December 18, 2020 06:08 pm

The Milkman

By Bryce St. Pierre

Essays Life Wellness
Grocery storefront with crowd

I could show you the degree that’s framed and hanging on the wall of my bedroom. I could tell you what I majored and minored in, the organizations where I’ve worked, and the list of my skills and qualifications. I could describe the things I’ve built,  the projects that have been launched, and the professionals with whom I collaborated. I could recount the story I was telling myself about who I was, what I wanted to accomplish, and who I was supposed to become. But in truth, lately there is a far simpler way to describe myself. At the moment, it suffices to say that… I’m the milkman.

Well, to drop the vigilante façade and to be more accurate, there are HR documents that refer to me as a “dairy clerk.” I have been working in the dairy department of a wholesale grocery store. I stock all of your milk and cheese products, yogurts, ice cream, and even some frozen foods. Oh, and I started this job during a pandemic, so it’s all done while wearing a mask, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, and keeping 6 feet away from everyone. I have to admit that the job can wear on me. But with that being said, I find I can always finish my shifts feeling content—albeit with some sore muscles here and there.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

As my time in high school was coming to an end in 2012, I was flustered by the prospect of choosing a university or college program, and more broadly, a career. This is hardly a unique experience at 17 years old, but I had real difficulty picturing what my profession might look like. I knew that on one hand, I had a natural inclination towards mathematics and physics. I danced with the idea of becoming a teacher, or maybe even an engineer. Conversely, I was also pulled towards the creative arts; having been drawing and painting since I was very young. This inspired the notion of becoming an architect, but I quickly found I couldn’t really fixate enough on buildings or construction to make a career of it. So with little progress in any direction, I turned to my pile of university admissions booklets. You know—those glossy, brightly-colored pamphlets with all the placated photos of students smiling on them?

Through a lengthy process and some self-doubt, I ended up coming to something of a consensus. I had truly excelled in math class, so that was the obvious place to start. The sciences were always interesting, but there was just something pure about unravelling equations and solving problems. I broke down my gravitation towards the subject into discernible skills. I could manage numbers with ease, but moreover I could apply logic, reasoning, and a set of steps—often without missing a beat. It turns out that these skills dovetailed nicely into the work done in computer science. Even though I knew nothing about programming, the prospect was compelling. I essentially grew up alongside computers. Beyond using them to do homework and play games, they also fueled my creativity through typing up stories, recording and editing videos, and making 3D models. There seemed to be a connection there, and the world had been moving towards the digitization of work and life anyway. It seemed I had arrived at a path. Head to university, young man.

The “Passion” and The Pursuit

After about a year of juggling studying and partying, I decided to specialize in what’s called applied computing. I gained knowledge and experience by building a variety of things in my coursework—everything from simple programs and desktop applications to games and graphics. I had become quite neurotic with my studies; focusing on maintaining my entrance scholarship and making my CV as favorable as possible to the eyes of future employers. I would obsess over every detail to ensure my grades were maximized. 

My hunger for competence got so intense that I extended my efforts into my personal life. In the bit of free time I could scrape together, I would go online and teach myself topics that weren’t adequately covered in class, like web development. By the time I graduated from university, I had already had several panic attacks and a year’s worth of experience from internships. I then went on to spend most of my early 20’s working as a software developer across the public and private sectors.

I was motivated by the idea of financial independence, something that I did not really feel my family or I had when I was growing up. Though most of my time went to a nine-to-five job and my salary was decent, I lived frugally and made several lump-sum payments to tackle my student debt. While others my age were travelling, getting married, or starting families, I split my time between working a full-time position and self-teaching or tinkering with hobby projects on weekends. 

I spent my days sitting at a desk, staring at multiple monitors for long hours, and combing through all the bits of knowledge that I had amassed over the years in order to solve problems. There were days where I felt great—every now and then I could write some really elegant lines of code. I could have a series of successes that left me feeling like some god-like figure; manifesting some functional thing from seemingly nothing into reality, and at only 23 years old. By this point, you could imagine that I felt proud and accomplished. 

You could imagine I felt like I was on the right track, like I was reaping the benefits of my time and dedication. Some days, I did indeed feel that way. But if I’m being honest, most days, I didn’t. There’s a very real phenomena in the industry known as “imposter syndrome,” and I was entrenched in it. I felt like there was always more I had to learn, more coworkers to work alongside, and more project managers to give me their approval. Even after everything I had done, the countless hours I had invested, I felt like I still hadn’t cracked the surface. I felt insecure. I couldn’t look you in the eyes and tell you that some part of me wasn’t still feeling that stress I had felt in high school. How much further would I have to go before I could really feel confident in my craft? 

