Watching the Wheels
NOTE: I penned this a few months ago but never posted it. I’m now in deep enough to see some of the warts, and COVID certainly does northing to make you feel secure. But I was right. And that feels really good.
Finally, I’m off the merry-go-round.
“Surely you’re not happy now
you no longer play the game…”
A couple years ago I got cast adrift.
First, I wound up on the wrong side of a company political battle (it wasn’t about me, but I put myself in the line of fire by backing the wrong horse – never mind that said horse was right) and wound up getting forced out. Not long after I stumbled into a severely toxic “opportunity” that went even worse.
Which kicked off 20+ months of “self-employment.”
It was sheer fucking terror. Every morning I’d wake in a panic and it could take ten minutes just to collect myself and calm down. I had several medical issues, no insurance, mounting debts and the few freelance gigs I landed came nowhere close to keeping my head above water. I was sure I would wind up dead.
The upside was that even after working on the freelance stuff and hunting for jobs (applications with literally hundreds of companies, some phone interviews and a handful of in-person interviews which produced little more than a set of outraged posts on age discrimination, counter-productive interviewing rituals, ghosting and applicant screening systems), I had time to reflect on the dumpster fire of my professional life and how it had happened.
The Status Trap
Back in the early ’00s I took some career assessment inventories and among them was one that ranked professional priorities. It considered things like pursuit of wealth, the attraction of a challenge, etc. – basically, there are 10-15 things that motivate people at work, and you were force-ranked on what mattered most.
For me, #2 turned out to be status. This bothered me. I didn’t see myself as a status hound, but the test results raised ugly questions. Truth was, I did get hung up on titles and my place in the company. It was important to get promoted and to have people reporting to me. The gods forbid I should even wind up lower on the totem pole than (or worse, reporting to) someone younger than me.
These factors were visible indicators of the respect I had. I grew up Southern working class and deeply insecure on top of it, so status markers were tangible validation – the only tangible validation – of my worth. Even if I really saw myself as an artist, a scholar and a thinker, being an a executive director in a Fortune 500 making six figures with some direct reports, and even better, reporting directly to the C Suite, this meant I was winning by the incontrovertible rules of society. You might not care about poetry, but you had no choice to be impressed by the business card.
Status mattered in those other areas, too. PhD. Tenure. Publications. If a poem was rejected, it was a chip in the foundation of my worth as human being. So I lived life according to corporate/consumerist social rules, or tried to (even when I moved in academic or artistic spheres).
That hateful little test planted the seed of self-awareness, and while it incited a good bit of self-examination I never acted on it. I guess you could say I chose to live with the disease rather than seek a cure.
Despite a career which has seen me hold manager, senior manager, director and VP titles, those 20 months of futility eventually forced me to apply for work that was “beneath” me. And here, of course, was the CATCH-22 – it seemed that for every gig out there I was either not qualified or over-qualified.
When I did manage to land an interview for one of those lower-on-the-food-chain jobs I always – always – wound up hearing a diplomatically turned question that translated into something like “wow, what a resumé. Why would a guy like you want a pissant little job like this?”
It was a fair, if unwelcome question, and I experimented with a variety of answers. But the presumption lies against you in a job interview. There are very few right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Following the advice of a zillion HR experts probably only made it worse. But that’s what you do when you’re playing the game.
After all those months of failure I was compelled to face some realities about myself. I don’t love corporations. I don’t care about “career.” I find no personal or spiritual meaning working in the business world. I like money, of course, but not what you have to do to get more of it.
Instead, I love my wonderful girlfriend and my home life. I love playing with Trouble, the Cattle Dog from Hell. I love my photography and digital art. My writing? Well, some do it because they love it and others because they can’t make themselves stop, and I’m in that camp. But there’s value in it, whether it gets read by anyone or not. And nothing I could ever do in the corporate world would ever have that sort of meaning for me.
I finally broke down and admitted that I’m tired of chasing things that don’t make me happy just because other people say I should.
And that became my answer.
The new job
A few weeks ago I finally got the offer. Not for a Veep job. Not for a director job. Or senior manager or manager or any of the other things for which I’m qualified. Nope – my new position is copywriter – which is what I was doing in 1985.
