There’s a popular definition of the day job out there, one that I can understand. Folks often call it ‘just over broke’, after the flood of financial self-help books that started hitting bookshelves in the eighties decided everything needed to be a clever (or not so clever) acronym. They never stopped coming, the books or the acronyms; as a faithful reader of books that make my life better, I know a lot of them. This is one that I was glad to see explored more deeply by the thoughtful self-help gurus who see that happiness is about more than financial wealth. Not everyone with a job is just over broke; even if they are, they might not be bound to this state for life. Like anything, a job is more about attitude than popular perception or definition.
I had some crappy day jobs, back in the day. Some were literally crappy; I worked as an aide in a nursing home, and shoveled dung from more than one type of animal in more than one barn. Those were the types of jobs that helped me sleep at night, for the good I was doing others or my body. For a long time I pursued manual labor jobs, to stay fit and get paid for it; part-time exercise can be a part-time paycheck, and they both help out. Cooking was fun, especially on a mobile dinner train; but I got chubby more than once, with all that good food around. I worked nurseries and warehouse jobs too; every time I took it seriously, folks tried to put me on a path to management; when I didn’t, I would get fired for it. I never cared; I had a long list of former employers who would recommend me for anything, and would welcome me back anytime.
There had to be a middle ground, and I knew it. I saw job postings that said ‘degree required’ or ‘experience required’; those were the only jobs that sounded fun; school did not. Luckily, there were a lot of schools out there that did what universities used to do: they put graduates in a position to go right to work, using the skills they were specifically taught in the course. There were no unnecessary credit requirements or social indoctrination programs or invitations to go into massive debt; there were schools out there actually teaching valuable skills in weeks or months, the time most things could realistically be learned, for reasonable prices. These new professionals were making as much or more money as degreed employees, and were getting into the workforce sooner. Not only that, they had worked other jobs; there was a diversity to their experience that made the book learners look like…well, book learners.
I had thought about what I wanted to do for a long time, and hadn’t quite figured it out. I knew what kinds of things I enjoyed, though; so I looked for a career that fit my needs at the time. Most people don’t even know what it is, but I’ll tell you what I chose. I learned to be a ‘Level I Central Office Equipment Installer’ in the course I took, and had job placement just where I wanted to be before the course was even completed. That’s when the real learning started. Most college graduates report that they forget the bulk of what they learned by the time they get to work; most learning is done by doing, and I knew I wanted to learn something complicated. So I started doing it.
For the first couple of years, I took home technical manuals and installation standards documents with more words in them than my whole trilogy (still unwritten, at this point in the timeline). It was fun to watch my mind get exhausted like my body had so often before, and even more fun to watch it benefit from the exercise just as much. After a few years, a couple of different people introduced me to others in the same week. They both said, “this is Jay. He’s a Level Four Installer”. I corrected them both times; they both argued with me. As I tried to mount a case in defense of my ignorance, I realized that it was true. I couldn’t see anything in the building that I couldn’t do, or hadn’t done enough times to call myself a ‘level four’ by any standards.
Everyone had told me it would take about ten years to get to this point. How did I put myself seven years ahead of schedule, and end up once again telling people who had been doing it for twenty years that there was a better way? I listened, I learned, I practiced, I watched, and I read. As soon as I started to realize how many people don’t bring their whole selves to bear on their job, even in a field where so much learning was available, my mind drifted back to all those stories in my head.
I realized I was doing the same thing with my legacy that so many people were doing with their day jobs. I had written one manuscript, and done next to nothing with it. How many writers were out there hating their jobs, writing because a parent did or because they went to school for it? How many writers were out there putting a little of themselves into their work, and getting paid for that every week? If it was like every other field I had seen, there was a passion missing from a lot of writers’ work that I knew I could bring to the table. Everything else I could learn, like everything else I had ever done.
That’s when I took things to the next level with my day job. I didn’t become a ‘Level Five COE Installer’; there’s no such thing. I did turn down a few engineering jobs (the kind that usually require a degree), because I realized that my path was finally taking me where I needed to go. I paid to get my first book published, to hold it in my hands and see it on the shelf. I got it into several local stores, and started to see checks come in the mail. I didn’t know what a big deal Amazon is, or reviews, until some time later. I did know that there were countless stories living in my head, that only I could tell, and that the telling would take some serious time.
That’s the next level of the day job. It stops being a way to put food on the table and starts to be the thing helping to make your dream come true. This knowledge makes for a better worker: the conscientious small business owner begins to understand the perspective of the person or company providing them the day job, and that shifts that worker’s paradigm. They want to be the employee they hope to hire one day, and it shows in how they work. Helping to make someone else’s dream happen can teach us ways to make our own dreams happen, while getting paid. This attitude helps the business you’re building and the business you’re working for all at the same time.
Learning how to learn can shave time off the process next time something is learned. Enjoying that process is essential for anyone who wants to be good at anything, since there is always more to learn. Even if my writing starts to pay the bills around here, I’ll still work day jobs. I’m a writer; the day job is a reality for too many people for me to let myself get too far removed from that reality. (Also, learning is fun.)
At this point, I had decided to dedicate myself to filling that bookshelf I saw in my head. That was step one. It took me awhile to figure out step two. We’ll get into that, next week.
Thanks for reading!