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.

Higher Cost Education

Maybe we should begin inserting “cost” in between “higher” and “education” as a continual reminder of the increasing challenge paying for college poses.

On Lutheran university campuses there’s frequent talk of vocation which Frederick Buechner described this way, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” During a “vocation” conversation last week, I listened to a colleague talk earnestly about the role discernment plays in determining one’s vocation. To “discern” something is to develop spiritual direction and understanding.

The discernment reference was shortly after another colleague shared an anecdote about a recent grad who’d returned to say he was still trying to find a job that would enable him to pay his bills. And mostly likely, tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.

Prior to that a colleague said we talk too narrowly about diversity, limiting it mostly to race, meaning important differences between economic classes are slighted. Connecting the various dots, it dawned on me that our repeated talk of vocation and discernment is a byproduct of our privilege. Discernment implies multiple possibilities in life, when an increasing percentage of college grads, like my colleague’s former student, would be content with one job that pays a livable wage.

In the 20th century, a college degree created far more opportunities than it does in the 21st. I’m afraid some of my higher ed friends and I have lost touch with people’s day-to-day realities. Naively, we talk of great joy, great need, spiritual direction, and understanding; when what many of them want is enough money to make it to graduation and the confidence they’ll find decent enough work to meet their basic needs.

 

 

 

The Art of Living

The hippy title of my first year writing seminar at Pacific Lutheran University.

I just read my 32 students’ initial essays in which they summarize what they think they know about the theme and then describe their writing process, strengths, and weaknesses.

Most of them hope the class and I will help them figure out what to study and do upon graduating. That’s not terribly realistic, but I suspect they will spend more time thinking and writing about how they want to live their lives during our seminar than throughout kindergarten through twelfth grade combined.

First Born, starting her last year in college, is also thinking with more urgency about what to do for work after graduating. She’s a religion major without any interest in seminary or much in teaching. Everyone tells me she’ll land on her feet and I think they’re right.

The GalPal and I took her out for pizza recently in her Minnesota college town where she spent the summer working full-time in the college’s library. I was happy she got the library gig because given her passion for books, I’ve thought she might end up a librarian. Over pizza she explained that she liked her job, but doesn’t want to be a librarian, because “It’s not creative enough.”

I was impressed with her self understanding. She doesn’t know what jobs to apply for yet, but she has a pretty good feel for what type of work she’d most enjoy—creative work that is sometimes team-based, sometimes solo.

Recently it was reported that 70% of US workers “are not particularly excited” about their jobs or “are actively disengaged” and “roam the halls spreading discontent”. If we use world history as our frame of reference, I’m guessing that number would be well north of 90%. Most of the world’s people most of the time do monotonous work to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves.

So when my students write that they want to enjoy their work and First Born says she wants creative work, they’re planting a distinct, 21st century, privileged stake in the ground. Normally, the concept of “privilege” has negative connections since it’s associated with preferential treatment and a sense of entitlement; however, in the case of my students and First Born, their preference for meaningful work is undeniably positive.

They want to earn enough money “not to have to worry about it all the time,” but beyond that, they want to be like me and 30% of US citizens for whom work is creative, engaging, and meaningful. Every young person should embrace that form of privilege.