The Difference Between a Job and Work
So, I got laid off from my job on Monday and I am not sad about it. About 10 years ago, I would have viewed this as some deficiency of character – my inability to “succeed” at something. Well, with age comes experience and my experience tells me that I have succeeded at every thing I have ever wanted to succeed at. So the truth is: this job did not factor into my vision of personal success. That wasn’t entirely the point when I applied anyway.
Exactly one year ago, I ended a long-term relationship, moved all of my stuff into storage, and set out traveling and touring for the following 8 months. The schedule, largely the craziest I have ever tried to pull off, was intended as a personal kamikaze mission. I said to myself, “If I am going to do this, I’m going to make it count. I am going to burn myself out, totally and unapologetically.” A one-month tour here; 2 weeks of couch-surfing there; a one-month European visit (in 5 or 6 different countries); a 10-day trip to Japan; and then back to Europe to finish the summer on a 2-week European tour that proved to be the most difficult tour I have “managed” to date. I use the term manage very loosely; it was unmanageable. I came home for 2 weeks (of more couch-surfing) and then left on a 2-month fall tour. When November 6, 2010 finally came, it was greeted by me dragging myself across some kind of imaginary finish line. I felt broken and the sense of accomplishment I was searching for (that REAL burnout feeling) was there, but not quite as satisfying as I had hoped. There is very little satisfaction in self-destruction, no matter how romantic it sounds.
What I had hoped to accomplish, aside from having numerous concrete reasons for quitting the music industry all together, was a grand redefinition of my goals, priorities, and the many vague, all-encompassing terms that get thrown around like confetti: home, love, and work. I needed to know what each of these words meant to me, because most of the fun of adulthood is being able to make those things whatever you want them to be. I had been engaging in all of the un-fun parts of adulthood for too long (bills, solitude, pending mortality) and I recognized the need for balance. I wasn’t quite sure how this work and travel mayhem were going to get me there, but I had a sense that no matter what lessons I was to learn along the way, the most rewarding was going to be my ability to feel again. Autopilot is also a nasty byproduct of adulthood.
The role of work in my life has always been very complicated, where love and home have always been easy for me to define. Home never seemed in need of defining (it’s obvious, right?) and I have always viewed love as something that happens to you; some miraculous occurrence that comes and, eventually, goes. By that definition, it was out of my control and I realize I had been treating it with about as much respect as a lottery ticket. This is not to say I don’t work hard in love. It is to say that I could never really pinpoint what I was working so hard for. My view on those two components changed drastically and all for the better. Home is more than four walls and love is this beautifully complex exchange that cannot be summed up in a casual four-letter word.
With my work, however, I have always had some small sense of what I wanted. I have always had relatively cool jobs and I realize now that much of my identity and self-worth has always been wrapped up in what I was doing. Who am I? I’m a tour manager. I’m a booking agent. I work for Whole Foods. All said with pride. But over the last year, those previous definitions fell incredibly short of who I felt like I was and wanted to be. Suddenly I felt like I was being limited by these definitions I had put on myself and, worse, had introduced to the world as me. I have numerous amazing individuals in my life who have told me time and time again that I am more than what I do. I have never been sure how to internalize that.
After years of being personally invested in freelance (as self-promotion/branding is the basic tenet of freelance), I desperately wanted to have a job that I didn’t care about as much; a job that could just pay the bills and be left behind at the end of the day, where the success of the business did not solely depend on me. I was officially burnt out and nothing sounded better to me than coming to an office to do some largely superficial tasks with regular hours and possibly some benefits. A paycheck every two weeks was the answer to my feast-or-famine existence all these years. I was lucky enough to find the coolest version of that office job. I mean, there was a Kegerator and a pingpong table, for fuck’s sake. What’s not to like? And that feeling lasted about a month before the “ambition” made itself known again.
