After work last night, I stopped at a bar to join some of my old colleagues from the art museum in celebrating the tenure of our former manager, who is retiring. (Sort of. She’s not one to rest on her laurels for long.) One of the lovely things about working at that museum was a cohort of smart, savvy coworkers, some of whom I haven’t seen much in the last two years, so much of my visit was spent catching up on what everyone was doing. Some were still working with visitor services; others had migrated to other departments, or begun graduate studies, or veered off in another direction entirely. We swapped stories and feelings about our various career situations.
When one former colleague said that she just didn’t know what she wanted to be, it struck a chord with me. Since college, when I locked down my post-graduate plans to Teach for America before senior year midterms, I’ve always presented myself as someone with a plan and an endgame–even during periods of floundering. But it’s not just that I wanted to be perceived as purposeful and together; I really believed that there was a True Job out there for me, like a True Love, waiting to be found and to transform my life into what it was always meant to be. Academia really enforces that belief in a number of ways, and when I finally admitted that the ivory tower was not the right home for me, I redirected my pursuit to a career in publishing. This has worked out pretty well for me–it was not an uneducated guess, I took some steps to consider my options–but even as I’ve grown comfortable and competent at my job, I’ve come to realize that the dream job is a fairytale. Some people find it; many others don’t, but that doesn’t make their work or lives any less valuable or meaningful. Publishing suits me, but so would working at the museum, had I stayed. So would a number of jobs in education, editing, or the arts.
I’m not at all sure I conveyed my unromantic perspective to my colleague with the intended balance of wisdom and YMMV, but just today The Hairpin linked to this smart piece at Jacobin about the myth of “doing what you love.” Miya Tokumitsu looks at the idea of DWYL from the perspective of its implied flip side: if having your dream job is integral to your life meaning and self-realization, what about everyone who does the unloved but necessary jobs, the sanitation and unglamorous care and production jobs? The DWYL ideology, she writes, is the perfect tool for exploitation: it renders invisible the needs and labor of undercompensated workers, and it particularly enforces unreasonable expectations for labor among those of us who really are supposedly doing what we love, particular women who hold jobs in education, childcare, or “public face” type fields. It’s difficult to quote this piece because the whole thing is so relevant: it’s a good piece to send to your fellows in customer service, marketing, or grad school.
Speaking of grad school, Jacqui Shine at Chronicle Vitae also criticizes the idea, particularly fostered by graduate schools, that academics should labor for love. The points about exploitative labor raised by Tokumitsu, above, are particularly relevant to the ongoing adjunct crisis in higher ed; Shine’s focus is more on how the academic climate affects mental health. “We are steeped in the belief that one has to truly love the work in order to succeed,” she writes. “It’s a conversation I have with my adviser a lot: whether or not I love the work enough to see it through, to be sustained by it. But depression makes that a question I can’t answer.”
On the more cheerful side of things: I’ve been wanting an excuse to link to this charming piece on The Awl, in which Elizabeth Stevens looks behind the scenes of Fraggle Rock to discover why so many Fraggle alums describe that work as “the best job they ever had.” She breaks down the Jim Henson company practices into some basic principles of fostering imagination, productivity, and collegiality: vision, creativity, collaboration, funding (!), and challenging work. It’s a lovely inside view for anyone who loved Jim Henson growing up, but it also offers some perspective on what material, strategic steps could turn an exhausting job into an exhilarating one.
Of course, not everyone wants or can thrive in a creativity-driven, elastic, and cooperative environment like the Fraggle Rock staff–and not all necessary work can be done in such an environment. But it’s evident from the success of the show and the warm recollections of its members that their collaboration was a productive and meaningful one; in other words, they were supported, not exploited, in Doing What They Love. It certainly led me to wonder–what would the supposedly creative and collaborative environments of my career history have looked like with adequate funding, collegiality, and incentives to work outside the box?
Finally: it’s never not the right time to link to Captain Awkward, so here is her well-considered list of Job Search Red Flags and Due Diligence for all of you job-hunters and career seekers out there. If you make it to the copious (and wonderful) comments, you’ll read a couple of my own job interview red flag stories.