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I have been at my little job for slightly more than a year and a half now. After a month or two of wondering if I was in the right place, I’m comfortable and happy there. The job was probably just demanding enough to keep me from being swallowed by the bad things that were happening in my life when I took it. In retrospect, it is probably just as well I wasn’t trying to establish myself in a full-time, “serious” position while I was dealing with the death of my mother, my dog, and various family health issues. I suspect that my current restlessness is a good sign: my life is calm and stable enough to seriously pursue something bigger.

Here are a few things I’ve learned that I am sure will help me going forward:

I can succeed at something new:  I’ve mastered the infernal computer/register/inventory system, and learned to navigate all four channels of our business. I am producing results comparable to those of two senior colleagues, both of whom have design degrees and have run their own design businesses.

I am not motivated by money: I earn a fraction (a very small fraction) of what I used to. I would make the same amount of money just by showing up, but every day, I put forth my best effort, and continue to challenge myself. The proof of this is that despite having been momentarily stunned and disgusted by my insignificant first “raise” I am still  working hard.

I can simultaneously accept my reality and change it: I had hoped that I might be able to eventually meet all of my needs in this  job. My first review and wage increase showed me that I couldn’t.  It’s just not that kind of job, and I might have known it, had I asked the right questions when I interviewed.  After some reflection, I realized that I enjoyed the job too much to quit, and that I could alleviate my resentment  by simply reducing my availability to four days a week from seven.  Saving Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for myself gave me a sense of control and  needed structure in my schedule.

I am most successful when I forget myself: Fully focusing on my customers and meeting their needs allows no room for self-consciousness and insecurity, and produces excellent results.

I am not my job title, or my paycheck: I knew that, but it’s good to remember.

Good thing, too, since I am making a very small fraction of what I used to earn. I’ve been at my part-time job for four months now, and I have decided that I am enjoying it. Recently, my boss asked me, in a teasing way, “Isn’t this more fun than your old job?” I answered truthfully that they were both very fun, but very different.

The first couple of months were rough; I did not work many hours, and it seemed to me that I was forgetting everything I was being taught between shifts. I was shocked to realize I was finding my “little job” to be so stressful.  I’d been a criminal defense investigator, for crying out loud- going to the projects of San Francisco alone after dark, serving subpoenas on hostile witnesses- I was dealing with people at the worst times of their lives- how in the world was working a few hours a week in retail making me anxious?

I worked in retail off and on during my twenties, and felt I could easily manage it again. I had worked through my questions of whether I could be comfortable in such a controlled environment after the autonomy and responsibility I’d had during the last 25 years of my working life. I realized that I am not defined by my job title or my paycheck, and carefully considered where I might enjoy working. I applied at only two stores: a clothing store and a home furnishing store. My logic was that there was no point working anywhere I would not want to use my discount. This way I could either refurbish my wardrobe or refurnish my house, however slowly.

I did not hear from the clothing store (too bad for you, J.Crew!) I re-entered the time clock world in January. After adjusting to the changes in retail technology (computerized registers and inventory control, walkie-talkies and headsets) and generally getting the hang of things, I am having fun. I realized that a large part of my stress had less to do with the job, and much more to do with not feeling competent at what I was doing. I knew that feeling would pass with time, and it has. I remembered that even a menial task is more fun when attacked with enthusiasm, and made a conscious decision to give what I do my best effort, even if it is polishing shelves of glassware or restocking candles.

I spend about twenty hours a week in a beautiful environment, dealing with people who are about 98% pleasant. Every day is different, and I learn something. I help people improve their living environments. I have a reason to get dressed and somewhere to go. I move around a lot- back and forth across the sales floor, up and down ladders. After decades of working in fields where effort does not always produce observable progress, I am appreciative of something as straightforward as a sales per hour goal. And, to paraphrase Sally Field at the Oscars: “They like me, they really like me!”  In stark contrast to my previous job, the only way I take my work home with me now is in the form of pretty new bedding or  a comfy new sofa.

I know long-term I will want to earn more, and to be more challenged. Whether I find a way to do that within or outside of my present employment remains to be seen. For now, I am quite happy.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (

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