I left my job as a senior researcher in the National Assembly for Wales almost a year ago. I’d felt all wrong: flat, inarticulate, stuck. Since then I’ve done a bit of freelance research, attended some business courses and spent time learning upholstery skills and finding lovely old chairs to practice on. On Monday, I was offered a job and I accepted. I’m to be an employee again, a part time research officer (no senior in the title this time) for a voluntary sector organisation. Pro rata, my salary will be less than half of what I earned in my last job. In fact, I’ll earn less than I did in the first job I had after university, 20 years ago, as a social care worker. But everyone knows that sometimes less is more and anyway, a few hundred pounds a month will seem like a fortune compared to my current income.
The important question for me is am I making any progress? Does taking this job represent a step in the right direction?
Progress (n): movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage of advancement in general. (OED)
I’m not entirely sure what my goal is, what is it I’m supposed to be advancing towards. Some people, like George Orwell, know what they should be, must be, from childhood. His essay entitled Why I Write begins:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I wish I’d had that sense of clarity and inevitability from such a young age. At the age of five or six it never occurred to me that I would grow up and do anything other than play and go to school. A few years later I thought I should become a Jedi or maybe a shop assistant on Sesame Street. As an adult, I’ve never been entirely clear about what I ‘ought’ to be doing. I know I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to many people who have told me that they feel all wrong in their job but they don’t know what their ‘thing’ is or how to find out.
What I can relate to is Orwell’s idea that your true nature can be outraged by working at the wrong activity or in the wrong place. Perhaps an awareness of your ‘true nature’ is the first step in working out what your ‘thing’ might be. Let the philosophers, psychologists, theologians and poets debate the concept of true nature and whether such a thing exists. I’ve got a chair to crack on with and so for the purposes of this exercise, I’ve summed up my true nature using a few bullet points:
- I am a committed outsider, stubbornly non-tribal, and distrustful of convention (often arbitrary group-think passed off as neutral or beneficial). I dislike conventional ways of being unconventional as much as conventional ways of being conventional.
- I am obsessed with truth. To put it another way, I am a curious person, interested in the ways we (humans) lie to ourselves and one another.
- I am political with a small p, suspicious of the powerful and the majority. I side with the underdog. I’ve been one myself once or twice.
- I am sensitive to light, lines, colour, sound and I love to find beauty in unexpected places.
Like many people, my nature is contradictory and sometimes self-defeating. For example, I want to expose the lies of the powerful that result in the suffering of the powerless but I won’t join a political party or group to this end. Occasionally, I’ve tried to put aside my prejudices to explore the possibilities for truth and beauty within institutions of convention. I tried being a Catholic for a while but eventually, my true nature, outraged and unhappy, made it impossible for me to continue and I had to retreat back to the margins where I’m most comfortable.
If this is a reasonable summary of my true nature, no wonder I found my last job as a parliamentary researcher so uncomfortable. I was surrounded by things I didn’t like and/or couldn’t understand: political tribes, hierarchies, rules and conventions relating to things like dress and language.
I now realise that my goal is to live in a way that reflects my true nature. And having identified my goal I can begin to assess whether I’ve made any progress over the past year. I ponder this question while trying to remove the ‘false tan’ from the show wood of a Parker Knoll. There’s saw dust everywhere. Probably very bad for my only recently mended lungs, but I’m enjoying myself. I love to watch the tiny specks apparently suspended in beams of light. I turn on a hand held vacuum cleaner, a mini Dyson which I bought for its looks a few years ago, and slowly move it around in mid air watching it suck up the dust like plankton. From the wall he shares with a pissed off looking Nina Simone, David Byrne, dressed in a tree suit, looks on, neither approving nor disapproving. Just watching.
This part of my life reflects my true nature. It’s creative, I have my own space in which to work, I’m my own boss and I look on the chairs I work with as underdogs.
So what about my new job? I’m optimistic. The organisation is concerned about gender inequality in relation to work and wants to help women develop economically. Have a look at the World Bank’s latest World Development Report and commentary about it in The Economist and you’ll see that this is a very suitable area of work for a curious and political person. I know I’m going to find this job hard at times and its unlikely to bring me as much sheer enjoyment as the upholstery. But working in a way that reflects our true nature is not always easy or enjoyable says Orwell:
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
The important thing is to do the right work in the right place.
So, here is a summary of my annual appraisal: I’m earning much less now and I’ve got a less fancy job title. I have a bunch of chairs cluttering up my house because I’m pretty slow and make mistakes that have to be fixed. I still have so much to learn. I’ve spent hours talking to friends and going for walks.
There’s room for improvement but I’m definitively making progress.