FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

One Year Later: Four Emerging Themes

In Notes on January 2, 2012 at 7:05 am

A few months ago, CNN contributor LZ Granderson wrote a popular piece called “The Question on Everyone’s Mind.” That question was ‘What do you do for a living?’ and Granderson argued that asking it is both rude and lazy: it’s a thinly veiled attempt to gauge income, he said, and it fails to get at what’s really important. In fact, Granderson suggested that, the next time you find yourself striking up a conversation with a stranger, you shelve the topic of work all together and instead ask: “When was the last time a moment took your breath away?”

I don’t know about you, but if someone I’d just met asked me that, I’d start scanning for exits.

There’s nothing wrong with asking people what they do; the problem lies in judging their worth based on the answer or in leaping to conclusions without taking the time to learn more.

I’ve spent the past year asking all sorts of people what they do for a living and how they feel about it. Work Stew is an ongoing project, with many more essays and interviews to come, but there’s now enough meat in the mix to detect a few emerging themes. Here’s what I’m seeing so far:

1. What we do for a living matters. Most of us spend the vast majority of our waking hours working, or looking for work. What we do, and how we feel about it, affects us deeply.

Work also affects our relationships. Jobs compete with family and friends for our time and attention. More subtly but just as importantly: the beliefs we secretly harbor, both about our own careers and those of others, can have a profound effect on how we interact.

The work we do also matters because it plays a part, however slight, in shaping the world in which we all live. As one big, global workforce, we are forever changing—for better and for worse—the face of our planet and billions of lives. We shouldn’t just let that unfold. We should think about it, often and hard, and we should constantly consider what we could do differently.

2. Work is a continual conundrum. When it comes to carving out a career path, there seem to be a lucky few who are fueled by a powerful sense of mission and guided by a finely tuned master plan. The rest of us are finding our way by trial and error. Sometimes we act with a strong sense of purpose; sometimes we are buffeted by circumstance. When we don’t have jobs, we need to find them. When we do, we wonder if we’re doing the right thing. We don’t have career ‘paths’ so much as we have a series of career conundrums. The stress levels change over time of course—rising and falling as our situations change—but there is pretty much always something to ponder, something new to sort through.

3. Change is possible. A lot of people feel utterly stuck—unable to get work, unable to leave a particular job, unable to swap a stale career for a new one. Naturally, this is especially true in a weak economy. But change is not impossible, and many of the stories that found their way to Work Stew this year illustrated this: the investment banker who became a high school teacher; the marketing executive who became a cook; the anesthesiologist who became a musician. Perhaps my favorite story—because it demonstrates just how imaginative we might all be when contemplating a change—is that of John Safkow, the flight attendant who eventually left the airlines to become a caretaker to Koko, the world-famous signing gorilla. Talk about connecting the dots in a creative way.

4. Unpaid work is an important part of the mix. Often this point is made in connection with household work like childcare, cooking, and cleaning. And rightly so: such work creates a huge amount of economic and social value and can be a deep source of satisfaction for the doer. But what is emerging at Work Stew is the importance, similarly, of volunteer activities and creative pursuits. Work meets multiple needs: the need to make a living, the need to feel meaningfully engaged, the need to be challenged, the need for self-expression. Maybe it’s a function of the economy, but there seems to be an increasing realization that no job can single-handedly meet every need, and that patching together a tapestry of roles—some that pay and some that don’t—is perhaps the most realistic way to solve the work conundrum. At least for a moment.


  1. This is a great post, Kate! I just shared it on the Plan B Nation FB page but for some reason couldn’t tag Work Stew or you. Not sure why–maybe just a temporary FB glitch.

  2. Kate Gace Walton does us all a solid by founding a unique website dedicated to our work stories – giving vent to the good and bad aspects of the pursuit of ‘right livelihood’. Here at Work Stew’s one-year anniversary mark, she ought to be proud of the diverse collection of writers and their work she has assembled: from ex-CIA agents to domestic engineers to parking enforcement thugs; the creative mass that she’s assembled sets a high mark for the second year to follow. We anticipate more surprises before the end of the world on 12/21/2012 (Mayan calendar). Perhaps you can cage that guy who puts salt and MSG into my Doritos? I have a question about how I can score a few more bags, right away. I mean right now – I’m unnaturally addicted to those things. Let me know, O.K? And keep up the great work in WS/2. This seems to be your ‘Right Livelihood’ for sure…

  3. Well done Kate! I couldn’t agree more that work matters. I too find it fascinating to learn how others balance creativity, economic necessity, social contributions, personal growth…each of us cooks up something–hopefully, something nourishing!

  4. Well said!! I love it!

  5. Thanks, Amy, Michael, Patty and MK–I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment! Happy new year to you all!

  6. All of the 4 points resonated for me and were foremost in my mind when I made some changes last year. I hope more people have the courage of their convictions to embrace change in their careers and beyond in 2012.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Teresa–much appreciated!

  8. Love the post, Kate. And can totally relate to the series of career conundrums! Happy new year …

  9. Thanks, Indi. Nice to see you here and thanks for reading!

  10. I spent a Christmas in Dublin and met many people. No one asked, “What do you do?”Being a ‘hollywood’ person, it was refreshing. At a Dublin hotel, I met a couple who, blindfolded, knew where every drink was stored in the mini fridge. It wasn’t until we nearly emptied the fridge that we spoke about our work. He designed pool tables. (and drank a lot)

    Still, the question is always valid, unless it’s sizing a person’s status. Terkel’s oral histories provide wisdom and heart. On the other hand, when a person’s identity is rooted in their job–eventually they ponder the deathbed quandary: ‘Gee, If only I worked more and spent less time with my family, or good ole fashioned exuberant living.’

    Like a Maysles documentary, the reason their subjects respond so openly comes from the film makers. They love their subjects. Kate, your writing shows you care. Thanks for all the food you’ve put into the Stew.

  11. Thanks, Scott–I appreciate your taking the time to comment, and I especially appreciate your kind words!

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