"Why do you want this job?"
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
they asked me, before I knew what to say, before I knew that the right answer was not "Because I need to feed myself." Because I need to buy gas, pay off my car loan, and hopefully be able to retire. Because that's the only way I know to live-to work for someone else. Not someone really, so much as something.
"Why do you want this job?" seemed an asinine question. I'm here aren't I? "Why do you want to hire me?" I should have said. But that's not really a question I wanted to ask, because I was (and am) fully aware of my many downfalls. I can't tell east from west. It took me a solid year to learn how to tell analog time. I only speak one language, I can't do makeup, and I only have one blazer. I studied poetry for God's sake. Who the hell would hire me?
The "why do you want to work here question" is doubly annoying because anyone who's halfway aware can tell when someone else is interested or not; wants something, or not. And maybe interest and want are not what compel people to work for someone/something else in the first place. It's need, simple as that. And I wanted to work "here," because I needed income, but I think I said something touching about "mission" and "gaining experience" and "positively impacting the bottom line." Corporate speak sounds angelic to corporate ears.
Some of us, me included, are lucky and like the someone/somethings we work for. And some of us are smart enough not to care. Some of us wake up every day with a ball of dread in our stomachs because we work for absolute monsters. I worked at a bank one summer and we called my manager "the ogre." She was nearly 6 feet tall with bright green eyes and she hated the sound of laughter. She put me at a desk in the dark, cold basement all summer where I sat shivering and processing car loans. That was the summer I learned that ogres hate joy, and banks love ogres. She probably had a candle by her bedside that smelled of dirty dollar bills. The ogre grew to like me though, because I was productive. I hated the job but I did it anyway. On my lunch breaks I wrote elaborate, stupid poems on scrap paper. I drank too much coffee and made friends with the other sad, pale Bank workers. I was there temporarily, after all. They were there indefinitely.
I worked at a smoothie shop another summer, making minimum wage and coming home smelling of protein powder and strawberries. I liked the shop though, because I was usually there with another kid, and we usually had a pretty good time. One day, I was working alone and had people walking up to the counter and ringing me in the drive through. I was frantic, falling over myself to make the smoothies, clean the blenders, make change, smile, always smile. Then a delivery came, pallets of frozen fruit piling high in the back. I was making minimum wage, and I thought, "I'm not paid enough to manage all of this." So I turned off the drive through, temporarily closed the store, and put the fruit away before it could thaw. Later, my manager admonished me, saying I was being lazy. "Do you even want to be here?" she asked me. Yes, and no.
Later I worked at a car insurance company, in a flat grey office building full of dull-eyed people in suits. What are the point of suits, I wondered, if we just sit in cubicles all day? My manager was a middle-aged balding man who used to live in Florida. He had a dragon tattoo on his back, he told me. And a wife who annoyed him during baseballs games and a kid who demanded a new tricycle. I didn't understand him on a cellular level, so when he asked me "Why do you want this job," I said, "It's good experience," and he nodded, as if it made sense that my answer was half-baked at best. Nobody wanted to work in the flat grey building full of dull-eyed people. He was only there because the benefits were good, and once a year he got to go fly to Philly on the company dime.
Another summer, I had an internship at Maui Jim, where they taught mid-day yoga and gave employees an unlimited quantity of fruit. Maui Jim employees were happy, always saying "Aloha!" and wearing Hawaiian shirts on Fridays. The job I accepted was in customer service. I was supposed to answer phone calls and chit-chat with customers who were unhappy with the nosepiece on their $300 frames. The job I did was in quality control, where I worked with three other interns in the basement of the warehouse. I guess they hired too many interns. We became zombies, dully inspecting box after box, frame after frame. The warehouse was cold, and twice a day we were allowed to go outside, lie in the grass, and remember what the sun felt like.
The last summer job I held was at a diner, where I worked weekends to give another waitress a break. Some Saturdays, I would go home with $400 in tips. One rainy day, I went home with $80. The diner had 14 tables and I was in charge of seven. I filled the water cup of a lady seated not-at-my-table and the other waitress accused me of trying to steal her customers, and therefore her tip. "She just asked for water," I said. But I may as well have said, "I hate you and I'm plotting to murder you in your sleep." She told the manager of the diner, who couldn't care less. She told the owner of the diner, who was too busy admonishing the line cook for baking a milk carton ring into a pancake to be bothered by the petty complaints of the waitresses. I went back to the floor, where I refilled an old man's coffee cup, "Say, what's a pretty young thing like you doing working at a diner anyway?" he said. I didn't answer, and he left me a dollar in quarters as a tip.
In all of these job interviews, I was asked, "why do you want to work here?" as if it was my 19-year-old dream to blend smoothies or shiver in a warehouse basement all summer. The older I got and the more experience I gained, the less people asked me "why do you want to work here?" and the more I learned to ask questions like
"How can I be successful in this role?"
"What are your goals for the company/department/team?"
"What is your management style?"
"Why do other people like working here?"
"Why did the previous employee in this position leave/why are you adding this position?"
"What about my experience stood out to you?"
The longer I'm in the workplace, the more my perceived value grows, but my work ethic was always the same. I worked just as hard (or maybe even harder) at the diner or in the smoothie shop as I do now. The nature of my work is just different. I needed each one of these jobs to learn that hard work does pay off. I needed them to figure out what kinds of jobs I liked or was good at. I needed them to learn how workplace dynamics shift and change. And more importantly, I needed them to learn that no work is "better." No job title should grant anyone more respect than anyone else. And if you're unhappy with what you do or where you are, you're the only one who can change your situation. Some jobs we need. Some jobs we want. And some jobs teach us the difference.