Sometimes you get a job, and it’s a job. It’s not your Career, it might not even be anything you would ever want to do, but you need a job. What do you do about this? If you let yourself act like it is a Career, and go to work seeking Fulfillment, you will only get yourself in trouble. The project is to recognize the situation for what it is, and meet it with a specific set of tactics and attitudes.
None of this has to be terrible. With the proper strategies, mental preparation, and discipline, you can satisfy your employer, preserve your sense of self and the enjoyment of life outside of the workplace, and stack up those paychecks without stacking up a pile of anger and resentment.
You might not even have a Plan, but you do know this job where you are right now is not a place to stay any longer than necessary. Less-than appealing aspects of the job might be stuff like crappy commute, bleak office environment, enervating co-workers, boring work tasks, etc.
Maybe you think you’re better than the job, it’s OK to think that, as long as you do the job, OK?
It might be a depressing thought, to be at this job-job, thinking that you are going to be here for years, sort of like a prison sentence, in the minor aspect of being someplace you are not particularly thrilled with, to say the least. Maybe you think you’re better than the job, it’s OK to think that, as long as you do the job, OK?
Think about your current position as a refuge, where you are quietly earning your keep and resting up for the next jump. Think about that paycheck, and think about perfecting your work experience, how to burn a minimal, efficient amount of calories to accomplish your tasks with the least amount of friction possible, and to be a wholly unremarkable yet satisfactory employee.
Some of the things I am going to suggest will be completely against your nature, but the major motion picture Pulp Fiction teaches us:
I had the other kind of job, the good kind, before. I stayed at one place, rising in rank and responsibility, over the course of 25 years. I was the person who worked the extra hours, who dug into my own pocket for things that made the office a little more tolerable, who spoke up at meetings, who volunteered for stuff, who literally always wanted to get the gang together and put on a show. I was a true believer. I still am.
My job was never a j-o-b, I enjoyed what I did, I was a team player, interested in the success of the entire enterprise, even the stuff I didn’t understand, like writing, and sales, and delivery, I always walked around the building and talked to people in other departments in other rooms on other floors. I might have been annoying with suggestions and ideas, but I think everybody knew I was in it for the big win, for everybody. I’m not kidding about this.
I got fired from the place where I worked 25 years. It wasn’t pretty. It was a layoff, technically, because the company was being sold, so everyone was terminated, and then certain folks would be re-hired. Not only was I not one of the re-hired folks, but the original company, when it laid me off, denied my severance. Not getting re-hired because I wasn’t the new ownership’s cuppa tea was one thing, but not getting my severance from the old ownership kinda hurt my feelings, so I sued. I always like to say, “It’s not the Money, it’s the Principle of the Thing, and the Principle of the Thing is the Money.”
We settled, and I can’t talk about it because there are non-disclosures and non-disparagements and stuff. My lawyer said I can always say “Congratulate me. I had a dispute and lawsuit; now my dispute is resolved and I have dismissed my lawsuit.”
It took a while for that to happen though, and I knew I would have to just hustle doing whatever while my wife pulled in the steady paycheck and health benefits until my dispute was resolved. It wasn’t like I could go out and interview for work doing what I’d been doing before and then say “My previous employer? Yeah, I am suing them for money, but my lawyer says I need to keep quiet about stuff. The company that didn’t re-hire me? Why? Well, I guess you’d have to ask them, right? So when can I start?”
I was away from a full-time job for 18 months. My unemployment benefits got denied at first, and I successfully challenged the denial, but then I think I only collected like two weeks’ worth because I was bringing in freelance money and it was just a pain in the ass to ask for the money and then subtract whatever I was bringing in on the side. Also there might have been a little bit of that pride talking to me, right?
I did OK while I was underemployed, and at one point cashed a very nice score, so I started wondering if I would ever go back to a regular job again, or if I would just string together a bunch of gig economy and slide off into the sunset.
