Over the last month or so I have been ready Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber. This book came into my world after talking to my extended family about the weirdness of how we work, why we work, and me just in general being baffled by how despite it being 2020 that we’re still all working 40+ hours per week. Somehow at some point in my adult life I started thinking a lot about how we work, why we work, and ultimately why we can get so invested in our jobs. I’m thankful this book came into my life because it started helping me understand some things that have been swirling around in my head.
In “Bullshit Jobs” (Simon & Schuster), David Graeber, an anthropologist now at the London School of Economics, seeks a diagnosis and epidemiology for what he calls the “useless jobs that no one wants to talk about.” He thinks these jobs are everywhere. By all the evidence, they are. His book, which has the virtue of being both clever and charismatic, follows a much circulated essay that he wrote, in 2013, to call out such occupations. Some, he thought, were structurally extraneous: if all lobbyists or corporate lawyers on the planet disappeared en masse, not even their clients would miss them. Others were pointless in opaque ways. Soon after the essay appeared, in a small journal, readers translated it into a dozen languages, and hundreds of people, Graeber reports, contributed their own stories of work within the bullshit sphere.Via THE BULLSHIT-JOB BOOM by Nathan Heller, https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-bullshit-job-boom
The big thing that’s been in my head over the last 5 or so years is my amazement at how things change as you “move up in management and leadership” in the library world and how I need to personally reconcile that with my blue collar upbringing. I started shelving books, moved to circulation, ran a bunch of teen events, dabbled in management, became the head of a department, and then finally was the director of a library. As I moved “up” (in quotes because honestly what is up? It is different for everyone) in libraries I feel as if I did less stuff. More of my work was in the strategic area of things, trying to connect ideas to the physical world and just throwing ideas up into the air to see if anything would stick. None of it felt blue collar to me. I came from the idea that work meant “this is the task, you do this to get that task done, and then you see your finished work in front of you”. Nothing about going into library management and leadership felt like that. Instead for me it felt like a series of ideas that kind of went somewhere but most went nowhere. I heard a lot of “you’ve really done a lot to change how people in this community view the public library” but that was just something someone said. There was no physical proof of that, just a few things said by a few people. A feeling. Despite being someone very driven by feelings, I needed more. This is probably why when I look back at my last job at the Benson Memorial Library that what I remember most is the Native Plants Garden. That was a thing that I could see, smell, and dive into with my hands.
While Bullshit Jobs doesn’t exactly talk about what I was experiencing, the information and ideas found in it helped me understand that I wasn’t alone in the world in thinking that my work left me uninspired and unfulfilled. It showed me that there were a lot of folks out there questioning their work, why it needs to be done in the first place, and why we all invest so much energy into it. I questioned why in the world would public libraries need me to say things like “why don’t we try to put post offices in our spaces?” I questioned whether or not I should even continue working in a public library at all. And I most definitely spent a very good chunk of my time recognising that way too much of the life that I was living was dedicated to thinking about public libraries when it was just better all around to think about my family, my love for them, and the creative activities that made me the most happy. I don’t know if it was Graeber’s attempt to make people working in jobs where they felt lost to feel more like they had a family of fellow I feel lost in my job people, but he managed to pull it off.
As a result, I find myself getting better at seeing the work I am now doing in public libraries as work. I go to work, I put in my energy and time, and then I go home. In the past a thing like working to get something like a Snapper top up kiosk would not have counted as work to me. Now I’m starting to allow myself to understand that, yes there will be lots of conversations around that and that yes there will be a lot of emailing and that ultimately that thing may not go anywhere, but that is work and that work is ok. Now if I could just tell myself the same thing around Strategic Planning and things like resilience workshops I may be leveling up in life.
FYI: Here’s David Graeber’s original essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. If you don’t read the full book, at least give this a shot.