We See Work How We See Ourselves


My first job was at a bakery.

I got a job as soon as I had a car, which was shortly after I turned 16, because I was very eager to be earning my own way in the world. Largely because I had long come to understand: money is power. And the best thing that “having it” really buys you is the freedom from others telling you you can’t have theirs.

Growing up, I got two messages about money, one from each parent:

From mom: money is scarce, and we never had enough. And getting any more of it from her was a task fraught with shame, blame, criticism, emotional outbursts and circular arguments.

From dad: you get what you pay for.

I bet you can guess who was the spender and who was the saver.

You can probably also guess who gave us money for field trips and the occasional tub of popcorn at the movie. And, as such, who came to be bad cop and who was good.

So for all the years mom held money over us, hiding her emotions and insecurities behind it when we’d ask for something and she’d reply by shouting (a habit that, not least of which, instilled some sense of frugality in my brother and myself), I was very eager to get a job in order to loosen this grip she had. And probably also to get out of the house.

Lots of Adults will tell young people not to be in any rush to get a job — “you have your whole life to work!” is their war cry.

And to these people, I always stare dumbfounded and impatient in response.

Because, it’s not like virginity, Brenda. It’s not like once you start you can never go back. (In fact, there are definite “take-backsies” with jobs, and working in general. All the time.)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realize that people who say “wait to work — you have your whole life!” are the same people who infantilize themselves and love the Cinderella storyline — they don’t see work as any kind of satisfaction, let alone salvation. They only see it as a necessary from which we should all hope to avoid.

I don’t agree.

I liked it from the start.

What I learned from that role — besides the reason why asiago is the most common cheese used on bagels (it doesn’t slip off the dough) and the latin word for “bread” (it’s “panem”) — is that how we see work is how we see ourselves.

And we often channel all of our insecurities and emotions into our relationship with it. Even workaholics do this. But all the rest of us do, too. And most people say that the best part of their job is “the people,” and I’d add that “the human aspect” is also the most fascinating part of work in general — what we bring, what we don’t bring, and how we see it given how we see ourselves.


From Bianca Bass’s writing prompt: “Write about your first job and what it taught you.”

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