Employment, Volunteering, and Passion

I have a complicated relationship with employment.

Earning Money

When I was young my mum pushed me to find work. My first job was delivering Messenger Newspapers in my neighbourhood. I made about $10 a week. I didn’t really mind it: I had the time, and the work wasn’t too dulling. I rather enjoyed cycling about my neighborhood. I would have been about 11.

In pushing me to work my mum had the best of intentions. She thought work would teach me industry, accountability, and independence, while the income would teach me how to manage money. My four older siblings had run the same gauntlet, our family benefitting readily from the fringe benefits of their casual jobs – baked goods and free movie rentals, to name a few. I myself, however, wasn’t keen on the whole proposition. Giving up an hour of time for a fistful of dollars didn’t do it for me, especially as I rarely had a particular savings goal and was aware that the sums of money I saved as a 15-year-old would be inconsequential once I started earning properly.

Nevertheless, I filled an array of unfulfilling positions. I earned an illicit $5 an hour cutting my thumbs as a dogsbody at a local butcher’s. I worked at a bakery, at a video store, at a cafe, as a babysitter, as a netball umpire. I even did a stint tidying cards at a newsagency. (To this day, I have quite the card-tidying knack.) Some of these jobs were more enjoyable than others. In some of them I was quite happy giving up my time. But it never quite felt right.

As an employee I often seemed to be the odd one out in that none of the workplaces became a ‘place’ for me. My colleagues tended to form closer relationships with each other than with me, to experience and enjoy their jobs on more levels than I did. This was no doubt because many of them worked full- or part-time whereas I worked casually, so they had both more opportunity and more motivation to invest in their workplace. Further, I had internal resistance to buying into my workplace, some sort of wariness of the ostensible Stockholm Syndrome that I saw affecting my co-workers. In this vein I always treated casual employment as a two-way street, not hesitating to turn down or re-schedule shifts when something better came up (in one memorable case, I took work off to hand out How-to-Vote cards in the Mayo by-election). It took me some time to realise that this assertiveness as a junior employee was fairly atypical. [fblike]

field labourers hitting in fence posts near redesdale

Doing a spot of manual labour.

Finding Meaning

My relationship with work changed for the better when, in 2010, I began volunteering with the AYCC. This was a big commitment. I was also studying full-time and volunteering to help organise Students of Sustainability 2010. I, not reluctantly, had to leave my casual cafe job and stopped earning reliable income altogether until I was serendipitously offered a necessarily flexible position with a waste management consultancy.

Although I was now giving up more of my time and earning far less for it, I was much happier. I was doing something that I found profoundly rewarding. I was building new connections with wonderful people. I was – and it’d be silly to deny this part of the return I got on my investment – enjoying greater recognition and status. Things were good.

Allow me to further emphasise: things were very good. In no way was volunteering a sacrifice by me. I was more than happy to give my time doing something that I enjoyed in the service of a just cause. It enriched my life. It made me a better person. This was a wonderful time in my life.

After about 18 months of this I moved to Melbourne to work with the AYCC about 5 days a week as part of a gentleman’s agreement under which I was paid for two day’s work and volunteered three more, earning a little more than 40% of a full-time minimum wage. Although I saved practically nothing while in this role, I was secure. I was pretty happy with this arrangement. Even though I was just earning enough to get by, I was getting a lot out of the deal.

dancing at say yes australia rally adelaide.

It was a good time.

Missing Out

Then everything changed. My part-time contract with the AYCC concluded and I found myself unemployed, a state I was both mentally and financially unprepared for. In hindsight, I was naive not to better plan for this situation. As it stands, I unexpectedly found myself in the wholly new (yet entirely plebeian) predicament of needing to work to support myself.

Several failed job applications later, I was umpiring netball for a living. My ego had taken a battering, but I was at least a little wiser, a little less starry-eyed. While my experience of volunteering offered me a paradigm of work as something existentially fulfilling, this experience shocked me into being a little less complaisant in a job. I would now act to ensure my interests were being met, not just blithely assume they were accounted for by my employer. I’d also be more discerning, considering how a prospective position would help me to achieve my longer-term goals.

Six months later, I again took up a role with the AYCC. Again it was a six month contract, but I now understood the implications of this. Further, I would be working 4 days a week and receiving a commensurate salary.

I was glad for the opportunity to again do work I enjoyed, with people I loved, within a movement whose members inspired me. But the ardent passion was gone. I no longer worked with the same selfless dedication. I would never shirk my duty, nor fail to pitch in as part of an extraordinary team effort. I was still willing to do what it took. I was neither selfless nor selfish; I simply made sure to treat my needs as also important and never to subjugate them unwittingly or unwillingly. Although a certain spark was absent, I feel that this was a generally healthier situation.

Getting On

Fresh from the conclusion of this most recent contract, I’m now about to begin work as a union organiser. It’s a full-time job with, I’m told, irregular hours. I want to commit myself with the same inexhaustible passion that typified my initial volunteering with the AYCC.

Yet, there is a certain trepidation which I might even call ‘fear’. What if this job doesn’t do it for me? What if the passion I seek to rediscover was the hallmark of a naive, guileless former self? What if it’s gone? My hope is that this new job will answer the question: can I again feel the passion I once did? My fear is that the answer will be “no”. There’s something fantastic about finding a job that one loves, that is enjoyed as much as a hobby. Conversely, there’s something so dreary about the prospect of a job that falls short of that.

an orange butterfly on the tip of an outstretched finger, with papua new guinea's jungle in the background

Photograph by Rowan Dignam.

I don’t know how my next job will play out. Still, I’m looking forward to it. Somewhere in me is an instinct that tells me I could happily lose myself in love of this new job. And in doing so, I might find something else I’ve lost.

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