Starting out in that first full-time job all those years ago brings back memories. The canal-side walk in crisp autumn mornings, meetings in rooms cloudy with tobacco smoke, separate exec and worker canteens. Working life was simple at age twenty-one; keep the boss happy, do a good job, plan my imagined rapid ascent to the top and buy as much stuff as the meagre starting salary would afford. More was better and complexity equalled cleverness. Salary and promotion was assumed yet jumping off the career ladder produced the best quality of life.
Looking back with dispassionate eyes awarded by passing time, it’s clear that success, as I termed it then, wasn’t some prize to be won in the employment card game but was akin to the maturing of a fine wine or whisky. Trust and like-mindedness building slowly over the years. Nevertheless, obsessed with personal progress and oblivious to the value around me, frustration accumulated. With carefully aimed precision, I eventually jumped from the relative safety of market town manufacturing into the fire of big city sales ambition and greed.
“Like boiling a frog slowly, it’s hard to see the harm until it’s too late.”
A great skill of our 21st century world is its ability to gradually accustom us to undesirable changes we didn’t ask for. Like boiling a frog slowly, it’s hard to see the harm until it’s too late. Now the world is hooked on smartphones and we discover it’s easy to spy on them. The smiling early adopter promise of social media is revealed as crowd-sourced advertiser fodder. Employment too: we accustom ourselves to the two-hour commute or the dull weekly meeting. We become that round peg in the round hole after all.
Back to the baptism by fire and the painfully vertical learning curve. Month by month, a year passed with each day an existential challenge. Out of tune with my inner nature and unable to grasp why retail assistants all seemed so difficult; in a world where empathy was a tool, compassion became a weakness. At age twenty-four, unhappy and un-wealthy, I embarked on career change number two.
Over the years, jobs, cars, houses and many other things come and go. We learn family, community and neighbours make a home, not number and size of rooms. We can only sit in one chair at a time. We chauffeur the big empty car in anticipation of the rare time five seats and the boot are full. And we learn that peace comes from owning our time, living comfortably in our own skin, being ourselves, envying no one.
The biggest transformation turned out to be my baptism by fire. Utterly alien yet sufficiently different from what went before and came after to highlight the differences. There was nothing slow about that boiled frog.
Gradually it dawned on me (I’m a slow learner) that peace comes from within. A bigger salary isn’t better if you’re never home. Cars come in colours other than executive silver or black and bigger ones are harder to park. The higher you climb the ladder, the more you’ll encounter people with fears, giant egos or ruthless ambition and the more you’ll see negative effects of pressure and overwork. So, I jumped off the career ladder.
Landing in a cabbage-patch, which got eaten by caterpillars (Oh Well), quality of life took on a new lease. Intrigues now entail doggie toys lost under kitchen dressers and status reports show only chopped logs and painted walls. Diversity is back, the clock is demoted, money is sparser but peace reigns in return.
Now, time for a quiet mug of coffee, a Rich Tea biscuit (OK, four then) and maybe a performance evaluation meeting with our dog in a while. I hope she rates my ball-throwing abilities highly.
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