The Sound Desk Technique – How to survive a ho hum job

October 25, 2011

 2011 has been a happy, peaceful year for me so far.  My work is the only aspect of my life that is mediocre and ho-hum and nags at me like a dull, persistent toothache.

My job is fine.  It’s not that bad for a Mcjob is better than no job at all.  My problem is less to do with the company I work for and more with the nature of the work my non-linear CV has forced me into. The activities I do every day do not in any way resonate with me.  My heart is completely disconnected from my hands.  I don’t feel I play to my skills or make a significant, lasting contribution to anyone or anything.  I am a parrot disguised as a grey, run-of-the-mill swallow because that is what I was hired to be.

I am so grateful I was hired at all.  After months of unemployment, my brain felt, smelled and looked like blue cheese.  I craved routine and structure that demanded simple things of me, such as getting out of bed in the morning.  Most days, contact with people was rare so I lost interest in my personal appearance.  I slothed around in my slippers and purple toweling bathrobe and my hair always looked like I had been tinkering with livewires.  I developed an unhealthy, dependent relationship with my computer and wasted hours roaming in internet wastelands or watching Frasier and MacGyver reruns on YouTube.  Thankfully, just before I started dribbling and rocking in a corner, this job popped up and it rescued me from Sylvia Plath-like insanity.  (However, it must be said that working in a robotic job in the corporate world creates its own madness.)

I work for the routine and money.  I think it’s ok to do this.  In a previous blog post, I wrote about how, for most of us, circumstances, responsibilities and past decisions mean that it is unrealistic to demand a job that gives us a constant natural high. If I hear anyone say that a job should be a holy calling and passion at work is the key to career bliss, I will bop them over the head with a judge’s gavel or pick axe.

I think the psyche operates like a sound control desk.  We have many different aspects to our personality and we can regulate their presence with a knob that moves up and down.  At work, I tune down most channels and I set myself into a kind of emotionally and spiritually numbed zen mode.  I disconnect my work from my heart because they are so utterly incompatible.  The Real Julie then floats off like a helium balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of my body below.

This anesthetized state does not mean I operate with the glazed apathy of a civil servant.  I work like an efficient robot but doing my job becomes as automatic as breathing.  The Real Julie wanders away and I tune her in again after work because I can’t deal with my inner being’s whining, neuroses and dissatisfaction during the day.  At 5:30pm, I run out the office as if the building is on fire and I continue the activities that make me come alive, such as spending time with Alastair, learning French, exercising or writing this blog.

This week my sound desk technique has not worked because I’ve been on a dull, irrelevant training course.  When I am delirious with boredom, I think too much.  The Real Julie comes pirouetting into my head and dances on the sound desk controls.  She begs me to listen to her and look at her.   She has so much energy, hope and enthusiasm and since there is no tangible way of meeting her needs, I find her presence annoying.   When she’s around in my head, she starts poking her nose where she is not wanted.  She opens filing cabinets such as ‘Regrets’, ‘Bad Career Decisions’ and ‘The Past’.   She holds up papers to the light and says ‘Julie, what’s this?’ so I have to think about things I locked away.  Sometimes, when she’s really frustrated, she bangs on the walls of my skull and screams ‘Let me out! I can’t take this crap anymore.  Let me out!’

Henry Thoreau said, ‘Most people live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them’.  I actually think that most people work in jobs that cause quiet desperation and drown out the song in them.  Most companies want swallows, not parrots so we leave our colours at home.  Many people, like me, put their souls on ice during the day.  I think that is why social media has taken off because it is an outlet for personal expression.  People are screaming, ‘This is the real me.  Look at me.  Notice me, please.’

I think the reason why work is often dull is because we don’t make anything these days.  I got an email from a colleague in another country and the title on her signature was ‘Controller’.  Controller?  What the hell is that?  I have heard children aspiring to be firemen, teachers, doctors or policemen but never ‘controllers’.

In the corporate world there is often no output (other than Powerpoint slides or Excel spreadsheets) that you can stand back and admire and say proudly ‘I made this with my bare hands’.  Fix this leak.  Mop this floor.  Dig this hole. Repair this roof.  Wash these dishes.  Build this house.  Most jobs where you do something tangible and useful and where you can see almost instant rewards are blue-collar but we poo poo that kind of work and esteem nebulous titles such as ‘controllers’ or ‘vice presidents (VPs)’ or ‘senior managers’.

