Watching someone enter the corporate life is like watching a toddler jump into the big kid pool for the first time without water wings. You see the same expression on their faces. Their brows show a convoluted montage of excitement and absolute horror. There’s a difference, however. In general, we don’t let children jump into the pool by themselves because we’re afraid they’d end up at the bottom. We teach them to swim first — to tread water, to loop their arms in circles, to stick their faces in the water and blow bubbles and tilt their heads to the side to breathe. To kick to get where they want to go. There’s a lot of preparation involved in one’s first solo entrance into the pool but we don’t take the same precaution in preparing young professionals for their entrance into the workforce.
In my experience, day-to-day routine is a lot like water. It’s just as dense. Just as encompassing. And while it may look placid on the surface, it’s inherently dangerous to someone with no idea what they’re doing in it. Jumping into the corporate world without knowing how to keep one’s head above water is a disaster. If you don’t know how to kick, you sink under the water’s weight and next thing you know you’re bobbing back up on the surface, stuck traveling in the currents stirred by those around you.
I took my first internship in the Fall 2013. I logged ancient data into excel worksheets from nine to five for two months. I was a human processor, reading numbers and punching them into the keyboard. It wasn’t a job that required brain power. I got a big office to myself but it felt more like a small terrarium that some invisible force would routinely fill a little more with water each day until it was above my neck.
And I looked around to see how other people in the office were dealing with this submersion in their own little terrariums. Some of them had giant pictures of family members on their desk they’d climbed on top of, trying to ignore the whole scenario in and of itself. A few had snorkels and seemed genuinely unbothered. Some of them had allowed themselves to go under and had risen on their backs lifelessly hovering on the surface. But the ones that caught my eye were kicking. And I watched how they kicked, stayed afloat and maintained control of what direction they were going in. I kicked myself for not doing so earlier.
Day in and day out is a poison. Being unprepared to deal with monotony, routine and the unconscious nature that accompanies these felons can be as deadly to a young professional as large increments of water are to a toddler’s lungs.
I see so many people in my work tower who look stuck in their waterlogged terrariums and utterly miserable about it. Worse, some are unaware that if they kicked hard enough, they could get out. I talked to a woman at my last job who held a lab position. She had spent the last 20 years performing the same tasks in a job she originally settled for desperate for employment, but her dream was to work a medical position for the Navy.
Her eyes lit up when she talked about how she finally had the freedom to leave her home. Her children had grown up, her husband had become her ex and these things meant she could finally adventure; but before she could do any of this, she had to take a certification test. This was thwarting to her. She saw this test standing in between her and her dream, her routine and her adventure and her legs, which had been twitching in her little lab pool, stirring ripples and itching to give her body some direction slowed to a stop. I was practically on my knees outside her tank, banging on the glass trying to get her to move. If you don’t kick you’ll never get the position you want, the dream you chase, the accomplishment you crave. She couldn’t hear me.
Everyday when I walk into work and sit down at my tiny little two-by-three feet co-op’s desk, I’m reminded of my mortality. This is it. This is life. And this is surely not what I want to be doing for all of it. Yet, as I see it, eight hours a day, five days a week, the majority of humanity spends their days under water. I almost go under myself sometimes. But then I look at the silly little clock, in the corner of my computer screen where the numbers roll over every minute and I kick. I kick because I don’t want to become brainless and spineless and stuck. I kick because I want some sort of control in where I’m going. I kick because I know there must be somewhere the water’s not so high. Somewhere my feet can touch the ground. I kick because I was taught to swim and I’ve watched others drown and get so caught up in the dreariness of their routine they never make it to their destination. I kick because I want a better job tomorrow. And if you do too, I encourage you to do the same.