In the fullness of time I decided I wanted to go back to a full-time job. I had worked 25 years, taken almost two years off, and I wanted to see if I could get hired anywhere, and then to see if I could stand showing up someplace again on the regular. I wasn’t in a big hurry to get back to an office environment, emotionally, but I knew I had to make a move, because any kind of a gap in your employment history becomes a hurdle on your way to getting employed. I also thought I should find another full-time job just to get the stink off me from the recent unpleasantness of my previous employ, to show I was someone who could get hired and work for a few years uneventfully, you know, as opposed to working someplace for 25 years and then getting shitcanned with no severance, and then having to get legal.
So I was looking, and an opportunity fell in my lap by way of a personal connection and recommendation. I was totally qualified for the job, totally ready to sit down for the interview, and totally relaxed about the possibility of getting turned down after explaining the last couple-three years on my resume. I got the job. I was back in a workplace, and I was even doing something in the field of what I used to do.
When I got my shiny-new job with a not-too-crappy commute and convenient parking, I decided I was going to play it all differently. I was going to treat it like that one person in the prison movie who says do your time one day at a time. No tomorrow. No yesterday. Today. Now.
My goal was a job I could walk away from at the end of the day and give no thought to until I showed up the next morning. Any inefficiency or injustice in the workplace stayed there, I did not want to talk about my job outside of the job because that would mean lowering the quality of my life outside the job by wasting time thinking/worrying off the clock. All work challenges were handled while I was getting paid for the work.
No tomorrow. No yesterday. Today. Now.
I pretty much kept to myself. I mostly only spoke to people when I was in the break room, and I made an effort to stick to general pleasantries. I generally avoided going to lunch in a group, and I avoided any sort of extra-office activities, even if they were festive, but I didn’t avoid any parties where it would have been sort of anti-social to not show up. Every once in a while I’d bring in a box of donut holes for the table in the breakroom. I didn’t volunteer for anything, but I didn’t shy away from being helpful. I brought an item to the in-office potluck because that was the price of admission to the office potluck. I fixed myself a plate at the office potluck, stood around for enough time to have established participation in the office potluck, and then went back to my desk.
One time I slipped up and made a suggestion to somebody about their department, tried to give somebody a story tip, and it was received with restrained and polite contempt, which was good for me, because it reminded me of my plan for this job, which was to make zero ripples and bring nothing home with me at the end of the day.
My desk was in a cubicle in the middle of a roomful of cubicles. There were windows in the building, I could see them, but they were far away. My primary light source was fluorescent. I had worked in open bullpen-style rooms for years, not really cubicles, and there’s just something about the cubicle arrangement that is really depressing. Still, doing time in a cubicle is not hard as long as you remember that there is no yesterday and no tomorrow, only today. All you have to do is get through today.
I won’t say I executed my plan perfectly, there was minor and typical work drama, and I realized it was because I was getting too involved, too invested in trying to make things go better, as opposed to working the job as it was given to me. Overall, however, I kept my inclinations to change the world out of the office, and I did my work.
I tried out one strategy that may have created more trouble than it was worth in the long run. A long time ago I read a book called You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish (you can get a good idea about this book by reading the comments), and it might all be a bunch of bullshit, but the author described a strategy for an office job where you never answer your desk phone voicemail. His reasoning was if it was important enough, people would find another way to get at you, or would come looking for you at your desk, and it is an efficient way to triage any tasks coming your way. I got my desk phone up to 100 unanswered voice messages before my supervisor saw the number on the display and asked me if there was something wrong with my phone, so I discontinued the experiment, but I did not miss anything and there were no errors associated with this as far as my work was concerned.
Here are my tips for doing time in a cubicle farm:
- Don’t make friends. Be pleasant, but leave it at the office.
- Don’t go to anybody’s party or whatever thing at their house, don’t go see anybody’s band, try your best to never see anybody you work with outside of the office.
- Don’t actively avoid people, but be very selective about interacting. Say hi to folks you pass in the hall, or at least smile, nod, something. Decide on a spot inside the building where you will always say good morning, good afternoon, how’s it goin’, did you see the new movie or TV show, yes I did, hey howabout that weather event, etc., and engage in small talk. Avoid doing it anywhere else, and don’t do it outside the building. I found the break room to be the best spot for polite chitchat because everyone is on task, getting coffee, preparing food, and nobody stays long.