I also think that schools and universities have cheated us.  They did not manage our expectations and prepare us for the real world in the 21st century.  They gave us an inflated, misguided hope that we could control our future and, if we worked hard and had some skill, we would be indispensible and invincible.  This means many of us end up swallowing our fate like a hard, awful pill.  The reality is that most jobs require swallows (although they advertise for parrots), many organisations are so dull that they are almost comatose and a lot of workplaces perpetuate mediocrity and like it that way.  And sometimes, we can’t find any job at all.

In one of his books, Bill Bryson asks which is worse – to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted or a life so full of stimuli that you are easily bored?  I don’t know.  All I know is that some days, I pace in the bathroom at work like I am a caged, frustrated animal.  I get home and I know I must run.  I run faster and faster and faster.  I run around the neighborhood like I am being chased by velociraptors.  I need to hear my heart beat, my breath pant, my feet pounding the pavements.  After my numbness during the day, I need to feel as if I am still alive in the evenings.

Schindler’s List was one of the most depressing, intense movies I have ever watched.   Every morning I use the lift in our apartment block and it gives me some perspective for the day.  A company called Schindler made the lift.  Schindler’s Lifts.  Things could be worse and I am grateful I don’t work there.  Imagine:  ‘Hi I’m Julie calling from Schindler’s Lifts.’ Or picture a business card that says: ‘Julie Surycz / Controller / Schindler’s Lifts’.


In praise of Slow

October 19, 2011

This weekend I skipped to my local village patisserie to buy a baguette and some croissants.  The door was locked and the lights were off.  ‘How odd’, I thought, ‘Closed on a Sunday morning?  Why?  It’s prime time for business!’  My lower lip puckered, ‘I want my croissant, dammit!’

I pressed my nose to the window and looked inside.  Stacked chairs, bare tables and empty shelves.  This hand-written sign was taped to the window:

I’ll translate.  The sign says that the owners of the patisserie have gone on holiday and their shop is closed until 25 October.  If we need anything while they are away, they recommend their competitor down the road.

This is not the first time I have seen locked shops with ‘On holiday, catcha later’ signs like this.  During the summer, I saw similar ones stuck on windows of bakeries, restaurants and other owner managed businesses.  When Swiss and French shop owners go on holiday, they turn off the lights, stick up a sign, lock the doors and disappear for two weeks.  And that’s that.

There is a boulangerie called Lucien’s in Divonne in France and I think it sells the best croissants and pain au chocolats in the whole wide world.  Everyone else agrees because every Sunday there is a queue that snakes out the shop, winds around the building and down the road.  Lucien’s shut up for two weeks in August.  That means they missed out on hundreds of customers and thousands of euros in revenue.  Alastair and I were one of their many heart-broken clients who read the ‘On holiday! Back in two weeks!’ sign on their door and we walked away with our heads bowed and tears in our eyes.

I have always lived in fast-paced, high-energy cities like London and Johannesburg where shops seem to be open 7 days a week all year round.  When I am greeted by a locked door, I scratch my head and wander in circles for it is unfamiliar territory.  I am used to having shops open at my beck and call.

Signs like these don’t make business sense to an accountant like me.  Recommending a competitor?  Well, that’s just bizarre.  I am most familiar with the expand-and-crush-your-competitors business model.  Why doesn’t the boulanger or restaurateur hire a temp or ask employees to keep the shop open while they are away?  Aren’t they worried they will lose money when they are closed?  What if customers never return?

When I saw the sign on the patisserie window on Sunday, I had an epiphany.  It was such a big epiphany that I returned with my camera and took a photo of the sign.  This is not just a sign.  It is a model of a new, happier, calmer way to live.

These signs are precious and have become one of the things I love, love, LOVE about Switzerland.  Swiss and French shop owners live out the message of Carl Honoré’s book ‘In Praise of Slow’, which ironically I have always been too busy to read.  But I think the title captures the essence of the plot.  The world is stuck in fast forward and we equate speed with productivity.  We are always head down and on-the-go and we race through life with our feet flat on the accelerator.  We’re killing ourselves.  We would be less stressed and anxious if we all just slowed down.