This “ambition” I speak of: it is the thing that allowed me to work countless hours for weeks on end while touring. It is the thing that allowed me to quit my office job 5 years ago and make this whole touring thing work. It is the thing that made me the self-taught person I am. Because of the trial-by-fire nature of freelance, I know how to write HTML, budgets, create a spreadsheet for anything, remedially use Photoshop and InDesign, get myself to any place in the world by myself. This ambition is a survival tool. It is also a massive pile of TNT. This ambition leaks all over everything and it becomes an insatiable mess. It has no direction except out and up. My ambition can be so misdirected that I end up hating the things I have worked so hard for: having friends all over the world, the flexible-if-not-crazy schedule, seeing live music every night, and so on. And even though touring takes you away from your home life, at least when you’re home, you get to be fully at home. Oh, to have glorious, unstructured time off!* None of it mattered to me anymore and I could not figure out where it all went wrong.
So over the past 4 months, I was able to even out a little. I got invested in an one of the most rewarding relationships I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. I got an apartment and then WE got THE apartment. I even got a little unambitious for a few weeks. And those every-2-week paychecks paid the bills but not much more. So you know what I did? A little but not much more. My survival instinct went dormant and even though I had time to do a lot more, I couldn’t find the drive to. I spent about a month trying to use some of that ambition at this company but it was for naught. It turns out I am not one of those people who can go to work for 8 hours and THEN go home and live. Those 40 hours a week matter because 40 hours a week is a long time to spend anywhere. The work life, love life, and home life feed each other. The don’t belong in separate compartments.
So when I was told on Monday that my services would no longer be needed, I really had a hard time getting sad about it. I mean, yes, a small ego bruise for not being able to fool them into thinking I was happy there (I’m a bad actor). Maybe another small one for this being the first time I had left a job NOT on my terms. Again, 10 years ago that would have felt like some kind of failure. But Monday it felt like maybe it was not such a bad thing that I could be no one other than me. Realizing early on that it is not a good fit, whether in a work relationship or a love relationship, means years of discomfort and resentment are replaced with opportunity for both parties to find exactly what they are looking for. Suddenly, my schedule was open and I saw the potential of a work week dedicated to the work I would rather be doing, not what I was getting modestly paid to do.
I started thinking about what would have happened if I spent 40 hours a week on my own work with all the piss and vinegar that I give to the work I do for others. Instead of working 40 hours a week for someone else so I could maybe find the time to get all those future endeavors started, I decided to proactively start doing what I want to be doing. Do what you love and let the chips fall where they may, right? I remember when I first started tour managing and the money and work were not exactly rolling in. I was stressed out but it always seemed to work out, I think, because I wanted it so badly. I am having a hard time believing that this situation could be any different.
So what am I going to do? When I look at my future self, the work that I am doing is inconsequential. I don’t know what it is and I have never known what I want to be when I grow up. When I was young, I always knew that I would do many different things for work, money, and love (and looking at my resume, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy). I would do what needed to be done because I am a fast-learner and pretty fearless. Despite that, I still have a very clear picture of what that work will get me. I think that is the point. It’s not about the money or the status; it is about what those things can afford you. My work is the key to my freedom, my ability to travel, and to not have to sit at a desk. My mobility is my inspiration and my work must fall in alongside that to be worth it.
The scariest part of all of this is that I am about 99% sure that I cannot work for someone else. I tried REALLY hard this time around. But my work is me and the success of my work depends more on being able to sell myself than which market-dictated service I can offer. There is nothing more terrifying than doubting your ability to provide for yourself and if I am not careful, I could let myself go there. But I trust my ability to be scrappy, rise to the occasion, and do whatever needs to get done more than I trust someone else’s paychecks, dictated by how much they think I’m worth, and to which timeline I should adhere. I really have no issues with authority, per se, but at the end of the day, I have to live with myself and that self needs to constantly be in touch with my innate instincts of survival and creativity. It is the lesser of so many evils and it benefits me more to proclaim this as a choice rather than as some kind of a negative deduction. “Well, I guess if I hate working for someone else, I have to do this…”
A friend of mine tattooed a ring on her finger for her 30th birthday, proclaiming her marriage to her art. That choice also symbolically sealed her fate from ever working at an establishment that would dictate the extent to which one could show tattoos or piercings. It’s a hand tattoo and it is very difficult to hide. The manner in which she embraced this was inspiring to me and while I probably won’t get a symbolic tattoo (though what a great motivation for my first), I think it is enough to say it loud and proud on the internet. Working for someone else in a conventional sense kills my fire and my fire, love it or hate it, is a massive part of who I am.
* I could, and probably will, write a novel about why unstructured time off is a BAD, BAD idea.