Happily unhappy

Posted by Doc
Apr 23 2009

My first real job out of college, I worked at a small car insurance company in San Francisco. The company had started many years earlier as a small, family-owned insurance company before being acquired by Transamerica. When I joined the company, it provided bank-mandated add-on car insurance. That means that if you applied for a loan and couldn’t get insurance on your own for any reason, this over-priced insurance got added into your loan.

It was a job.  Not a great job, and not a terrible job.  Just a job.  I did what I do, and tried to improve things a little bit along the way – processes, procedures, the forms we used (had to be designed to work well in a typewriter – remember those?), and just being friendly.  Although back then I was still in my arrogant, the world is here to worship me phase.

I worked in the Claims Department. Of the people I worked with, a number of them had been there for 35 years or more. They’d started right out of high school, and never left. One of the vice presidents – not a particularly popular or likeable one – had worked his way up from the mail room over the course of decades.

So there I was, working in my first full time job after leaving college.

And I realized that many of these people hated what they did every day. They woke up and hated the thought of going to work. They didn’t like the customers they dealt with. They didn’t like the work they did. They felt underappreciated, underpaid, and undervalued.

And they showed up for work every day, and griped about it every day.

The not-very-likeable vice president showed up every day, and did his best to make everyone else miserable.

I struggled then, and struggle now, with the idea that anyone could stay at a job that makes them that unhappy for 35 days, much less 35 years. Thirty-five years. Between the ones who griped, and the vice president who made others unhappy, it was clear that each of them was finding ways to deal with their unhappiness.

So what was the reason? Why did Clara and Norma stay there that long, being that unhappy, and talking about their unhappiness every day? Why do people all over the US (I can’t speak for other countries) do that same thing?

Here’s my hypothesis: they weren’t really as unhappy as they said. In dealing with what they viewed as a hostile and unappreciative world, they found camaraderie and consolation in knowing that there are others who feel the same way. I think that somehow, strange as it is, being unhappy made them happy.

I find myself doing this kind of thing from time to time – griping, because griping allows me to share, collaborate, dilute my discontent, and otherwise get a sense of my place in the universe. And it’s important to me to have that sense. I talk about context a lot, and the griping/discontent/unhappiness helps me to understand what that context is.

We’re strange creatures, we humans.

One Response

  1. Lei says:

    That’s the reality. And some people get over it, and become outstanding.

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