On Employment by Katherine Brook

In the cold, dark days of the new year I find that the door to wakefulness is prised open early by thoughts of work. Work I have tried to do, work I would like to do, work I may soon have to do. The blank application forms that await me when I get up; interview questions I might be asked the next day; interview questions I messed up the week before. Once these thoughts have their fingers around the door they hold it open and pull it wide, until I am irreversibly awake. Sleeping late is supposed to be a perk of unemployment, but it is a perk that eludes me.

I am fresh out of a postgraduate degree that I have not yet decided how to categorise. A deviation? A wrong turn? I don’t regret dedicating a chunk of my twenties to writing about novels and paintings, even though I did it without an end goal in mind. Perhaps I’ll just say I have taken the scenic route. But the scenic route to where? I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up; my contemporaries, it seems, grew up while I was looking the other way. Meanwhile, nobody is in any hurry to reward my skills with the kind of job I’ve fantasised about in occasional moments of hubristic self-belief.

Now, post-hubris, comes panic. I’m not employed – am I even employable? One interview tests my ability to work out percentages in Excel. I fail miserably. At another I’m asked about a time I’ve ‘implemented a change’. I flounder. Elsewhere interviewers nod and smile. Sometimes I make them laugh; warmly they shake my hand goodbye and then a week later they say: we have decided not to progress with your application. I stop applying for jobs with proper, grown-up salaries and start applying for jobs that pay by the hour. Over and over, I copy out my CV into online application forms for jobs I probably won’t get and suspect I would hate if I did. I find myself embittered by unfeminist thoughts about how much easier it would have been to have lived in the 1950s.

A single thought follows me around. On trains, in the street, in shops, I think: these people are employed. That person is employed. That person is employed. How? The world of work is a giant bell jar and I am pressing myself to the glass, asking to be let in. Soon, I think, soon someone will see me and say yes, she will do, we can find a use for her.

I swallow my pride, gather up my documents, and go to the job centre to sign on for benefits. I’m sent away with a list of additional documents that must be procured in order to fully prove my eligibility for payments, but which – I’m quite sure – serve no real purpose other than to make the process more arduous. A week later I go back for an appointment with a man named Akhtar. Akhtar grins, pleased with me because I’ve had three interviews already, and my work search journal is full, the hours dutifully recorded and added up. Around the room people are questioned, encouraged, berated. Next to me a softly spoken man is being rebuked by an employment advisor whose nasal, accusing tones make me doubly grateful for Akhtar’s gentleness. ‘It’s not our mistake, it’s your mistake,’ bleats the advisor to the entire room. The man defends himself, but inaudibly.

One evening I watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb’s 2011 documentary about the celebrated sushi chef Jiro Ono. Jiro’s restaurant is an unassuming hole-in-the-wall, tucked inside a Tokyo metro station, but it has three Michelin stars. To sit in one of its ten seats you must make a reservation several months in advance.

Jiro himself works every waking hour. Doing otherwise is inconceivable to him. ‘Once you decide on your occupation,’ he says, ‘you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to learning your skill. That is the secret of success, and it is the key to being regarded honourably.’

It’s all right for you, Jiro, I think. You have a vocation. What about the rest of us? Should we be training ourselves to fall in love with our spreadsheets? Dedicating every moment to learning the art of the conference call? What about those of us who can’t decide on an occupation or who, once decided, are continually thwarted at the first hurdle, or those who don’t get a choice at all? And Jiro is his own master. I wonder if he would he look a call centre worker in the eye, or an Amazon warehouse assistant, and say the same. You must dedicate your life to this. You must learn to love it. You must never complain.