Something Isn’t Right Here

I began to detect a pattern of feelings that was reoccurring across my different positions—even across different sectors. The first few months of a job would consist of riding the wave of excitement after being hired. I could revel in that feeling of being recognized for my talents; that validation of having caught the employer’s attention and being invited to join a team. The workplace would feel so new—there would be plenty of opportunities to get my hands dirty and make an impact. This would eventually reach a certain plateau where the weight of responsibility would materialize and unexpected issues would begin to arise. I would sober up from my notions of having found the perfect position that would make me content. And from there, usually approaching the one-year mark, the project would reach maturity and feel very different. The thrill of developing new features would be replaced by the tedium of maintenance and the modification of complex components to fit unforeseen circumstances. A heaviness would fall upon me and a hopeless feeling of being trapped would begin to set in.

The first time I experienced this effect, I reached the conclusion that the subject matter and the technologies were to blame. The job was primarily concerned with writing queries, integrating a bunch of data, and creating reports to be populated by the tabulations. Sure, data warehousing piqued my curiosity, but ultimately I had always assumed I would end up doing application development. You know—building cool things that people use on their computers or smartphones. So, I put my foot down and I vowed that I would reorient my career. I would stop being what was essentially a plumber for uninteresting data—connecting pipelines and reports for narrow groups of faceless individuals—and move to something more suitable. I wanted to build things that were more visual in nature, and would be used by the broader public. This lends itself well to web development, which I had learned through self-teaching and an internship.

I decided that I was only going to remain in the industry if I worked solely as a web developer. I made my arrangements, resigned from my previous organization, and moved back to my home city. I interviewed at a well-known local company that specialized in web development. They were intrigued and offered me a position, which I accepted graciously and without hesitation. I was being given the opportunity to work in tech in my working-class and manufacturing-based hometown? It was a rare and idyllic scenario. In a matter of something like six weeks after I had decided to abandon my previous situation, I suddenly had myself a private sector job with better pay and that seemed to fit my new direction. 

My experience at this company immediately proved to be far different than my time in the public sector. The work culture was a stark contrast—a spirit of urgency and hunger presided without any of the red tape of a multi-layered bureaucracy. The professionalism and talent of the people was unlike anything I had experienced before. The energy was fierce, modern, and young. I had been longing for work to feel like that, and I sank my teeth in. I became one of the main developers in an exciting new project looking to disrupt a segment of the agricultural industry. I was charged with building the backend services and a native mobile app. I took initiative, accepted new responsibilities as they came to me, and gave as much of myself as I could. It was a true pleasure to imagine what this new product would look like and bring it into existence. The atmosphere of excitement was palpable as this endeavour took the spotlight within the company.

As the months went by, the project’s stakeholders became concerned with the rate of development, so the schedule was accelerated and a greater burden was placed on our small team. Working late into the night became more common—something that I embraced without argument. After all, I felt lucky to be working on the project, let alone at the company. A product was slowly coming together. And as it became more and more real, so did the symptoms of the imposter syndrome that I had come to experience in the past. Despite some very promising results in the system’s beta trials, I could never shake the underlying feeling that I was inadequate, and so was the quality of the components I was building. My responsibility in my tasks and how they impacted the project had begun to weigh on me. I swung back and forth between cautious optimism and self-doubt. I entered a state of perpetual anxiety and burnout. This reached its climax after about a month of spending the first couple hours of my day dreading arriving at work. I was being consumed by a prickliness in my stomach and an existential exhaustion that no amount of coffee could resolve.

The Veil Begins To Lift

Most people aren’t aware of the sides of software development that aren’t included in those flashy Silicon Valley insider videos. They show you the impressive modern office with grayscale colours and large panes of glass. They show you the communal areas to eat a company-provided lunch. They show you the eager employees playing ping pong, or video games, during work hours. What you don’t typically see is the blood, sweat, and tears that go into building a product. You don’t see the long expanses of time sitting around the meeting room, arguing over the minute details of a particular feature. You don’t see the coworker pulling their hair out as they begin their sixth cup of coffee and eleventh hour of work, and they desperately try to resolve an issue before a deadline. You don’t see the disappointed look from the user and the embarrassed (or ashamed) flush of a developer’s face when something breaks or doesn’t work as they expected. 

As in any profession, there are unique perks, but there are also unique challenges. Though the way a person internalizes those challenges is highly individual, I found that they were quite crushing. I’m not saying any of this as an attack against individual companies or the industry as a whole. Quite the contrary—I’m very grateful for the organizations I served. There were a plethora of meaningful moments woven into the challenges I faced. The people I had the opportunity to work alongside taught me invaluable lessons; ones that I’m not sure I could have experienced in other work environments. And they all really revolve around a common theme—that of belonging. 

