Being Nigel

Quite often, I feel more of a sense of satisfaction with yardwork than I do lawyering.

And it’s not “yardwork” per se that I enjoy (though I do). It’s actually creating something and doing something that does not involve wallowing in minutiae while sitting at a computer for eight or more hours per day.

There is a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the contemporary office job. This is for two main reasons:

  1. It is highly unnatural; and
  2. There is little to nothing to show for your efforts.

Where’s the sense of accomplishment in shuffling through emails? What pride can there be in spending hours contributing something infinitesimally minute to some project that you have no ownership over and does not affect you?

And in the case of law, everything is air. Everything is made up. A law doesn’t exist. It’s a shared fiction that everybody agrees to abide by under pain of financial injury or physical imprisonment. However, these things can be changed relatively quickly–today’s wrong is tomorrow’s right.

Plus, it all keeps coming. All of it. There is no end to the busy work.

This can’t be unique to law, but at least some other jobs probably provide a more tangible sense of accomplishment. I think of somebody working on creating software, or designing a building, or even a guy on an assembly line or out landscaping: At the end of the day, you’ve created a thing. I know it’s easy to romanticize physical labor, and I know it often doesn’t pay as well as our wonderful brand new “service economy.” But hear me out.

Remember the movie City Slickers? Remember when it’s “Career Day” at Billy Crystal’s character’s son’s school and the other dads have interesting jobs, but Billy Crystal’s character, who sells advertising space on radio stations, finally admits that he “sells air”?

That’s a lot of us out here today. Men, especially. No wonder Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby decide to do something traditionally masculine and become cowboys. It’s a comedy, sure, but there’s an undercurrent of something real there.

Some days, I have an overwhelming urge to fight. I want to fight and get hit and hit other people and not know if I’m going to make it. I want to bleed as much as I want to make others bleed.

Other days, I want to go out in the forest, chop some trees, and build a house. Or a palace. Or make a castle out of huge rocks. Just because.

Although I hate the term “midlife crisis,” because it’s usually used to mock men who are unhappy with their work situations, the feeling is totally understandable. And I’ll tell you what I think it stems from: doing what we were told we should do. It’s the cage of safety problem, that prison of material and physical security that dulls the senses (and probably the testosterone). For many of us, especially Gen Xers and Millennials, we did what we were told would lead to “success” (however that was defined): get good grades in high school, go to a “good” college, go to some kind of graduate school, get a job, and work. Problems solved!

Except they’re not. First, there’s debt. Second, there’s the easy trap to fall into of seeking status and keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. Third, there’s the fact that so few are happy living a life that is laid out for them without any say in the matter.

Obscure pop culture reference incoming: I like the band XTC. One of their big hits in the late 1970s was called “Making Plans for Nigel.” Check out the lyrics and you’ll see why it’s apropos here:

We’re only making plans for Nigel
We only want what’s best for him
We’re only making plans for Nigel
Nigel just needs this helping hand

And if young Nigel says he’s happy
He must be happy
He must be happy in his work

We’re only making plans for Nigel
He has his future in a British steel
We’re only making plans for Nigel
Nigel’s whole future is as good as sealed

And if young Nigel says he’s happy
He must be happy
He must be happy in his work

Nigel is not outspoken
But he likes to speak
And loves to be spoken to
Nigel is happy in his work
We’re only making plans for Nigel

Nigel sounds like a bit of a bore, doesn’t he? But he’s also probably not happy about it even though he’s told he should be. In other words, Nigel did what he was “supposed” to do. While this is a relatively recent phenomenon, it isn’t new.

And here’s the worst of it: I feel guilty for feeling this way. My job isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s good! I can telecommute two days a week, it pays pretty well, I don’t have to go to court, and it allows me to support my family. It just doesn’t interest me intellectually at all–it takes a lot of winding up to get started on anything and keep my focus. It’s that ass-achingly dull. And quite honestly, although the outcome (money to support my family) is important, what I do is utterly meaningless to me. It makes no difference whatsoever. I might as well be George Jetson, who literally just pushed a button all day. And a robot will probably take my job some day anyway, so whatever.