Jiro is a Buddhist, and he approaches his work like a person who meditates. He is present in every task; his focus is unbreakable. In a world of distractions and shortened attention spans, such single-mindedness is a rare commodity, and there is beauty in it. But I can’t help wondering at the correlation between the release of this documentary and the rise of meditation as a corporate tool, mindfulness training as a shortcut to productivity and profit. Jiro, mindful Jiro, is a capitalist’s wet dream, a poster boy for the cult of work. Of course, he doesn’t care about money. His goal isn’t profit, it’s perfection. But are the two so different? ‘There is always a yearning to achieve more,’ he says. ‘I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.’ And so he is rarely away from his restaurant. He has put in such long hours, over the years, that he missed his children growing up. He doesn’t like holidays and at 82 has no wish to retire.

Perhaps, ultimately, Jiro works because he cannot do otherwise – because not to work is unthinkable. Work comes first; happiness has followed. He is fortunate that the one has grown out of the other, when for so many the two cannot be made to align. We ordinary folk are caught between a rock and a hard place. To work is so often to be overworked, to be frustrated, tired, overwhelmed. Yet not to work is to wonder: who am I?

I know who I would like to be. If I could do anything at all I would write novels. No amount of reality checking can rid me of this dream. It is unfortunate, I feel, to aspire to a profession in which nothing but the very greatest, rarest of successes will bring in enough money to live on. I need a second profession to aspire to – one that pays. Every few days I try on a new idea for size: fundraiser, administrator, gardener, archivist, bookseller. I dream up new five-year plans, new visions of myself at forty. But nothing feels quite right. As a balm for my disillusionment, I come back again and again to a cosy fantasy of myself working in the London Review Bookshop, wearing thick knitted jumpers and talking about Margaret Atwood with women in dangly earrings.

When a job offer comes, it is for a position the other side of the city, selling floor coverings in a department store. Floor coverings, when I’d explicitly stated a preference for kitchenware! But it is floor coverings or nothing, and the company wants a decision within twenty-four hours. Of course, I say, no problem. But there is a problem, because there’s a small chance that in approximately twenty-six hours I’ll hear back from a bookshop that I applied to on a whim and interviewed for in a daze of hope and surprise. And in approximately twenty-eight hours, I will interview again, equally surprisingly, for a large bookshop chain in Trafalgar Square.

The next day I wake early. I can’t eat. I wander about for hours in a state of agonising suspense, counting the seconds until my interview, wondering how long they’ll take to give me an answer. I’ll have to accept the department store job, that much is clear, otherwise I might end up with no job at all. I wonder how annoyed they will be if I tell them, three days before I’m due to start, that I can’t work for them after all. Why haven’t I heard from the first bookshop? I will them to phone, to rescue me, clear up this mess. Don’t make me sell carpets, I plead silently.

Then I give myself a talking to. Selling carpets won’t be so bad. I may as well get used to the idea because I won’t get the job in Trafalgar Square, of course I won’t, and in my bookshop interview last week (my stomach tightens to think of it) I responded to one question with a tangle of nonsense, getting redder and redder as my sentences backtracked, twisted around each other and degenerated into a set of incoherent noises. I’m going to sell carpets. I accept the job. I accept I’m not going to be rescued.

But by some miracle, I am. An HR person from the first bookshop rings me and says they would like to offer me the position, starting in a week. I grin inanely. It doesn’t matter that I will have to extricate myself from the department store job I’ve just accepted, or that it’s too late to back out of the interview in Trafalgar Square. I’m so proud and astonished and excited at this invitation to stand on my feet in a windowless basement for forty hours a week that when they tell me the measly sum they will be paying me to do so I say ‘COOL!!’, and the HR person laughs.

Here it begins, I think. I was over by the rock, now I’m moving towards the hard place. But it will all be okay, because now I know who I am. Now I’m on a path, and I can’t see where it leads, but I know it’s my path, and I know it leads somewhere.

If I can feel about something the way Jiro feels about sushi, that something can only be books. I go to the Trafalgar Square interview, relishing the full weight of the momentous secret I’m keeping from the interviewer. The next day I’m awake at five, still wired. The day after that, I sleep until noon.

Katherine Brook is a bookseller and writer, based in London. She was recently awarded a PhD in French Literature from King’s College London.