In June of 2017, I quit my desk job of the past year and a half. It was my first successful attempt at quitting the company, the second attempt in total (I botched the first one somehow), but it could also be considered the third, if I’m being totally transparent, because of the previous summer when my bosses said I didn’t have enough vacation to see my family and I said, “Well, I’m going to be seeing my family this summer no matter what, so…”
It was during my house’s weekly Monday Reading Night event that I realized I needed to quit. As the quiet of reading settled over everyone in our living room, my mind was incoherently abuzz like a shaken can of soda. I wasn’t thinking about the job or anything—I just couldn’t think at all, so I sat there unsticking and resticking my thigh to the leather couch cushion. Able to do little else, I ended up reading about the causes of brain fog on my phone and found that stress was the most common cause according to the first blurb in the results. “Makes sense,” I thought. My job was definitely stressful, but that inane kind of stress that comes from wondering what on earth my coworkers were doing to fill up a nine- to ten-hour day when two hours seemed more than enough. So I made plans, then and there, to quit.There was no planning beyond that other than a vague desire to work at a bookstore. Working around books seemed like a perfect cure for reasons only an English major might understand. I had this fantasy of living simply and being a bookseller like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, all bookish and cute and full of Nora Ephron wit, walking around with a subtle grin along colorful boulevards washed in sunshine.
Long story short, a month after quitting, I got a job at a bookstore. What happened instead of relief, and rather abruptly, was a remarkable depression.
Despite not dreading the workday, not dealing with a demeaning boss, not pretending to be busy while staring at spreadsheets, and despite having switched to a trade where I actually care about the offered goods, working a retail job with drastically lower pay flipped a psychological switch I didn’t know I had. Old stresses were replaced with new ones. I felt lesser.
Was I tying my worth to my paychecks? Was working in a position that didn’t require my college degree harming my self-image? Yes to both, probably, as disappointing as that is. At first, I was ashamed of the capitalist underpinnings of these ideas. Most people tout the philosophy that every job, no matter how menial, matters, but there is a stark difference in believing that and living it, and the realities of living it didn’t align with my Nora Ephron expectations.
Though I’ve never defined myself by a job title, I came to the realization that without my previous one, I had little to define myself with at all. What I had instead of a job title was simply my character: my beliefs, my daily rituals, my friends and family, my presence. Several months in, these things all felt less meaningful; not the characters themselves, but what I had to offer to each. In my mind, I’d demoted myself in both position and importance. With the repetition of each day buying and selling books, an unconscious certainty took hold that this was the best I could do with my life. This was the culmination of my years: a job title that no one asks further about when you tell them, and large chunks of my time spent serving the will of customers, the majority of whom don’t care what I do until I don’t do it.
Retail, of course, was not the problem. There are two valuations that come from a job title: the perceived value that others place on it and the value one brings to it on their own. What I’d neglected is how the latter influences the former. I let the perceived value of others inform my own, which more or less ended up being an exercise in toxic guesswork. They must value my opinion less because I work in retail.
The truth was worse: I didn’t value myself. A change in job title wasn’t going to fix that. But what would?