FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Skeptics and the Jobs that Love Them

In Essays on September 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

By Kate Gace Walton

“I don’t attach to a cause easily.” This line from my recent interview with Slate editor David Plotz has been ringing in my head since we spoke. In the interview, Plotz explained why he chose journalism over law: he said he’s always liked to ask questions. He also said he’s a “skipper,” that he gets bored easily and prefers to jump around from thing to thing. But the third quality he cited—this bit about not attaching easily to a cause—is the one that made me think: Skeptic. Plotz is a classic Skeptic, eager to run alongside the bandwagon—the better to observe, analyze, and challenge it—but jumping aboard, even for a short time, would make for an uncomfortable ride.
 
I, too, am fundamentally a Skeptic. The difference, though, is that I did jump aboard, not into law (which actually offers career paths that might have accommodated a Skeptic quite well) but into public relations, which I would argue is one of the last places a Skeptic should be. PR is best for True Believers, people who can attach with ease and unflagging enthusiasm to a client, company, or cause. Ideally, this attachment should not be blind—to a do a good job, you have to have a sophisticated appreciation of your detractors and their arguments—but it does have to be genuine. You really do have to believe. The need to make a living will be powerful enough to get you onboard and, depending on how many options you have, it may even keep you from quitting. And for most people on most days, professional pride will stop you from dropping the ball. But to go the extra mile, to do a really good job, I think you simply have to believe that what you’re working on matters. The substance of your work has to feel truly compelling. If it doesn’t, there will come a time when your job just stops making sense. There you’ll be, atop the bandwagon, handling Important Bandwagon Business, but on some level, you’ll feel apart from it all. On a good day, the inevitable absurdities (“Let’s raise awareness by declaring August ‘National Toenail Fungus Month!'”) will strike you as completely hilarious. On a dark day, the clichés (“life is not a dress rehearsal”…”you only live once”) will stalk you and make it impossible to concentrate.
 
When I was working in PR, I met a top marketing executive at UPS. This guy, who loved his job and was brilliant at it, is who I think of when I say True Believer. With great cheer but zero irony, he would come out with things like, “If you cut me, I bleed BROWN.” He loved telling the tale of sitting with his young son and watching a FedEx truck drive by. He’d said, “You see that truck, son? They take FOOD off our table.”
 
Let me be clear: I liked this guy. I like True Believers. They’re often very charismatic. They certainly have enormous energy and an enviable amount of focus. They get stuff done, and a lot of that stuff is essential. And most of what isn’t essential still makes our world more comfortable, convenient, interesting, and/or fun. So what I’m not saying—not in a million years!—is that Skeptics are in any way superior or that one kind of job is, in any absolute sense, more worthwhile than any other. I also recognize that my labels—True Believers! Skeptics!—are gross over-simplifications. I suspect that true True Believers like that UPS exec are relatively rare, and that most of us have a complicated mix of True Believer and Skeptic impulses. But I also think that most of us would acknowledge, if we really stop to think about it, that we each have a strong bias in one direction or the other.
 
Given all this, what I am saying is that I wish I’d had that conversation with David Plotz twenty years ago. Because I do think this quality—how easily one “attaches” to a cause—has some significant bearing on the issue of fitFor example, it seems reasonable to conclude that those who attach to a cause relatively easily make for more natural marketers, advocates, politicians, or prosecutors, and that those who don’t would find a better fit as, say, analysts, academics, designers, or scientists. Armed with this insight and given the ability to travel back in time, I think it’s safe to say I would have steered clear of PR.
 
That said, I also recognize that this kind of talk is all very “What Color Is Your Parachute?” type of stuff, as if we pick our jobs off a laminated menu handed to us by a waitress cracking gum. To be sure, some people do head into the world knowing, and finding, exactly what they want, but for the vast majority of us, that’s not at all what happens. We have ideas of course, fuzzy notions that we pursue. But we also land where we land, buffeted both by chance and a host of complicated factors—economic, social, and personal.
 
In my case, my decision to leave PR and my desire to be near family after years of living abroad, eventually brought me to…a technical documentation company in the Seattle area. I’ve been here for a year now, and the Skeptic in me still chuckles at the seeming randomness of it all (Technical documentation! Seattle! Who knew?). But that same inner Skeptic is also increasingly comfortable with the cause to which I have attached myself: the world of technical writing is almost comically hype-free, and helping to build a small business—one in which you can see and touch almost every cog and lever—is undeniably satisfying. Even a professional Skeptic like David Plotz can sound like a True Believer when he’s talking about Slate, the Internet magazine he’s helped to build over the last sixteen years. Perhaps as I continue to find my feet in this brave, new world of mine, I’ll start to sound the same. 
  1. Very interesting, Kate. I’m interested in your comment about how “the vast majority of us” don’t know what we want to do and stumble into our careers. I am one of those people, but I usually feel I’m in the minority, not the majority, as I hear people talk about how “this is all I ever wanted to do since I was 5 years old” and so on. Do you have evidence supporting your statement? I’d love to read more on this.

  2. Hi Matthew, thanks for your note. I’ll admit that my sense of this comes not from any data but more from extrapolating and from talking to people: the Department of Labor has 840 ways to classify workers and the list of dream jobs (e.g. writer, astronaut, actor, professor, athlete, firefighter etc.) that you often hear people talk about seems much, MUCH shorter than that. This leads me to think that the vast majority of us “land where we land” versus follow a childhood dream in a laser-like fashion. Those who do end up doing the only thing they’ve ever wanted to do since they were 5 years old? I know they exist (and I’m very jealous of them!)…but I don’t think they’re the majority.

  3. […] A brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: […]

  4. […] tied inextricably to her faith. Hold the lawyer jokes. Check the cynicism. Even as a life-long skeptic, I found McKenzie’s utterly earnest desire to become a “practitioner of hope” […]

  5. […] the lawyer jokes. Check the cynicism. Even as a life-long skeptic, I found McKenzie’s utterly earnest desire to become a “practitioner of hope” extremely […]

  6. […] Talking to Slate’s editor David Plotz gave me the chance to ask: is this just an outsider’s naive view—or is the job exactly as awesome as it sounds? The interview also inspired a new Work Stew essay: “Skeptics and the Jobs that Love Them.” […]

  7. […] However, simply by putting that essay out into the world, good things started to happen: the discipline of having to pin my swirling thoughts into sentences, and the small but robust community that developed as others chose to do the same, helped guide me towards a better fit. […]

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