[Maeve stained glass skirt from Anthro + vintage Army t-shirt from VintageTrends.com + Club Monaco hoops (ShopBop) + Motif 99 cuff (ShopBop) + Vanessa Mooney rings and bracelets.]
I have started and stopped writing this post so many times over the last 3 months. I’ve written the lines in my head in the shower in the morning, sudsing and smiling, ready to cheerfully take on the day at any one of my 4 (5?) part-time gigs—then erased those sentiments hours later while hunched over a register or a sink full of dishes, reconsidering my thoughts on the (in)decency of humankind and my choices to be put at their mercy.
That’s the thing about making broad, sweeping statements: they tend to not always apply. Especially when the fulcrum is people.
Originally titled “Things I’ve learned working menial jobs again,” the post was meant to take the focus off of something I’ve identified in you guys over the years: a shared worry about success and relevance and pressure and fulfillment wrapped up in employment that you feel good (smug) about conveying while shaking someone’s hand for the first time and answering the question: “What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.” —Boom.
“I’m a doctor.”—Boom.
“I’m a Senior Copywriter.”—Boom.
Forget that. The post was meant to explain, in my words, how working two of the most thankless jobs—waitressing and retail, in conjunction with a slew of other, equally demanding freelance jobs—has given me more rewarding days, financial happiness, and overall satisfaction than I could ever glean alone from ‘real’ jobs.
This revelation that I could be happy giving up my enormous ego (“doctor. lawyer. ad agency monkey.”) to work two jobs I’m sometimes frankly embarrassed to be seen at by counterparts was strange. [“Oh…uh, you work here?”—this question has even more insouciant lilt when there’s a packed stroller in front of its asker.] But it was a relief, too, and it coincided with a general fading of my being once completely (unconditionally, really) fascinated by anyone with a ‘typical’ variety of success. (“doctor. lawyer. $300K salary. trust fund.”—yawn.) My god are there a lot more interesting people out there who don’t fall into those brackets. Who knew? And the more of them I met, the less interested I got in blindly giving credit to people with titles and money, and so on, until I found that I was far more inspired by and interested in people who deliberately fell outside of those categories. Is this making sense yet?
I don’t automatically assume I’m going to be totally impressed by someone because of what they do anymore—and it set me free.
But above all that, the post was going to be my way of urging you to do what you need to do to be happy. Even if it’s only one day a week. Rebel for your sake. Because there is such a thing as a job that pays, and pays you back.
These “things I’ve learned working menial jobs again” could not have vacillated more, however, and the tone of the post changed like the tides as my bitterness toward those ‘menial’ jobs ebbed and flowed against the bulwark of my determination to just be happy.
That’s a really wordy way of saying you have good days, and you have bad days. Some people are cool; most people are assholes. And it was then that I realized these jobs mirrored life in a way I’d been removed from and indifferent to for years. Offices and Facebook and commutes are not real life; people and the relationships and kindness and patience and humility that happen outside of and despite jobs, however, are. I wanted to see if I could make it while cutting out the office and the commute. I’m working on the Facebook bit.
I read this Italian proverb recently and thought, “Yes. This is how I will approach the bad days. This is how happy will outweigh defeat.”
A good anvil does not fear the hammer.
I’m an anvil. We’re all anvils.
So, the things I’ve learned:
I’m actually supremely happy, in general.
Most days, I’m this ball of sunshine and sarcasm. I never realized that. As someone with a tangible history of depression and anxiety, I figured I was doomed to a life of excess self-awareness and dissidence, punctuated with fun moments. I was wrong! I didn’t realize I have a generally positive outlook on almost everything except jerks and wrinkles and broken automobiles and taxes. I feed directly off everyone around me, especially when my focus is on them—not my own irrelevant success or failures.
There’s a joy in service. It fills me up.
No matter how much money I’m making, I hope I can always maintain a night a week waiting tables or pouring wine. It’s like dunking my head in ice water, and I always need it.
Most nights, I’m on my game. Even after a full 9.5 hours at home working my freelance jobs. I go in, and I’m happy to be there. When there’s down time, I’m clutching my gut laughing with coworkers, singing along to David Bowie in the kitchen, sneaking truffle-infused salami, or lending a hand to the chef to make his life a little easier. I float around from task to task, spreading the love and feeling this deep satisfaction that every penny I earn within those four walls I have seriously, legitimately earned the shit out of. And I always sleep like a rock.
There’s truly something to be said for being continually thrust into situations where you have to be “on”—it’s like working out for your soul. We humans feel really evolved when we can maintain a life full of comfortable moments. And I guess we assume that by a certain age and income bracket, we’ve earned the right to be complacent. Hey, you put in your years, you get up and you work hard, it’s not unheard of to feel like you’ve earned the right to sometimes take things out on other people and be lousy at the things you’re not required (paid) to do.
I challenge that. Life’s too short.
It’s also too easy to be a complacent asshole—to gamble on a long-lost first impression that permits you to be less than gracious, to let negativity constantly fall from your lips, to take for granted a smile or extra bit of sincerity. Thanks to serving, my antennae are tuned in to how people make me feel, and how I make them feel. For the last two years, I’ve felt like a lightning rod for good vibes.
I’m not saying quit your job and be a waitress. But I’ve managed to strike a delightful balance that’s fulfilling (for now), and I couldn’t have, had I not taken a risk: choosing to forgo one steady, lucrative job for several, less steady jobs at 32 was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it got me on the ball—and with no time to spare.*
*That post is next.
With just enough free time to go after what I want, I have no choice but to make it happen, right? Seriously, guys—you’ve got one go at this. What are you waiting for?
