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Get out of the box: Lessons from Clockwatchers

I would have missed the movie, Clockwatchers, if I hadn't happened to catch Daphne Merkin's rave review in The New Yorker. Now it's available on video and you can get copies from your public library or video store.

I am recommending this video to everyone who feels trapped in a career or a life. Four temporary office workers meet in a featureless building.

We meet the heroine, Iris, as she spends much of her first day sitting in a chair where she was told to "wait till someone comes for you." When the supervisor shows up, she berates Iris for sitting so passively; ironically, unquestioning adherence to rules and orders will be the keys to survival on the job.

The building, with square corners and cubicles, becomes a metaphor for the box that contains everyone's dreams. The temps feel ghettoized and eventually are physically segregated into a separate office.

Their isolation is real: temps rarely cross the border to permanent jobs in the company. To escape they will have to think outside the box,, yet as the film begins, each temp focuses on her immediate four walls.


Everyone has a box...
Iris seems overqualified yet she lacks confidence. She tells her father she feels comfortable and accepted in this job and doesn't want to move on.

Margaret deals with frustration by rebelling and acting out. She defeats her own possibilities by stealing time from the company and cosmetics from the department stores.

Jane is engaged to a man who, we are led to believe, will offer her money and security but not love.

Paula too believes she needs a man to escape; she jams the copy machine so she can flirt with the repairman.

Everybody's waiting, like a hot summer day before a storm. Everyone tries to look busy and amuse themselves till they can begin at nine; at the end of the day, they crouch in their chairs, waiting to leave precisely at five.

Crack in the Wall
Change comes about not by drama but by small events that have significance only in the context of an office world. People report thefts of coffee money and clothing.

What is significant is Iris's response when she realizes her umbrella and her notebook were stolen. Iris refuses to play victim. She confronts the thief over lunch and silently but dramatically makes her point. The thief gives Iris a new notebook inscribed with an apology.

As Iris gains power, she wears her hair differently and, at last, wears the power suit her father gave her for job interviews.

The film ends ambiguously, but we sense that Iris was transformed. She has used the box as a temporary comfort zone to build her confidence and test new behaviors. She has observed and learned; while her coworkers twirled idly in their chairs or played games with rubber bands, she kept a journal. And now, we sense, she is ready to leave the box behind.

I won't give you details of the final scene. Iris uses her new-found power to defy the corporation and help a friend. She turns the firm's own refusal to acknowledge her into a source of strength. It's believable and strong and well worth a viewing.

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D. is an author, career coach, and speaker. She works with mid-career professionals who want to make a fast move to career freedom. Visit her site http://www.movinglady.com or call 505-534-4294.


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