And it feels so very nice. There’s less in the way of the pointless, manufactured stress that accompanies greater responsibility. (Pressure is how too many business managers reassure themselves that what they’re doing is important. It’s pressure driven by ritual, not reality.) My hours are reasonable. I’m not getting rich but I can certainly live on what I make. And I’m good at writing.
There’s some funny stuff about the situation, too, especially if you knew the old Sam. I’m probably the oldest guy in the group, for instance, and my boss is 30 years younger than me. Literally. She was born right about the time I was finishing my MA. She’s sharp as a whip and I really, really like her.
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
Sure, it could all go to hell. Sometimes situations are good early on and a few months later you want to murder people. No guarantees – not now, not ever.
But it feels different. It’s like a tremendous weight is off. I can breathe. And I know for certain that if this job doesn’t work out I won’t go back to the kind of joyless life I was pursuing before.
It took a while, but I now get it. I’m off the merry-go-round and I couldn’t be happier about it.
It’s always interesting to read the experience of another. I grew up Midwestern middle class. Never rich but never poor. In my early life, I lived in pleasant middle class communities. That creates a far different experience. I have a certain psychological confidence in my sense of worth and my place in the world.
Yet I had zero desire to seek a career, professional or otherwise. I dropped out of college and have done working class jobs my entire life. But I don’t have a working class identity. Even now, I’m working class in a nice college town. Many of my “working class” coworkers have college degrees, one even with a PhD. My job says nothing about me.
Among friends, there is a baker with an English degree, a bus driver with an architectural degree, a maintenance worker with an arts degree, a postal worker with a psychology degree, and a bartender with a history degree. This town has one of the highest rates of college graduates in the country. “Working class” means something is not the same as in most cities.
Another difference I can speak to specifically in the contrast between South and Midwest. My family moved to South Carolina when I was a little older and that is where I went to high school. But my identity was already formed at that point. Even living in the Deep South, my parents raised me with a Midwestern attitude, especially my mother who grew up working class.
Your post reminded me of that. The two regional cultures are distinct. There is much more class consciousness in the South. The Midwest is the opposite in that people often pretend class doesn’t exist. although of course it does. There isn’t the history of plantations and slavery that created certain kinds of status and its overt forms.
For example, middle class Midwesterners tend to mow their own lawns, what middle class Southerners I knew tended to see as lower class labor to be hired out. In our middle class neighborhood in South Carolina, only one neighbor worked in her yard. Most of our neighbors thought it strange that we did our own lawn work, especially my mother as respectable women don’t do that.
On the other side of our house, another neighbor was literally a Southern Belle with inherited money. She had married down and so ended up in a middle class house, but she still lived as if she were wealthy. She had a personal servant, black of course, who did everything for her. This lady never held a job, of course. She maintained her sense of status and made sure that her children did as well.
Her kids were already moved out of the house, but in the house directly across the street there were some kids around my age. They went to private school, whereas my brothers and I went to public schools. Far fewer middle class kids went to public schools in the Deep South, as compared to the Midwest. Private school was all about status, at least in the South. In the Midwest, even most private schools don’t carry that kind of status, as there is a different history behind them without desegregation.
I have few regrets. I actually like my life overall. I’m a parking ramp cashier and have been for more than two decades. But the job is in city government and it’s unionized. The pay is decent, the benefits are great, and the job is secure. In between customers, I can read books, get on the internet, and even write on my blog. And, of course, I never have to bring work home with me.
I’m an unambitious intellectual. I was raised by college-educated parents, including my father as a professor. I’m confident in my worth and actually sort of enjoy my ‘status’ as a working class intellectual. I have much more time to do what I love than if I had stayed in college and pursued a professional career. I love the simplicity of my life that allows me to spend much time with friends and family
That said, my path through life was rather unintentional. It’s not something I sought out, much less planned out. I simply did not know how to do otherwise. Between learning disability and severe depression with occasional suicidal ideation, I wasn’t going to make it in an upwardly mobile career. By default, I took the road of least resistance or at least of least stress. After a long rough patch, it has worked out for me.
