In television editing room number two, the tape deck always squealed at the end of its rewinding process. The noise let me know there were about ten seconds until it finished, a newsroom eternity and plenty of time to prepare for my mad dash down the hall to master control.
Once in master control I needed to load the cassette (beta tape, for those of you who can remember when that meant something) into one of the playback decks at the front of the room. From the time I pushed my plastic box into the waiting slot, it would take about seven seconds for the cartridge to properly lock into its gears, the playback heads to engage the tape surface, and an image to appear on the monitor. That meant an arrival to master control with more than seven seconds to air time gave me a reasonable chance of meeting my deadline.
Whatever cardiovascular expenditures were necessary to hit these deadlines was up to me.
Dramatic? Certainly. But drama doesn’t necessarily add value. In terms of personal satisfaction it was a meaningless job, all things considered. Prepping b-roll tapes for playback to affiliate news stations essentially required the skills of a first year college student. I had almost no authority, limited editorial say, and endless people around me in the newsroom more than happy to demand I do something for them, right now.
But while it may have felt like a trivial job, it was also an integral one. Without someone reliable to prep tapes, on deadline, the business of moving news from Point A to Point B would simply not happen. That begs the question: is there any job, anywhere, that’s genuinely meaningless?
There’s no such thing as a meaningless job if you’re doing something germane to a collective effort. I may have been easily replaced in that busy national newsroom, but without someone running in my shoes, the day-to-day requirements of the network would have suffered. That means that everyone is valuable, even if everyone may not be essential. The executive who’s spent time visiting the factory shop floor knows more about operations and working conditions than the executive who stays away. That first-hand knowledge, from terminology to technology to culture, provides insights into inner workings of his or her business. Abstraction doesn’t cut it when real people are involved doing real things. Even more valuable is the executive who’s spent some time working in a low level job to develop a tangible appreciation for the realities of what it takes to make an enterprise operate.
But utilitarian justifications pale next to the deeper value. Entry level positions may be replaceable, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant. The person who masters entry level tasks often develops a deep appreciation for nuances in a system that could benefit from real, material improvement, often supporting an entire organization. Low level tasks keep high level tasks functioning efficiently, optimizing larger goals. They’re force multipliers, made visible more by their absence (or ineptitude) than by any one example of their superb execution.
In my just-out-of-college newsroom job, I also needed to strip yesterday’s labels from shelves of video tapes every morning and replace them with new, blank labels ready for either raw footage or finished stories. It was another thankless, tedious job, and practically invisible to anyone doing the more salient work of reporting or producing actual news. But on days when I was assigned elsewhere, or on a day-off, tapes were inevitably mis-labeled, lost, or incorrectly categorized. Frenzied reporters on deadline slapped woefully unreliable sticky notes on tape boxes, or crossed out yesterday’s titles and wrote new ones in the margins, inevitably causing control room chaos when the wrong cassettes got cued for playback.
Those were the days.
The story sounds like it’s just about replacing sticky adhesive labels from video tape boxes. It’s not about reporting real news stories, and it’s certainly not brain surgery. Of course I had ambitions to do other, more interesting things, and as soon as I mastered all of my basic tasks and made them as efficient as possible, I asked management for more. When they shrugged their shoulders in dismissal, I simply found other ways to be useful, and mastered those things, too. I soon got noticed as a utility player, motivated and knowledgable, and rapidly rose through the ranks. In my final position as News Room Supervisor, I not only had the respect of others coming on board at the entry level, but I also intimately knew the daily tasks that everyone had to perform. After all, my own training there included a detailed practicum of everyone else’s position.
Meaningless work exists when someone doesn’t care about the results. It has no “meaning” when you can’t see yourself as part of something bigger. The same goes for management, too. When you can’t see your junior staff doing anything relevant, you’ve effectively cut them off from their own agency, from being able to see how they’re part of something more relevant. The only irrelevant work is labor performed simply as a means for one person to assert his or her power over another. That’s work for no good reason at all. But everything else is an opportunity. If you want to be part of a creative solution, you have to believe that what you’re doing has the potential for excellence, even if the task you’re doing is unheralded, unloved, or undesirable. You don’t have to aspire to mundane things, but you can’t dismiss them as a credible place from which to begin more ambitious pursuits.