My Matrix Moment

Posted on October 22, 2010

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Singapore food

Two guys loudly discuss who to CC into work emails.

I read a bit more of the paper, eat a bit more of my expensive salad and try to enjoy the air-conditioned coolness of the cafe.

The conversation crashes back into my consciousness. Guy A is telling guy B how to synchronise his outlook to other programs. Guy B is getting a bit heated. Outrage at office politics. They are speaking, loudly, in the classic clipped Singaporean accent. Their words sound like they’ve been chopped up into syllables and fed into a machine gun. My comprehension lags a second or so behind delivery.

Even though I don’t want to eavesdrop, they have staged a coup on my attention. Worse, it’s hard work trying to keep up. I miss words and whole phrases because of the accent, as I re-read the same section of the paper over and over.

I’m suddenly quite annoyed. It’s my lunch-break. I don’t want to think about work, mine or anyone else’s. I don’t want to listen but the invading conversation is overpowering.

Singapore food

I finish my lunch, fold up the paper and adjourn to my office’s strange tea-room. Depending on the origin of the speaker, it’s called the pantry, the canteen or the tea room. No one calls it the staff lounge, which is what the sign on the door says.

Here, on a dingy and uncomfortable “lounge” chair I’m assaulted by another loud conversation in a strong Singaporean accent. This time it’s about ordering something and how “he” doesn’t understand. “You can’t order 100, la. I tole him, I tole him. You can’t order. Cannot.” Again, the outrage, the frustration, the angst.

Suddenly I’m in a good mood again. Because of my Matrix moment a few years ago.

Well, it wasn’t really a moment, it was a realisation that crept up on me over a year or so. But just like Neo, who woke up and discovered the machines were sucking the life out of him, I woke up and realised my career had been sucking the life out of me.

I had allowed my work to define me. I strived hard to do a good job, to please my superiors in order to get the next pay rise, the next promotion, the sense of a job well done. The bosses didn’t really care, because they were doing the same thing, all the way up the chain to the big bosses, who only care about profit. I went to after-work drinks and spent hours railing against bosses, computer systems, alliances and the unfairness of it all. I ground my teeth in my sleep. My shoulders were always tense and my neck was usually stiff and sore.

Then I left. I had asked for a three-month leave of absence and was given the run-around for three months. I threatened to quit. I was asked to wait another month before submitting my request to head office. (I thought it had been submitted months earlier.) I threatened to quit again. My boss dithered again. Then I quit. My boss talked me into staying on for several more months. He told me he needed me, that everything would fall apart if I left. I believed him, so I stayed and those last months were absolute torture.

Then I left. And, strangely, everything didn’t fall apart. My former colleagues took up the slack and no one outside the organisation could tell that the star, the one who held it all together, was gone and wasn’t coming back. (Slight exaggeration about my actual importance to the organisation, but, hey, I am pretty important in my life.)

Just as strangely, I was still me, even without my career/job to define me.

Still driven, I topped my four-week teaching course, then hit the road looking for an English-teaching job in Ho Chi Minh City. I had to settle for my third choice, but I still had an income, even if it was paltry compared to what I was earning before. I worked about 20 hours a week for $14 an hour. Unfortunately, the classes were spread through the week, so I was actually working six days, sometimes starting at 8am and finishing at 9pm, with long lonely hours of non-income-earning in between.

Boyle’s law, which states that gas expands til fill the available space, holds true for teaching prep work. I’d spend hours prepping, then be lost in front of the class. I tried prepping before class, the night before. It took six months for me to finally admit I didn’t enjoy teaching. But I was enjoying the ESL lifestyle in Ho Chi Minh City – eating, drinking and talking rubbish late at night.

So I took a holiday, a holiday from my holiday, which had become a bit too angsty.

During this holiday I realised that not enjoying your job just isn’t worth it. Certainly not for $14 an hour! I pondered this, poked at it , turned it over and over. My conclusion was this: life should be my number one priority, work should take up as little of my time, attention and emotion as possible.

Even though I’m now working full-time (and trying to work out how to keep the income but ditch the hours in the office), I still try to glide through the day without having too much sucked out of me. I’m not interested in office politics. I don’t really care if a colleague is not pulling his or her weight. I just do my job and go home. Oh, and I take my full hour’s lunch break (which is kind of the office practice, anyway). I do my job as best I can and don’t waste energy rehashing or second-guessing things.

The rest of the time, I try to be fully immersed in life. This is hard when you have baby-related sleep deprivation. I often find myself in a glazed daze in front of the tv or playing a mindless computer game. But I’m not being too hard on myself. The baby phase is temporary. The sleep deprivation is temporary. We are living in an amazing exotic city and we have enough money to explore it and neighboring countries.

So I feel, in my own little way, that I have defeated the machines of The Matrix. The real challenge is to make sure their power doesn’t rise again and take control of my life.

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Posted in: Singapore, Work