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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

The Case Against Being Badly Employed

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11

Isn't being badly employed better than being unemployed?

If I am badly employed, I can still pay at least some of my bills.

If I am badly employed, I have someplace I have to go and something to do everyday lending structure, social contact, physical activity, and a sense of doing the responsible thing (regardless of my own misery).

These benefits lead to a better mood and mindset than being unemployed, sitting on the couch watching midday CNN and wishing I was old enough to apply for Medicare. Seriously if you aren't eligible for Medicare and don't want to sue someone for having mesothelioma, CNN has no ads for you during the day).

Recently I was able to experiment with employment for 3 weeks. Having been out of a traditional job since last May, I wanted to do something. It wasn't an intentional experiment, which will be obvious shortly.

I wanted a job that I could do well, and without a great deal of effort, thought, preparation or worry. I wanted to get busy doing something, but not something so all-consuming that I would have no energy to continue writing with some degree of quality and productivity.

My only other criterion was the presence of health insurance at a reasonable price. My preference was to do something similar to a job I enjoyed in the past.

On this preference, I had to go about 40 years. To my first 8-hour-a-day job, working summers in a commercial kitchen at a company cafeteria in Boston. I did this when I was 18 and 19 years old.

As 'the deli man', I was responsible for making chicken, tuna and egg salad, slicing and portioning cold cuts and cheeses, picking up bread and setting up the sandwich station for the lunch rush. From 11:30-2:30 I would make sandwiches for the office workers, then I would close and clean and put it all away until the next day.

It was great because once you knew what to do, it was mentally easy, and the physical part, being on your feet all day, bouncing around, lifting stuff and so forth was not a consideration for my formerly athletic 19-year-old self.

So now, 40 years later, I began to look for a job just like that. I saw an opportunity at a high-end grocery store with a huge prepared foods department with a pizza kitchen, sushi bar, extensive bakery, a dizzying array of buffet items by the pound, a coffee bar that can stand toe-to-toe with the nicest coffee house and...a sub shop.

For those outside the northeastern United States, a 'sub' is a submarine sandwich also known as a 'hero' or a 'hoagie' in other places.

The sub shop had an opening for a sandwich maker. So I reworked my resume to include my college job from 40 years ago and updated the summary section to explain that while my recent experience with sandwiches was limited to eating them, I truly loved to make good food and especially good sandwiches and I would bring work ethic, reliability, customer service skills, common sense, maturity, and teamwork.

I passed the phone screen easily and landed in a chair for the in-person interview. Note here that I have interviewed many hundreds of people in my career and I immediately recognized they were doing a behavioral interview, similar to ones I've done many times. I knew the drill and what they wanted to hear. I didn't have to embellish or fabricate anything.

They told me I should hear back in a week. They called to offer me the job an hour later.

I felt like this was exactly what I needed to support my career as a writer until it is able to support me and my family. And it had good health coverage cheaper than anyplace I've worked, including health insurance companies.

I enjoyed being back in the commercial kitchen environment. The food quality was excellent and they are obsessed with offering only the freshest food around. More broadly, the store is exceedingly well-run, meticulously clean and staffed to deliver optimal customer service.

An 8-hour shift in that environment is a hard day of work. Just like it was when I was 18 and 19. A quick pace and the comfort of being able to offer a very good product made the day go by and the customer interactions remain civil.

So everything was great...

Except that my body is now 40 years older. But in addition to being tired, I was debilitatingly sore. Like the first week of football practice sore.

Being on my feet all day, I increased my steps from about 2,400 per day before to nearly 9,000 steps a day on days I worked. Lifting, stooping and especially the slight tilt of my 6-foot 4-inch body to make sandwiches on the counter that was about 4 inches too low caused my back to spasm most of the day.

I gave myself some time to 'figure it out' that is, figure out how to maintain my body while still handling all of my work. I wanted it to work.

I didn't figure it out though. The soreness and spasm got worse. It was hard to walk to my car at the end of my shift. It was hard to go to sleep. It was hard to get up in the morning.

The health insurance, which had been the strong attraction for trying to tough it out, now seemed prohibitively expensive.

This probably sounds like an unlikely or embellished or even completely made-up story. You're probably thinking, 'Who, in their right mind would take a job like that at your age?"

