Somewhere along the line when I was growing up I learned that there are two kinds of work: the kind of consequence, and the kind of none.
Most of my life I have done work of no consequence. I’ve worked in café’s, bars, shops, delis, pubs, rental outlets and gyms in towns big and small, and none of the work I did mattered a bit. If I turned up I got paid. If I helped people, fine. If I was friendly, great. Maybe I did a really awesome job of it, but even that didn’t matter. People would come and go, staff would keep their jobs irrespective of their performance and at the end of the day I went home, same as every day, having made a bit more money to put towards my next trip. After a while I stopped liking this work. I thought I wanted to do something bigger, more consequential.
Then I started a new job and things were different. Suddenly stuff seemed to matter. Not ‘rocket science’ matter, but matter. We talked about goals, strategies and measurable results. We were dealing in ideas, words, theoretical concepts and uncertainty. Sometimes I was responsible for decisions that affected peoples’ lives. I was a grown up and it felt good.
Every now and then I found myself feeling a bit wound up thinking about the effects of my decisions, my actions or inaction. Sometimes my phone would ring late at night or on my days off and there would be a brewing crisis to avert, but I was enjoying the sensation of work that had consequences. It felt like the real adult world as I’d imagined it somehow.
I work for a guiding company and yesterday I found myself in the office alone. I’m normally tied to the computer for most of the day, but yesterday the guys who usually take care of the kitchen, gear room and drying shed were away so it was up to me.
Through the morning I answered phone calls and replied to emails and around lunchtime I decided to tackle the drying shed. The shed is a place of organised chaos where we hang all the wet gear after trips so it can drip dry before we put it away. Leaving my cup of tea and the brilliant glow of the computer screen behind me, I locked the office door and walked down the corridor towards the gear room.
The corridor has wooden floorboards that echo underfoot. It’s narrow enough for me to run my fingers along each pale yellow wall as I walk out the back and down the stairs. In the shed, gear is strewn across the drying racks: backpacks, harnesses, helmets, thermals, gloves, beanies, wetsuits, ropes, shoes, dry bags, all in various stages of dryness and disrepair.
I started with the thermals, pulling each one down off its hanger and checking the seams and wrists for damp. The synthetic fabric was slippery in my hands. Most of the thermals were dry so I turned them the right way around, folded them, took them upstairs and put them into their boxes, organised by size.
I went back down and checked the beanies, each one rescued from an op-shop beanie bucket and put them away too. Then the wetsuits. I ran water into the oversized concrete sink to clean them, hauling the deadweight of 5mm neoprene into the tub. I took the dry ones upstairs to hang in the cupboard. I put a load of washing on, ran hot sudsy water into the kitchen sink and did the dishes.
And somewhere in the middle of this process I noticed something. I was calm. Calmer than I’d been in a long time. My breathing was slow and regular. My mind felt quiet. I stood a little taller.
Looking around I saw that the drying room was neat and orderly, the dishes were clean and it felt good. Then it occurred to me that in a few hours, thirty or forty people were going to charge into this room in a frenzy of sopping gear and it would be chaos again. By the time anyone took a moment to look in the shed it would be a jumble sale of helmets and harnesses. No one would see my work. They probably wouldn’t even realise I’d done it. By all my known standards, my work didn’t matter. But in that moment this didn’t seem to matter. Not at all.
I might enjoy trading in ideas and results. My ego might enjoy the idea that my work is meaningful. But I need to remember the importance of this work with less apparent, measurable consequences. In some ways this work is of the greatest consequence of all.