It sounds like, in going a different path, you’ve come to a similar place in your own life. And it sounds like you’re happier for it. I’m glad to hear it. Your experience in getting to this point, though, sounds more like what happened to my father. He developed anxiety attacks when working the ruthless business world ruled by psychopaths and so he went back to school. The difference is, in getting his PhD, it gave him a different kind of status. But like you, he found he was happier without the stress of working corporate management.
Pierre Bourdieu gave us the concept of “cultural capital,” which addressed the status attending people like scholars and artists who have social standing but no, you know, money.
The idea seems mainly to have existed in a context of higher social status. How do people with no money circulate amongst the rich, basically?
What you’re raising seems sort of related, although I haven’t yet worked out how. We’re definitely talking about conceptions of status that stand apart from wealth or professional status, and for my part this seems like a very important idea. One hopes it’s actually an evolution of how we function (or don’t) here in the world of late capital.
There is a certain kind of cultural status. When people realize how well read I am or if they learn that my father is a professor, it lends me a certain respectabiliy. I don’t need to have a college degree. The middle class status rubs off on me. It’s amusing, as it’s more inherited than earned.
With it comes an implicit sense of privilege. I grew up with knowing that I had value, that great things were expected of me. My ego was properly built up. But at the same time my mother instilled in me a working class sensibility and much of my extended family is working class. I’m comfortable in the worlds of both classes. Even that ability to move between classes is a privilege.
When I was in high school, my brother and I both worked fast food. That was another thing that middle class white people simply did not do in the Deep South. All of my coworkers, including my bosses, were either minority or poor or both. I’d drive my father’s brand new Buick LeSabre to work and I was completely oblivious of my class status.
I’m sure my bosses and coworkers were fully aware, though. It only occurred to me later in life that I had been raised middle class, and most of it spent as upper middle class. Being middle class means never having to think about being middle class. The greatest privilege is not having to admit one has privilege, not even to oneself.
My father taught me and modeled for me how to be an intellectual. And my mother was a teacher as well. Reading, writing, and learning is a part of who I am and always has been. I could be poor, homeless, and living under a bridge. It would never change the identity I internalized in my youth.
It fascinates me to think about what this means. I’m the most downwardly mobile of my brothers. They both got college degrees, although it took them a while. But I make up for it in intellectual and artistic ability. I have a lot of talent, even if most of it goes wasted. I used to paint a lot and people are always impressed by my artwork.
Knowing my worth in some ways probably contributes to my lack of extrinsic motivation. My brothers have actual careers, although they work in government as I do. It seems my brothers for some reason felt like they had to prove themselves. I never felt that way. I’ve wondered why that is.
My intellectual identity developed young. Even in childhood, I would ask deep questions and, of course, my parents encouraged it. I remember the long discussions and debates I’d have with my parents, especially my father. They always treated my views with respect. But it’s more than that. They taught me how to think, learn, and write — important middle class skills.
As the youngest child with brothers many years older than I, I received my parents’ full attention. I was ‘special’ — quite literally, in that I went to special education for my learning disability. It was probably that personal attention from my parents and teachers that left a mark on me. Adults were always looking for potential in me, as I tested well on IQ measurements.
My brothers took on a middle class identity in a different way. Neither is an intellectual. But they’ve followed a more traditional path of career, family, home ownership, and all that. They aren’t rich in not being anywhere near as financially well off as our parents. Still, they have that sense of middle class status and they look down on poor white trash.
I’ve actually heard my brothers talk about their own coworkers and neighbors as white trash, something I’ve never done nor my parents. I think it’s because they are so low on the middle class totem pole that they feel a need to distinguish themselves. It doesn’t matter that they are one mishap away from poverty. They have their middle class identity and they wear it with pride.
Class identity is a strange thing. There is the status and symbols of status. There are the privileges or lack thereof. The amount of money that one makes is a very small part of it.
It’s becoming more complex as college education becomes more common. A large part of Millennials have college degrees or at least a larger proportion than any generation before, even if they are only working low-paying entry-level jobs. Higher education in the past meant class status and it still does, but it’s becoming somewhat disconnected from the class status of wealth.
Still, we have to keep in mind that around 70% of Americans lack a college degree. Even if all that you end up with is large college debt, that well-educated poverty gives you greater social worth in this society than being poor and uneducated. If it didn’t confer such social worth, why would so many go into debt to gain it?