All This Thinking is Counter-Productive

Yesterday’s work day was simultaneously one of the best and worst work days ever. Our network was completely down (and remains largely down today), giving me a very limited subset of tasks I could work on. Simple tasks that I blew through in just a few minutes. So I basically goofed off on the web all day.

I feel guilty about that in the sense that I know I’m not getting paid to just goof off. But I also feel guilty about it in some other, more profound way. That I don’t give a sh*t that that’s how I spent my day.

After months of un- and under-employment in 2010 and 2011, I finally landed this job. And I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Even more grateful for the fact that I was more than 6 months pregnant when I started here. And that my workplace is so accommodating and understanding of the new rhythm of my life. Like needing some time to adjust to the schedule of getting to work with pants on. I have a lot to be thankful for: I have an amazing boss. I make a decent living. I have benefits. But I don’t love my job. I don’t love the line of work I’m in. It just doesn’t excite me or inspire me. If it’s too much to ask to do work that you’re really designed to do, that you are enthusiastic about, that provides the work environment and work style you desire, and at which you are driven to excel, then honestly? I’d rather just be home with my baby.

Having nothing to do but idle time to pass away in my cubicle yesterday was not a good thing because it sent me down a path of re-examining my career and life path yet again. I sat there in my cubicle thinking. And while thinking may be dangerous, it’s all I could do. Well, I mean, besides watch youtube videos of dogs.  Or babies. Or dogs and babies.

The result of all that thinking was a deafening cry inside my head: I want to be productive. I want to work hard. But I want to work for myself. If nothing else, if I worked for myself, woke up one morning, and the network was completely down? I wouldn’t sit there and stare at a blank screen all day like an automaton. I’d go out and live life. Read, nap, go for a hike, take a scenic drive. The possibilities are endless. Bonus: a little break would have reinvigorated me for when it was time to work again.

Coincidentally, I happened to read a blog post last night by someone who talked about losing his job suddenly and needing new work ASAP, who wrote “All I need is to be working with smart passionate people, flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. A cubicle is my death. I’ll take it if it’s all I can find, but I’d prefer to work from home and fly anywhere for meetings/face to face time.” Well said, my friend. I work in a cubicle, though that, in and of itself is not the problem. The last museum I worked for, I worked in a cubicle and worked with some of the most talented, funny, amazing coworkers friends ever. If we could have run away to found our own creative firm offering our services as a web designer, writer, graphics/visual artist, and editor, I totally would have. Except that we would have needed insta-clients, and lots of them, because all of us have piles of bills to pay.

Some of it has to do with the stupidity of playing working by the rules. Whether it’s that I have to show up & sit here in a cube for 8 hours even though none of us can get to a single work file, or that I can’t install Flash because I don’t have Admin user privileges even though I produce Flash videos for my job, or that I can’t listen to music on my computer even though I work at a music museum, whatever the workplace is, it has inane, inexplicably dumb rules. I want to live life by my own terms and work by my own rules. Work when I’m ready to work, rather than staring at a blank screen trying to get motivated because I haven’t yet had my coffee and had to be at work at 8:30 even though I’ve been up with a baby since 3:30. Or that I didn’t get to bed with the baby til 3:30. Cuz everyone knows, if you work from 11-7, your quality of work is just total sh*t compared to the quality of work you produce on no sleep between 8:30-4:30! Write about topics that I’m interested in, rather than digesting & regurgitating the most boring information to a general audience. And produce deliverables that match my expectations of high quality rather than pass off “meh, it’s ok, but at least it’s on time” stuff because of someone else’s constraints.

That could be the biggest thing. There’s nothing more frustrating at work than having to compromise, or even abandon your vision. That’s been one of my frustrations with everywhere that I have worked since grad school: not being in control over the quality of the work products I deliver. In grad school, I was in total control over the quality of my research sources, the level of my analysis, and the craftsmanship of my writing. But working for someone else is a whole different story. It’s awful to have a product “represent” you that you don’t feel is the type or quality of work you do best. Because I have worked only for nonprofits, I’m always on a shoestring budget, but I don’t always know the external constraints. Like when your boss tells you you’ve got a $25,000 budget for an exhibit, and you spend $4,000 only to be hauled into her office and told that you’ve “gone over budget.” How? Because she was working on the assumption that $22,000 of that “budget” was for your own salary. (And you were working on the assumption that budget = money one can spend. Because that’s what the word means). Or how you get “voluntold” at work to produce a professional instructional video in 3 months but you get told by the videographers that they can’t work you into their schedule in that time frame, so the best they can do is hand off some B-roll footage and let you work your own magic. When you’re in control of your own product, you know what’s within your abilities and limits and don’t overextend that by taking on projects and agreeing to ideas that compromise your vision. And you’re clear on the rules of engagement.

Here’s the thing: I feel like I finally deserve to find work that works for me. Until this job, I spent my work life trying to make a career out of museum work, and it’s just not there to be made. Museum work is tireless, thankless, and undervalued. It demands a lot of your time, your efforts, your patience, and your resources, but does not deliver equivalent opportunities for personal and professional growth, upward mobility, and, most importantly, work-life balance. Sure, you can rise through the ranks. Either incrementally and over a long period of time, working your way up in a large institution where you must summon the patience to spend years doing menial work that inexplicably demands a Master’s degree waiting for a vacancy for which you have been groomed over time to materialize. Or you may rise through the ranks at a tiny institution well before you are equipped with the skils, abilities, leadership, and network to tackle the frequently insurmountable problems of a small and increasingly irrelevant institution. I gave both a shot, and neither path worked out for me.

Then, when I was laid off by the last museum, I spent my time scrambling, trying to find any job that fit my existing skill set, hoping things would work out for the best. And the side effects aren’t shabby: a steady job that uses the skills that I learned used in museums – research, writing, editing, teaching, and a little design  – a decent paycheck with benefits, and the best boss I’ve had since 2006.

But I want more. I don’t want to try to squeeze myself into a new career that doesn’t fit me exactly right. All that thinking time yesterday reaffirmed that I’ve got to figure out how to make my next work move be to work for myself.

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