Rethinking Work

My favorite 21 year old is graduating college this May and “launching” shortly thereafter. A college friend, a 56 year old retired SoCal fire fighter, was just accepted to a Physician’s Assistant program. This is for them. And everyone in between.

Our work tends to be the result of our personal interests; compensation considerations; and though we may not want to admit it, the relative prestige or social status associated with our chosen occupations.

More specifically, we choose among possible jobs not just because they pay the bills, but also because of the particular activities associated with them-we become teachers instead of accountants because we enjoy interacting with young people in classrooms more than we like crunching numbers in cubicles. A person attends seminary rather than law school because they want to make a tangible difference in their community without any pressure to maximize their billable hours. A person becomes a landscape architect rather than a golf club professional because they like plants and the outdoors more than they do beginning golfers.

Additionally, my fire fighter friend, if he’s typical of other fire fighters, probably partly chose his first career because of the unique work-life balance it afforded with a positive mix of twenty-four hour shifts and more than normal days off each month. I’m sure the excellent salary and benefits, service-orientation, and built in station-based community probably factored in too. A pretty great job altogether, apart from the extreme occasional danger.

Here is what even my daughter’s very good, vocation-oriented career placement center probably won’t tell her when she inquires about different possible jobs. Think about more than pay and primary activities. Talk to people doing the work about the less visible and less obvious activities, and the culture of their workplace, meaning the nature of their relationships with all of the people they regularly interact with. For me, as a university professor/administrator, my relationships are with faculty colleagues in my department and across campus, students, and numerous staff and administrators. Don’t fixate on the relative appeal of any job’s primary activities, instead, carefully reflect on the personal qualities each particular work culture is likely to cultivate.

For example, people think of teaching almost exclusively as what goes on between a teacher and her students during the middle of the day within the four walls of an individual classroom. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Ignored are the hours spent planning daily lessons; the hours spent alone reading and responding to student work; the hours spent teaming with colleagues to plan, problem solve, and respond to student work; the time spent continuing one’s teacher education; the time spent being a part of the school’s extracurricular activities. Conventional wisdom about teaching might account for about a third of a teacher’s weekly activities.

Every job comes with a distinct work culture, some work cultures cultivate more socially redeeming personal qualities than others. Working at Chicago’s Newberry Library is probably similar, but not the same as working at Northwestern University’s Main Library. So it’s a two-fold learning process, learning about library culture generally, and a particular library’s variation on “what’s typical” more specifically. How to do that? Talk to people at the library about the culture, what’s rewarding, what’s most exasperating, why. When, at the end of your interview, you’re asked if you have any questions, ask about the work culture, what do employees say when asked what’s the best part of working at x, what are some commonalities that prove most challenging.

Most people think about work in terms of how they’ll benefit/change the people they work with, giving little to no thought about how their work will change them. Every job you do for very long will change you, for better or worse, probably more than you’ll change anyone at work. Ask people doing the work you’re considering, “How has being a landscape architect, nanny, teacher, engineer, nurse, journalist, changed you as a person?” What personal qualities does the work cultivate? In what ways, if at all, are you a better human being as a result of doing this work?”

If they can’t answer that question positively, cross it off your list. Be bold. Don’t obsess about the obvious activities, the pay, the benefits, the perceived prestige; instead think about work as a context for self understanding and self improvement. Don’t think about work as an end in itself, meaning don’t fret about how your job or career compares to your peers; instead think about work as a means to becoming a better human being.

I’m fortunate that my work culture values good, open-ended questions, but my comfort with ambiguity can exasperate more concrete sequential, literal-minded people. And I’m fortunate to work with people, teachers-to-be, who are more altruistic and socially conscious than average. Their idealism and service orientation is a nice counterbalance to my cynicism and selfishness. I’m a better person because of their optimism and vitality. When it comes to the other two-thirds of my work, it’s mostly about conflict management, which provides daily opportunities to become a better human being. More specifically, I’m convinced my success resolving workplace conflicts depends almost entirely upon my ability to carefully, actively, and sensitively listen to others.

It’s cool that being a decent husband, father, friend, and citizen depends almost entirely upon the same thing. And for that reason, I’m fortunate to get to do the work I do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s