Thursday, May 15, 2008


Like Frank Sinatra, I've had a few regrets, and one of the big ones is never having quit a job in dramatic fashion. I envy those who have. One day, after having to kowtow to a mean and miserable customer, my wife decided that she'd had it with being chained to a major retailer's checkout counter, asked her boss if written notice was required and, on being told that it was, printed off four inches of cash register tape and wrote "I quit" on it. I recall the exact moment she told me this story. We'd just started dating, and she had me at "I quit". I also knew a guy who went into his boss's office one night after work and said, "I'm done," and the boss said, "Okay, see you tomorrow." "No," the guy explained. "I'm done." And that was that. I never knew him well, and never saw him again, but I liked him much better after hearing that story.

Given the career path I've chosen, it seems unlikely that I'll ever have the opportunity to tell somebody to take this job and staff it, which is the only downside to having a job that I love. One possible solution is to go out and get a retail or customer-service type job and then quit loudly and dramatically after a week or so, but I doubt I'd derive much satisfaction in circumstances where there would be nothing at stake. Dramatic quitting should involve personal risk.

Before returning to school to do my master's degree, I worked for nine years in the private sector: eight of them for a newspaper that had, in those days, a long way to climb to reach mediocrity. (It has now more-or-less officially abandoned the effort.) I wasn't a writer — you had to have a journalism degree to be competent to write five hundred words twice a week about the winner of the science fair, or about the local man who was the first to call 911, but doesn't consider himself a hero. I worked in production, and then did death notices, and then settled into classified advertising, on what amounted to a white-collar assembly line. I worked for four team leaders and a manager, meaning that I caught hell from five ways every time something went wrong, which was often. I hated my job and was bad at it. What was worst about it were the semi-regular "teambuilding" exercises, where adults were forced to do childish — and sometimes overtly degrading — activities whose ostensible goal was to teach the value of group effort. (Click the link, and if you can watch more than two minutes, you should also read this.) In addition, there were occasional guest speakers whose topics dealt with such matters as "achieving excellence" and "becoming a champion", and it all boiled down to the same thing: if you hate your job, it's your problem: the sort of pseudo-therapeutic blame-the-victim piffle familiar to anyone who watches Oprah. I actually knew one of the speakers slightly, and while talking to him later he admitted that he read all this stuff from a prepared script that his company provided, and that he really, really wanted a new job.

I am convinced that the real and intended agenda behind the emphasis on "teamwork" was to discourage independent thinking, to tell the members of the team, in effect, "shut up and do as you're told." But if capitalism has ever succeeded at anything, it has been because of the efforts of industrious and creative individualists — a point that business leadership books make incessantly. My company wasn't looking for those amongst the rank-and-file.

Many people dislike their jobs, but, in my experience, people can be happy in almost any line of work, provided that they are granted the autonomy to it their own way and do it well. Looking back, this may explain why so many of the lower tier-managers I knew were nasty people: chewing out subordinates was the one part of their job where they could exercise a degree of autonomous creativity, and some of them took every opportunity to do so.

I wish I could say that I was the round peg in the square hole, the one who had the courage to point out that the emperor was likely to catch a chill, but the fear of losing one's paycheck is a powerful motivation. So I gritted my teeth and went through the motions, and the dismal days turned into dismal months and finally into depressing years. Eventually — after far too long — I got up the courage to go back to school, but not until the financial circumstances were favourable. So, an opportunity passed, and if I had children I would advise them to quit their jobs before it's too late.

I can't say that I regret those years entirely. I met three or four people who I liked, and I learned how important it is to find a job that you enjoy. Above all, it reinforced my belief that nothing works harder for socialism than big business.

Regular readers of this blog can stop here. The rest of this message is not for you, it's for someone who isn't reading this blog and who, for that matter, probably can’t.

(Dear M.C. You were my "team leader", a little over 10 years ago. You may recall that you once raised your voice at me because I didn't tell you that a certain client was at the counter, even though you didn't ask to see that person, and that person didn't ask to see you. I apologized then, and profusely. I hereby withdraw that apology and many others I was forced to make between 1995 and 1997. I recant all grovelling and fawning and gestures of civility. Above all, I take back my acceptance of an apology that you once made to me. You were a rotten, mean, and frankly rather dim-witted boss, and I want you to know that, retroactively, I quit.)


Alison Hunter said...

When I read your blogs I click on the links right away. The teambuilding one that you later refer to as impossible to watch more than two minutes of? I only got to 39 seconds. I went through all of the emotions I get when I watch a two hour Pauly Shore movie ... but in less than a minute.

TJ said...

Just read your last para. If only you had spewed forth those wonderfully "long" words that were so wonderfully "over" the intellectual reaches of the great M.C. while I was in attendance! My humble adoration of your fine wit would have grown to epic proportions. M.C. still moves and motivates people at the same lowly newspaper today - it's not too late....but please, call me first!