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.