Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot…okay, that’s just the opening to the Cheers theme song. The Anglophile, stiff upper lip, humoured part of me starts to play it whenever I am stressing about work, and do I ever have reason to stress about work.
Today, let’s focus on ‘making your way in the world today’ for someone with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and anxiety.
One can rewind my current state of affairs all the way back to when work began at age 14. What I intend to relate in the course of this piece is not a new phenomenon for me, it’s simply that a series of factors came together to make this particular junction more stressful than usual.
The concise version is this: being a “good person” is paramount to me and I define that in terms of other people. It speaks to the attitude that what a person does matters more than what they say or believe, which manifests in the practical idea that one should measure “good person” in terms of utility to others. If other people do not see the good, unprompted, then I must not be that good a person.
What comes first in my case is not a passion for work, but rather a passion for people. I became an industrious workaholic perfectionist at a young age and had little outlet for it beyond school. When I turned 14 I could, with school and parental approval, begin working and a family friend put me to work in his restaurant.
I became immediately hooked, not by the availability of money to use at my discretion, but at the high of professional adults looking to me with approval as I executed things that helped them perform their roles. Sure, my money went to a savings account and frivolous, teenage purchases, but I understood that their earnings went to rent, food, and other necessities. Their approval meant the world to me.
Finding a Path
Nothing I was doing mattered in any real sense though. I worked the fountain mostly. That is, people ordered ice cream desserts and I prepared them. Sometimes I bussed tables or worked as the greeter/cashier – things that are essential to the operation of a restaurant, but anyone might have done it as it required no special skills.
This was occurring during my high school years. It occurred at a time when I was meant to be deciding on a future path.
The patriot in me, spurred on by the events of 9/11, resolved throughout much of high school to be a soldier of some kind. That did not work out and I scrambled to college where I had no idea what major I would pursue.
In fact, to understand my situation fully, let us take a moment to examine the taxonomy of academia in its entirety with respect to my background and skills.
First, one might divide academia into STEM and liberal arts (at least, that is what I am going to do here). We can immediately eliminate STEM from consideration. I love the natural sciences but lack the interest and discipline to make a career of any of them. Some of my peers were fantastic in the sciences and I framed my experience alongside theirs. They had mentality appropriate for a successful career in science, which was all the evidence I needed to know I would not succeed.
Mathematics and I have a similar relationship. I can explain the theory of mathematics but I cannot perform the calculations. Calculus, for example – I could example to a layperson what is seeks to determine and why, but I could not solve the problems presented in class.
Now, and this is key, I could bring myself to solve them. That is, I could dedicate myself further to the study and acquire that ability, but it does not interest me enough to justify dedicating that much time to it.
Engineering, same. Music, though a liberal art, has a strong mathematical component to it. While I have found some success with many of the arts, I have no natural inclination for music and I blame the mathematical component of it.
Computers are interesting to me in a psychological sense because, on paper, they seem like an ideal fit. Computers require precision and logic, and while the end product serves the masses a considerable amount of the work can be done in solitude. The philosopher in me adores formal logic and its application to argument.
Here again though I run into the matter of interest, dedication, and maths. Technology still functions on a basis of ones and zeroes. If this condition is met then do this; otherwise, do this. As the technology becomes more complex that logical flow continues to exist but it begins to employ statistics and other mathematical components. It involves arrays and networks and other structures that are not natural to me. The logic is natural, but the content is not.
Think of it as another category of study that I dismiss for the same reason: human language. Farsi is a logical world language, but I do not understand a word of it. I could study it and come to understand it, but I lack the relevant interest to justify spending that much of my life learning it.
Thus, much the way I continue to study English to improve my writing without gaining any knowledge of Farsi, I possess a degree of technological competence with gaining any certification or advanced knowledge. I am familiar with SQL through my work experience, but would not claim to know it well enough for a position that required it. Python, R, SAS – all the same. Like French, I can read and interpret what someone else has written in these languages but cannot write it myself. At least, I cannot write them well enough that I feel confident in allowing someone to pay me for that skill.
We can come back to this matter of honesty in applications later.
With the possible exception of information technology, I can safely remove positions tied to STEM from my prospective list. That leaves the liberal arts side of academia where my passions lie.
History I adore, along with philosophy and literature. Other subjects, such as sociology, economics, theology, anthropology, or archaeolgy interest me to the extent that they touch on my history and philosophical interests, but careers in those specific areas did not appeal because, again, time investment relative to that interest. I would rather know what sociology has to say about a particular period in history than to study sociology and only occasion to study history.
The liberal arts introduce a new concern to my anxious mind. Unlike the natural skill issue that exists with STEM, I did seem to possess a talent for liberal arts. Storytelling made sense and interested me. History was a sort of storytelling. Philosophy brought logic into the equation.
As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be plausible.”
