I don’t hate work like I should

I don’t hate work like I should

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

And sometimes I feel bad about that

I hear it all the time from my friends and from my family.

“Work sucks!”
“I hate my job!”
“Urgh, I have to go back to work on Monday.”

It’s pretty depressing to know that the people I care about spend 8 hours a day (and most often more than that) doing things they don’t enjoy. What’s worse is that I’m one of those people who don’t do that. I love what I do and I love the place I work, and, (yes — cue up the world’s smallest violin) it makes me feel guilty.

My parents are both blue-collar workers and always have been. They raised 3 kids with little to no money. They scrimped and saved every cent to put us through religious education which isn’t cheap. They picked up odd jobs and worked weird hours to make ends meet. Jobs like cleaning toilets at a casino, sweeping streets at a local plaza, stacking shelves at a supermarket and so on. These aren’t glamorous, life-fulfilling vocations. It was their solution to the financial pressure they felt in keeping their family’s heads above water. And, they complained about it a lot but who could blame them. Work was something they just had to do to pay the bills. They didn’t have time for hobbies and we hardly had a family holiday beyond a caravan that a next door neighbour owned. This isn’t a sob story about my upbringing though, it’s here to explain that my very early view of what work should be was shaped really strongly by my parents’ experience. Work was something that was to be hated, complained about, unfulfilling but had to be done.

And now I write this post from a cozy cafe in Melbourne as I sip a green tea and order breakfast that’s far more expensive than if I made it myself at home, and well, it’s hard to admit to myself but I’m about to start working. I spend my days listening to the problems that people have in their lives and then I design easy-to-use digital products that help those problems go away for those people. It’s incredibly rewarding work. Sure, there are days that are more difficult than others and sometimes you end up emotionally deflated or frustrated that due to circumstances out of your control, you can’t solve that person’s problem. But on the whole, it’s averaging out pretty well.

I work for a company that values work life balance and, let me be clear, that’s different from *saying* that they value it. Cogent has a very strong focus on personal well-being and life outside of the office and because of this I’m able to run a second career as a children’s picture-book illustrator. So, I spend my days improving people’s lives through software, and then get to spend my nights and weekends bringing parents and children together through the wonderful world of picture books. In between those things, I try to manage an auto-immune condition which is really time consuming. I can’t say that work sucks like my parents did. I actually really enjoy it and well, this comes with its own set of problems.

When I go back home and sit around having a beer with my Dad and my brother (as the males in our family have traditionally done) we talk about work. “How’s work?” My dad asks us both.

My brother complains that being a plumber is hard work. He was digging a trench in the freezing cold the other day and now has blisters all over his hands that won’t heal until the weekend. My Dad contributes in between wheezes and puffs of his asthma medication. He was loading hundreds of 30kg bags on to airplanes at the airport as a baggage handler and his back is starting to seize up. He needs to go to the physio now to get it sorted before he can go back. Which, to him, isn’t a bad result. He doesn’t need to go back to work for a while so ‘he’s got a few days off’. But then, it’s my turn. What am I supposed to say? That work is great? I’m really enjoying it? Should I go in to details about my latest round of user testing and how people are thrilled with their improvements to software?

On one hand, I think they’d like to hear this sort of story. In some ways it’s validation to my Dad that his years of toiling has paid off. He’d be happy to know that I’m happy. But on the other hand, it doesn’t show a great deal of empathy for their back breaking labour if I talk about a nasty paper cut I got the other day. And, more importantly, how can they understand that work doesn’t suck because, well, it’s supposed to! Yes, I’m using extremes here to demonstrate a point but in my job here at Cogent, we’re swimming against the current in some ways. I work with great, smart people everyday. We make things together that are affecting our world and changing people’s lives. We’re not working on a big shiny scale but we’re making a difference to people.

I remember when I applied for a job here at Cogent a couple of years ago, it sounded too good to be true. Most companies will say they value work life balance, personal wellbeing, professional development, transparency, creativity and so on. In my experience, this has always been lipstick on a pig because most organisations talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. So I approached this role with a certain level of skepticism. But 2 years is plenty of time to find the cracks and to be honest, there hasn’t been many. Sure, every workplace will have its ups and downs and we certainly don’t dance around the office with lollipops and rainbows everyday but we’re doing great work and, on the most part, I’m really enjoying it.

So, what do I tell my family when we’re talking about work? They don’t understand the details of what I do day in and day out so I tell them that I’m lucky I’ve found a really unique company that supports me in doing what I do, inside and outside of work. I’m lucky to work with the group of people I work with and because of this, it makes work much easier than my family would be used to. I don’t do back-breaking labour but I’m not bored. I’m solving interesting problems and so I go home tired, brain-tired, but satisfied that tomorrow I’ll get to work with the same group of amazing people and solve even hairier problems with them, all in time to get home for tea.

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