The drive of the coworkers and project managers I encountered were not simply coincidences. The confidence and success of these people was fueled by their love for what they do, if not entirely for the profession itself, then also for the workplace and the life it afforded them. This devotion allowed them to embrace the workplace culture and excel in ways I simply couldn’t, like swiftly sacrificing personal time for overtime hours. I realized that in some ways, I had been convincing myself that I shared that same passion. Sometimes this sentiment came from trying to fit in. An energetic work environment can certainly motivate and push you in ways you might not expect. Sometimes it was a plea to myself to stick to the course after completing an expensive four and a half years of university. In any case, the misalignment had become quite pronounced and impossible to ignore. I simply did not love this work in the way that I imagined I did.

Full Transparency

Now—allow me to address some of the things you may be thinking. Can it be super fun and rewarding to create web apps and software for people to use? Of course. Is it a highly lucrative and privileged career given how intangible its deliverables can be? Uh-huh. Do I over-inflate the idea of an exciting and interesting job being the true driver of a meaningful life? Absolutely. Am I being unrealistic in expecting the job of a software developer to only have a few headaches here and there? Probably. Did I ever imagine living for the weekend and being consumed by stress to the point of stomach pains when I entered this profession? No, certainly not. 

All of this to say, I began to realize at the end of my three years as a software developer that the work was not serving me or my expectations. It definitely stimulates the engineering portions of my mind—that I know with some certainty. If I had more wisdom through more years spent in the industry, I could likely learn to feel marginally better about the issues I was encountering. However, I also believe there’s a certain type of stress that goes beyond the trivialities of the day-to-day—a rooted stress that is fundamentally unhealthy. This is ultimately what I was feeling towards the end of my last job and my internal crisis was its peak. This also happened to be a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst the fear at the beginning of that time, I remember thinking how silly it would be to fall seriously ill and die, and have spent my last days being essentially miserable.

My project manager sensed that I had been quite tense around that same time, and so a conversation with him was inevitable. I expressed that alongside my concerns about the burden being placed on our small team and how it could impact the project, there was some underlying barrier that was really giving me trouble. He could empathize with my feelings and encouraged me to continue reflecting. Word of my distress soon reached the head of the company, and a phone call with him followed shortly thereafter. The friendly and gracious nature in which his hand was extended to me cannot be understated. He wanted to know if anything could be done on the part of the company to make me feel more comfortable—even so far as helping me find a new place to live. I thanked him and appreciated the sentiment, but I knew that was not the answer to my suffering. I was still quite conflicted about how to proceed. So, in an attempt to salvage the situation, I held on a little longer.

I instituted some boundaries to try and determine if I could quell the stress I was feeling. As guilty as I felt to leave my teammates to pick up some of the slack on overtime hours, there would be no more than 40 hours per week for me, except for under circumstances like deploying software updates. This allowed for a slight improvement to my mood and function, but nevertheless, the truth crying out from inside me was quite deafening. It was very clear that the assumptions and reassurances in which I coated my career were quickly peeling away. No amount of conversations with my compassionate coworkers could dissuade me any longer. The ultimate question needed to be answered: why can’t this work quench my thirst for meaning?

Clarity

I spent days reflecting upon my experiences on a macro level. I broke down my career into eras, starting from the beginning. One immediately damning realization was that I could never recall a time where I decided I wanted to become a software developer. The process of elimination that I described from high school was really what led me to the field, and I selected it for reasons of pragmatism rather than true desire. I pressured myself into choosing a university program, and when I had no other ideas, I decided I best move forward with it. If I were able to have a conversation with my younger self, I would urge the guy to slow down and take some time to look inward before making such a commitment.

I pondered how I exited my education and entered the industry. An onslaught of anxiety and a few notable panic attacks had plagued the end of my time as an undergrad. The flow of coffee, cigarettes, junk food, and weekend drinking that I had been using as a coping mechanism throughout my studies certainly needed to be replaced. Seemingly out of nowhere, a captivation with mental health, wellness, and self-help took hold of me. My lunch breaks and evenings as an employed software developer saw countless hours of podcasts and pages of material on those topics. Aside from being a genuinely unknown passion of mine, I now believe that I sought out these resources subconsciously. I think that it’s entirely possible that I was trying to heal the wounds that I was simultaneously inflicting on myself. 

I also examined my career beyond the obligations of writing the code and solving the problems. In terms of my physical state, I was required to spend seemingly endless amounts of time sitting in front of my monitors, hunched over my keyboard. I would be furiously typing to complete tasks and respond to messages from coworkers. This, compounded by the mental stress I was experiencing, led to incredible tension in my neck, shoulders, and upper back. Funnily enough, this was also confirmed to me by the wonderful lady who gave me a company-provided massage once every month. Perhaps my body was trying to communicate to me what my mind was not yet capable of processing.

