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My profession is personal


By AA Patawaran

ESCAPE An anxious looking man huddles down in a housing estate, umbrella at the ready (Soldier, Tetsuya Ishida, 1996)

ESCAPE An anxious looking man huddles down in a housing estate, umbrella at the ready (Soldier, Tetsuya Ishida, 1996)

Work has had a bad rap since time immemorial and yet, despite our clamor for work-life balance, there is no way around it, unless you were a trust fund baby or, like Adolf Hitler in his early years, when he did not land a single job because he would rather live off charity, staying in dormitories for the homeless in Vienna, than endure any job as a clerk or a laborer that he considered beneath his megalomaniac destiny, you were paralyzed by extreme indolence or incompetence. Even then, a trust fund baby, at least every trust fund baby I know, would find some way to work, setting up an entrepreneurship or an advocacy or turning hobbies, like art or photography or fashion or agriculture, into some kind of enterprise. The term trust fund baby would be insulting and demeaning to such achievement-oriented people, who might have only happened to be born to rich parents.

But there… “Work is the true elixir of life,” as Scottish poet Theodore Martin put it, and I agree 100 percent, even now the Millennials make memes of quotes like “No one on his deathbed ever said I wish I had spent more time at work” that go viral on social media and among themselves, even if it was wrongly attributed to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Jobs, indeed, who did say, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… they are not fond of rules,” has been quoted out of context so often that his words, cut off from any precedent or successive explanation, become the voice of selfishness or laziness or stubbornness—“This is all about me, mine, and myself!”—that has zero respect for the standards and traditions of authority, society, company, or family. It’s not just this generation, except that in this generation such a message reaches many who have no idea who Steve Jobs is, and so emboldened by his wise words, whoever he might have been, they break rules they have not had the patience to understand, let alone master, so how do we expect their departure from the tried-and-tested to deliver better results and, to complete what Jobs did say, “to push the human race forward?”

There is a difference between breaking the rules for convenience alone and breaking them to explore possibilities otherwise constrained by those rules. The operative word is “work” or your commitment to it. The Irish novelist and poet James Joyce broke the rules of grammar, mangled the rules of language, invented words, omitted punctuations, and, as Time put it, “revolutionized 20th-century fiction.” The result was Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, not to mention Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, three books of poetry, a play, essays published in newspapers on occasion, and his personal letters.

I can’t say it’s harder for the rest of us, who have to conform to strict codes of conduct as well as the mission, vision, voice, and viewpoint of the company or corporation we work for, especially in fields in which the lines between personal and professional views are blurred, such as in journalism, medicine, religion, advertising, politics, and entertainment.

Sometimes, I wish I could have a job that ends at 5 p.m. and does not resume until 9 a.m. the next day, but I don’t know how hard it is to keep a nine-to-five job because I have not had a job like that in my life, except for a brief three-days-a-week stint working as an executive assistant to the owner of a shipping company while I was still in college.

Even then, eight hours a day, I believe, is a lot of time to spend at work on a daily basis, six days a week, not counting overtime. That’s how much of our working hours are devoted to work and that’s why we should give it a little more respect, even if we often tend to feel that work steals away our life, which is why quotes like country singer Dolly Parton’s “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life,” spread like wildfire on the Internet, where we now draw many of our life’s lessons, inspirations, and validations.

Personally, though like everyone else, I’ve had many instances in which I was this far from throwing in the towel, I’ve long learned that, more than bad bosses or bad clients or officemates who speak ill of you behind your back, or colleagues who will stop at nothing to bring you down, what you need to protect your job from most of all is yourself.

Once I caught a tweet posted by a young writer of mine at 3 a.m., in which she informed Twitterverse that she was still at work. Her post received a lot of engagement, many from friends who were worried that she was working herself to death. The next day I asked her, “Did you explain to your friends that you were up at 3 a.m. because you took your sweet time doing what you could have done much earlier? And did you tell them what you were doing?” In truth, she was doing captions. My point was she was unfaithful to her job, putting it under the scrutiny of other people who had no understanding of it whatsoever. A possible consequence was that her friends or even family, who would have no more than a myopic view of her side of the story, would manage to convince her that her job was not worth it.

I think that I have made it a habit to protect my job from myself. It’s become my default setting to not complain about things, for instance, unless I had the courage to point them out or, better yet, to change them.

Also, I’ve been counseled again and again since I first became a manager in my mid-20s, when I had no idea at all how to manage myself, to keep a professional distance from the people at work, to separate my personal life from my professional life, but my work is just inseparable from my life. And I do get close to people I work with and out of the many friends I’ve made, some of them lifelong, like many of my most special bosses and clients, only one or two might have turned out to be unworthy of my trust, so I guess I’ll carry on.

Trust is a big thing for me in the workplace. Now, if they can’t handle trust, it’s their problem, not mine. I just don’t ever want to be one of those people who scream from the heart, “TGIF!” as if work, and the people in it, were a prison cell to escape from.

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