Modern Love: Do what you love and love what you do

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 1:39pm

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Design by Sherry Chen

After my high school graduation, I worked part-time as a Jimmy John’s sandwich artist. The title “artist” was always funny to me, as if cleaning up mayonnaise and throwing a slab of glistening roast beef onto a roll was a craft to be perfected. 

I would rarely be put on the cash register because of my social awkwardness, but one day my boss suggested I try it during the lunch rush to practice talking to customers. An older man came in near the end of the rush and paid for his $8 sandwich with a $10 and a $5 bill. I gave him his five-dollar bill back, thinking it was an accident, and he immediately became upset.

“Do you millennials not know how to do math anymore? Fifteen minus eight is seven. Give me seven back.” 

He was in a full suit with a briefcase and was likely returning to his big-shot, nine-to-five job after eating his freaky-fast sandwich. I gave him seven dollars without a word.

After he finished eating his #9 Italian Night Club — salami, capicola, cheese, onions, lettuce, oil and vinegar, in that order — I cleaned his table and read the sign posted on the wall next to it. It was titled “How Much Is Enough?” and featured a short story about a fisherman in Mexico who meets an investment banker from the United States. The banker, who had an MBA from Harvard, scoffed at the simplicity of the fisherman’s life and suggested he go into business selling fish and invest in bigger boats, which would require him to move to a big city and would earn him millions in 15 to 20 years.

“Then what?” the fisherman asked. The banker responded that he could retire to a small fishing town and live a simple life.

And thus marked the beginning of my quarter-life crisis.

A few weeks after leaving my job at Jimmy John’s, I started school at the University of Michigan. I chose to major in creative writing and communications, two of the stereotypical “unemployable” majors, despite my high school teachers telling me to pursue math to make life easier for myself.

I was thrown into a culture that placed STEM and business fields above everything else. Most students had hobbies on the side, but the general consensus seemed to be “make the most money you can, however you can, so you can do your hobbies later.”

I was recently served an ad on Facebook for the U-M Fall Job & Internship Fair with a caption that read, “Hey #UMichStudents, landing your internship or first job out of college can be an awesome feeling. But in order to land one, you have to make your job search a top priority while you’re in school. Here’s your chance to do that.”

I could imagine the person writing this on the U-M social media team sitting in their office, looking at the clock to count how many more hours they had until 5 p.m., writing anything that came into their head. I know because I’ve been that person; I worked at an advertising agency after my freshman year making Facebook ads for car dealerships. And the summer after that, I did public relations for a health insurance company.

I attributed my dislike for the agency to the fact I had previously worked for a non-profit and just wasn’t used to the new type of work, but working for corporate America also sucked the soul out of me. By the end of my internship at the insurance company, I knew I never wanted to work in those environments again. No one was passionate about doing good for the world, only making money and getting praise from their bosses. The offices were gray with harsh lighting that highlighted the bags under the employees’ eyes. 

I could see a cycle happening in front of my own eyes. Send out the Facebook ads, make a bunch of money for old white men who don’t need it, use that money to make more ads. Write a blog post about self-care, publish it on the insurance company’s Facebook, make people think they care and buy more insurance. Wash, rinse, repeat.

When I saw this U-M Facebook ad, I was reminded of all of the networking events I’ve gone to out of obligation and left out of anxiety. I went to my first career fair during my junior year, though I didn’t recognize any of the companies. There was an ambiguous air about every table; even the tables I went up to couldn’t quite articulate what they did and why it mattered. The representatives just talked at me for 20 minutes until I accepted their business card.

The last table I went to was Yelp. I waited in line for over half an hour after at least three business students cut in front of me.

When I reached the front of the line, the representative raised his eyebrows. “We have mostly sales positions, which means facing rejection a lot. Do you think you would be emotionally prepared for that?” he asked. The man’s face had the same robotic, condescending look in his eyes as the man who asked me if I knew how to give change in Jimmy John’s. The only real information he gave me was how much money he’s made in his position. He then told me to apply online, of course, as everyone does.

I walked out after his spiel. I passed at least 40 more students coming into the fair on my way out, each dressed the same with that man’s exact look in their eyes. They were ready to become robots with his same programming.

We live in an environment that creates gatekeepers for success. Either you pursue a field that makes you feel inferior, or you’re convinced you should sacrifice yourself to a company for the slight possibility of being happy. But I want to be a writer, which means I probably will never be “rich and successful” like my math teacher or a career fair representative would like me to be. In fact, I’m going to be the naïve kid they would make fun of for “following her dreams” into an unnecessarily difficult life.

But if I’m going to be working for the rest of my life, why would I spend my energy fueling the same system that makes it impossible to be satisfied?

Upon reflection, it’s clear the Harvard businessman is the antagonist of the “How Much Is Enough?” story. The fisherman knew what he was doing. Instead of sacrificing his sanity for a career that would bring him right to where he already is, he made a life for himself doing what brought him joy. It was that simple. He didn’t have to wait until retirement to fish, the same way I won’t have to wait until retirement to write.

Ironically, next to “How Much Is Enough?” there was another sign in Jimmy John’s. It read, “If you do the things you need to do when you need to do them, then someday you can do the things you want to do when you want to do them.” 

I want to make an edit to this sign. Instead of separating “need” and “want,” I would say to do the things you want to do because you need to do them. Whether you’re a writer, an artist or a sandwich artist, cultivate love for your work. Listen to what comes easy to you. Figure out how to use the things you love to help yourself and the world. 

And please, whatever you do, don’t assume sandwich shop cashiers can’t do math. They probably know a lot more than you think.