I recently landed a final interview for a dream job: senior research coordinator. In fact, I hadn’t dreamed of it, but it offered a way out of my current role – and it felt like a dream because I had ceased to be able to imagine myself doing anything so illustrious. For a few days, I imagined myself doing thankless, sharply written research. My future boss was famous in his field, somewhat famous outside of it, and the range of responsibilities would have included tasks as varied as picking up lunch and writing ghost articles.
If I had had the chance, I would have excelled. I saw myself finally “realizing my potential”.
In the interview, however, after the initial pleasant greeting, I was immediately redirected to titles that seemed more in line with my current ‘kitchen-sink’ job, such as program administrator and program assistant. I was applauded for my initiative, and my future boss’s interest had been piqued by my writing sample, but not enough to take me seriously as a candidate.
Like millions of people, I have a LinkedIn profile, which spells out my identity in the clear and smudged jargon of 21st century career discourse. I have causes close to my heart, people I follow and companies whose tiny fingerprint logos appear next to the titles of jobs I’ve held in what amounts to a concise timeline of my life adult: administrative assistant, office manager, legal assistant, administrative specialist, administrative assistant (again).
Many like to say that you are more than your job, that someone in my position is “not just” what I do for a living, but rather a person with hobbies, history and interests, a person who is known and like. As if being known and loved somehow overcomes the identity organized by your profession.
They are not entirely wrong, these people who claim that you are more than your work, but that your work is more of who you are. What you do for more hours of the day than you will ever spend with friends or family (seriously questioning the value of being loved) works its way into your identity deeper than anyone wants to. ‘admit. It’s an unattractive truth to face: although a writer, trained by my training to analyze history, I am first and foremost an administrator, because that’s what I’ve been doing, day in and day out, for nine years.
Originally, I wanted this path to be a way to pay my bills, but I saw my work become inseparable from myself. I organize my life into endless Gmail folders, write poetry at work, and compose stories at home about assistants stealing routing numbers. The office makes more appearances in my art than I do.
The syndrome doesn’t stop there: my job comes to mind at dinner, on dates, and in the middle of hikes. I can’t get rid of admin issues outside of office hours, and that’s not because of emails or calls that don’t go through the 9-to-5 barriers, but because those issues take up the most of my life. Telling people to quit their professional lives in their spare time is like telling parents to forget their kids exist on date night. You get worried when someone says “Okay”.
For higher level professions, we understand that. Lawyers think like lawyers even when they don’t charge for time, and isn’t it reassuring to have a doctor on your plane? We inherently understand that a profession bleeds into a person’s psyche, fusing the work with their personality until they cannot separate one from the other.
But if I am above all an administrative person, what is an administrative person worth?
Years ago, I was a cashier and bagger at Whole Foods. A few months after my stay at a suburban department store, management chose to cover a board near the elevator in the basement with markers delineating the total number of hours worked at Whole Foods by the store’s current employees: 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 30,000. or more. The line for 1,000 was the lowest and the line for 30,000 was the highest, with employees represented by stars. The stars clustered in the lower registers; only a handful made it to the top. The supernova rate in my grocery store was high.
Ten thousand hours of application to a task is supposed to turn you into a professional. But we don’t attach this axiom to all professions, especially not to work that society undervalues. Since the start of the pandemic, many workers have been labeled “essential” – but in name only, not rewarded with pay or respect for the skills they need.
Service workers are generally “hourly employees”, which means that their work is measured in time rather than skill, the idea being that anyone could do it, if they had the time. In these careers, 10,000 hours does not make you a respected professional. All it means is that you’ve spent many hours packing your groceries.
Although clerical work is considered an echelon of the job of scanning barcodes or wiping little noses, it uses the same skill set and shares the same problem: you get paid a little more, but still the least. possible. The administrative assistant job sector suffers from a gender imbalance, with a female predominance. The position exists in a liminal space between what is considered entry-level and what requires experience. Because you as an administrator are surrounded by stereotypical successful people, eventually someone will suggest that you are where you are because you have a lower IQ than them.
Monotonous work is difficult to do well precisely because nobody wants to do it. You need a focused will to pay attention to small, repetitive tasks with at least a modicum of grace and precise execution, and the ability to muster that grace under often undue pressure and intense boredom is the value that remains beneath. -estimated and generally undercompensated in America. It’s also a big part of what defines me now.
When it comes to professional development, we talk about “more”. You are worth After; you could do After. This After is a strange concept because it suggests reaching a higher level, an increase in skills. If you’re worth more, you have to do more, and this becomes a clear explanation of why a white-collar employee, such as a software engineer for Amazon, is paid astronomically more than a blue-collar employee, such than a warehouse worker. for Amazon. engineers do After not in time or effort, but in terms of perceived value, because we don’t understand that top workers and bottom workers are equally necessary for economic success.
If I had gotten my dream job that I interviewed for, I wouldn’t have done more. I wouldn’t have been worth more. I would have been accepted paid more, doing something that I already have all the skills for, just applied in different proportions. That’s why I wanted the job, not because my current position – and who I really am – is insufficient. It’s not. I have an exhausting and demanding role that hides under a discreet title. An iron fist holds this deliberate euphemism in place in order to separate my pay from my worth, keep my labor cheap, and maintain the stereotype that an administrator is inferior.
Despite my low value on paper, I use every skill I’ve ever developed in my kitchen sink roles: how to handle the sensitivities of important people; how to read reactions to communication styles; how to get around in this world without losing track of bureaucratic breadcrumbs. I apply the invaluable practice of writing and editing to routine interactions in our increasingly disembodied world, where your only sense of other beings is their cut clauses and phrases in emails and Slack. How you construct these quick critical statements is important; I know because I’ve been the face of those little notes for so long.
I also understand leadership, because I had to become an excellent follower. I took 100,000 frustrations that weren’t mine, and 10,000 that were, and went home to use my free hours to create collages to express this empty and poignant life we spend in a constant state of emergency. My merged identity – as an individual and as an employee – is complete and inseparable, and not lesser simply because my profession is considered poorer. I haven’t failed, and when I apply for jobs that rely more on these soft skills, I don’t go overboard in an effort to earn the respect of all that I already am.
I would have been an incredible researcher. But until I get a more valued job, I will maintain my professionalism, doing whatever it takes to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, until I reach the number of hours that make up a lifetime and demonstrates my expertise in having learned how to live.
Ask me then if I could have been more.