An American businessman stood on the pier of a coastal Mexican village.  A fisherman docked his small boat.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of the fish he had caught.

“Why don’t you stay out longer so you can catch more fish?” the American asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” the Mexican said.

The American asked, “But if you return to shore so early, what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “This is my day:  I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full, happy and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you could buy a bigger boat and, with the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you should sell directly to the consumers.  You could eventually control the product, processing and distribution. This means you can leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “How long will this take?”

“15-20 years.”

“What then, senor?”

“That’s the best part. When the time is right, you could list your company on the Stock Exchange and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American replied, “Then you could retire and move to a small coastal fishing village.  You could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos …”

I see this well-known fable playing out in small, successful owner managed businesses in Swiss villages.  Unlike me, they are not slaves to more – more time, more revenue and more customers.  They work to meet their needs, they value personal time and they rigidly resist longer opening hours.  It is common practice for small Swiss businesses to close for a one to two hour lunch break every day.  They also believe a two week break that is completely free of worries is more valuable than the loss of revenue from a closed shop.

I am now fully supportive of businesses that close their doors for lunch and holidays.  I’m in praise of slow.


Sophia, give me a teaspoon of your confidence

October 13, 2011

I’ve been craving a belly laugh.  I haven’t had one in ages.  The problem is a person can’t plan to have a belly laugh because the best ones jump up on you out of the blue.  The most memorable belly laughs happen when you least expect it.  That is the beauty of them.   A belly laugh is the type of laughter that bubbles up from deep inside and makes you cry happy tears and go red in the face.  Sometimes, belly laughs are so gripping that you gasp for air.  They give you a warm, happy glow for days afterwards.  You may be brushing your teeth, in a meeting, cooking dinner or whatever and then you will remember the situation that led to the belly laugh and you chuckle again.

I had a belly laugh today.

Every morning, I read the Daily Mail while I eat my muesli and psyche myself up for the day.  Today I read an article about two girls from Essex who sang a Nicki Minaj song on a YouTube video.  The clip went viral and it has been watched by millions around the world.

Sophia and her moral support, her cousin Rosie,  were invited on to The Ellen Degeneres Show and the Daily Mail attached a clip of their interview.  I love the confidence of these two children, especially Sophia with the brown hair. She cracked me up.  I wanted to jump though the computer screen and give her a big hug to thank her for making my day.

Sophia and Rosie’s extroversion and self-esteem reminds me of that saying, ‘Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt before and dance like no one is watching.’  As the interview progresses, they sing and talk as if no one is watching and I wish I had more of their boldness and audacity.  Rosie and Sophia inspired me today.  I want more of them in me.

NOTE:  If you can’t see the video I have attached to this post, follow this link to the Daily Mail clips.


I wish real life was more of a cruise

October 3, 2011

When I was 14 and in high school in South Africa, one of my English teachers explained that the key to a good essay is to write about what you know well.  She said, ‘Choose a topic that you can relate to.  I don’t want to read about random, far-off subjects.  Don’t write about spring in Miami if you have never even been to Miami.’

Her spring-in-Miami mantra blew into my head again this month because Alastair and I set off on a cruise from there.  The weather in Miami is no longer a random, far-off topic for me and I feel well-qualified to comment on it.

Miami and the Caribbean are very hot. Every time I stepped outside, thick heat and humidity poured over me and into me and wrapped itself around my body like a hot, wet blanket.

I could never live in Florida or the Caribbean because of the weather.  It is not the heat itself that puts me off but rather the air cons that are cranked up to maximum chill in every building.  I steamed outdoors and shivered indoors.   Sometimes it is a relief to walk from the hot, dog’s breath air outside into the crisp, surgical chill of an air-conditioned building.  But, after a while, I resented carrying a jersey for indoors when temperatures were raging outdoors.

On the cruise, I sat in the hot tub and discussed my air con frustrations with a guy from Colorado.  He said that, when he walked inside a restaurant in Miami the evening before, it was as if someone tipped a bucket of ice water over his head.  He was so cold that he could barely chew and was forced to wrap himself in the edges of the tablecloth for extra warmth.

