You are one of the lucky ones. You have a job, in a climate-controlled building with coffee available in the kitchenette and possibly even a special chair if you have back pain. You have health insurance, and if you open your mouth to complain about the commute your friends glare at you because they just sold their printer on Craigslist in order to make rent; they do not have health insurance, and they have toothaches that last for six weeks because they can’t afford the dentist. Your parents are proud of you for having a cube with your name on the outside.
But maybe you do not always feel lucky.
Maybe you felt lucky after leaving the interview, went out for drinks with your roommates that night and grinned stupidly, but you did not realize that every day after that would also be a job interview; every day, all over again, you would have to sit up straight and pretend to be interested in innovative business strategy that drives productivity and results, and also your boss’s new car. He is always getting new cars.
Maybe your little cube is in a corner where the light is dim and you can easily go a full eight hours without talking to another human being except via email, and you realize your entire job is just something they haven’t quite figured out how to automate yet. Maybe you sometimes wander around the building holding a mug under the pretext of getting coffee just to break up the hours staring at a screen. And maybe when you go home you realize that the highest point of your day was reading TMZ on your lunch break. Maybe you have had this job for five years, or ten, or thirty, and you still have the fleeting impulse to lie every time someone asks what you do. You could be an astronaut. They don’t know.
But you can’t complain, because you are lucky. Sometimes being lucky just means being lonely, that’s all. Right?
Well, I don’t know. Maybe. But regardless, no one deserves to tell you that you don’t deserve to complain. You can definitely complain, because the fact of the matter is that the corporate animals of America are built for money and nothing else, and it is a universally acknowledged truth that what is good for money is almost never good for your soul. So in the interests of your soul and possibly your heart and brain as well, I urge you to take action. Some of them are small actions, some are not – but when you have one of those days when you look at the container of paper clips on your desk and think “Is this all that I am now?” you need to do something, or else you might think the answer is “yes.”
Of course — most office jobs are not soul-sucking. In fact, they might be exactly what you want to do with your life! You win! This article might not be for you, but you can read it anyhow.
Remember what it was you wanted to do before you did this.
“I used to be free spirited
Now I’m just free of sleep
I got a burning passion in my throat
I got a burning passion inside me
I got a job that wastes my time and gift
I got a life that needs a serious lift”
– Tegan & Sara, “More For Me”
Of course not everyone who ends up in an office 9 to 5 is a thwarted bohemian; you did not necessarily want to become the next Proust or Sofia Coppola and ended up processing payroll documents in Akron, Ohio instead. But maybe you did enjoy reading Proust, or maybe it was Borges or Kuhn or Kant. Maybe you liked soldering things together or writing tabs for the theme music to obscure Japanese game shows.
Depending on how long you’ve had that office job and the depth of your emotional reserves and level of commitment to the things you love, you may have stopped doing these things entirely. While you were initially excited that your robust new paycheck could fund more raw materials for your blacksmithing hobby, you now find that when you get home from work you only have just enough energy to lay on the couch and watch The Office. You don’t even have the energy to wince at how pathetic a choice of entertainment that is in light of your current situation.
The first step is to stop doing this. Imagine those scenes in movies where someone slaps the hysterical character across the face, and after a moment of wide-eyed shock they say “thank you, I needed that.” Tell yourself, “There was a time when you wanted to compose a rock opera about a love affair between Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, and by God, you’re still going to!” See, you needed that.
Just telling yourself this won’t make it happen, though. You need a plan. Set aside twenty minutes or a full hour every day, and tell yourself that this belongs to you and you owe it to yourself to keep it that way. Because I hate the heartless reptilian corporate machine that I work for, I like to use company time for this.
First thing in the morning, right after I get my Keurig-machine French Roast and turn the computer on, my time begins.
I use the first half hour or so to write for my own personal pursuits, and since I’m sitting in front of a keyboard and no one else has had their coffee yet either, no one notices or cares. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, though, or if your job involves cancer research for babies or something where slacking off is maybe less okay, your lunch break is a good time too. Get out your sketchpad and work on Shakespeare set pieces, write poetry, knit kneesocks, do your thing.
If you have actual friends or people who don’t make you want to vomit at the place you work, you might want to eat lunch with them; this is permissible. Spend the first or last half hour of your break working for yourself, and then spend the rest gossiping over sloppy joes from the cafeteria.
You won’t believe how much this does to combat the foggy, mournful feeling of “What did I even do today?” as you walk towards your car in the afternoon. You’ll be able to answer “I wrote the scene where she finally tells him she’s leaving!” or “I figured out how many links of chain mail I’ll need to make a historically accurate chest piece!”
Doesn’t that feel better? Now do it again, and again the next day, and before you know it you feel like a real live human being.
