What’s “work”, anyway?

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“Are you working?”

A blunt question from an ex work colleague, in the course of a friendly text message exchange. A surprisingly difficult question to answer.

In the end I took the easy way out, simply answering, “No, not at the moment”. Though, of course, that leaves too many unanswered questions – Have you been looking? Can’t you find anything? Are you just being lazy? What’s the problem? So I hastened to add, “To be honest I haven’t really been looking that hard; been too busy getting stuff done on the house”

Which is the truth. But it’s also only part of the story. And to dig further into that story would reveal that my original answer was, strictly speaking, a lie. The sort of lie we end up telling when we take the relatively easy route of answering the question that we know was intended, rather than giving the more complicated answer to the one that was actually asked.

Because of course I’m working. In some ways I’m working harder than I have done in years. It’s just that none of it is paid work. None of it comes with a handy job title, or a pithy LinkedIn headline.

A few months back, in a momentary act of bravery and frustration, I updated my LinkedIn headline. For years, I had been “Director, White Magnolia Limited” – but having recently shut down the limited company that I’d been using to manage my IT contracting work, I felt compelled to change it. LinkedIn, frustratingly, can cope with a person not having a current job title, but insists on every user providing a headline – a brief summary of who you are and / or what you do.

Fair enough, I thought, as I updated my headline to read “Property developer, news-and-politics junkie, blogger-in-chief at ilikewords.blog”. It was the closest I’ve come in recent months to defining what it is I actually do with my time – and for a moment I was perfectly happy with it.

But then I applied for an IT role with a local retailer, and, worried that they may decide to check my social media profiles before deciding whether to invite me for an interview, hastily changed it to the more business-friendly “Independent IT professional”.   Which is how it remains – though sadly I didn’t get an interview, and I never will know if the retailer had looked at my profile.

I’ve always hated the societal expectation that one should pick a career early on and stick to it for the rest of one’s working life. From asking young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to secondary school students encouraged to think about what career they wish to follow and to pick subjects that will aid in their pursuit of that career, to jobs that force people into increasingly complex specialities, to the inevitable “What do you do?” at social occasions –  we are constantly forced to define ourselves in increasingly narrow terms.

I left school with no clear idea as to what I wanted to do with my life – in the end deciding to hedge my bets with a generic business degree in finance, IT and economics. In 20 years of working in London I changed jobs constantly, trying desperately to avoid being pigeon-holed into one area – and yet still managed to end up with a CV that is so specialised around interest rate and credit derivatives, and the IT systems and regulations that support them, that I sometimes joke I’m pretty much unemployable anywhere outside the City of London.

All of which means I’m having to be very creative about what I do now that I’m living in the Lake District. Updating my CV to try to focus more on my generic business analysis / project management skills – and updating my job search parameters accordingly – has been a start. But a large part of me doesn’t actually want a regular job.

Throughout twenty years of working for large investment banks, I never became accustomed to the 9-to-5. I hated the daily rush hour commute, hated being sat at a desk for upwards of 8 hours a day, hated the office politics, hated the constant fluctuations in workload which meant that some weeks I would be working 12-hour days and lying awake at night unable to stop thinking about work, while other weeks I would spend the entire day watching the clock and trying to look busy.

I can’t help noting the irony of those days when I literally did nothing productive all day – but got paid regardless – compared to days in recent months where I could work all day on managing the probate for my late uncle’s estate, or clearing out his house, with endless runs back and forth to the recycling centre, or taming the overgrown garden, or painting, or tiling, or getting building quotes, or researching and writing a blog post, or pitching articles to publications in the hopes that someday, someone will pay me for writing – and go to bed exhausted in the evening from what has felt like a full and satisfying day’s work, but for which I have ultimately been paid nothing.

So yes, I’m working. It doesn’t always feel like work – because it’s new, and exciting, and challenging, and frustrating all at once. But if I can only figure out a way to make it pay, it could turn out to be my ideal job.




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