Despite evidence to the contrary, I am not stupid. I had a plan but underestimated the strain it would put on my body.

I quit after three weeks.

Prior to this interlude, I had stayed in a different job for a lot longer, stubbornly hoping it would get better. Trying to 'figure it out.'

Depending on when we peg the beginning of my descent into being 'badly employed', I banged my head against an unmoving wall for over a decade.

If you're thinking I must be a complete idiot, you may have a point. But think honestly about the following questions as they pertain to your own employment:

  1. Are you happy getting up most days to go to work? Let's define 'most' as 3 days a week or 60% of the time.

  2. Is the work you do challenging in a way that interests and engages you?

  3. Is there more 'good' than 'bad' in your job?

  4. Do you respect, like and/or care about the people you work with and work for?

  5. Are you learning?

  6. Are you growing your career?

  7. Do you have a comfortable (for you) work/life balance?

  8. Do you tell people about the good things that happen at your job?

  9. Does your compensation support your lifestyle? (Yes, it could always be more, but are you getting by fairly consistently?)

  10. Is your family and/or social life enhanced by your career?

If you answered 'yes' to all of these questions, congratulations, you are exceedingly well-employed. You need read no further. Go have a cool beverage and take your break to ponder this blessing. (Message me the name of your employer! Please.)

If you answered 'no' to one or more of these questions, you have a diminished quality of employment. To some degree you are settling, making excuses, procrastinating, giving up or selling out. You have tacitly agreed to be 'badly employed.'

God has a plan for your life and mine. For many years, I have ignored His plan and tried to follow my own plan, which has resulted in sporadic success and some great friendships along with considerable boredom, aggravation, stagnation, and disillusionment.

God grants us free will to follow our own path and not follow Him. He does not make us love or obey or trust Him. It is our choice.

But what I've learned through all of this upheaval (which God allowed into my life to hold a mirror up so I could see myself) is that my way is, at best, just 'okay.'

Like the commercial with the guy getting ready to have surgery asks the nurse if his surgeon is any good and the nurse replies, "He's okay."

I have managed my career like that doctor does surgery. Some cases have produced good results.

Unfortunately, some of my 'patients' have died on the table. I have made mistakes. At times I've been stupid, lazy, inattentive, neglectful or indecisive. Or all of the above. These have had consequences, but mostly, it has netted out to 'okay.'

The only problem with 'okay' is that 'truly legendary' is also an option. God specializes in the 'truly legendary', but it's only available if you choose to trust Him. If you let Him lead, you choose 'truly legendary' over 'okay.'

If you insist on leading, God will still be with you. But if you follow Him, He will take you on the path you were meant to follow. The path to true freedom, fulfillment, and joy. The path to fulfilling the glorious and unique purpose that he made you for. Truly legendary.

That path will not be easy. It may take a long time, present difficult obstacles, include failure, humiliation, pain or disappointment. In fact, it's likely to include all of these. It will test your faith, character, patience, humility, and trust.

This life is a long series of tests. God's tests will always focus on your weaknesses. You will fail some of them.

But God wants you to pass. He gives you the answers, and He lets you take the book home and use it on the test every day. You can (and should) ask Him for help. He will help you.

And if you should fail - and we all do, sometimes repeatedly - He will give it to you again and again until you pass. Not to punish or torture you. To refine you. To prepare you for eternity in the perfect paradise of Heaven.

If you answered 'no' to any of those 10 questions about your job, there is a good chance that you are not following God's plan, but your own. He is with you, but you are settling for less than your best which is true if you stay in a place where you are 'badly employed.'

If this is you, take heart. You're not alone. If you work with 100 people, at least 80 of them are probably badly employed. That's a conservative estimate.

As I said, I spent a long, long (embarrassingly long) time being 'badly employed' and settling for 'okay.' So long, in fact, that God finally pulled me entirely off the path for a while. (Even the creator of the universe has a limit when it comes to nonsense.)

I truly believe that all of this is so that I can rethink my approach and choose to follow and keep following Him. I know that if I just do that, the rest of my life will be very well employed, productive and joyful. Successful in completing the mission for which I was created.

I'm not done. Neither are you. If you woke up this morning, there is more for you to do. Let's get going.

Thank you for reading. Have a great day. God bless you!

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