“I Put in My Headphones and I’m Gone” – One Man’s Perspective on the Day Job Life

A few weeks ago I met a guy who worked in a large corporate office.  I don’t remember his name, and I’ve changed a few biographical details here to protect his anonymity, but I’m writing about him today because he was able to describe his job in one of the most perceptive ways I’d ever heard.

This guy—Mel, I’ll call him—had been working for the same company for ten or so years, and looked to be in his early fifties.  Before that he’d worked in restaurants, owned a business, managed a ski lodge, and even been a private investigator.  Now, though, he had a family, and lived in a small New Hampshire town an hour’s drive from the small city where he worked.

Mel’s job was simple: he sat in a cubical workstation at a computer writing product descriptions for electronics (hard drives, video cards, HDMI cables, etc.) alongside four other cubical workstations where men of similar age worked the same job.  Each of them had a set quota of listings to write each week—the number was manageable, but they had to keep a steady pace to make it.

The hours were flexible—Mel usually started work early to avoid traffic, then finished early so he could spend time with his wife and kids in the evenings.  If he had an appointment or needed a day off, he either rearranged his schedule to work longer the other days, or texted his boss asking for the day off, which was always fine.

Mel’s company was located in a large office park next to a main road where a security guard patrolled the property.  Several hundred people worked there (he wasn’t sure of the exact number), though his group kept to themselves.  He passed by people from other departments in the hallway or the lobby, and they were often dressed formally and seemed to have a lot of things to do.  Mel avoided the cafeteria because it was crowded and noisy, and usually went out for lunch.

Mel’s job sounded unbelievably tedious.  He spent most of the day sorting products into different categories and marking their specifications on drop-down menus (256 GB disk space, Bluetooth 4.2, etc.), and though he did some actual writing, he mostly just cut and pasted from manufacturer’s websites.

Some days at Mel’s job were rough, not because of coworker problems or excessive work emails, but because the job dragged on so badly, and he often took walks during his lunch breaks or sat spacing out to clear his head.

Hearing Mel describe his job in such detail touched a frightening kind of nerve in me—how, I needed to know, could he possibly deal with such a mind-numbingly repetitive and pointless job for so many hours of his week?

Mel’s answer was simple: he checked out.

“Every day I go into work,” he said, “pull up my chair, put in my headphones, and WHOOOOOOOOSSSSSSH,” he accompanied this sound by extending his palm outward in a straight line, “I’m gone.”

It seemed like a natural reaction.

“I do my writeups for the week and that’s it,” he went on.  “As soon as I leave for the day, I stop thinking about work until I walk back through that door.  I don’t think about work at all on the weekends because I’ve got other things to do.  I see my family, go to my son’s baseball games, take my four-wheeler out, and refinish old furniture.  My job means nothing to me—it’s only important because it provides for my family and it lets me do the other things I want to do.”

I asked him whether he’d ever had a job he really liked, or anything else he’d wanted to do.

“Kind of,” he said, though he seemed not to want to talk about this.  “When I started this job, I knew I just needed a salary and a career that would move me to retirement.  This job does that for me, so it doesn’t matter what I do.  The only things that matter are the paycheck and the benefits, and it’s an easy job to disconnect from, so it’s OK that I don’t care about it because I have other things in my life to devote myself to.”

Mel explained all of this in a perfectly straightforward manner, and I was amazed that he could maintain such a lucid view on his situation. Checking out from what you did to pay the bills was the only way to stay sane when faced with such a monotonous job, and at first Mel’s thought process resonated with a lot of my own philosophies on Day Job work.

The more I thought about Mel’s situation, though, the more I realized how different we were.

Mel lived for the non-work aspects of his life: his family, his four-wheeling, his hobbies, and his retirement.  The idea of meaningful, rewarding work had no place in his life—unless you counted the furniture refinishing as work, which he didn’t seem to.  The entire concept of work to him was an unpleasant task that you showed up for, did with gritted teeth, checked out during, then didn’t think about afterward.

Though Mel clearly embraced the idea of having a Day Job as opposed to a Meaningful Job, what was missing from his life is the idea that a Day Job should give you some benefit as you work toward that Meaningful Job (creative or otherwise) instead of the Day Job serving as an end to itself.

Mel saw his Day Job as leading nowhere—he worked entirely for his weekends.  I see my Day Jobs as supporting me while I work toward the day when I don’t have to work Day Jobs anymore and can do work I find fulfilling: in my case, becoming a novelist, bringing my creative projects to fruition, and making a real impact on the world and the people around me.

I don’t judge Mel at all for his perspective—his philosophy made sense to him, especially since he didn’t seem to have anything bigger that he wanted to do.  If anything, I admire how clearly he could explain his situation to someone he didn’t know.  Though I’ve met a lot of people young and old who think the same way Mel does, I find that they’re either unable to describe their perspectives with such clarity or just aren’t willing to be open about them.

Being a creative person with a Day Job often involves the same kind of checking out that Mel does while you work on the unpleasant tasks that move you where you need to go.  The main difference, though, is that you always have to be moving toward that other goal, never forgetting about it, and constantly navigating the difficult path to get there.

That constant development and momentum is something you can’t ever forget, because without it you’re just living for the other aspects of your life that aren’t meaningful work.  For a lot of people that’s OK because it’s how they want to live their lives—but for most of you reading this blog, I don’t think it is.

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