I love America because …

I love America and I appreciate it more after living in Switzerland for 6 months.  I love Switzerland too and I appreciate it more after holidaying in America for 10 days.  For a short period, the excess and eccentricity of America is liberating.  When I order a coffee in Switzerland, it often comes in an espresso cup which is marginally bigger than a thimble.  I ordered a coffee at ‘The Daily’ in Miami and it came in a mug the size of a beach bucket.

The food and beverage manager on the ship said that, for a week long cruise with 4,200 people on board, they order 48,000 eggs, 6,500 pounds of chicken and over 5,000 hamburger patties.  Alastair and I love eating and we chowed down until food was about to squirt out our ears.

One lunch, I ploughed through a burger and felt lines of liquid dribbling down my chin.  It reminded me of writer Charlie Brooker’s description of eating a Big Mac.  He said, ‘It was a bit like sinking my teeth into a small, soft woodland creature with a light dusting of flour; one which thoroughly enjoyed being eaten and responded to each bite by gently urinating warm oil down my chin.’  Alastair and I radiated cholesterol and happiness the entire holiday.

This trip I appreciated America more because of English.  It was a relief and release to gabble away in my mother tongue.  The Americans are warm and open and they love to chat.  It is such a contrast to the stick-up-the-ass conservatism and aloofness of the Swiss.  I spoke to people in the lifts, in the buffet queue, in the hot tub, on my deck chair and while treading water in the sea.  We met a guy on the metro in Miami and after 6 minutes of conversation he volunteered more of his personal life than I have squeezed out of Swiss people in over 6 months.

I love American customer service.  I love it that they offer service when you don’t even need it (but the irony is that when you desperately do, there is none in sight).  I stepped into the Banana Republic clothing store in Miami and a little old lady called Gloria welcomed me in, like she was inviting me into her home.  I hate clothes shopping on my own.  In America, they have Glorias to help you.  I stood in the change room and yelled out, ‘Gloria! Gloria!’ and she scuttled around the store for me while I sat in the cubicle and examined myself in the mirror.  She called me ‘honey’ and ‘love’ and ‘darling’ and I felt so relaxed that I even let her into my cubicle and showed her my boobs.  It was like shopping with my mom.  I felt happy.

Looking ahead to my retirement

Cruising is fabulous.  I recommend it.  Alastair and I have decided that, instead of going to an old age home, we will do back-to-back cruises in our retirement.  The ships are a one-stop shop for entertainment, food and camaraderie.  Apparently older people choose the cooler Alaskan cruises where, according to our waitress, ‘death is so close, you can smell it coming’.

There were 3,200 guests on our boat and most were young, vibey, fat Americans.  Americans love cruising.  One lady I met in the lift had done over 40.  I understand why.  It is guaranteed, instant relaxation and you can dip your toe into obscure, exotic places without the faff and stress of organizing a visit on your own.

A cruise is the best place for people-watching because all levels of the social ladder are together in a confined (but not too confined) space.   It is a cheap holiday so cruising is to the American chavs what Tenerife is to the British ones.  Chavs is the British word for the type of people on the Jerry Springer Show.  One night, I woke up to drunken raving from our neighbours’ room.  It ended off with a flourish as the man bellowed at his wife, ‘Shut up you motherfucking bitch’.

The American Dream is still there

I met a man in Belize who earns $50 a week.  He said his life’s ambition is to ‘get to America’.  It is his Promised Land and I understand why.

I always feel happy in America.  It is not just because I am in holiday-mode.  Americans radiate optimism and hope.  Europe is hard and cynical in comparison.  If you want to take a risk and try something new in Europe, the attitude is ‘Try, but you may fail.’  I know this because I have banged my head against the European brick wall before.  In America, the attitude is ‘Try, because you may succeed.’  Many Europeans (such as authors Marcus Buckingham and Christopher Hitchens) have spoken about how America kick started their careers and they would never have achieved the same success in Europe.

The American optimism is a refreshing antidote to my inherent cynicism and negativity.  That’s why I always love trips to the land of hope and ar-pour-toon-idy.