In the late 1990s I had the pleasure of working in what we can officially call a dead end job. Properly dead end, hourly paid, no prospects, no nothing. Then I became a teacher, and everything went downhill from there.
I jest, of course, and the job wasn’t that bad: it was indoors, it paid the bills, but oh my goodness, it was boring. I worked, and I share this to add a little colour to my extended anecdote, for a department of British Telecom that dealt with the sale of equipment to businesses, and I was a temp. My first task most days was to open a bunch of envelopes and scan in scores of handwritten order sheets, then to make sure that the file name was recorded on each sheet, before carefully filing them in a drawer somewhere. Done with the right care and consideration, this job could easily take the whole morning, but I never made it last that long. As a task, it somehow managed to be frustratingly close to mindless: you needed to be vaguely aware of what you were doing, but not so much that you were involved in the task. You couldn’t just switch off. Once done, of course, there were other, similarly not-quite-mindless tasks that needed doing around the office.
After a month or two of this, and shortly before my brain imploded, the office took on another temp and I moved up a metaphorical notch and around a literal corner to a different part of the office. There were still some tedious jobs to do, of course, many of which involved scanning documents, but I was finally unleashed onto the computers to do stuff. This being 1998, of course, this meant Windows NT and an order management system that looked like Ceefax. Briefly, however, things became slightly less boring. I had colleagues, people I could talk to, some of whom I still occasionally see rushing through the train station. For the most part, however, it wasn’t a fun job. It wasn’t challenging. It was barely mentally engaging. The very best thing that could be said about it was that I learned a bit about computers, and that the tediousness spurred me to take the Trinity Cert TESOL in late 1998.
Here’s the thing, however. This was a job which I disliked. I disliked getting up in the morning to go do it. I disliked that I couldn’t really work out what to do instead. I disliked the place, the walk to work, the walk home, the whole lot. I’m not sure I would say I hated the job: it was tolerable enough. But I woke up more or less every morning horribly despondent about spending the next eight hours trying to give two shits about a load of BT phones and cabling.
It’s important that I remember this, because tomorrow I’m going back to work after the Christmas break, and I’ve got the same sort of “oh no” feeling, and I need some perspective. I get this maybe two, three times a year, usually after some sort of absorbing holiday, and Christmas is the most absorbing of all: no time to stop and worry about work, only to spend time with people, eat, drink and generally be merry. The feeling of gloom is not because I don’t enjoy my job, or even that I don’t want to do my job: only that I am human. It’s a psychological jarring that comes when you have to switch pace from home to work: a gear change, if you like, and it’s a tough one, like climbing a hill and the chain has jumped from the big ring to the small. It’s not unprofessional to admit that you like spending time with your family and other loved ones more than you like your job, after all, although that’s a balance of priorities preferred by some, it’s just normal. Every job feels a bit lame after Christmas, even one you enjoy.
So when I go to work tomorrow, I have to keep that job for BT in mind. Things could be far far worse, after all, and I get to ride my bike there. Which reminds me of a scene from the Life of Brian.
CENTURION: You know the penalty laid down by Roman law for harbouring a known criminal?
CENTURION: Nasty, eh?
MATTHIAS: Hm. Could be worse.
CENTURION: What do you mean, ‘could be worse’?
MATTHIAS: Well, you could be stabbed.
CENTURION: Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours! It’s a slow, horrible death!
MATTHIAS: Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.