Lessons from the cubicle

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I’m now spending my days in a stereotypical cubicle.

I started a new job a few weeks ago. After knowing that academic research wasn’t really my thing, after 12 years I left academia, and more recently “working” at home, for what I assume is a typical office environment. I put “working” in quotes, because I am realizing that I had it pretty easy the last few years. The nature of my work shifted over time so that I very rarely had reason to head into the lab in San Francisco. I did was asked of me, but it didn’t involve too much effort, and I still had plenty of time to go to appointments, help with the kids, get distracted on side projects(although I tried to stay on task) and take my regular summer and winter vacations.

Now I’m a civil servant working for the state, sitting at a desk in a grey cubicle, that I am expected to be at for 8 hours a day. The vacation earned per month is less than half of what I got at the university, and even after 30 years of working it would still not reach that same amount. A surprising amount of innocuous websites are blocked by the firewall. No personal e-mail access and anything related to sports is blocked. I also run across blocked sites frequently when looking for help with different office software. Any sort of streaming is blocked and of course all web usage should be assumed to be monitored. I hit so many blocked sites(by accident) that I’m sure I’ve been flagged or something. The positive take is that it’s much harder for me to get distracted or lost down the time-vortex known as the world wide web.

The first 2 weeks were torture since I didn’t have much to do. I tried to keep busy on some projects that the guy next to me needed help on, but that didn’t really fill too much of my time. I did manage to spend some time taking on some online tutorials on a database programming language that I inferred I would need, but a lot of the time I just felt trapped at my desk, waiting for the clock to reach the designated hour. While things have recently begun to pick up, I’m also realizing that most people around me are swamped with the amount of work they have. I might be in the sweet spot now, where I have stuff to do but don’t have any major projects of my own to stress about.

What worries me, is my seeming irritation at the constraints of a “typical job”. I dislike having to sit there even if one’s work is done. It bugs me that if I have to leave a hour or two early one day for a meeting at my child’s school, it isn’t automatically understood that I can make up that time, rather than have to use up leave. It should be fine, but the fact that it could even be an issue was mind boggling to me. I was thinking more about this, and realized that I haven’t worked 40 hours in a week for a very long time, if ever(not counting being a student). I know I prefer freedom in scheduling, but perhaps I’m not willing to put in the effort to support myself with that type of job. I’ve had a few bouts of depression since I’ve started, and my wife has commented that I seem kind of down overall.

Despite the rough start, I’m giving myself some time before I make any hard judgment on this new position. I’m not ready to say that if my bristling at the constraints is some deep core things, or if it’s just because I haven’t had to deal with before, my stint at McDonald’s in high school excluded. And despite the expectation of being swamped in the future, I’m still looking for areas where I might be able to bring my interests into the work that is asked of me. I’m currently looking into visualization of big data, and am trying to learn how to get existing data into a format compatible with Network Graphs I’m not sure it’ll be useful, or that anyone will care, but at least it gives me something that is interesting to me to do.

A few years ago if I had found myself in this position I would have become despondent. I would have felt trapped and been beating myself up for giving up my former work environment for where I am now. I miss the flexibility of my old position, and the lack of it now is adding to my wife’s stress, but there were a lot of things about that job that I didn’t like. What I’ve most learned after all these years, is that I don’t have to stay in something that I don’t like. I actually found some notes from some therapy sessions in grad school(about 14 years ago) and one of the points my therapist was trying to make at the time was that the choices I make are very rarely irreversible. That message has been to me for about 14 years, but it’s only recently that it’s begun to sink in. It’s a lot easier to keep going and be curious (despite the frustrations and bouts of depression) about my new job when I know I can quit or find something else if I decide to.

So, even though I long for the weekends in a way that I never have before, I’m still trying to keep my curiosity alive and learn what I can in my new position. Not only about the work itself, but also the experience of working in what to me is a radically new environment. I’m enjoying not having to drive or BART into San Francisco,I read about some horrendous BART delays last week, but rather riding my bike. In the 3 weeks since I’ve started biking it no longer hurts to sit on the bike saddle, and I can make it up all the way the big hill heading home. It’s a very short ride so I’m still not getting the exercise I need but it’s something, and I enjoy it. I was able to transfer my unused sick and vacation leave from the university to my state job, which gives me a buffer at puts me more at ease. It’s also nice not taking work home with me, scheduling around the girls is difficult, but when I’m home I’m done (other than catching up on my personal e-mails). All in all, it’s important for me to remember that every job will have its advantages and disadvantages, and perhaps I’ll come to value the advantages of this job. Hell, it may even be time to decorate my cubicle.