How much does what we do affect who we are? Do we tend to identify ourselves and others through work they/we do?
It’s a difficult question for me to get my head around. We spend a lot of our adult life at work so it’s almost inevitable that what we do is a part of who we are. Sometimes, this can be a great thing. If you truly love what you do or if you are one of those lucky people who has managed to combine their hobby with their job. Sometimes, however, I feel that in our society too much emphasis is put on what a person does for a living and people tend to get judged by that. This judgment can put a lot of pressure on anyone to find the right thing to do.
I have felt that pressure as well. I was a late starter in the whole working life. Unlike many teens and students, I never had a summer or part-time job when I was at school or university. I was always told that my “job” is concentrating on my studies. Although I spent many days helping my father organise different sporting events since I was about 10 years old, my first ever proper job was during my last year of graduate programme. I was offered a teaching position in my old hometown school and I decided to take it. It was daunting that my first experience on the job market was standing in front of teenagers 24 hours a week but somehow I managed through it until the end of the school year. I then had to admit defeat – I was not a teacher.
After a frustrating summer of searching, I finally got a job as a management assistant in a decent size and well-known retail company in Tallinn. It was not exactly a prestigious position but if you happen to be an English major with no real previous experience, your options are limited and finding a job can be a real struggle.
Although nine-to-five of assisting sounded like a dream after twenty-four-seven of teaching, it soon became clear that this wasn’t the job for me. What made matters worse, it seemed that everyone around me was getting involved with all the “cool” jobs in new start-up businesses and I felt stuck behind my corporate desk.
I wanted something different, something that would be new and exciting. The world of start ups was something that was supposed to be desirable: the promises of “no corporate bullshit” and open space offices with bean bags and games rooms were the things to aim for. I felt like I needed to pursue those things as well in order to be seen successful.
I managed to land an interview with a start up accelerator in Tallinn. They had a cool and spacious office in the middle of the old town. The interview with two of the senior members of staff was completely relaxed; we kept joking and chatting about things outside the work. They were relaxed about when and where work was done, what you wore to office and emphasised that it was all about the team work and not about the chain of authority. It was everything I had imagined from a hip and fresh work environment. I thought I really wanted it. When they told me they hired someone with more experience in the world of start ups, I was really gutted. Looking back now, I think I was more disappointed about not being able to quit my previous job and not about being rejected for that position.
After another six months of being stuck behind that corporate desk, I had had truly enough of the bullshit and quit my job and decided to move to Cumbria. On my last day in the office, I still had no idea what I was going to do next, but after the excitement of freedom calmed down after a few days, I needed to start thinking about it. I figured that I could try and kill two birds at the same time – applying for a job in the hospitality business was likely to solve the problem of where I was going to live as well. The problem was that I had no experience because like I said, I never had had a job as a student in a bar or restaurant. However, after sending out about dozen carefully crafted emails with my emptyish CV attached to it, I got a reply from a guesthouse New Ing Lodge offering all that I was after: a job, a bed and food. The job was what I had been expecting: housekeeping and waiting but it didn’t matter. I was more concerned about where I was going to live to worry about what I was doing for living.
I was moving away from pursuing a cool and exciting career and going back to the basics. Instead of feeling like I was moving backwards, I felt liberated: I was walking away from the rat race. They job was exactly what it sounded like: setting for and serving breakfast, cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry, greeting the guests, serving dinner and manning the bar. No rocket science but that was the beauty of it – after the first few months, I suddenly realised that for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel stressed. The stress was only temporary: getting the breakfasts out in time, being ready with the dinners on time but as soon as the tension was over, so was the stress.
Almost two years later, my responsibilities here have changed and getting to clean the bathrooms feels like a privilege. Inevitably, the stress levels have increased as well but I’m still below my previous average. The most important thing is that without planning to, I have actually moved away from a corporate job. This isn’t a cool start up, but it is a small family business run by people who are all under 35 and we all work hard and get our hands dirty. However, this doesn’t seem to have the same prestige.
I have been asked more than once, how long I am going to stay here and when I am going to get a proper job. Apparently, because I have a graduate degree and my GPA was well over 4.5, I should be out there doing a more important job. This seems to be the opinion of those who know me. And those who only know me working here and seeing me pouring pints and cleaning rooms probably see me as not quite able to do much else or lacking in ambition to go for a bigger job. And that bothers me.
It might have started out as a random job but it has grown into so much more. Although it’s not my business (and I have to keep reminding that), I care for its well-being and it’s success. I don’t mind being called a housekeeper but I know my job entails so much more. I have wonderful employers who include me in decision making and allow me to argue against ideas that I don’t think will work. And we do argue. Despite working hard, sometimes up to 60 hours a week, it is quite a relaxed place to work. The beers and wine in the bar are sometimes too easily accessible… I am being trusted to run things on my own. This job has allowed me to gain so much more confidence in what I do. It has pushed me outside my comfort zone and made me realise that I can do more than I think. Never in my life I imagined being able to cook 25 full breakfasts to a stag party but actually it was a piece of cake. (I also learnt that I am incredibly bad at insulating a house – it’s a job that looks much easier than it actually is!) For the first time in my life, it think I’ve found something that I might be quite good at and although at this time of the year I am constantly tired, I do love my job.
Is what I do who I am, though? I’d like to think not. Even though I enjoy what I am doing, I am much more than that. I’m not just a cleaner or a host, there are other parts in that equation. I know that if I am to leave and have to apply for another job, it doesn’t look particularly exciting on my CV because I cannot put everything that I do into a simple timeline. It might not be comfortable for my mum to answer questions on what I am doing in England if those people know my academic background. But at the end of the day, this shouldn’t be the reason for me to change jobs. I still have the same academic abilities but that doesn’t mean I cannot work in a more real and hands on position.
I am proud that my escape from the corporate world wasn’t into “cool” job. I’m proud to do something different. I don’t want to chase after a career just for the sake of it, I already have a proper job.