At my core, I feel a need to be a storyteller. History and philosophy support that directly. Careers in those areas though…
The most conscious career choice was academia itself – either as a teacher or a researcher. Research holds zero appeal. I appreciate tedious work, but there is a banality about research that could crush my spirit about any subject. I do not mean the process of reading and studying about a subject – I mean the process of creating those works that I would read and study. Organising studies, quantifying and analysing results…yuck. That works is vital to this world and I applaud those who do it, especially those who enjoy doing it.
Business administration is another application for those sorts of studies. Business appealed to me in college because this is how I saw it – applied thinking of liberal arts concepts like history, economics, and philosophy to transactions between and among people.
My applied thinking tends to get me in trouble though. Not directly. I am conflict-averse and a people pleaser, so it’s not as though I would burst into some Marxist rant in the middle of an office. My philosophy guides my business approach though, and I find that philosophy often at odds with the reality of the modern world.
OCPD Morality in the Modern Workplace
With that I think we arrive at my real concern: morality in the workplace. Whether one agrees with the content that is to follow or not is irrelevant because one should consider it through the lens of the author, a man whose sense of morality is so strict that it served as one of the diagnostic criteria for his OCPD.
This is a sense of morality to excess, but what I would ask the reader to consider is whether the excess exists in the objective or subjective sense. Is my sense of what is right debilitating because I am objectively too strict about it or because the modern world makes it impractical?
For example, I consider a basic question such as, “Why do you want to work here?”
The truthful answer, in many cases, is that I do not. The job posting to which I am applying may be the first I have ever heard of the company. Perhaps I know of the company and have no particular feeling towards them one way or the other. It’s a position that pays a salary that would support a comfortable life and requires skills that I possess.
That becomes the second consideration. “Do you have SQL knowledge?” Based on my interaction with others, whether what they consider “possessing a skill” or their opinion of my skill level in a particular area, most people are more….flexible with their definition of possessing a skill. I have seen and interacted with SQL (in fact, I have seen many a SQL professional searching Google for how to go about a particular task), but I would not consider it one of my skills. I would require a colleague to consult with or have to resort to Internet research myself to execute several SQL functions and I take the question to mean, “Can you work with ____ or would we have to train you?” As I cannot do it without supervision or aid, I regard it as a skill I do not possess.
So quite a bit gets left off the resume that others might consider. Perhaps that is why my resume underwhelms but I have a successful history with interviews. Give me leave to explain my literal history with something and it seems most people come away confident that I can handle it.
Thus I find myself reviewing countless prospective employers to whom I am indifferent about positions for which I consider myself unqualified.
The idea of going in with a veneer of confidence that I can do the job and then faking it until I make it or the lack of skill becomes so egregiously obvious that they fire me does not register as morally acceptable in my mind. This is how we wind up with people where one thinks, “How did they get this job?”
Then there is the morality of the business itself. My most recent position was in a building full of six figure salaries doing the executive and administrative work associated with the $12- and $13-per-hour staff at other locations. A not insignificant number of those people worked less than 40 hours as well.
Little things about that irk me, beyond the systemic problem of income inequality and the racist/sexist overtones associated with it. For example, I observe the “if there’s time for leaning there’s time for cleaning” attitude that many managers take with hourly staff while I find them engaged in plenty of time wasting themselves – there’s simply no one standing over them while they do it.
This is not to suggest that someone ought to be standing over managers threatening lashes for time spent by the water cooler. The camaraderie along built in those little side conversations has benefit to the working environment. No, the thing with which I take issue is not allowing staff doing the toughest work that same flexibility. And I do consider their work the toughest.
Is receiving shipments harder than running an entire company? No. One clearly requires more skill than other, but that frontline job is definitely more physically demanding than taking meetings all day. While the CEO may have the pressure of investors and such (and therefore mental stress), remember that those pressures get passed on down to those employees, many of whom wind up trapped between displeased customers and those corporate expectations. At least management levels have some recourse to address issues – the frontline staff often lack the authority or support to do anything but endure the stress.
Plenty of companies say the right thing about and to their workers, but not quite so many execute with their strategy to support them.
Then we have the matter of the company itself. Scandals rocking entire industries when it’s not just individual companies. Unethical business practices like child labour and environmental pollution coming to light. Huge companies grow and create an oligopoly if not outright monopoly.
Being an ethical consumer gets harder each year – what does that say about employment? Perhaps the extent of my role is to go in an automate the feed between two systems or to analyse sales data, but if I am performing that role for a company with known ethnical issues does that mean I can pretend my hands are clean? I have ruled out entire industries for employment because of how they conduct their business.
At the end of the day, everything is about people. Businesses serve the people or serve other businesses that serve the people (at least in theory). The whole reason many of us do the nonsense we do is to earn the means to go about the rest of our life. How many people can honestly say that what they do matters in a material sense of the word? Most of the jobs are nice-to-haves that generate a living for some, a good or service for others, and a tidy profit for the few.