- When you leave the office, get away from the building as quickly as possible. If you see someone outside the office near the building, smile and wave and keep moving. Never stop to chat.
- Don’t look nobody directly in the eye—but you don’t look away, either. Just kidding, that’s from The Godfather.
- Don’t go to lunch with the crowd. Being at lunch is perceived as not being at work. You’re at work. Certain times, there will be an employee leaving or something like that, but if you stick with never going to lunch, then you won’t get invited, and that’s a win. If you do get invited, you should go, and let everybody else do the talking.
- If you find yourself in a group and some bully is interrogating you, trying to get you to talk, just make sure you have pleasant stock answers; “Everything’s fine, it’s just a job, oh, I don’t know,” stuff like that. Always pleasantly deflect and always turn to others to pass along the conversational focus.
- Don’t decorate your cubicle. A photo of a loved one is fine, but don’t put up any artwork or funny pictures, aphorisms, sports affiliations, all that crap, avoid it, it’s not a college dorm. Also, stuff in your cubicle can be perceived as conversation pieces, and you do not want to spend any time in conversation at your desk.
- If it’s allowed, wear headphones or ear buds, even if you are not listening to anything. This will keep people from hanging out near your cubicle and engaging you in conversation. It may also serve to shield you from inane office chitchat.
- Don’t look up from your cubicle when someone walks by. It’s not a reflex, it’s a habit, and you can train yourself to resist the urge, mindfully. Acknowledge in your brain that someone is walking by and that you are not looking up. Eventually you will do this without effort.
- If at all possible, don’t engage in personal talk or business on your phone at your desk where everyone on the other side of the cubicle can hear you.
- Don’t put a personal image on the screen desktop or screensaver of your computer. You are not at home, and you do not want to be looking at an office device that is reminding you of home (see above quote from Capt. Willard in the movie Apocalypse Now).
- Don’t put any personal files in your computer. Minimize everything about your job except the work you do. The less energy you burn on all the non-work stuff in the office, the more energy you have to focus on work.
- Don’t volunteer for anything, but every once in a while, break that pattern. Tell yourself “three out of four times,” or something like that. The rest of the time, if you can, be invisible. The important thing here is to balance conservation of your work-energy with the downside of appearing to be a weasel who doesn’t volunteer for anything. The main thing is to do whatever will keep you from standing out, from being noticed.
- If there are office collections, do not in any way feel compelled to contribute. However, if it’s a thing you do, and you’re a giver, giving money to people you will never see again, by all means do so, but never give immediately when asked. Take the time to find the person who is the organizer, thank them for doing whatever it is they are doing, and hand them the cash directly. Never give to a third party and never anonymously in the office.
- If you choose to eat random food at the office potluck, don’t be a schnorrer, bring something. Make sure you sign up on the signup sheet if there is one.
- If your job allows for this, train yourself to make sure you don’t even think about work after you walk out the door. That way, when you get to the office, it’s a new day with new challenges, not another day full of stuff you may have been dreading, or angry about, or totally sick of.
- Don’t be weird about any of this stuff, do what you can and do not stress about it. Anything you can do to reduce the impact of the cubicle on your real existence is a win. You might have someone in your life who asks you about your day and how it was, so don’t be a psycho and say you have a Rule, etc., but just do your best to not talk about the job a whole lot outside of the office. If you do find yourself talking about work, remind yourself that you get paid to work, and right now you are off the clock, talking about work, and you ain’t getting paid. It’s not that talking about work is unpleasant, it’s just that you are not accomplishing anything by talking about work when you are not at work.
I spent over two years at my not unpleasant, not too demanding job, and it was 100 percent not taxing to my mind and my soul. I was presented with an opportunity to jump into something that was more collaborative creatively, and so I left the job. I was fortunate enough to work someplace where I was treated well, surrounded by the typical range of co-workers, from pleasant to unpleasant. I like to think I left on good terms.