I thought about how I was able to interact with others during my professional experiences. While there were meetings and collaboration with coworkers, the vast majority of my time was spent behind my own workstation. Though I can work independently without issue, I am not as well-suited to the isolation of hours in front of the computer as I originally thought. There were rarely deep social connections that were involved in the projects themselves. The work is primarily focused on the deliverables, and not necessarily creating direct effects on people. I suppose this is the role of a developer, but I was bothered by this striking disconnect between the final product, myself, and the end-user.

For some reason, I never considered what the deliverables represented or the difference they made—I never felt it was my place to pass judgement. I was just operating as an opinionless technician. As a result, I never felt that I was building something that I truly believed in, nor could I feel the value that was being created. This was something that I realized was terribly important to me—I want to help people in a tangible way, one that both I and themselves can feel. This would eventually prove to be a shining pillar of truth in my career transition and my ultimate choice of heading towards the health and wellness field.

In summary, for as much time as I spent chasing the “dream” of being a software developer, I felt terrible. The highs and lows left me on edge; I was constantly caught up in thoughts of fear and self-doubt. In subtle ways, I was manifesting my own pain and resistance by trying to force myself to be someone that I am not. A vicious cycle would then be created wherein I would self-medicate to attempt to ease the suffering, and the true cause would remain unidentified. The friction between what my heart truly felt and what my brain thought eventually lit a fire inside me. And the flames left me a blackened shell of who I used to be. 

What now?

Haven’t you been paying attention? I’m the milkman

I’m going to spend the rest of my days stocking shelves, stacking crates, and helping customers. I must admit that I feel a sense of relief from the simplicity of my responsibilities at the store. That’s not to say it’s without its difficulties. I still feel stressed—often by the pressure of juggling multiple tasks and summoning bursts of energy for the physical aspects of lifting and moving things. It’s also just honest work. It’s about facilitating the stock of products for the people that need them. Since the store deals in wholesale, we take part in the supply chain to small businesses, like restaurants and convenience stores. I’m proud to be part of that flow of goods at this difficult moment in history. Each day that I’m assisting and talking with customers, I’m reminded that most people are just good and hard-working folks who are trying to find and create meaning in their lives. Just like I am.

Okay, I was kidding before—I won’t be working at the store indefinitely. My time as a dairy clerk has been a beautiful stepping stone on my path towards something new. After I left behind my life as a software developer, I reflected upon my values and interests. I want to have a tangible impact on the lives of others, even in small and insignificant ways. I want to feel the tiredness in my body at the end of the day and know that someone’s life is better for it, and that it meant something. I can’t think of anything more suitable to this desire than a career in health and wellness. I’ve been burying myself in the material for years. I’ve learned about nutrition, exercise, mental health, mindfulness, and meditation through various books, podcasts, and videos. I’ve even caught myself giving other people advice as I recommend resources and share personal experiences. That’s when I happened upon massage therapy. 

I had never really considered its weight as a profession, and have genuinely only received a few massages in my life. But after some research, I was quickly blown away by its depth. Not only is it recognized throughout the world as a legitimate and warranted therapy, but it looked to be a great career prospect. Not many jobs tout flexible work hours and the potential to soothe people’s suffering from physical ailments. Then massage began to interestingly connect with aspects of my own life. I thought of my dad, who seeks relief from sciatica brought on by a past injury. I thought of my time as a software developer, when we would receive company-provided massages for relaxation. I thought of my pipe dream of opening my own floatation tank business after being overwhelmed by the relief granted by that sensory experience.

These intermingling data points led me to attend an introductory massage course at a local college. The instructor explained the basics and went on to outline how the education is structured, the certification process, and the trajectory of a typical career. He painted a landscape of possibilities for how massage can be provided—from being an employee of a clinic, to providing mobile services, to starting your own clinical practice. Though I have only scratched the surface, and I recognize how naive I still am, I left that course feeling excitement throughout my body. Of course nothing like this can be known with certainty—I completed four and a half years of university to get a degree for a career I don’t even want anymore. I still have so much to learn, but I feel as though this could truly be my second chance. 

I am sharing my experiences to serve as something of a cautionary tale. Be careful of the story you are telling yourself, and consider how your work truly makes you feel. There are many forces in motion when it comes to finding what you’re supposed to do, but none are more important than those inside you. You can strive, make plans, collect a paycheck, and surround yourself with material possessions and comforts. But what does it matter if you’re miserable? What does it matter if the level of stress in your life effectively renders you unable to enjoy what you work so hard to earn? These are tough questions to answer. Yet our time is finite, and I believe we should spend it doing things that are truly meaningful to us. It’s never too late to stop doing something that feels wrong, and aim towards something better.

Share
Tags: ,