good at titling things.