Anxiety is a product of something I can control.
Not all office jobs are created equal, but for me, they all tended to illicit the same sad version of me: quivering in fear of the next failure and resulting consequence.
Working on the side as both a waitress and in retail, outside of the familiar patterns of manager-managee passive aggression, taught me that I have almost complete control over my anxiety. In menial jobs, everything is concrete. You’re the conduit for good or bad, plain and simple.
My first round of copy may be wonderful, or make someone contemplate firing me, but if someone asking me to describe wines on the by the glass list makes me feel stupid or caught off guard, there’s a simple solution: learn the wines. Taste them. Find my favorite, and convey that passion to a captive, thirsty audience. If answering the phone at the store awakens my intense, irrational PTSD fear of getting fired, I’m the first to lift that ringing bastard off the cradle every day until I’ve retrained my brain.
When a job rides almost completely on your ability to rise above everything and smile for the sake of giving someone else a really fun, unforgettable experience—man, when I’m not hungover, I’m a rockstar. I can beam at a customer until they need a welding helmet. I can chirp over a steaming hot rack of unpolished wine glasses like I’ve got a cantering unicorn between my thighs.
I can even enthusiastically converse with a table where women my age sit, relaxing in seats where I wish I was sitting, drinking the wine I would like to be drinking, wearing heels I wish I could be wearing, eating the cheese I would kill to be eating, who are almost certainly automatically making [incorrect, but that’s ok] assumptions about me because I am their waitress, and be 100% ok with it—because they’re having a damned good time, and that’s largely contingent on me.
But I linger on that last sentence in moments of weakness.
The reason I kept changing my mind about what to write and where it was coming from.
People are assholes.
The service industry can be a brutal, demoralizing place to call home. And I regularly question what in the hell is wrong with people.
Especially women. You’d think they bottle up all their pungent vitriol to take out on people in stores or restaurants. And considering they’re doing something really awesome, like buying themselves $78 t-shirts or drinking an unreal glass of Oregon Pinot Gris, one really has to wonder what brand of horned demon they have camped out in their buttholes.
I almost killed a woman with my bare hands the other day. I’ve often resisted the urge to ask, “Really? What part of my face leads you to believe I give two terrible shits?” I’ve been pushed to the very limits of sanity by people hell-bent on taking their misery out on the rest of the world. I’ve asked simple, routine questions it’s my job to ask and been met with boiling, acidic responses laced with insult. The number of humiliating, completely unnecessary comments that have been blithely leveled at me… you can see why drafting an ode to the joys of standing on my feet for 5 hours like a street performer might have made its way into the trashcan.
There are far better forums than here to discuss these true gems of mankind, so I’ll just leave it at that.
I get tested. Hard. And sometimes, it’s with a lot of regret that these people make me want to walk away from a job I could normally get such satisfaction from.
But it’s the strength I gain from tolerating these trolls, and still finding that I know how to smile, that keeps me coming back.
There are different types of satisfaction. I want all the satisfactions.
I landed the retail gig first, when I wasn’t able to help Rob with my half of the bills via writing alone. [Praise Jeebus, that changed!] I hated it at first. I would audibly wimper while pulling my jeans on—there were literally so many moving parts to learn and get a hang of. But I did notice one thing, and it changed my life: walking out of that place after a grueling shift with aching feet was a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction I wasn’t getting anywhere else. It was a different brand of stress—totally different things to handle and overcome and succeed at. I loved getting to funnel my energy there, and tally up wins that had nothing to do with my other jobs.
I grew stronger than I’ve ever been.
Conversely, delivering a presentation or a first draft that just sank the birdie felt better than ever, too, because it wasn’t all I had. I took the power away from everyone else. For once, everything was up to me.
I know the value of a dollar.
Take shit from people for 5 hours at a time and I guarantee you you’re less likely to blow the money you just earned on something stupid. You value that money more, because you value yourself more.
At my retail gig, I take a sick pleasure in leaving all my credit cards at home when I go in for a shift. At the end of the day, I don’t need that stuff, and I don’t want to need the job, either. I want it to need me. And walk out feeling “tired, but wiser for the time.”
There’s something about knowing your hourly pay rate that’s empowering, rather than having a cushy salary. I know roughly how many hours each purchase is, and I’m far less likely to sacrifice a day (be it a good one, or one FULL OF HATE) for a sweater. Now salaries are awesome—I’ve been giving salary jobs the free seat in first class since I graduated college—but forcing myself out of that comfort zone wizened me up.
I started a cash jar in our house—something I haven’t done, like, ever. Who knew! Carey can squirrel away cash with the best of ‘em. I can usually measure how tired I am by how full the jar is. It’s visible proof I’m doing everything physically possible to make our lives great. I’m proud to say my little shifts here and there have paid for a huge number of projects in OOFH, from garden improvements and rugs to tile and fancy bathroom fixtures.
There’s a simplicity to spending this way that is more satisfying than anything I ever bought when I had fat, steady paychecks in the old days.
And when we food & bev people do feel like blowing some cash, we do it right: cheap beers in cool places with fascinating people. Oh, and we’re the best tippers on earth.
But the most important thing? That I don’t think any number of promotions or raises or fancy titles could have ever taught me?
I am the anvil.
And I’m a good anvil.
I can handle it. No matter what it is. I’m learning I can handle things, and I’m more proud of myself than ever. What I tell someone, when they ask me “What do you do?” will never be as satisfying as clocking out from one of my “menial” jobs.
You’re a good anvil, too. You were born that way. Specifically engineered to handle exactly what your life is going to throw at you.
Just figure out how to realize that—dive into it—and you’ll never fear the hammer.