Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
I’ve now put in a year at my first real post-college job, working in development at a nonprofit. I’m basically (expected to be) applying my skills and I’m confident the organization at least means well. However, one thing has become clear: I’m not suited for this, which my wildly erratic performance reflects. Maybe 20 percent of the time, I put in a sincere-ish effort, and it shows, but the other 80 percent is full of lows I haven’t reached since I was in middle school and frequently did homework in the bathroom right before class. I mean, my default state here is simply not working. The same holds for me.
This recently led my boss to tell me he has no evidence I’m self-motivated, and he’s right. Whenever he’s reprimanded me (in gradually more blunt explorations of the same few themes), my fears of embarrassment and losing my source of income have felt real but also failed to boost my productivity for more than two days at a stretch.
I’ve demonstrated I can intellectually handle the work, but so can any reasonably talented humanities or social sciences grad. But the fact that I can and don’t is ultimately more relevant. It’s obvious I’m not going to start caring about this job or even pretend convincingly. I recently started a job search with the goal of finding less intellectually rigorous work I can mindlessly vomit out and forget about immediately upon leaving the office. However, I’ve come to accept I probably can’t stay functionally engaged in any office job. And as long as I have one, it can’t just recede to the background. I’ll always be preoccupied with resentment over having to work full-time in an office.
Two recent developments have led to this acceptance. The first is I had a phone interview for an in-house copywriter position. (They rejected me, so I returned to earth and thought about what that job would actually entail.) The second is I’ve started writing creatively again, which I hadn’t done since I was a teenager, and as it turns out, I can and want to put effort into things I actually care about. (This latest enrichment of my non-work life has only benefited me at work to the extent I now feel calmer when I do nothing for hours on end.)
Then again, no one’s really meant to work in an office, right? I recognize virtually everyone, including my more committed coworkers, leads a compromised existence in order to eat and have a place to sleep indoors. I’m concerned that I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m part of an elite class of people who really are too interesting and talented for the nine-to-five life, and that my metacognition is further proof of this status. Still, some people manage to continue existing while dedicating serious time and energy to what they’re really interested in. I may not be one of them, but I don’t know either way, and I’ll never find out if I continue like this. Still, I’m deathly afraid of losing my financial stability, health insurance, and so on, because of both my (fairly comfortable) upbringing and for all the obvious reasons people like financial stability and health insurance. (Speaking of my upbringing, I also hope to hold onto my parents’ love and support, which is provably easier if they can believe I’m a normie at heart.) I realize I’ve given you a lot to respond to without asking an actual question, so what I’m wondering is, how do I go about making a change from defective office drone to . . . something else?
Congratulations! You’ve confronted something it takes many people years to admit to themselves, and some never get there. I would love to give you an insightful and heretofore unarticulated analysis on the travails of office drudgery, but unfortunately the late writer Mark Fisher has already explained it so perfectly in his essay, Good for Nothing, that anything I could come up with would be a knock-off. Fisher described his anxiety about work and its intractable relationship to his mental health thusly:
My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing. I spent most of my life up to the age of thirty believing that I would never work. In my twenties I drifted between postgraduate study, periods of unemployment and temporary jobs. In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong – in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante who had somehow faked his way through, not a proper scholar; in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was performing incompetently, and in any case I didn’t really belong in these office or factory jobs, not because I was ‘too good’ for them, but – very much to the contrary – because I was over-educated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed – I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.
A dutiful Marxist will tell you that all wage labor under capitalism is alienated labor, but a compassionate Marxist will acknowledge that some alienated labor is more depressing than others, and the jobs that might grate on any individual person vary wildly.
I myself was the worst administrative assistant ever to work for Democratic Socialists of America. My inability to pay attention to details or engage in repetitive work lead to (or perhaps only exacerbated; it’s a chicken-and-egg thing) an anxious, grinding depression, and the sneaking suspicion I was actually totally unemployable. It’s not just bad for a person to rely on their weakest skills for survival; it’s unsustainable and immiserating.
The good news is that you have a far better understanding of this than I did, and appear to be well on your way to a more fulfilling work life. The trick now is not to pigeonhole yourself, and your instinct of finding a day job that allows you time for passions isn’t a bad one. I am, for example, way more equipped to write on my days off when I’m performing inexplicably feminine labor—bartender, waitress, care work, teaching. I loved all those jobs, way more than my “respectable” and “noble” job as a professional comrade, and if the mercurial life of a creative ever stopped paying the bills, I could handle going back to slinging booze or burping babies. Another job that involved filing, though? I’d jump off the Brooklyn Bridge (or at least get fired).
It can be difficult to balance what you can live with and what you can live on. It usually takes experimentation, trial and error. That’s a luxury most people don’t have these precarious days, but creativity helps, and you have a good sense of what will grind your psyche into dust and what won’t. Your friends, loved ones and family want you to be happy as well, and whatever vocation keeps you secure (both materially and psychologically) is what they will want for you. Just keep looking and keep hope; someday you will thrive, and until then, you will survive.