Advice about the working life from books

Last updated 08:10 03/08/2012

When I first entered the workforce, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. That bumbling buffoon who screws up and deletes documents she shouldn't have? The newbie who chatters away like a monkey because she's nervous? The stressed-out, tired girl crying in the toilet stall because her boss just spent 20 minutes yelling at her on the phone? Yep, been there, done all that.

My working life might have had a more auspicious start had I paid more attention to career tips gleaned from books. If I could somehow time-travel back 10 years or so to fresh-faced young me, this is the kind of stuff I'd tell her.

All together now: "we hold these truths to be self-evident"...

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" A Room of One's Own

Dear Young Karen, you may have big aspirations of "making it" as a novelist some day, but the truth is - most authors, musicians, artists and other "creatives" have day jobs for a reason. It is incredibly tough, nearly impossible, to make a living out of your art alone. To have money of your own, you must work jobs you are not passionate about, sometimes don't even particularly like, then somehow find the fortitude at the end of the day to be creative. To have writing space of your own, you must have either a very understanding partner, flatmates who travel a lot, or a wealthy benefactor with a penthouse apartment you can live in for free. These two needs will never change. Not as long as you choose the creative life.

"The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world" East of Eden Steinbeck quote

This is what has got me through hours of sometimes seemingly endless drudgery: the secret knowledge that even if I'm doing a job - and I am the sort of person who will give something my all once I've made a commitment to it - my mind is still my own. This is where having a numbingly boring, repetitive job is an advantage - you have time to let your mind wander and play. And for some lucky workers, you may find an employer who values that free, exploring, individual mind enough to give you a job doing what you love.

"You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you." Fight Club

I can't think of better advice than this about the wisdom (or lack of) letting yourself be caught up in wanton consumerism. The thing is, it's a vicious cycle. When I think back now, the more stressed I was at work, the more things I wanted to buy. As if I was convincing myself that all this unhappiness was worthwhile, so I could afford the kind of life I wanted. Some people are lucky, in that what they love doing naturally earns them megabucks (Mark Zuckerberg, here's looking at you, kid) - but if you are wrestling between money and love of job, go for doing what you love (unless it's a criminal act) every single time. It's a cliche, but I truly believe that if you do what you love, everything else will fall into place. Eventually.

"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back." The Blind Assassin

Otherwise known as "don't burn your bridges", this is actually great career advice. An acquaintance once told the story of a former work colleague (in the UK), who not only dated her married boss, but when the relationship inevitably fell apart, wrote anonymous emails bad-mouthing him, keyed his car and did all sorts of random crazy things that, surprise, surprise, got traced back to her. She ended up losing her job, her professional reputation and, by the sound of it, her mind. The thing is, everything comes back. So don't spread rumours about colleagues, never, ever say anything bad about your superiors in public and don't lie, cheat, or steal from your work. In other words, treat your career as you would any other part of life, and begin as you mean to go.

What are some great pieces of advice about the working life you've received from books?

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8 comments
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meh   #1   09:30 am Aug 03 2012

Aren't contradicting yourself here?

"the truth is - most authors, musicians, artists and other "creatives" have day jobs for a reason. It is incredibly tough, nearly impossible, to make a living out of your art alone. To have money of your own, you must work jobs you are not passionate about, sometimes don't even particularly like"

...and...

"if you are wrestling between money and love of job, go for doing what you love"

Which is it... be practical and work to pay the bills, or be impractical and be the starving artist? You can't have both.

Incidentally, fiction is great and all but these questions and others have been asked and answered many times by philosophers throughout the ages. Best advice I can give (which came from books and life experience) is this:

Don't try and use something external (like work) to give yourself happiness, but rather find it within yourself. Then, it doesn't matter what you do, because you're inately happy. Simple huh?

Also, I recommend Alain De Botton's the pleasures and sorrows of work.

Karen Tay   #2   12:11 pm Aug 03 2012

meh #1 - those are all good points, and to clarify a bit further, I believe it is possible to balance work and creative projects. Many, many authors have over the years. I guess I meant more, if you were to choose between a job that paid a lot of money, but was extremely demanding - to the point that it sapped all your creative energy so you have nothing left at the end of the day, or a job that paid a less, but gave you more time to pursue interests. It's a life question too, of course - as all things inevitably comes down to!

Jim   #3   12:27 pm Aug 03 2012

You're thinking too hard. Life sucks, then you die. In between you do nothing but start things and never finish, annoy everyone who matters, and get screwed over by the unscrupulous, which has somehow come to encompass most of society.

Ben   #4   04:20 pm Aug 03 2012

"It's odd how soon one comes to look on every minute as wasted that is given to earning one's salary." - P G Wodehouse.

Wodehouse wrote a book called Psmith in the City in which Psmith is sent by his father to work in a city bank for 'life expereince'. He loathes it but it is a lesson on how to turn anything you dislike into something enjoyable by your approach. Whenever i have to deal with difficult people I oftetn think how Psmith would have handled them.

And when you are at work bored witless just remember Shakespeare; "If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work."

theshan   #5   06:58 pm Aug 03 2012

I learnt not to work for Dickensian factory owners.

Kelly   #6   01:41 pm Aug 06 2012

I write, and I find work to be a very handy foraging ground. I steal names, stories, personalities and jokes from people I work with (and all people I meet). I have an idea for your blog as well, maybe once a month, or fortnight you can have readers submit their own writing for comment, or have them do a book review - it can be a sort of informal literary club if you will?

Karen Tay   #7   04:22 pm Aug 06 2012

Hi Kelly - we have a Stuff Book Club day which runs once a week on this very blog, where we discuss a specific title. It would be great to have you join the discussion in the comments section, and please feel free to suggest your favourite titles to add to the up-and-coming list!

Mathew   #8   01:21 pm Aug 07 2012

Definately agree about not burning bridges. We had a woman at work who got caught faking sick leave and instead of taking the slap on the hand, she complained to HR that her boss was bullying her. And she dragged 2 colleagues from a different department in too. Her Manager was cleared, but the complainant ended up quitting. She not only ruined her chances of a career at this organisation, but the industry is so small that she now has a bad name all over the place. As do the 2 people she dragged in from the other department too. Silly girl.

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