Considerations such as these lead me to others like hours required or travel required. If my family desires to live in a particular area and I find a high-paying job to sustain that but it requires an obscene number of hours worked or considerable travel, then why bother? Why pursue that employment to support a lifestyle that I am never around to enjoy?
Perhaps this is my secular nature, but the idea of working now to realise a standard of living later holds little appeal. I want to work now for a modest standard of living now and continue that indefinitely. What I do not want is 80-hour workweeks and regular travel to wake up twenty years from now and realise that I spent that score working and travelling.
If I am going to commit my time, skills, and effort to something, it ought to be something ethical and something about which I sincerely care.
The Downside of Idealism
All things being equal, I think I do have a sense of what I want to do. I want to write. The perfectionist in me can already feel your judgement. “Don’t quit the day job, James. Your writing is shite.”
I regard my writing ability in the context of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I possess enough skill and knowledge in the area of writing to make an honest assessment of my ability. I know what I do not know and continue to work to improve myself the only way a writer can: reading and writing. My prose may not be at that level yet, but unlike STEM I possess the interest and passion to work on it until it reaches that level.
Here I encounter perhaps my greatest fear in the modern world: does it matter?
The recent news regarding Taylor Swift paints part of that picture – can she perform music she wrote without facing legal repercussions from those producers? She wrote music but effectively does not own it because business.
I do not know the details of the case well enough to take a position. The generality, not the specifics, is what concerns me here. On the one hand, yes, Taylor did write the songs. On the other hand, without their marketing and backing, would the songs be what they are today? They did bring value to the table. Again, I’m not interested in the specifics of the Swift case here, just the general business arrangement of artists beholden to business groups.
The concern goes like this: a person could compose the greatest piece of art ever (song, novel, painting – whatever). If the business side of things does not deem it marketable, does it matter?
Not to knock the collective wisdom of the public, but we do experience certain social phenomena. If “society” determines something is in style or it becomes a fad, hoardes of people who do not know better will embrace it. A company can take something kitschy with a decent hook and make it palatable to the masses. Likewise, we can collectively overlook something amazing because it does not receive a spotlight from a proper channel.
I do not mean this in a pretentious way. Consider, those of you who are Millennials, Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Today we know it as one of the most profitable franchises in history and it practically defined childhood for many of us. Publishers rejected that series. Yes, a publisher did eventually pick it up, but what if they hadn’t? What if Rowling self-published or decided to forego it altogether? It would be the same series, but many of us would never know it.
My point is, current writing ability notwithstanding, I could develop into the greatest writer in history and compose the perfect novel – and twelve people would read it. Too many elements exist beyond one’s control except to do their best possible work and keep after it. Maybe one day it receives recognition. Maybe one day it becomes successful enough that it alone can sustain a quality of life for the writer.
This insecurity is what pushed me to study accounting rather than English or literature in college. Writing, I reasoned, is something I could pursue as a hobby while something more practical, like accounting, would sustain a quality of life in the meantime.
Life does not work like that though. See, I worked while attending college to gain some practical experience with accounting. When I graduated with the notion of doing my supervised hours with a CPA and completing a Master’s degree so I could obtain my own CPA, prospective employers said, “You don’t qualify for our internship because you have work experience.” When I tried to full positions they also said no, “Because I was not a CPA and lacked the relevant experience.”
Unsure of how to climb out of that hole while still meeting my financial obligations, an employer said, “We have accounting software. Could you learn it and train our business customers how to use it?” This is where I began to acquire my technical ability, studying not only the accounting module of their software but all modules and the nature of the software itself. I discovered an ability to analyse, to translate between technical and non-technical workers, and to perform IT roles.
Forward, forward, forward – I have an accounting degree but limited experience with it over the last decade. I have technical proficiency but no academic background or certification. I have a litany of skills that translate to nothing cleanly – checking off several of the boxes for everything but all of the boxes for nothing. I lost the benefit of youth as I entered my thirties – now fully a professional who has to answer, “Well what have you been doing since college if you don’t have this experience?”
I can perform many of the jobs I see. This is not immodesty. In fields that do not require highly specialised knowledge (I’m no lawyer or doctor, for example), I do have the foundation for building a successful career. What I find, as described before, is a lack of interest in the company, the nature of the work, or a sense of impropriety seeking the position because my documented background does not match (even if my capability does).
It’s a world where I want to work, diligently, in a position that provides a modest level of satisfaction – satisfaction in the sense that the work does not adversely affect my mental health or come with the knowledge that I’m helping to make someone else’s life miserable. I want to contribute to society so it will compensate me and I can return home to a quiet life with my wife, dogs, family, and writing where I am happiest.
Increasingly, I feel like I live in a world where that simply is not possible. I must give myself entirely, not to society but to a privileged few who own and control society, with only a vague promise that I might maybe one day receive a chance to enjoy the things I enjoy.
We only get one life, and that vague ambition is not enough to satisfy my OCPD mind.