This is Part I of the “What Am I Doing With My Life?” rant, in which I’ll discuss my attempts to find a balance between being happy and dealing with society’s career-related expectations.
It was June 1988, and I was in Little Rock, home from my freshman year at college. With tuition plus related expenses at Rhodes running close to 20 grand a year, it was decided I should get a summer job to “help out.”
Since I already had an aptitude for computers, I went to a temporary agency and applied for work doing data entry and other computer-related office stuff. I was assigned to work for a week at a chiropractor’s office near where I lived – his staff had gotten behind and he needed some help catching up. It was the first time I had ever held a real office job. They offered me an hourly rate of $4.50, which at the time was $1.15 above minimum wage and was not bad for an 18-year-old with no work experience.
So I showed up at the chiropractor’s and did the work I was asked. I entered data in the the computer. I organized files. But more than anything, I watched the clock and waited for it to be 5:00 and thought about how much I hated being there.
I really, really, really hated it. I hated having to get up at 6:30 in order to be at work on time at 8. I hated the fact that by the time I got home at 5:05, I was too tired to enjoy what was left of my day. I hated the clothes that I had to wear. I hated the fact that I couldn’t drive over to Reservoir Park and hang out with my friends until 1, 2 in the morning because I had to get a good night’s sleep to be ready for work the next day. To me it just didn’t seem worth the $36 a day I was making, before taxes.
Oh, but wait. I wasn’t really making $36 a day. You see, the college financial aid rules stated that for every dollar a college student made during the summer, his financial aid would be reduced by 70 cents. So, even though I was earning $4.50 an hour, I only had a real net gain of $1.35 an hour. And taxes came out of that $1.35. It struck me as a completely idiotic government rule, a disincentive for college students to work.
So, I was miserable and felt like I had sold my soul. But to the adults in my life, I was “respectable.” I was a “working man.” I was doing what was expected of me. I was doing something that made me unhappy for 40 hours a week, which apparently made the adults around me happy that I was turning into such a good citizen.
Finally, the week ended, and the temp agency didn’t have an assignment for the following week, so I got to enjoy a taste of freedom. I could hang out with my friends, sleep until 10, play video games, once again feel a zest for life. But I knew the agency would soon be calling, and all that would be taken away, and I didn’t see a way out.
Fate intervened, although not in a way that I would have ever wanted. That week, my grandmother (who lived with us) fell in the kitchen and broke her hip. She would have to spend two weeks in the hospital, and then for the rest of the summer she would need me to stay home with her and be her caretaker. I was done with the rat race for the year.
The adults in my life once again expressed their approval – I was dutifully giving up a summer’s income to stay home and take care of my grandmother. And besides, they pointed out, she’d be in the hospital for two weeks, and maybe the temp agency could give me an assignment for part of that time and at least I could make some money.
A few days later the dreaded phone call came, at 6:30 in the morning. In a half-asleep daze, I listened as the woman at the agency explained the situation: They had an emergency assignment. One of their other temps couldn’t make the job, and they knew I couldn’t stay long term because of my grandmother, but if I could just work for a few days – until she got out of the hospital – it would help them out a great deal. They offered me the same pay rate as before, $4.50 an hour.
I thought it over for a moment… then refused the assignment despite the agency woman’s pleas. Then I went back to bed. I just couldn’t stand the thought of selling my happiness and well-being for an effective rate of $1.35 an hour, just to gain the approval of the adults around me. Not even for a few days.
So I took care of my grandmother and August came and I went back to Rhodes for my sophomore year. But I still had a dilemma to face – what would I do the following summer? My grandmother’s hip would be healed by then, and I’d be expected to go back to work. (I hate the word “expected.”) And what would I do after graduation? It was apparently a normal thing for adults to go sit in an office and be miserable 40 or more hours a week, 50 or 51 weeks a year from the time they get out of college until they’re old and gray.
Well, sometime during the school year, I came up with a brilliant solution which allowed me to hold on to my freedom during the summer of 1989: I decided to become a math tutor. By then I was a computer science and math major at Rhodes and had the experience and math skills to allow me to do tutoring. I put a classified ad in the Arkansas Gazette advertising my services. The self-employed tutoring job offered a number of advantages over traditional bullshit office work:
1) Most importantly, I had control over my own schedule. I wasn’t a morning person, so I simply wouldn’t schedule sessions earlier than 10 AM. On the other hand, if students wanted evening sessions I’d gladly do them if I was available. If there was a particular day I wanted to spend with friends, I wouldn’t schedule any sessions for that day. My schedule was now controlled by me, and not by some societally-accepted belief that people are “supposed” to work from 8 to 5, every day, Monday-Friday, day in and day out.
2) As an independent contractor, I could charge a significantly higher rate than the $4.50 an hour the temp agency had paid me. I started at $7 per hour, and as I gained experience eventually bumped the rate to $10 and then $15.
3) Because I was getting paid in cash, the federal financial aid people didn’t know about the money I was making, and didn’t reduce my grants for the following year. So instead of making $4.50 and getting to keep $1.35 minus taxes, I made $7 and got to keep $7.
4) Since I was self-employed, there was no one to tell me how I should dress when I went out on tutoring jobs. And really, no one had much of a dress expectation for a college student doing private tutoring in people’s homes. I wore a T-shirt and shorts to most of my jobs, which was exactly what I preferred.
5) Because I was still doing something to go out in the world and earn money during the summer, I continued to receive the approval of the adults in my life.
So the summer of 1989 was a good one. “VICTORY!!!” I thought. I had taken the system on and beaten it. I had found a way to keep The Man and people’s expectations of what I “should” do from robbing me of my happiness and freedom.
I continued to tutor all the way through college and then graduate school, until finally I won a teaching assistantship in the fall of 1992. After I completed my graduate coursework, I went through a series of non-traditional jobs, and ended up spending only six months of the 1990s working in an 8-to-5 office culture – first I landed a gig writing medical software which I did from home; then I spent 5 years teaching college at the University of Memphis; then I traveled the country for a while as a corporate trainer. I was very, very lucky to avoid the office for as long as I did.
In Part II I’ll discuss the things I’ve been doing in recent years to make a living, the things that would really make me happy, and attempts to balance them… and I’ll ask my readers for advice. It will be a lot longer than Part I and a lot less organized. It will probably take me a week or two to type it up. Have a good weekend everybody…