Sometimes work is sheer drudgery, the thing we can’t wait to flee at day’s, week’s or career’s end.
But sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s pure joy.
A young friend of mine is traveling throughout SouthEast Asia for three months leading tours and photographing it all. She — yes, really! — fell off an elephant, and into the Mekong River in Laos recently. I awoke in suburban New York to her panicked email from the other side of world asking for my husband’s email; (he’s her mentor and a photographer.)
This week I covered three, all held in New York City, where I live — (and my feet are sore!) — interviewing their organizers and some of their many vendors.
The first show, Premiere Vision, brings together 300+ textile, lace, button and zipper manufacturers to meet the people who need their goods to make the clothes we will buy in a year from places like Marc Jacobs or Diesel or Tommy Hilfiger.
However unlikely, I spent 45 minutes at another show discussing…pockets.
As in: the fabric used to line pockets, specifically of jeans and jackets. I loved this pair of shorts, showing how creatively one can use these fabrics.
At PV, there’s a whole section of people selling their designs, some of which I now realize adorn my workout clothing — for $500 or $700 you buy their design outright and can use it in whatever way suits your needs. Another few vendors sell scraps of vintage wallpaper and fabric that end up used for pillows by Crate & Barrel and other major retailers.
As someone obsessed with textiles and a student of design, this is the most paid fun imaginable — getting to see and touch gorgeous fabrics, meet smart, cool designers and see how it all comes together.
“My job is to keep the American people safe and to create a platform for hardworking people to succeed.”
I decided to play along and, maybe not surprising, was easily able to do it in five words without hesitation:
Finding and telling powerful stories
I keep trying to leave journalism behind — an industry writhing in “disruption”, with appalling pay rates and rapacious behavior — but I am, it appears, addicted to my vocation.
I was very fortunate and deeply grateful, in March this year, to be hired by WaterAid, a global aid group, to travel to rural Nicaragua to report on their work there and produce three stories for them. It felt wonderful to have the chance to tell their stories, not just the usual journalistic fodder, transferring my skills into another realm for a welcome change.
Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.
Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.
This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:
i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.
I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”
By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.
Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.
The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.
I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.
He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.
But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.
When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a writer!”
I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.
This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.
Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.
But it is a living.
It is a life.
If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.
To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.
It’s fine. It’s a choice.
But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.
And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.
I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.
If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.
Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.
But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.
I didn’t especially enjoy them.
Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.
But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again.Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.
We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.
The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.
It differs, as you’d expect, country by country; the top choice, in India, Singapore, Indonesia and Brazil was engineer, while Germans and Hong Kong residents chose scientist.
Canadians and Americans said being a teacher was theirs.
I’m surprised, certainly in the U.S., because public education has recently become such a battleground, over texts, tests, salaries, tenure. The pay is generally low and some parents’ expectations savagely and unrealistically high, if the parents are even involved at all.
The top choices also differed hugely between American men and women.
In order, men chose: professional or Olympic athlete, plane or helicopter pilot, scientist, lawyer or astronaut.
Women chose: teacher, veterinarian, writer/journalist, nurse/doctor/EMT, singer.
I’m not sure what to make of this, except to suggest that guys are hopeless fantasists and girls seem to have some really serious STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) aversion.
Let’s parse these a bit:
Guys, clearly, want: power (physical, mechanical, financial), fame/groupies, a view from high above the earth, literal or metaphorical. Each of their choices relies on individual strength and skill, even when used within a team environment. Each allows them to be a hero, to save lives and/or make history.
Girls, it seems, want: emotional connection, intellectual growth, to help and nurture others. Their choices suggest they want to relate to children or animals or other people in a helping manner — or just be famous, dammit!
The question that most intrigues me is…why? Do men and women want such utterly different lives, incomes and trajectories of influence because of their parents? What they read? See on television? Their friends and neighbors?
I wanted to be a writer since I was very small, partly because my mother was a journalist for magazines and it looked like a hell of a lot of paid fun. (It is, at its best.)
