On the emotional nature of work and business

As a medical student during the early nineties, I used to ‘decompress’ by reading light-hearted fiction; warm, simple stories about normal human problems. No War and Peace for me. Too ambitious. At the time, I liked to read Maeve Binchy. You’ve probably seen her fiction displayed in bookstores. One story in particular, titled “Marble Arch”, about a young female entrepreneur, struck a chord. By a lot of unglamorous hard work, she’s learned to make a living selling hand-stitched handbags. Her family is nonplussed that she left a salaried position selling cosmetics to strike out on her own:

“Her mother had worked regularly and quietly in a restaurant. She said that her one ambition was that Sophie should never have a job which meant walking and standing, and dealing with dirty plates and difficult customers. She was happy when Sophie was selling nice, fresh, good-smelling oils and paints for people’s faces. She was worried when she seemed to become a person of no account sitting in a little stall shouting her wares to the public.”

It’s an attitude I heard growing up – where a nice safe credentialed job was lauded, while business was seen as mercurial and unsafe. Well, starting a small business is risky. The story continues:

“Sophie sighed, thinking how little everyone around her knew about business…….Really she had made very little impression on anyone, with her own businesslike attitudes. Nobody realized that it wasn’t easy to be organized and disciplined and to make money. It took a lot of time, and worry, and ate into all those hours you could be sitting around and enjoying yourself. Nobody ever got drawn into her belief that people might be on this earth to work hard.”

Nobody ever got drawn into her belief that people might be on this earth to work hard.  Sounds like every lecture ever given to me – as a young person - by my parents. I think they were exasperated by my youthful ideas about work and life. I thought, I really thought, that everything should be sweet, easy and pleasant. Ah, that dangerous expectation: that work should always and everywhere be fulfilling, whatever that means.

10 thoughts on “On the emotional nature of work and business”

  1. “Ah, that dangerous expectation: that work should always and everywhere be fulfilling, whatever that means.”

    People have disagreed with me with surprising emphaticness (not a word. Emphasis?) when I have taken issue with “do what you love”.

    I wouldn’t think it’s that far-fetched to say that “do what you love” is great if “what you love” will pay the bills; otherwise, not so much.

    My daughter complained just a bit about her first real job until her dad told her that’s why they call it “work”. If they called it “fun” nobody would pay you to do it.

  2. Your experience reminds me of my own when in pursuit of a Mech. Eng. degree. One day, after hours hidden away at my usual library carrel, I noticed a whole section of P.G. Wodehouse novels. I was charmed and amused. Binchy’s character sounds polar opposite of Wodehouse’s “Bertie Woocester” though. Bertie is a wealthy, superficial, impractical, and idiotic (though he is usually the brightest of the upper crust Wodehouse shows us) wastrel.

  3. Not only is a small business hard work, the real work never ends. If you work for wages, you put in your time and then you go home and leave the cares of work behind. If you own a business, you never really stop working. Even when your home your thinking about the business. You can never really relax.

    There is definitely a strong cultural component that holds that everything should be fun. I began to notice this when evaluating children’s products. They all said, “Makes learning fun!” Children are primed with the idea that learning should be entertaining. Yes, acquiring new skills is gratifying but the actual process of practicing those skills is often tedious and boring. People should learn early on to tolerate boring task that present no immediate reward.

  4. Well … just about a month ago, I quit a job – which was a regular, just-above-mini-wage paying job, at a huge corporate enterprise which operates call-centers for various other corporate clients, which didn’t seem to be doing too badly, all things considered.
    But I hated the job, everything about it; I think that it killed my soul, just a little bit, every day that I walked in and grimly and competently performed those tasks required of me, for the hours that were required. It wasn’t a job that used any more of my skills, any more of my training, or passions or interests than just the bare brute ability and basic requirement than just to show up when required, and go through the rote of the shift. I stuck this out, for almost exactly a year, which is six months longer than is usually expected at that job, and six months longer than I had thought when I commenced upon that particular stint of employment.
    I quit when I could see that certain of my other interests, and potential skills had a better than average chance of paying off for me, on a more than reliable basis – doing the marketing for my books, working for on a couple of free-lance manuscripts, working with a tiny local publishing ‘bidness,’ taking a contract to do a writing project as a hired scribbler, and another to do written and photographic input for a local firm … all of which are much more to my taste, and even for slightly more than what I had from the regular corporate employer.

