Last week at our stall at Earthfair St George’s Market, a customer told one of our scoopers, “You should get a real job”. He was busy tasting a bunch of our flavours at the time, and this comment came in no particular context.
Our scooper sweetly asked him, “So what do you do for a living?” The customer refused to tell her (which speaks volumes to his own sense of job satisfaction!), and so she said, “Excuse me, I’m going to help other customers now,” and moved right along.
This incident has lingered at the back of my mind since last Thursday. What did he mean by ‘a real job’? Was he talking about finding a cure for cancer, or was he talking about making money? Or was he just resentful of someone visibly enjoying their work, surrounded by excited customers?
But was he really criticizing the job, that bitter customer, or the person he saw doing that job? Would he have said that to my scooper if she hadn’t been an articulate, smart twenty-something white woman? What defines this so-called ‘real’ job – the work at hand, or the qualifications and background of the person doing it?
And why does it feel like this customer was talking to me, when I wasn’t even there?
I am a university-educated, middle class professional who no longer works in the non profit sector, or writes articles freelance for newspapers like The Mail & Guardian, but has chosen to run an ice cream business. It was my choice, and one I was lucky to be able to make. But I do, from time to time, meet people who see my current line of work as a ‘waste’ of my education. Like our friend at the market, they also think I should get a ‘real’ job.
I am the first to tell my staff when they accidentally mess up, “This isn’t brain surgery. There’s no patient dead on the table. Try it again”. I’m not achieving world peace here, I’m making and selling ice cream, but I believe what I am doing is a worthwhile endeavour because it makes people happy, and it’s proof that an ethical business model can work.
On a literal level, sometimes I look at the work I do, the clear and direct consequences of my actions, and its realness terrifies me. I am risking large sums of money, a lot of it my own, on a dream that could certainly fail. Real. I have four full time employees who are the joy of my working life but also four salaries that feed four people and their dependents. Real. A farmer buys more cows so he can supply me with more cream – probably borrowing money to do so. Or gambles a part of his crop on a new herb or fruit I want to buy, but might very well fail and leave him without a cent for months’ of work. Real.
As a freelance journalist, I never experienced that kind of responsibility for others. As someone else’s employee, I’ve never felt the ownership and accountability I do now.
This is the realest thing I’ve ever done, and I am terrified by it and grateful for it, every day. And suddenly, surprisingly, I feel a tiny bit sorry for that man whose idea of worthiness is shaped by a 9-5 job he’s ashamed of.
*Update* I’ve purposely left the identity of the scooper concerned out of my post, because I believe that none of our scoopers should ever be told that their work is unworthy. But if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a customer of ours and have met some of our staff before, and you might be curious which scooper it was who so nobly held her temper in this instance. Well, it was actually none other than our manager Marianne, whose primary responsibilities are actually social media, staff supervision, customer relations, PR and public events. But every member of our full time team, including kitchen and administrative staff (and the boss!) work at our scoop stalls, because it’s an essential part of our business, and it is how we connect with our customers. But clearly it did not occur to our customer that senior management might also scoop ice cream at a market.