“I thought about things:” The meaningful work story behind those gaps in my resume
We’re taught that careers should be a linear journey upwards (a ladder, even), but what happens when the pursuit of meaningful work looks like ditching your professional career and taking time to think about what you really want? In this long read, MeaningSphere Content Curator Anna Weltner describes leaving a full-time job in journalism for a part-time job in a cafe, and all the long-term benefits of this move that aren’t listed on her resume.
When I was 21, I was a coffee shop barista. When I was 23, I was a newspaper editor. When I was 28, and 29, and 30, I was a barista again.
My resume doesn’t exactly speak for itself, so allow me to “fill in the gaps,” as I have so often been asked in job interviews.
In the newsroom, I ascended quickly, from intern to contributor to arts editor. My first task was opening the mail. Having mastered that, I began to help with researching stories, and eventually was given tiny, harmless little writing assignments. My big break came when a cover story fell through, and a piece I’d been researching was called upon to fill the gap. My story was about a group of world-class jazz musicians who’d quietly retired to a sleepy coastal town. The old jazz musicians had started jamming regularly at a seaside restaurant while people came and ate chowder and mostly had no idea what legends they were, until I went and blew their cover with my story.
After the success of “Jazz echoes through Cambria pines,” I’d become hooked. I loved writing for the paper. When I was offered a full-time position, I left college without finishing my degree. College was expensive, after all, and I hadn’t been particularly certain about my major. The paper was exciting, and hard, and rewarding. Its weekly publication schedule gave me that perfect dose of adrenaline. In addition to editing the arts section, I wrote two feature stories per week, and one cover story per month. Print deadlines, and particularly the prospect of missing them, terrified and motivated me. I told myself all I needed to do, each week, was make it to 4 p.m. on Friday, turn in my work, and there’d be a pint waiting for me down the street as a reward. Write, pint, repeat.
A few years in, however, and the adrenaline was taking its toll, along with the stagnating wages and ever-increasing responsibilities (this was print journalism, after all). Although I technically had paid time off, there was a catch: I still had to get the same amount of writing done. As a result, I took my work with me on every holiday and vacation. I never did figure out how to get even one week’s work done in advance, though this “solution” was suggested to me many times by my senior editors. Getting the pages in by Friday afternoon was hard enough as it was — especially in a newsroom, which was highly distracting, full of chatty copyeditors and ringing phones. I can’t believe anyone got anything done there. I often took work home with me to finish at home, quietly, after dinner. When Friday came I often begged to take a story home with me at the weekend, and have it ready “first thing” on Monday. My managing editor usually granted this request, with the unspoken caveat that she would resent me for the rest of time. It was a lose-lose: I got to turn my work in late and disappoint my boss, while still managing to ruin my nights and weekends. After a Sunday spent catching up, I’d show up on Monday like, “Ugh, really? This again?”
With work oozing into every crevice of my life, I craved time, free, empty, open time, in which I might safely wonder who I was and what I wanted to do. I had been working at the paper, in some capacity, since I was 20, and it had become my whole life. But now, seemingly out of nowhere, I had a vague but persistent feeling I wanted to make films. I didn’t know how to make a film, but I knew I would never have time or energy to find out while working as a journalist.
One day, I simply quit. I didn’t have a job lined up. I just handed in my notice. My PR contacts were polite but baffled. “Ooh,” they would say. “Spill. What’s the new gig? Is it in town? Are you allowed to talk about it?” I would explain about my amorphous cinematic dreams and need for empty time, making absolutely zero sense. The idea that I didn’t have a new gig, or even a lead on one, and that I just wanted time to spend time “thinking about things,” was awkward to communicate.
It’s weird that in English we “spend” time, like a currency, but that’s how it feels when you haven’t had enough. I spent my time taking an analog photography class, reading, researching film schools, and re-watching The Story of Film: An Odyssey. I thought about things. I thought about what kind of film I would make and where I wanted to live now I wasn’t tied to my job.
I got a job as a barista again, obviously. The pay was terrible, obviously, but there was free food, and when I was done for the day, I was really done. There are two definitions of the word “underemployed,” and I was both: I worked part-time, and my job did not make use of my specific skills and abilities. But capitalism’s loss was my gain, as I claimed back the time and energy I needed to identify what actually made me happy.
I would run into sources from my stories all the time in the cafe. I had thought this would be weird, but it happened so often that any awkwardness soon faded. Sometimes they wouldn’t recognize me at first. Sometimes they would hang out, and on lazy afternoons I would find myself bent over their laptops, proofreading some piece of writing they were working on with a dishrag still in one hand, one eye still scanning the room for customers. Once when I was working a closing shift I helped a community college student restructure his entire essay which had been handed back to him by the instructor. He came back to announce the new version had earned him a B+, and we high-fived over the pastry case.
When I first went back to food service, I clung to the idea that my situation as a misemployed worker was frighteningly novel, like the premise of a sitcom. It wasn’t. Working in the cafe, I started to recall other stories like mine: the high school teacher I’d had who was also a bouncer at a dive bar (I still remember the week he had a black eye from breaking up a “girl fight”); other print journalists I’d known who worked in restaurants, sometimes spying an article they’d written spread out in front of a customer’s coffee and scrambled eggs. Even those retired jazz musicians from my first cover story, jamming out in that seaside dining room, had been working well below their pay grade.
In the Western world, we’re taught to view our careers as an upward climb. The metaphor of the ladder perfectly exemplifies this expectation. But all around me were examples of the bumpy, non-linear pattern a career can take, especially in vital but typically low-paid or underfunded sectors such as education, journalism, and the arts. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, I found a service industry with an even more diverse mix of talents and qualifications. I quickly got used to bussing tables alongside authors, musicians, poets, and painters. I could reasonably expect my manager to be in their 40s, have an MFA, and be working on a ‘zine. (I swear this is 100% true and not a lazy Portland stereotype. I still have the many ‘zines, T-shirts, tapes, poetry chapbooks, and fine art prints of my former coworkers to prove it.)
It was in Portland that I finally learned to make films. While working in food service, I studied film and art history and began to have my experimental non-fiction shorts accepted to small festivals. I never thought of making money from film. It simply is, and was, something that makes me happy.
As a result of my nonlinear path, I started to view service work differently: not as entry-level, not as a stepping-stone or shameful “fallback,” but as a kind of shaky refuge for people following an alternative career path. It’s not a perfect model: Working in service is physically demanding and, at least in the US, doesn’t tend to be financially sustainable. It’s not a viable long-term solution for most people; it’s a literal workaround. In a dream world, authors and teachers and journalists would just get paid to do the work they love. But what service work did give me was headspace, and time, and humility, all of which were essential to learning a new craft.
I started to view others differently also. Leading a professional “double life” makes you curious about other people and what passions and talents they might be harboring outside of the workplace. I stopped asking, “What do you do?” and started asking, “What do you like to do?
And when asked about work, it no longer occurred to me say I was an evening shift lead at Random Order Pie Bar. I said I was a documentary filmmaker, and by this point, it was the truth.
Anna Weltner is a documentary filmmaker and Content Curator at MeaningSphere.
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