What is work?

Down one rabbit hole after the other

I spent most of yesterday really digging into WordPress in a way that I really haven’t before: theme files. My current project has a customized version of the Twenty Seventeen theme, with lots of custom templates, fields, and functions that I need to move over to a new template. It’s taken me weeks to finally understand what the previous developer was doing, and there’s a fatal bug in the system somewhere that is deleting post data that I’m trying to uncover so I can clean things up. I figure my best course of action is to migrate everything to a staging site, start with a new theme, and start going through the plugins one by one to rebuild the content on the site. There are multiple pages and types of posts with custom fields that need to be displayed properly. I’m not really looking forward to having to debug someone else’s stylesheets, though.

Doing this kind of development isn’t ideal even on a staging site, given that the WordPress native code editor isn’t really suited to real work. I haven’t done PHP work in over ten years, but I downloaded PHPStorm and got started setting up a development environment. I was hoping to setup some sort of Git workflow for the site, but I didn’t find any options that were production ready, so I grabbed the files via FTP and quickly set to work.

WordPress has an official Docker image, so I set about configuring a Compse file for my local environment. There I ran into problems. I was trying to map my theme directory to the container’s, but I ran into issues with file permissions. I haven’t quite figured it out. I can change the permissions within the container to allow the container to use the files, but then they’re locked on my development host. So that’s my challenge for today, and one that will no doubt lead down many more rabbit holes.

This is just an example of the kind of stuff I do, that most people call work. Now this doesn’t have anything to do with my regular day job responsibilities, it’s for a client. And even if it wasn’t, it’s still the same type of activity that I would be doing for fun anyways. Although if you asked my wife if she thought I was having fun last night, she would have said that all the cursing and muttering I was doing under my breath would indicate otherwise. This particular project is a challenge for me because it involved a level of technical expertise that I don’t have, that I am forced to pick up in order to understand the issue — and hopefully solve it! It’s this area, right outside my current capabilities, that puts me in the zone and makes time fly.

It’s a drive that has gotten me where I am today, and has served me very well. Unfortunatley, it’s not something I find in my current day job, and is one of the main reasons why I’m looking else where these days. Part of the problem is the fact that the company constantly hovers on the edge of sustainabily and closure, but I have trouble reconciling that situation with my responsibility for it. Perhaps it’s that I don’t have any stake in the company, other than my current minimum viable salary. It’s allowed me to pursue other projects, including school and political activities, but has not offered anything for me in the way of growth in several years. I am not in sync with my boss in the way of the direction of the company or even the type of customers that we take on. The challenges are rote, and therefore not interesting to me. And they haven ‘t changed in years. Neither has my salary.

I’ve started reading Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, and one of the first exercises that they ask readers to write a workfview reflection, defining how work relates to their life, money and others. This is my response to that, of course. Work has such a broad meaning to me. It’s not just your job, it’s also the things you do for your family and friends, chores around the house or the yard, spending time with family, and yes, helping your dad or whoever with their laptop from time to time. And one thing my dad taught me, that I’m trying to impress upon my girls, is that when there’s work to be done you just have to suck it up and do it.

Work is rewarding also, and can be fun. That’s not to say it can’t be repetitive or stressful,, the most panic-inducing heart attack moments I’ve had have been related to failures at work. But I’ve helped a lot of people, and it’s often fulfilling. That’s not to say that I haven’t had horrible, dirty jobs that I had to take because I was unemployed and living on couches, but most of them have been knowledge work, and pretty chill. These days it pays the bills, but it’s the work I do outside of work that is where I continue to learn and grow.

Hopefully my girls will be as lucky as I am, and be able to make a living doing what they love. Actually, it’s not luck, it’s by design. Obviously I am not where I want to be right now. Sure, my work life is probably better than ninety percent of the world’s population right now, and I have no room to complain about anything, but it’s it the human condition to want more, to want to be more? And to me, that’s what work is, the drive to improve, to become better. Constant improvement. Refine, iterate, repeat, repeat, repeat.

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