    Yes, the second sort may be a little bit more erratic … but the first – the regular corporate employment – that would have killed me, by degrees. Or made me wish that I was dead, before many more months.

    The trade-off is between being able to pay the bills with a job that destroys you, or to juggle uncertainties with a somewhat erratic, and wholly-personal-driven employment, from which you derive a certain amount of personal enjoyment and satisfaction.

  5. What people don’t realize is that until recently, life was never described as “fun.” Life was always struggle and hardship. For 60 years or so (1950-201?) people in the West were lucky enough to live through a time period where everything sort of fell into place that allowed for good living. But now that good time is coming to an end. The nation-state welfare system is going broke, cheap oil is gone, globalization has made steady employment (in the way we’re used to it) a thing of the past, and the consumption via the debt economy is dying.

    Its back to the bad old days.

  6. Some people should do what they love. Some people are better off doing work that they don’t like but that pays well. Some people should take risks on the possibility of a distant payoff. Some people should keep their noses to the grindstone and bank every penny. Some people should take frequent vacations to keep from becoming stale. Some people should never take time off, because they might fall apart without the structure provided by their work routine. There are no hard and fast rules, because people differ. Happily, a free and dynamic economy provides a wide variety of ways for people to exchange their products or effort for remuneration.

  7. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania and later Michigan, I was told almost continuously “Get a job with US Steel (or General Motors). You’ll have a job for life and a secure pension.” Somehow I always doubted that.

    A few months ago my mother, who lives in suburban Detroit, was telling me about a man who lived in the sam townhouse complex as her. This guy was laid off from some kind of mid-level executive job in the auto industry, where he had worked for the same company his entire life. He absolutely could not figure out anything to do. He ran through all his savings and then got evicted for failure to pay his maintenance fees. (He put the unit on the market but real estate in the Detroit area isn’t exactly moving like hotcakes this year.) The sheriff’s deputies put his furniture and possessions on the lawn and people just helped themselves as he looked on passively.

    Socialism and state-protected corporatism both seems to breed people kind of like domestic animals. And to think that the stagnant regulation- and tariff-protected corporate world of the 50s is Krugman’s golden age.

  8. Great thread and fine comments, all!

    Laura (Southernxyl) – sometimes it’s hard to find out what you love when you won’t venture to do something potenitally unpleasant! I’m quite serious about this; a dreamer like me needed to be pushed when younger, sometimes.

    Tyouth – that brings back memories! Wodehouse is more literary, and I’ve always meant to read Wodehouse. I’d say Binchy is nice paperback beach reading. Nothing wrong with that.

    Shannon Love – there is a strain of theraputic educational culture that refuses to let students struggle with something ‘boring’ for fear they won’t learn. Rote learning isn’t always good, certainly, but its not always bad.

    Sgt. Mom – I love to hear stories about your books and how you pursued what you wanted. It’s inspiring.

    Seerov – I might be kind of Pollyannish, but I just refuse to believe the best is behind us. Optimist, I suppose.

    Jonathan – that’s fabulous. I absolutely love what you wrote.

    Barbara – yup, I agree.

    Jim Bennett – sad story. I suppose the moral is that we should always think of back-ups for everything, computers and life? Heavens, what would I do if I couldn’t practice medicine? You know, I think the most viable option would be for me to go back to India, I suppose, although this is my home and country and I would be an expat in every sense if I went back. Still, the money would go farther. Ooh, I shudder to think what I would do!

    Okay, if I missed anyone, sorry. This was fun!

  9. Thanks, Onparkstreet – a lot of the tangled tale of how I came to write books – er, historical fiction – is in the archives on my original blog, The Daily Brief. (www.ncobrief.com) and information about my books (with historical essays, reviews and other authorania) is at my literary website, http://www.celiahayes.com!

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