Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Good" Jobs Are All Dull.

I was at a prolonged all day sales meeting yesterday in which technical architecture was discussed in ridiculous detail and a young college student was in attendance, shadowing her big-bro to learn more about sales. She looked positively crushed as she sat, trying not to cry, listening to the madness. I felt bad for her and gave her an ethernet cable so she could properly lament her tragedy on facebook.

In recent weeks, I've spoken with many folks - and heard of more - who happen to be in the creative-ish worlds of literature, writing, graphics, library science and marketing. And this is what I have been trying hard not to say to them - but I do believe: All the good jobs are boring.

What's a good job? Surely it isn't a boring job. Well, no.. in these recessiony times, if you define a good job as a stable job with a reasonably high income, potential for long term growth, stable employment and good benefits - then all the good jobs are boring. If you define boring as things-you-never-could-imagine-really-doing when you learned to be all creative.
You were trained to think and dream and create and draw and form and inspire... and, these jobs, while they have aspects of these things, are not really these things.

So, what are the non-boring jobs? Professor at Harvard. Graphic artist or animator at Pixar. I actually have a friend who works for Wizards of the Coast (shout out, RS!) Writer at the New Yorker. Playwright. Movie Producer. The list goes on.

What are the boring jobs? Well, almost every major company has a need for almost all of these skill sets. In my company we have a TV studio, an interactive media department, more writers and copy editors than I can name, a print graphics group, a powerpoint graphics guru - and that's only the jobs where people are mildly aligned to their training. We have librarians doing competitive analysis and philosophers designing products.

But, here's the kicker. I don't work for Cover Girl or Dove Soap or even Ford. I work for an enterprise software company. So the graphics? all about enterprise software. The flash animation? yep - enterprise software. Writing? Sure! Enterprise software's the topic. Fun? Probably not - unless you're like me, and love enterprise software.

I know that most major companies have all these functions - and most major companies are boring. Light bulbs, engine parts, financial instruments, paper pulp, appliances, accounting software - all that boring stuff that makes toilet paper seem compelling - all those companies have graphic artists. And cool 2 minute flash animations of the glory of their particular #47 weight cardstock. And email messages to their customers touting their latest webinar on the magic of flood lighting.

Bored yet? These are real jobs. They are good jobs. They are just not work for Pixar. Or Google. Or Apple. Or P&G. Or anywhere your mom can name... but, welcome to the real world, people - that's what most of us do. If we're lucky.


Kim said...

I remember feeling sorry for our intern last summer. And our college hires. I'm glad I started out in a fun job and only moved to corporate American when I was more of a grown-up. It would be awfully depressing as a 22-year-old.

Rob said...

Speaking from the "non-boring" sector, I'd just like to add two things to this nice summary of the distinction between gainful employment and doing a job 'for the love' of X.

1. The "creative" jobs can look more interesting and, well, creative from the outside than they really are. Having worn all the same hats as a professor during my later graduate career, I can safely say that most of my time is spent prepping PowerPoints & class activities, grading (worse than data entry IMO, another job I've had), and researching & writing on an incredibly narrow slice of human intellectual output. The broad learning & exploration you do as a student is very different from doing the high-level research needed to advance an academic field. There's also administrative service and other un-fun things to do, which only intensify in number as you transition to the tenure track. Essentially, any time I might devote to broad intellectual development is ironically recaptured by my narrow field research and service/teaching responsibilities, the latter of which don't actually advance my career or receive any substantial recognition at all despite taking up most of my time. It can still be engaging and occasionally rewarding work, but the professor role is definitely one that is overhyped, likely since many people were once college students and students directly witness only about 10% of what a professor actually does.

There are also broader perspectives on the "do what you love" situation here and here.

As for "boring"--to be honest, I found working full time as a helpdesk tech rather thrilling at times. (There wasn't ever any downtime, at least.) Certainly more exciting than staring at a stack of composition papers or a dissertation chapter for the millionth time. Sometimes, it's about the daily activities and not the larger purpose or content.

2. You're right to point to employment & income instability, but at the risk of being obvious there's just one layer I'd like to add to that: the very fact that you "do what you love" is actively used against you by employers in certain industries, and they incorporate this into both their messaging and hiring strategies.

I've witnessed this on a large scale in academia as well as through friends who work in the nonprofit sector & gaming industry. Basically, these jobs have a ton of passionate people lined up outside to break in, but (in the case of nonprofits & academia) the finances of the institution are more poorly managed and/or evanescent than in the private sector. This enables institutions to drive wages and job security way down, to the point where (for example) about half of college professors in the US are making about $20-30K/year-round without benefits as adjuncts, teaching high course loads with temporary contracts that may be terminated or cut back arbitrarily from semester to semester, while administration remains very well compensated by comparison. Administration and sometimes even faculty actively promote the "life of the mind"/higher purpose message to justify the compensation, and more than enough adjuncts buy it.

Nonprofits often run the same game, and they tend to burn through recent college grads really fast. Game companies often cut large amounts of people off after a single project, because there are always tons of qualified designers, programmers & artists who love games and want to go all out making a good game, even if they're just doing QA.

Ach, sorry I busted your comments section. But there's your counterpoint. I think Kim is right that any of these features may also be more or less attractive at different points in your life.