I’m emigrating to Oblivia. I’m leaving this place and its work culture. I have spent too long trying to live with the tenets of our national work zeitgeist. It’s time to visualize my exit. No, I’m not retiring just yet (I’ve got two children to get through college). But I am thinking about it. Eighty years ago, on August 14, 1935, the same day the Social Security Administration was founded, Obliva became a bona fide and well-sought-out destination. Suddenly, retirement was closer to reality for millions. And, today, Americans count on a return on their withholdings to help fund their move. I’m excited about sliding into oblivion, I mean, emigrating to Oblivia.
It’s a state where your work accomplishments have been banished. For those who think work is their life, the move feels like exile: a place where no one cares whether you have a corner office or stock options. I never had either. But I always had another life as an artist and a writer. I’ve put these skills to good use in my day job and I’m taking them (and a few pens) with me when I go.
Recently, my daughter came home from her first paying job as a camp counselor. She was ecstatic, proclaiming her love for her work. I was blown away by her enthusiasm. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, “you’ve just begun your working days. You’re in the first stage of your working life, the idealist stage. In the idealist stage everything seems possible. It’s different from school and, as a bonus you’re paid. What could be better?” It was wonderful to witness my daughter’s exuberance. I never went through the idealist stage.
My first job was at McDonalds and my only duty was taking out the garbage. Not once did I come home waxing poetic about trash, only smelling of it. My first “real” job was working at the post office. And on my first day I was told to come in a 4:30 a.m. to sort mail. Five hours later, my new supervisor then handed me a full delivery route. My first 8-hour day turned into a 14-hour day. As I delivered the last of the mail, I was so tired and disgusted I started throwing letters on people’s front porches. Ah, the petulance of my youth, to say nothing of that federal offense. When I got back to the post office someone had called to complain and my supervisor reamed me out. I came home and told my father I was never going back. I will never forget his response: “You will go back and you will apologize. Then you will do what’s expected of you.” That day forged my work ethic. I never had a chance to experience the idealist stage. On my first day of work I went directly to the second level: the realist stage.
In this phase you realize there are people who think very differently than you. To succeed you will have to develop major interpersonal skills. You will discover hierarchy, the organizational chart that shows you’re at the bottom. To move up you will need to learn how to listen and do what you’re told. No eye rolling. It’s during these decades you discover coworkers who not only think differently than you, but believe your ideas are “dangerous” and actively work against you. And, they have no qualms about calling you out in a meeting or an all-staff email. If you’re like me, you will take classes on your own dime to learn how to deal with these difficult types. College doesn’t teach you this. To move up, you must learn how to strategically make waves, gathering allies as you do. Together, change may be possible.
When you get to be about 60, you will realize you’ve entered the final stage of your working life, the cynical stage. Let me say from the outset that turning into a cynic has its positive attributes. You come to accept that organizations, by their very nature, are conservative. Change does not come easily. And when it does, it’s often tumultuous. Resistance is often rampant. You wake up one day and ask yourself, “Why am I fighting so hard? What difference does all the sturm und drang I dredge up make?” And you ease up. You become thankful for small victories. And, most importantly, you start to let go. The other day I woke up and decided not to shave. No one noticed. Slowly and imperceptibly, I am slipping into Oblivia.
I have come to accept my cynicism. In fact, I’ve embraced the freedom that comes with it. I saw this metamorphosis happen to others, but never understood it until now. It’s liberating. It’s made my workdays so much better. It’s not that I no longer care. I work hard and I still come up with new ideas. But I have no illusions. I’ve learned to accept the realities of working without all the disappointments. The self-doubt of my early years has vanished. I love being old (except for my closer proximity to, well, “the end”). I know who I am. I know my strengths and what I suck at. And I have no problem accepting both. It helped to remember where I started. “Youth,” my father used to say, “is wasted on the young.” Not so, dear dad. Youth is only the first step. It is a time to be idealistic: to think you can change the world. Reality will set in later. Your early idealism will be buried, but not forever.
In Oblivia I will have all the knowledge I’ve accumulated in my work life while finally getting to experience the idealism that’s been in the closet all these years. I will love whatever I do and be rewarded because I will be my boss, my only employee, and my client. I will be writing my own performance review. Well, I think I’ll do away with performance reviews. They’re quite meaningless. And, in my new home they are against the law.
Long live Social Security and God Bless the blissful State of Oblivia!