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Redefining Success When I Hated My Day Job

I Let My Job Title Determine My Self-Worth

I always wanted my job to sound special. When filling in a doctor’s intake form or on my taxes, I wanted something exciting to write on the line next to “Profession.” I believed my job would be one of the most defining parts of me. I first wanted to be a ballerina, then a pediatrician. As I got older, deep down, I wanted to be a writer, “maybe for The New York Times,” I’d tell myself secretly. I wanted my job to be cool; I wanted people to think I was smart. My job would dictate my level of success, i.e. how much money I made, and it would also become my identity and bolster my self-worth. Even though I didn’t know exactly what my career would look like, I thought if I worked hard, eventually it would lead me to who I would become.

As a kid I had lots of chores. A normal Saturday would involve slowly skulking over to the kitchen counter, desperately trying to ignore my mom’s note of to dos. At 13, I got my first job bussing tables at a family friend’s restaurant. I was a babysitter, waitress, college radio DJ, caterer, bar back…. Being young, the only requirement for success was merely a clocking in and out. These jobs were temporary, a working towards something, and eventually they would accumulate and bring me closer to my destined career.

After college, I joyfully accepted a job on the west coast as an entry level editor at a large corporation. I had my own office, benefits, free coffee, and an unlimited selection of office supplies. I felt like I had a career. I finally felt successful.

For a few years, life felt easier, grander. I had a steady, competitive paycheck that afforded me raspberries whenever I wanted them, and a fancy latte once, maybe twice, a week. But four years later, the job started to lose its luster. The corporate culture became soul crushing, there was no room for advancement, and editing the same content over and over became mind numbing.

My job would dictate my level of success, i.e. how much money I made, and it would also become my identity and bolster my self-worth.

Maggie Trela

 

When I met with my boss to quit, I disguised my unhappiness with the fact that we were moving back east. Even though I wanted to walk out à la Half Baked, or tell my harsh hypnotized truth à la Office Space, I pleasantly quit, agreeing to keep in touch once we got settled.

Eight months later, I got a call asking to come back as a part-time contractor. I didn’t want it, but I was back to waiting tables and quickly tiring of customers asking if I was a local college student. “I’ve already graduated; I’m actually an editor,” I would say defensively. Even though I was happy waitressing, and making quite good money, the job title “server” felt tarnished and nullified my college degree. Or at least I allowed it to.

And so I accepted the new position with my old company. It ticked off enough “success” boxes that for awhile, I felt like my professional worth was redeemed.

Three years in, no raises, no promotions, no full-time job offers. Year four, the company culture was changing fast: We had a new CEO, organizational restructuring, and tight budgets. At this point, I’d been there a total of eight years, “long enough,” I thought, that maybe I should stay, commit, make this company my career. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t fulfilled, but I couldn’t walk away again, not yet. I was terrified not to have the job title, scared that if I left again, I’d only prove to myself that I wasn’t accomplished. In the back of my mind, I was just a waitress posing as a publishing professional.

I scoured the internet for professional advice and stumbled upon this article.

“‘What the fuck are you doing? … What the hell are you doing?’ she repeated. ‘Clearly this organization is showing you that they don’t value you.’”

The corporation doesn’t value me, so what the hell am I doing?!” I initially thought. But really, deep down I wondered, “When did I stop valuing myself?”

Every day when the alarm would go off, for eights years, I’d think, “fuck.” I could mostly do my job with my eyes closed. I did everything anyone asked before deadline, and was agreeable to never getting a raise, glad to wait for empty promises.

I feel like a failure. It seems like the harder I work, the more I encounter them. The more I try to find my place in the world, the more confounding the hunt becomes.

 

And the biggest let down of it all? I got laid off last week. Even now as I write this, I want to delete that sentence. Tell myself that you don’t need to know that. That I can still write this story without the fact that after almost a decade, I was told it’s over. It’s embarrassing, gut wrenching, scary, and infuriating. It’s also the truth.

I feel like a failure. It seems like the harder I work, the more I encounter them. The more I try to find my place in the world, the more confounding the hunt becomes.

The night before I got the bad news, my husband and I went to see Office Space at an old theater. For those that haven’t seen this 1999 cult classic, it’s about a guy named Peter Gibbons who hates his job at Initech, a software company. While he’s being hypnotized (at the request of his terrible, soon-to-be-ex girlfriend), the hypnotist dies and Peter’s left in IDGAF state permanently. He stops caring about work, shows up only when he wants, asks out the waitress Joanna that he’s been crushing onand somehowcharms the consultants that have come to Initech to lay off employees. It’s a hilarious, shockingly accurate portrayal of how it feels to work for a corporation. For Halloween 2011, my corporate coworkers and I even dressed up as the characters, me as Joanna since I was the former waitress (and one of the only girls on the team). At the theater, we drank IPAs and ate too much popcorn, the entire audience clapped at the end, and we laughed all the way home about how much the film still rang relevant and true.

The next day felt prophetic. After I was laid off and finalized my last week of work, I realized that just like Peter and Joanna, I stopped valuing myself a long time ago. The moment I put more value in my job title than in my happiness should have been my first clue. The moment I let myself feel discouraged and ashamed of waiting tables should have been my second.

Success wasn’t a paycheck, and it sure wasn’t a job title.

Even today, almost one week after my last day of work, I feel like a loser. I shouldn’t, but I do. I worry about what to tell people when asked, “What do you do?” I worry about money. I worry about asking for unemployment. I worry that I’ll never get a job again, or that I’ll have to take a job I don’t want. I worry that I’m back to taking temporary jobs that are supposed to lead me somewhere.  

Then I saw this Instagram post:

“I feel like I’m constantly

worrying about the next

part of my life without

realizing that I’m right

in the middle of what I

used to look forward to.”

I used to dream about quitting, about waking up without begrudgingly turning on my laptop. I used to dream about having more time to write, to edit for On Our Moon, and to outline a novel. I used to wish that my only requirement for workplace success is merely my happiness.

So today, and hopefully tomorrow and the next day, I’ll embrace this feeling that I’m here. I’m right in the middle of what I used to look forward to. I don’t have to hate my day job anymore. I can wake up every morning knowing that what lies ahead can be purely dictated and defined my me, not by my career.

I determine the value of my work; I determine the value of myself. My job title can be something exciting no matter what letters string it together. I might be waiting tables again soon, or freelance editing for a large corporation, but this time, this time, I won’t hinge my happiness on the title. I won’t allow the idea of a career to dictate my decisions. I will be proud of myself because I’m finally valuing myself.

No matter what your professional trajectory, I encourage you to embrace it. It brought you to where you are today. And if you aren’t happy, or feel like a loser, give yourself a break. Because today you can decide your success simply by naming it however you choose to.

I’m a writer, and even though it’s not my day job, that for me is success. And I feel pretty damn good about it [cue “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta”].

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    Maggie Trela
    About the author

    Maggie is an editor, writer, and runner. She has intense love for shoes, jewels, and giant rings. She's a chips and salsa enthusiast, and loves any excuse for an afternoon cocktail. You can find her at her nickname namesake, oysterhands.com.

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