Writer Kitten Holiday wrote a piece called “The Trap” that sums up a lot of what I’m feeling as well.

In this modern world we glorify jobs that deserve no glory. That’s the kind of job I have. Did you ever watch Laverne and Shirley? In the opening song they are working in a bottle factory, putting caps on the bottles. The conveyor belt speeds up and the bottles come faster and they can’t keep up. It’s very comical. My job is the same, but it’s not funny. There is no conveyor belt of bottles, just a conveyor belt of projects and emails. In the push to increase profits, the workload conveyor belt of my job has been moving faster and faster over the past few years. It’s the slow boil.

If I were a machine I would have malfunctioned. A belt would have snapped, a screw would have gone loose. A repair man would have arrived and fixed or replaced me. The repair man may have said, “This machine is most effective and will last longest at speeds under X. If you keep speeding it up you will need to replace it. And that’s going to cost you.” The company would have done the math to see if it was more cost effective to replace the machine every few years while turning out extra bottles or to keep the speed on a steady pace to preserve the life of the machine.

Modern life is weird. It is really weird. We’ve traded one set of existential problems for another. But while the previous set of problems could be fought with swords and guns and physical labor and discovering vaccinations, our problems now are harder to tackle. We sit down too much and it is killing us. We are forgetting how to engage in face-to-face communication. Men and women are eschewing each other’s company in favor of cats or whatever. How do you fight these problems?

Back to jobs. Yes, it’s a myth that you should “do what you love” at work. But there’s a right task or purpose for everybody. Where I get so depressed at times is knowing that, for the better part of a decade, I have not been fulfilling my purpose, at least not with five-sevenths of my waking hours.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If I weren’t religious, I’d probably be just another statistic.If I didn’t have my family, I’d probably be hooked on some nasty thing or habit or another. And if I didn’t have a job, I’d probably be in the loony bin (I’ve been unemployed before. It’s horrible). But here I am. I’m alive, I’m healthy, I have a family, I have a secure job . . . what more could I ask for?

What more is there?

I envy the kids who screwed off in school, who talked back to their teachers, who dropped out or just didn’t go to college and made their own way. Not all of them succeeded–because let’s face it, some of them were losers–but a lot of them had a fire inside that could not be contained or guided by formalized education. A lot of them did alright. And a lot of them ended up in the same place I’m at now, working for somebody else, trading my time so they can get rich. And school never prepared you for anything beyond that (by design, if you ask me, but that’s a topic for another day).

Everything seems better, more fulfilling, when it’s done by choice. Yet too many of us “fell in” to what we do because we followed The Rules. That’s the lesson here. You can’t be a complete narcissist, but a little bit of selfishness can go a long way.

Don’t be Nigel.


  1. First, I love XTC. So now that Nonsuch is playing in the background…

    Um, yeah. And the most important thing I think you said is how this is all BY DESIGN.

    I’m not that rebellious anymore, but I will fight this mentality (to settle for someone else’s mediocre plan) with the last breath in my body, for my kids even more than for myself.

    I think Twisted Sister said it best for me:
    “Your life is trite and jaded/ boring & confiscated/ If that’s your best, your best won’t do…
    We’re right (yeah)
    We’re free (yeah)
    We’ll fight (yeah)
    You’ll see (yeah)
    Oh we’re not gonna take it
    No, we ain’t gonna take it
    Oh we’re not gonna take it anymore”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nonsuch! Underrated album.

      Yes! It’s by design to keep us—men, mostly, but most of us—docile. It’s certainly a way of keeping a society pacified and ordered, but I have my doubts that it’s the BEST way.


  2. Great post, my friend. Not sure if you’ve read John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart.” It was a big deal in the Christian community a few years back. Solid read and speaks to a lot of what you’re talking about here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “There is little to nothing to show for your efforts” – the problem with a lot of western working culture is that we are moving away from making something, to the service economy where the results are intangible and don’t actually say have an end result, just an endless stream of ‘service management’.

    I do fully feel your pain, I have spent eight hour working days answering emails and even then not managed to sort any problems. To stop the descent into madness I just think of all the things I am grateful for and all the things I do like about the job (like yourself the option for flexible working is a massive plus).

    Liked by 1 person

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