Keep it secret, keep it safe
Since most large corporations are actually designed so that all your time is documented and reported on and every move you make is monitored by a person or a machine or both, actually making time for yourself can be difficult. The most insidious and difficult to overcome obstacle might be their surveillance of your work online; even if the sites you visit at work don’t get actively blocked because of some kind of objectionable content (where I work, Pandora is blocked, but Grooveshark isn’t?), there’s about a 99.9% chance that every single click you make or character you type is totally exposed to the company you work for.
The content of your emails (even personal ones, on you personal account, if you’re on the company’s network connection) and phone calls are within their rights to read, and if you do anything criminal on a company computer they can and will have you prosecuted for it. The IT guy at my company looks exactly like Kevin Smith and keeps a jar of bacon bits on his desk at all times. I don’t want him knowing about the emotional breakdown I had that was so bad I had to email my mom about it. So the question, clearly, is how to do what you want without having the company peering over your shoulder the whole time. There are a few ways to do this:
Go off the grid.
Like for real, don’t even use a computer. I bring a notebook to work and keep it next to my keyboard to write in; as long as I look up at a computer screen every few minutes, there’s no one to say I’m not taking notes for something work-related. If you can do something in the real, physical realm – drawing or knitting or even writing out code longhand, do it. It is the safest and also most satisfying way to do your thing completely under the radar.
If you don’t have a smartphone yet, you might want to think about it.
It would be trying to write an entire novel on an iPhone, but people have done it. And there are plenty of neat little tools and apps on a variety of different platforms that you might find useful. This is also totally not suspicious at all; it’s beyond normal for people to have a smartphone or six (seriously I feel like people have a lot of them sometimes?) laying out on their desk, beeping and burbling occasionally. At the very least, you can send out that email reminding people that the first meeting of your deep breathing hot rock yogilates regression therapy group is tonight, and to wear loose clothing, without worrying that the IT guy is reading it while pouring bacon bits into his mouth straight from the jar.
For the really intrepid or really desperate, it is possible to SSH through your company’s network and connect to another one entirely…
which should mean that whatever it is you’re doing on their computer is actually on a completely separate network and therefore undetectable to them. This might require teaching yourself a quasi-significant amount of programming, but if you really need to be able to maintain your lesbian furry porn website 24 hours a day, it might be your only option. It also requires having another server to SSH to, which you would have to set up on your own outside of work or have someone do for you. But if you’re that motivated, here’s a quick tutorial on how all that works, more or less. This is also probably something that will set off major alarm bells if anyone figures out you’re doing it, in a way that shopping for new rain boots on Amazon will not, so be careful. But also, man, you’re really badass.
Sticking it to the man
Hopefully, balancing your time between what is owed to the thing that pays your salary and what is owed to yourself will go at least a little ways towards combating the feeling that your head and also heart are full of cotton balls at the end of the workday. Even so, though, it doesn’t hurt to have a few things up your sleeve that are maybe kind of childish but ultimately improve your quality of life. In an environment where your ability to ‘act like an adult’ is really the only skill you’re supposed to exercise, being childish can be a huge relief.
Have a project.
Mine is origami. I spend a lot of my time on conference calls, only about 20% of which actually require my participation or even attention. So I am slowly mastering the art of post-it note origami; I have a small army of cranes already, and am working my way towards finishing this. For you, it might be wallpapering your cubicle with the annoying coversheets from the printer, or keeping a picture of Gillian Anderson next to your computer and telling people who walk by all about the big plans you and your fiancee have for the weekend. Have fun with it. God knows it’s not going to happen any other way.
Look into what your company offers, and figure out how to take advantage of it.
Depending on your company’s set of benefits, you could qualify for discounts on travel, computers, or cell phones by inputting a company code. Does your company have paid volunteer days cleaning up trash, or are there employee-formed groups aimed at reading Tolstoy or learning the tabla? It’s possible that everyone you work with is dumber than a pile of hammers and also annoying, but maybe they’re not.
The best way to find people who probably don’t suck is to look for ones who are new and also low-ranking; temps are great, for instance, because they have less to lose. Make conversation with one, and see if you can gauge whether they’re as close to just laying down on the beige carpet and giving up as you are. If they seem like they’re also beginning to forget why they even bother showing up at this place, maybe it’s safe to blurt out “This place makes me want to change my name to Silverleaf and run into the woods to live alone, surviving on berries and raw fish, so I can finally be free of webinars. Do you want to watch fifteen minutes of Community on my iPhone in the supply closet with me?”
If your company is so mind-bogglingly corporate that they have deleted Minesweeper and Solitaire from the computers, you can get them as extensions in Chrome and use them without leaving the browser. If you aren’t allowed to use Chrome or download anything, then God help you, my friend, for you have gone to a place where I dare not tread.