While this column usually goes around giving out absurd lists of little importance (other than getting a quick laugh, which is important in its own right and should never be counted out)—I’d like to take this time instead to talk about an experience of mine.
There is a moral to this story, which automatically makes it a must-read.
Like most experiences dubbed as “character building,” the time spent on this one was exhausting, frustrating, and one of the last things I wanted to be doing. I spent most of it soaking wet and coated in dirt (not a fun combo), railing against my existence and rapidly building my explicative-grouping skills. I’m sure time went on quite merrily outside my little bubble of misery, but for me, I was trapped in a circle of hell even Dante couldn’t have begun to imagine.
But I digress.
An unfortunate truth about college is, when you’re just getting started on the journey you hope will miraculously blossom into a career, the income isn’t great. In fact, it plain sucks. If you’re not sitting on a hefty endowment from your deceased captain of industry grandfather, or don’t have the smarts to crank out a massive social network in your spare time, you’re stuck working the good ol’ summer job. And as fun as these can often be, others… others just aren’t. At all.
On this day, my job required me to dig a hole. In itself, digging a hole isn’t so bad—everybody wants to dig to China as a kid, right? Except the Chinese kids, at least. Mine was one of the most gravelly, grimy, stubbornly immovable spots to carve out a pit in the earth.
To put things in perspective, the rocks in the ground could’ve used a bit more dirt around them.
When you’re stuck with a task as mind-numbingly repetitive as shoveling through dirty rocks, you find yourself with plenty of time to think. Most of my train of thought revolved around how pretty soon I was going to murder something—at one point I found myself shouting angrily at the gravel I was digging up, which is a clear indicator that things aren’t going so good in the head—but I also found myself reflecting on things much broader in scope than my immediate lunacy.
Up to my chest in this hellhole, five hours into the search for an elusive sewer pipe that was apparently descending just as fast as I was digging for it, my wandering mind happened upon a simple thought:
Did I really need to be there?
The immediate answer was no. I had limited maneuverability down in my pit, so I could only chip away with weak shovelfuls that shrunk as I went. Smug little piles of dirt and rock cascaded back down to fill what I had just dug up. The clouds rolled in and pissed sporadic splashes of rain, just enough to turn everything into a slick, grainy mess that went everywhere but out of the hole. Every indicator said I should be far, far away. In Tahiti, ideally, stretched out on a sunbaked beach with a masseuse going to town on my shoulders.
But it’s a job, said the small, reasoning portion of my brain. You gotta do what you gotta do.
Screw that, came the overwhelming reply. There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t involve beating wet rocks with a shovel.
Then significance hit me—of all the places to be, I was down in a hole. Fresh out of my first year of college, filled with inspiration and ambition (at least, that’s what I’m supposed to tell everybody who asks, right?), I was digging up rocks and dirt instead of building on all this new collegiate skill and knowledge. The return to mindless manual labor not only didn’t feel right, it seemed like a total waste of my time.
Don’t get me wrong—despite all the complaints my mind was making, I’m not one for whining or quitting. I would continue this job until it was through. It was just tough to rationalize this with where I was at in life: Why should I really care about finding a stinkin’ sewer pipe, when I had a possible budding career as a journalist at my fingertips, brand new takes and ideas on life to explore, and friendships and social circles to build on? There was no sense of accomplishment at all in moving dirt.
As with all difficult things, however, finishing the job brings a change of heart. As I pulled myself out of the pit of darkness, covered in eight hours of sludge and the pipe satisfactorily unearthed, I didn’t feel nearly as bad. While it may not have brought me any closer to writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for the New Yorker, I had endured hardship, overcome obstacles, and ultimately shown that pile of dirt who was boss.
Everyone must take on challenges. While my parents may have walked to school barefoot, uphill both ways—a lie, I’m 98 percent sure—I had dug a six-foot hole through gravel pretending to be concrete.
And while not every task can advance you toward your hopes and dreams, they can build you up, prepare you for life’s many challenges and make you less of a whiner. As the famous saying that I just made up goes: “You’ve got to dig through all that grit and grime first to ever make it to China.”