Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is Having A Bad Job Worse Than Having No Job?

I remember, quite vividly, the first experience I ever had as a professional writer. It was the second semester of my freshman year in college, and I saw an ad in the student paper looking for reporters. I started submitting features to the paper the very next week, and at the end of the semester I had a check for $75 in my hand for all my hard work. It wasn't enough to pay for a month's rent, and it was barely enough to cover a decent grocery bill, but that payment represented something more than the numbers that followed the dollar sign; it was hard proof that someone, somewhere, thought I had enough skill as a writer to give me money for it.

That experience was like throwing jet fuel onto a dying blaze. Confident that I'd done it once, I sought out other writing work. I changed colleges, and was given my own column in fairly short order at my new school's paper. I contacted a local rag in town, and after a brief interview was contributing one to two features to them every week. Then I discovered, and realized that the Internet was packed with people looking for someone just like me. I wrote ad copy for catalogs, ghost wrote romance stories, and pretty soon I was rolling up my sleeves and trying my hand at content mills to cover my monthly expenses. In 2012 I started publishing fiction on a regular basis, and soon after that I started my two blogs, in addition to taking on the mantle of freelance RPG designer.

I also got this book published earlier this year.
I've had a lot of writing jobs. Before that, I also had ten years of working more "regular" jobs. I was a car lot porter, a movie store clerk, a cashier, a delivery driver, an office temp, a security guard, and a dozen other things, too. Although I had different responsibilities, different co-workers, different hours, and different bosses, every one of those non-writing jobs had something in common; discontent.

I hated every aspect of every job I worked for nearly a decade of my life, and for the longest time I thought that was just what work was. You woke up, got dressed, did your best to keep your anger and resentment to yourself, and then when you got home you collapsed as all the tension from the day bled out of you. Work left you drained, and unhappy. I thought it was completely normal to spend your days off living in dread of the coming week, knowing that you only had a brief reprieve before you had to go back to doing that thing you hated surrounded by people you couldn't stand. Then I discovered something I'd never experienced in any other position, and having discovered it, never looked back.

That thing was a combination of enjoyment, pride, and that feeling you get when you're allowed to do something you know you're good at. Most people refer to it as job satisfaction, and even when I was being asked to make a captain's bed sound exciting for the Fall edition of a furniture catalog, or writing up completely fake success stories for a Ukrainian dating website, I still had a steady IV drip of that feeling. Even if I was making rent by the skin of my teeth and eating Ramen noodles for the fifth meal in a row, that sensation was (and is) a treasure to me.

Are Bad Jobs Worse Than No Job?

There was more to the difference than just some ephemeral matter of perception, though. In all the non-writing jobs I had I was a nameless, faceless drone. I was a set of hands set to do a menial task, or a warm body to sit in one place to make sure nothing blew up. I was not a valued part of a team; I was a cog who was paid the minimum wage associated with the job I was doing, who would be replaced as soon as my wheels began to squeak.

That's no way to live, and it seems that science agrees with me.

I think we've found part of the cure, actually.
You see, according to surveys done by Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA), the quality of your work directly affects your psychological health. How directly does it affect you? Well, the results go so far as to suggest you are psychologically worse off having a bad job than you are remaining unemployed.

What HILDA's numbers reveal (and what most people who have had jobs know) is that tasks which are boring, repetitive, which don't engage you, or which are a poor match for the skills you do possess are likely to lead disengagement. In a lot of cases this can result in a revolving door as you get a job, work it until it grinds your gears down, and then for one reason or another step back out of that revolving door to look for something different.

Jobs Are More Than A Paycheck

If the only thing you get out of your job is money, chances are good you don't like your job very much. If you're going to do a job, and do it well, you need more than a carrot on a stick. You have to enjoy what you're doing, you have to do it with people you like, and you need to feel some sense of accomplishment in what you've done. All of that has to balance out with the money you earn, and the benefits your job provides you.

Some jobs are ALL about the satisfaction.
I've had a lot of jobs, but this is the only job I've ever had that I've never wanted to quit. Not even on days where the trolls are out in force, clients reject my drafts, or that dreaded form rejection letter shows up in my inbox. Not even on days where I'm working till hours past midnight, like I am right now. Writing allows me to engage my mind, sharpen my skills, and to sit back at the end of the day with the knowledge I've created something valuable through willpower and hard work.

Would I write if no one was paying me to do it? Probably. Work that nourishes the soul and rejuvenates the heart is work you will feel compelled to do. However, just because a car mechanic gets a sense of personal pride out of repairing a damaged engine block, that doesn't mean he isn't going to give you a bill for the services he performed on your behalf.

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  1. Oh, yeah! If you’re miserable at your job, you’re miserable in just about everything in your life. Since we spend so much of our waking hours at work, there’s no feeling worse than hating to get up and go to a job you hate. Whether it’s the people, the location, the actual work itself, or some combination of those factors, job-related misery and stress is a top detriment to people’s mental and physical health.

    I was absolutely miserable at my last full-time job, a technical writer for a large engineering firm. There were a number of factors that contributed to the dismal atmosphere, so it was almost a relief when I got laid off (along with some others). We saw it coming, but we didn’t think it would hit that soon. Now, as I work to get my freelance and creative writing careers going, I have no qualms about it.

  2. Hi Neal,

    I totally agree with this. You spend so much of your life working it's hell if you don't like your job.

  3. Nice post. When you have no autonomy and little respect is given to your abilities at work, it can be draining. I spent over 10 years not writing because I was so tired. It was existence, plain existence... no way to live and really difficult to get back to writing. Now I alternately refer to myself as "unemployed" or "an independent contractor". Either way, it's much better for the soul and for the writing. (Not really for the finances--yet!)

  4. This post was helpful to me. I'm a writer and also a farmer. Having found it to be hard to make money in both those careers I had to take on a job at a creamery. I like that it is agricultural related because I'm helping the farmers by cleaning the equipment that makes the cheese from the cows they milk. But I would still rather be farming myself. Also, being that where I am working is a factory setting, and the shift is at the end of the day, so I'm up all night and sleeping most of the daylight hours, its hard to find inspiration for writing. I like the combination of living the way I live, (other than working at the creamery), with writing. Maybe one day I will figure out how to make more money doing what I like to do and be able to write about it.

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