June 5, 2019
My first full-time job was at a small auto repair shop in my hometown. I was about to turn seventeen and spent the whole summer cleaning the shop, doing oil changes, and running out for parts. For this, I got paid Washington State’s then minimum wage of six dollars and ninety cents an hour.
On many Fridays, as five o’clock came around, one of the mechanics would run to the liquor store and buy a bottle of whiskey. Back then, I certainly would not have guessed that standing in a circle, in a tiny mechanic shop in Western Washington, passing around a bottle of Southern Comfort with dirty hands, would give me my first taste of fellowship, commitment, and occupational maturity.
Yes, the money was mediocre, and the automotive skills I developed were trivial. But putting in a hard week’s work and sipping whiskey and talking trash with my blue-collar peers had real value.
We rarely understand the value of an experience, especially an employment experience, while we’re in it. We need to step back to understand the subtle augmentation of character that occurred.
A former colleague of mine, from my most-recent past career, once said the only way an employer can express their appreciation for your efforts is though monetary compensation and anything else is essentially bullshit. At first I thought he was cynical and wrong. What about praise, admiration, and respect? Being named “Employee of the Month” is bullshit? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right he actually was. The principal value or validation one accrues from their work life, other than monetary, cannot come from the outside—it has to come from within.
We rarely get to decide what our time is worth to someone else. But we always get to decide what our time is worth to us. We mustn’t become discouraged if the value of our work experience does not outweigh the lack of financial reward. We will probably not feel the benefits—the new capabilities and confidence—until we’ve moved on to our next venture.
A reoccurring theme throughout my life has been a lack of correlation between my job’s difficulty and the compensation I received for doing it. Avenues of employment where I worked the hardest have often paid the least amount of money. But I have also been in situations where generous sums of money came my way with seemingly little effort.
From these low-paying experiences—especially the military and being an EMT—I discovered (not always willingly) how hard I could work when motivated by something bigger than money. Being part of something bigger than myself drove my desire to be an asset to my fellow shipmates, coworkers, et cetera.
To a number of people over the years, I’ve said, “A job is a job is a job. Take none too seriously, don’t get too attached to any, and don’t let one become too much of your identity.”
When I was working a more traditional nine to five, my employer(s) consistently devalued purpose and logic, and focused more on monetary concerns and corporate bureaucracy. Thus, for fear of being helpless to influence the outcome, I found it difficult to care too deeply about anything.
Finding a balance between perceived impact and perceived blame was the key to a healthy, daily work life. I would do my part, but would not deem myself solely responsible for any specific outcome. This gave me the positive reinforcement to show up every day—without being crushed by feelings of personal culpability when things did not work out.
Regardless of our function within the whole, maintaining a clear understanding of the importance and insignificance of our role is essential to continued occupational happiness. Let’s not be so narcissistic to think the world would cease to spin if we didn’t show up to work tomorrow. But also let’s not be so indifferent and self-defeating to think our absence would go unnoticed completely.
“The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men!” Thomas Merton wrote. “A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!”
It took my entire life to find meaning in my work without taking on an over-exaggerated sense of responsibility. This balance has allowed me to take pride in my contribution while avoiding undue self-criticism, stress, and concerns about just compensation. And it eventually drove me to leave the nine-to-five grind (hopefully) forever.
“Money alone cannot buy pleasure, though it can help. For enjoyment is an art and a skill for which we have little talent or energy,” Alan Watts wrote in The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Yourself.
To be truly happy with nothing is indeed to be truly happy. Whenever possible, strip your existence down to the essentials. Being afraid of loosing things, is a fear not worthy of the awake and aware. Because when it comes to the two main essentials, happiness and health, money can’t give you either.
I have lived happily with almost nothing, and I have been miserable with what seemed like everything. True happiness is freedom from need. Seneca stated this idea as plainly as anyone could when he wrote, “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.”