Saturday, January 9, 2010

These things park themselves in my head and won't leave

Something came up in a conversation this week about work and workload.  It got me thinking about my post-college experiences and how much difficulty my peeps (work colleagues, college buddies, husband, etc) and I have had in the modern professional world.  I thought of posting something to that end up on this here blog, and hemmed and hawed about it all week.  This isn't really THAT kind of blog, but I have a sneaking suspicion that more than a few of you readers work in creative fields and I'm banking on the fact that you could probably benefit from hearing what I've got to relate.  Plus, I just read this and decided that if this topic kept coming up, it was for a reason.

So, here goes:

I am an Interior Designer (no, not a decorator...but that's a conversation for another day).  I studied for 3 very intense years in a full-time program, doing as many as 40 hours of homework, on top of  30 hours of class/studio time per week.  I have friends who, at the time,  were attending law school and others in medical school.  My workload was about as big as both of those programs combined.  I'm not saying I'm smarter or better or more "tough" - I'm just saying it was intense.  I'm saying that I understand what it is to skimp on everything in order to get the work done.  What it is to feel that nothing is as important as that next project and that if it isn't perfect, the world will come to an end.  Consistently "forgetting" to eat and getting 4 hours of sleep per night, month after month.  Getting simultaneous ovarian cysts and UTI's and refusing to see the doctor because I would lose points on my work if I missed class.  This was no night course.  The only people I know who sacrifice more of themselves to get higher education are architects.  I worked with an architectural intern who hadn't had time to watch a movie in the entire 6 years she was at school!  I'm not talking about taking the time to go to the cinema; I'm talking about renting a movie from the corner store and watching it at home, in your pj's.  She couldn't do that, because she slept at school.  I know another architect who risked her life walking home during a hurricane, because she'd been too busy to read a newspaper, listen to the radio, watch the news, or even call her family and didn't know that there was a severe storm watch on.  She'd been at school for days and didn't know what was going on until she left the building and tree limbs were being tossed around like toothpicks.

My point is this: we all did it.  It was crazy, but when you feel "called" to a certain profession, you do what you think you have to in order to make it happen.  And, if you want some honesty, this is a crazy profession and there is so much competition that you really need to be prepared to do what is necessary to get the job done.  Sometimes that means working obscene hours and skipping several meals in a row.  But (and this is a big BUT), it will kill you if you are not careful.  I'm not exaggerating.  (There are rumours out there that I have a tendency to take creative license, when it comes to story-telling... to that, I say NEVER!).  Seriously, folks.  I know way too many people in this business who've died young.  Heart failure, stroke, suicide... you abuse your body/mind long enough, it will give out.  You are the only one who will give a damn about your health, so take care of it.  Your employers have all been in the same situation as you and many of them believe the insane hours, physical neglect, and mental/emotional strain are perfectly normal (FYI: THEY ARE WRONG).  You may be told to suck it up or better yet, your job may be threatened if you speak up.  Most of us start our careers in this business pretty young and it's pretty specialized - you can do many things with an arts degree, but tell me this: what do you do when you've spent $100,000 on an architectural degree and one year into your internship, you realize that you can't keep doing this to yourself (especially not for $30,000/year)?  They know they have power over you.  They know they can scare you.  They'll use that until you no longer remember what it was like to have good health, a social life, or even a decent night's sleep.  Many of THEM don't have any of those things, so why should you? 

There seems to be this unspoken understanding that it is ok to lie to college students about what they can expect, in terms of workload and salary.  Of how they can expect to be treated by employers and colleagues.  Of what is considered a reasonable request, coming from an employer.  This is probably the biggest failure in our post-secondary education system.  The professional world is unbelievably full of abusive, obsessive, narcissistic and otherwise-messed-up people.  And, as the term "narcissistic" might lead you to believe, many of them don't give a crap about you.  Those guys (that's the gender-less "guys", by the way) only care about their egos and MONEY.  Take a good look at your boss.  Does he/she have a family, a social life, interests outside of work, good health?  No?  Then you have a pretty good idea of what their priorities are, don't you?

Now, for the important part:  if you find yourself in a situation where you feel belittled, abused, threatened, bullied, or even just under-appreciated and grossly under-paid, LEAVE. 
This is a serious problem that is not being addressed by our society.  We all know that beating your spouse is wrong, but for some reason, no-one talks about what we should do when our boss won't let us go home (after an 18-hour day, for example) or take a proper lunch break.  Or calls us a retard.  Or calls us on our time off to yell at us for making a mistake.  Or sends us (alone) to meetings where it's understood that we'll be blamed for thousands of dollars of budget overrun and delays, without any advice on how we should handle it.

Your boss should have time for you.  Your boss should care how you're feeling.  Your boss should take care of your needs and help you to develop your skills.  Help you grow and discover which direction you'd like to take your career.  That type of boss exists, people.  And I know, because I have one, now.  I recently developed a repetitive-stress injury in my right hand, from drafting on the computer (pretty horrifying prospect, when that's what you do all day long or if you like knitting in your spare time).  He didn't even give one thought to what he was going to do with me if I stopped being able to produce work.  He was concerned for me and whether or not I was in pain.  I'm trying some more ergonomic tools and he's agreed to purchase whatever I need.  He hasn't once mentioned that I should hurry up and figure out how to get back up to my previous speed.  Now THAT'S how a boss is supposed to act.  Because, you know what?  It makes me WANT to produce good work for him, and lots of it.  I feel supported and appreciated.  I feel like a person.

Everyone has a right to feel like that.  If you're going through some of this crap, I hope you're reading this and that you believe me when I say that you that it isn't "quitting" or "giving up" when you stand up for yourself and refuse to take the abuse.  Get out.  Taking that temporary job nannying your neighbour's kid or slinging cappuccinos at Starbucks could literally be a lifesaver.  Think it over and get your head on straight before you decide on your next move.

Ok, I'm done.  I'm sorry for hijacking the blog.  I promise I'll be back very soon with some lighter stuff.  And I promise that I won't routinely be lecturing on the current state of our society.  I just kept getting signs from the Universe that this had to be said and I figured I'd give in to it before I got hit over the head with it (literally).


  1. This is wild, I never knew that world was like that! It sounds like it can be extremely similar to my time in entertainment. Which is not a good thing.

    I'm so glad that you're into a more positive workplace now, it really can make all the difference!

  2. I'm forwarding this post to a friend.

    I think we spend way too many hours at work in our lives to do something that makes us unhappy. I knew someone who said it doesn't matter how much you hate your job, if it pays well, it enables you to enjoy fun hobbies on your time off.

    WRONG! I don't care how well it pays, if it's making you unhappy, find something else to do.