More Than A Paycheck: Why Work Matters

Hello there, friends and neighbors. Hopefully you are all keeping safe and well, and that la vida casa isn’t getting to you too much.

Since the layoffs started, I’ve been trying to reach out to my culinary friends however I can just to check up on them. It really is the cruelest irony- we’re folks who “never have enough time” and now…. we’re kinda drowning in it.

Of course, it’s not just “what shall I do with all my free time” that’s got former kitchen workers in a froth… but it’s also not just the financial worries of being unemployed/laid off, though God knows that’s more than enough.

What I’m finding even more among not just culinary people, but ANYONE who’s been working in a given field their whole lives and suddenly finds themselves “non-essential” is the need to get back to work for work’s sake.

A Quick Thought Experiment

Let’s just bop this on the head real quick- no, I don’t think anywhere should “open up” again until there are safeguards and procedures in place to protect everyone’s health. Whether that looks like PPE, staggered operating hours to keep streets / locations from being too crowded, or whatever- it should be in line with the advice of informed experts and common sense. NOT knee-jerk panicked decisions from ancy politicians, or angry groups of people with guns screaming about “hoaxes.”

That said (and having gone about as close to political discussion as I EVER care to on this blog,) I’d like to illustrate why work is more important to us psychologically than just being “how we pay the bills-“ and I’ll do it with a simple thought experiment.

“Imagine if you had a job that involved you standing in a room with two conveyor belts, and your job was to move boxes between them. One belt in, one belt out through holes in the wall, just you for eight hours a day. In exchange, you get whatever compensation would make life comfortable for you (paycheck, insurance, 401(K), etc.) Whatever it is, this job alone covers your needs comfortably, and all you need to do is move those boxes for eight hours a day.

Now imagine if, one day, you walked to the room next door just to see what happens to those boxes… and you find someone else with a mirror set up to yours. For eight hours a day, the two of you just pass the same boxes back and forth.

Now, knowing this: would you keep the job? Or would you try to quit, or change it somehow?

If your answer to this was “quit or change the job”, congratulations- you just demonstrated that outside of absolute direst need, no one does a job “just for the money.”

(If you answered “keep the job”, either you’re having such a difficult time that that’s appealing and I’m sorry- or you really need to think more highly of yourself.)

Your Time On Earth Is Worth More Than a Paycheck.

The saying goes that “where attention goes, energy flows.” It stands to reason then that, if much of our attention goes to our chosen occupations, that is also where a lot of our energy goes as well.

No one wants to waste their time and energy, even for something as (arguably) important as money. We want the things we spend that time and energy on to have meaning and import- even if it’s just to us, or to a small group of people.

Have you ever gone to a meeting at your work, or some other function, and said “Well THERE goes an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” You got paid for that time (hopefully)… but it didn’t matter, did it? You were wasting your time, doing something that didn’t matter. That doesn’t feel good to anyone.

“This couldn’t have been an email?”

When you take away someone’s ability to work, whether or not it’s work they love, you take away an important part of their identity. It’s not just a paycheck- it’s how they contribute to the world. It’s their purpose.

Having to suddenly change that- if it’s possible in the first place- is pretty traumatic. Regardless of whether it’s cooks forced out of their kitchens due to a pandemic, or coal miners losing work as the country marches inexorably toward clean energy sources and non-fossil fuels.

Yes, having opportunities to retrain people into other fields is helpful and welcome- but we all need to understand the extremely human aspect that it’s not as easy as flipping a switch.

“Stick and Move, Stick and Move…”

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who, after years of baking, finally got a chef position here in Portland. It was everything she wanted. Stressful, yes- but complete creative freedom, and a no-questions-asked attitude toward supplies as long as what she made sold. Her efforts revitalized their pastry program, and orders came in so fast they were obligated to hire assistants for her. It finally felt like her career was taking off.

Then she got furloughed and stuck at home. She feels like her career hit a brick wall. Her partner works and they’re okay financially for the time being, but she misses her kitchen. The orders. The creativity. Just baking at home isn’t enough- she feels the need to bake for others again.

Months ago, as I was talking to my therapist, I mused about whether or not I might take a break from the kitchen life and focus on my writing for a while, even go so far as to find an office job. My therapist warned me and said, “Matt, you look so alive when you talk about your work. You really shouldn’t just shrug that off. You’ve found a calling- be careful walking away from it.”

Then the pandemic hit. A couple weeks of reduced hours, and I was waiting for the axe to come down. What I had mused about before suddenly became very real. “If I can’t work in a kitchen for the time being, writing is gonna be my best bet for a paycheck.” I think perhaps that, if I didn’t already love writing and identified as a writer before, the change would have been much more like my friend.

If the outpouring of creativity we’ve seen online since lockdown started is any indication, then people have a remarkable ability to adapt. We are able to “stick and move,” to pivot when needed if not always painlessly. More than that though, every instance people stuck at home suddenly making cooking videos, paintings, music, animations, dances, writing and telling stories demonstrates that people have a built-in drive for industry. Paycheck or not, we all want to contribute to the world and have our time mean something.

We identify ourselves not just with names and places, but with our labors and creations- and that’s something that MUST be taken into account when it comes to anything related to employment.

Stay Classy,

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