What Makes a Job Alpha? Part I

Recently, I left my job at a corporately-owned gym in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took up work as a barista at an independently owned coffee shop in Montclair (still in my trial/training period there, but it looks like I have a really good shot at the job). I’ve worked as a barista before, at Starbucks between 2007 and 2008, and being that the gym job was so unconventional and in many ways unfulfilling, I sought work that was a little more clearcut, a little more basic and familiar, where true accomplishment was a bit more self-evident, as was a paycheck.

And with better music. The music at gyms is terrible. It gets stuck in my head and drives me insane all hours of the night.

I have no gripes about needing this change, really. Sure, I felt a little bad about “quitting.” It’s a huge challenge being self-motivated on the floor of a big-box gym, being there for 10 to 14 hours a day if you really want to do it right, selling yourself (90% of the time while you’re off the clock) to potential clients who already pay 90 dollars a month in membership fees, and trying to get them to pay 100 dollars more per hour (of which I received under 30) to work with you one-on-one, one or two or three times a week. There is a huge turnover rate in the personal training industry because so many folks are “not up to the challenge” of trying to sell a luxury product to the masses at the expense of their own health and free time. And I turned out to be one of them.

But I don’t think it’s particularly Alpha to struggle through something to which I have no great devotion, to produce possibly half-assed work as a result, and to generate disdain and contempt for my situation which I chose to perpetuate based on an abstract principle. The long and the short of it is, if you have the freedom—if you possess the privilege—to change what you are doing from something you don’t like to something you do like, then why not do it? That seems more Alpha than vain struggle. All I really wanted was to get paid for the time I spent at work. Not so much to ask.

Also, as a friend of mine helped me cogitate, while fitness is a huge part of my life, it is not the only thing I think about. Perhaps someone who thinks about nothing but fitness could spend 14 hours a day at a gym, which is fine, but I couldn’t. Large segments of my brain—the segments that contemplate writing, politics, society, feminism, music, the English language—were scarcely being put to use. There is no better way to become unhappy with a job than to be disengaged from it both mentally and emotionally, no matter how well you do it.

I don’t believe that happiness is necessarily the purpose of life, so it would have been nice if this particular hardship (I use the term “hardship” loosely) were in service, somehow, to a greater good. That might’ve been enough to sustain me. Unfortunately, I know what astronomical good humans are capable of in terms of social justice and the struggle for freedom, and I didn’t feel that my apparent self-sacrifice was effecting that kind of good to any degree whatsoever, or even working towards a place where I would be.

You might ask, “well, does working at a coffee shop allow you to ‘effect that kind of good,’ then?” Possibly not of itself, but what it does do is provide me with three things: confidence and competence at doing honest work, and a steady paycheck, so that I might actually feel more empowered to effect the greater good in my free time. The fact that I am working for a small, independently-owned business that pays its employees and coffee farmers well is just a perk. I’m not overthrowing capitalism, but at least I’m living a little bit more inside my principles.

Also, at a coffee shop, I can think and talk about a million things with tons of different types of people. At a gym, nobody talks about Alfred Jarry or knows who the fuck he is.

You might now irritably ask, “SO WHY DID YOU GO INTO THE FITNESS INDUSTRY, BUB?!” Believe me, I have asked myself that a few times, and rarely come up with better answer than, “because I like fitness and I didn’t want to be an English teacher.” Now I am reconsidering the possibility of teaching, while still personal training and online coaching on the side, because I still enjoy doing it and I’m really good at it.

“AND WHY THE HELL WOULD PEOPLE DISCUSS ALFRED JARRY AT A DAMNED GYMNASIUM?!” Well, that’s true. It’s less that I expected such subject matter to come up at a gym and more that I didn’t anticipate the lack thereof mattering to me as much as it does.

When your gifts and passions are not being put to use—whether in the service of your own happiness or of “the greater good,” however you perceive it—that’s when self-affirmation really starts to shrivel up, and the reason for doing something becomes unclear aside from the valid need to “make a living.” Maybe doing that thing is a means to reaching something better: earning a promotion that pays more money, a sit-down job instead of a laborious job, or enough savings to do something big. And that end will justify the means, and bring happiness and fulfillment.

But at a certain point, even these motivations can become hazy. When our minds and passions are not engaged and our sense of self is diminished, it is easier for us to lose focus on that bigger picture, to slip into routines, to yield to the pressures that society puts on us to be successful, married, and with children, rather than a “dreamer,” a “failure,” or an “outcast,” even though most of the people we are told to admire—from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Harriet Tubman—were themselves dreamers, failures at one point or another, and made outcast (or worse) because they questioned the “way things are.” It’s no surprise that many people’s “dreams” are never fulfilled, because, like a muscle, if you don’t work out a passion, it gets weaker.

As I’ve said before, part of why I feel “Betaness” is an issue in our society is that we’ve been taught to avoid failure, confrontation, and risk, while being simultaneously raised to expect some level of general material comfort that only comes with economic affluence. This leads naturally to the desire for high income without risk of failure or discomfort. What better formula for creating a generation of workers doing work whose sole virtue—whose sole purpose—is financial enrichment, regardless of whether one’s passions are being engaged. And all of this in the midst of economic downturn and spiking education costs, with a proportional devaluing of the dollar and of education itself.

Yet we are also taught to believe that our own happiness should be the goal of our lives, so we only want jobs that we can be “happy” doing and ideally related to the subject matter of our graduate and post-graduate education, as opposed to anything “menial.” Discomfort, even in service to our ideals, becomes unseemly and unsightly and undesirable. Leave those jobs to the non-college educated!

Keep in mind, I believe we are taught to feel this way. It’s no coincidence that in order to get the education that’s supposed to improve our position in the societal hierarchy, we have to be plunged into absurd amounts of student debt (I’m in for $40k), thereby removing the freedom to earn only a modest or frugal living.

What might we be doing if, instead, we were taught to embrace risk, and be satisfied with very little, and lived in a society that materially and ideologically supported such behavior? Well, rather than working purely for our own self-interest, we might work for greater things, new and bold ideas worthy of entrepreneurial pursuits, or even for “the greater good,” to improve society and widen people’s access to everything that allowed us to succeed in our own way, and that actually didn’t require us to sacrifice years of our lives to jobs for which we had no passion and from which we drew no fulfillment (which I, in fact, do draw from being a decently-paid barista, and I do a damn good job).

I guess what I hope to impress on you, the reader, is that no job is intrinsically Alpha or Beta—nor is any position or place of power or privilege—but rather, “what makes a job Alpha” has more to do with your mentality. Do you work hard because “hard work” is a widely-held virtue? Or because you work towards something greater and bigger that you’ve decided is virtuous just because you’ve chosen it?

Or, do you work because you need money, and is that the only reason? Rather than react to that sober realization by strengthening your resolve to earn more money, consider the possibility that it is more Alpha to change jobs from one that only earns you money to another that both earns you money and engages your passion. And if you can’t find that, whether because of economic, socioeconomic, or geographic limits, or whatever other valid reason, consume less and do work that pays the bills and pursue your passion in your spare time, and KEEP and MAINTAIN that spare time for that purpose.

And if you have no spare time, I hope I can help you someday, because when work neither engages your passions nor leaves you with enough free time to pursue them on your own, that’s the definition of dehumanizing, and labels of Alpha or Beta become irrelevant if they weren’t already.

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