Do what you love or your stuff owns you (or something)

Work is work, I realize that, but the old gal ain’t what she used to be.

My obsessive attention to detail is a blessing and a hindrance. Spending all day nudging pixels back and forth or writing and editing are no problem and I do get to spend a hefty chunk of my time on that work, so about half of my job is damn near perfect. My colleagues are terrific and supportive. Considering the job market these days I shouldn’t be complaining. I hope you don’t mind too much if I think through this with you.

At least fifty minutes of work commute is filled with podcasts (mostly) from Dan Benjamin’s excellent 5by5 Network. Dan cohosts most of the shows I listen to, but nobody puts more words in my ears than Merlin Mann.1

On their most recent episode of Back to Work (2012–07–09 e75: The Mayor of Perspective) Merlin and Dan talked about a topic suggested by listener @toddsandends, to wit, “what happens when you’re stuck enforcing rules you don’t agree with?” Turns out, the show’s catchphrase “That’s fine for Merlin”2 made an appearance as they discussed doing the work you love.

How long are you going to keep poking that stick in your eye?

I tried to skim the 87-minute episode and could not find the reference. I remember Merlin explaining how it finally hit home about the fourth time he realized he should not be working for anybody else. I have known this about myself all along and been trying to ignore my instincts since I began working at 15 years old. He compared this agony to someone jabbing a stick in their eye.3

FIRST GUY, jabbing stick in eye
Wow, this really hurts!
Have you thought about not jabbing that stick in your eye?

My job is not something I take lightly, and it has been an insane sense of responsibility that has kept my nose to the grindstone. I have been helping to support my family since my early 20s to ensure we were insured and fed. I guess I am on my fourth career: restaurant, hospital, newspapers, and now communications & design.

Most of my job allows me creative license to write and design, this is the nearly perfect half of my job I mentioned earlier. Hand me a broad idea sprinkled with some conceptual thinking and let close my door and work. I will make something great. The bureaucracy is what wearies my bones; bureaucracy and trying to make everyone happy. My happy account is just about busted, and my family may argue that I’m already broke.

Again, I know I don’t have a lot of room to complain. I know a lot of people—a lot—are struggling much harder than me. Trust me, I know this is so a first world problem, but it is where I am today. It’s where I’ve been for a while. Right now I don’t see a way out, and that exacerbates the problem. I want to stop jabbing this stick in my eye.

It may be time to find another way.

  1. See also Roderick on the Line and guest spots on Scruffy Thinking (2012–03–27 Attack of the Mann), Mac Power Users (2012–06–25 ep91 Workflows with Merlin Mann III), and The Talk Show (2012–07–06 ep8 Like Giving Natalie Portman a Trucker Cap).  ↩

  2. Look at me! I’m Merlin Mann!  ↩
  3. Disclaimer: I am not trying to put words in Merlin’s mouth. He already has enough scrambling to get out as fast as possible. Do not mistake this as a recommendation to quit your job unless that is the right thing to do.  ↩