What the Devil Wears

Theresa and I watched “The Devil Wears Prada” last night. It is a movie starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, about a young woman who works for the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine. Meryl Streep plays the editor-in-chief, and portrays a “win at all costs” mentality in the work force.

The character played by Meryl Streep (Miranda) was a control freak. She had to control the workplace, and she also had to control the lives of everyone around her. She controlled how everyone dressed, how they ate, and how they used their free time. And everyone at the company participated in this, because they wanted to move ahead in their careers.

They made a “deal with the devil”. The movie (and the book) is really about our relationship with work, and the importance of work in our lives.  

In the summer of 1995, several things happened in a few weeks time. Our oldest daughter was born in July. I assumed a management position at the company where I was working. And I started a doctoral program at the local school of pharmacy. I recall one of my colleagues telling me that my job had to be “the most important thing in my life”. One of the professors in the doctoral program said the same thing about the doctoral program. And Theresa was acting like having a daughter was pretty important, too. I remember thinking that I could only have one “most important thing in the world”, and that several people were competing for my attention.

 Several years ago, I remember hearing a girl talk about her father. She said “I never see him. He is always at work. I don’t really know him”. I know that that is not what I want my daughters to say about me.

My friend Michael tells a story about an advertising agency that he worked with. At that agency, employees were told “if you don’t come into work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday”.

And not too long ago, I read a story about a company where the first employee to leave work each day is “rewarded” with having a stuffed animal placed in his/her work area. The stuffed animal is not a gift. It is a penalty. It shows the rest of the work force who left first. At this company, everyone competes to avoid having the stuffed animal in their work area.

 I don’t always get this balance between work and home life correct. I have a couple of experiences that remind me of that. Early in my career (again, in 1995), I had a report that I had to submit for my company. It was a big report. It was 2200 pages long (I’m not kidding). I had 8 weeks to compile all of the report, review it, and submit it. I remember spending all of Labor Day weekend working on that report, until midnight every night. I read that report twice, from cover to cover, making sure it was error-free. I was working 16-18 hours a day to complete that report. After the report was submitted, I went home one night in time to feed our daughter (who was only about three months old). Theresa handed our daughter to me, and our daughter started crying. She did not recognize me. Our daughter is now 24 years old, and doesn’t remember that incident. It doesn’t seem to have affected her very much. But I won’t ever forget it.

Back in the 1980s, I was working as a dispensing pharmacist. I had an opportunity to work a “7 on, 7 off” shift. This shift involved working seven nights in a row, and then I would have 7 days off in a row. The seven nights were Friday and Saturday 7pm-7am, and Monday-Friday was 9pm-7am. I was supposed to work 75 hours, overnight, every other week. In exchange for doing this shift, I would receive a 33% raise. I took that shift. I needed the money at the time (I had a large amount of school loans, and I wanted to pay them back). In retrospect, I wish I had not taken that shift. For the 18 months that I had that shift, I had constant jet lag. My sleep patterns were always off. And I was very lonely. Half of the time I was working a really difficult work schedule, and for the “off week”, everyone else was working their day jobs. In order to fill the time during my “off week”, I wound up taking a part-time job.

 I saw a sign someplace that said “What I do with my day today is really important, because I am giving up a day of my life to do it”. I feel that way about work. My days are limited (your days are limited, too, by the way). I may only have 10,000 days left. An actuary would probably bet the “under” on that 10,000 day bet. So if I only have 10,000 days left, am I making the most of them?  Am I trading a day of my life for something with meaning and purpose?

I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I do work on something that is meaningful. I work with good people, and we do important work. But I also know that my colleagues are not going to be the ones who will hold my hand in the last days of my life.


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