I also wanted to be, for a while, a radio DJ, an actress, a photographer and a foreign correspondent. I did a lot of acting in productions at summer camp and was good at it, but knew the odds of professional success were slim. I started out as a photographer by selling three magazine cover images when I was still in high school and did news photography for a while, but male editors and art directors refused to give me work, arguing that men with families (!) needed it more than I.
So I stuck with journalism/publishing which, in many ways, has been my dream job. It suits me emotionally, intellectually, politically and spiritually — I know, for a fact (thanks to some powerful emails over the years) — that my work has touched people. One woman said a medical story of mine had even saved her life. For me, no paycheck is large enough to compensate for work that fails to connect people to one another. I learn something new almost every single day. I know that providing accurate, timely and useful information is essential to democracy and any form of social justice, and I get to be a part of that.
The money is shitty, but occasionally better. I like working with a tremendous amount of physical and intellectual freedom and autonomy. I loathe routine. I like meeting people from every walk of life, as I have, from Prime Ministers and Queen Elizabeth and Olympic athletes to convicted felons and victims of violence.
I love being paid to have an idea and explore it in depth, sharing the result with millions of readers. It’s a huge thrill knowing that my two books are in libraries all over the world.
And I love being part of an international tribe, men and women of all ages who still get up in the morning dying to get to the next story, whether they’ll tell it through words or images or sounds, or perhaps all three. When a journalist is killed covering a story, we all feel a little ill, because it could have been us or our husband or someone we’ve worked with — or have. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career, which began when I was still an undergrad at University of Toronto, to find editors willing to entrust me with their pages, budgets and assignments. They’ve sent me to a tiny Arctic village, to a Club Med in Mexico (!), to dance at Lincoln Center in New York, to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, to Edmonton and Winnipeg and Copenhagen.
It’s not been a picnic! Some bosses have been toxic brutes, male and female bullies whose behavior rendered me physically sick with stress. One editor’s criticism of my writing actually left me in tears, (I was very young), but also forever changed my writing for the better.
Here’s a beautiful blog post by friend and fellow writer Cynthia Ramnarace — whose New York home was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy — about the extraordinary kindness her former newsroom colleagues recently showed her, eight years after she moved away. I doubt you’d ever get this in a cut-throat big-city newsroom, but there is a deeply shared set of values most journalists have in common, which I really appreciate still, after 30 years in the biz.
My alternate dream jobs? Choreographer, owner of a small housewares store, interior designer, jet pilot, conference organizer, consultant and public speaker. I think a few of them are still possible!
I recently met a photographer who spends more than 200 days (and nights) every year traveling the world. His latest trip had been to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana. We traded notes on our impressions, but also on the sheer joy of getting paid to roam the globe on someone else’s dime, using our skills wherever we end up, whether roaming the veldt or tundra.
“I’ve made a career out of being curious,” he said gratefully.
We had never met before, but because our careers are largely predicated on our ongoing willingness to jump into whatever subject our client wants, whether an Arctic village in December (for me, while at the Montreal Gazette) or a random writer (his work shooting me last week), we had an immediate understanding of, and appreciation for, what we do professionally.
Leakey and his workers devise and build their own lathes and saws, tough enough to carve into the hard acacia wood. They’re inventing their own dyes for the Leakey Collection’s Zulugrass jewelry, planning to use Marula trees to make body lotion, designing cement beehives to foil the honey badgers. They have also started a midwife training program and a women’s health initiative.
Philip guides you like an eager kid at his own personal science fair, pausing to scratch into the earth where Iron Age settlers once built a forge. He says that about one in seven of his experiments pans out, noting there is no such thing as a free education.
Some people center their lives around money or status or community or service to God, but this seems to be a learning-centered life, where little bits of practical knowledge are the daily currency, where the main vocation is to be preoccupied with some exciting little project or maybe a dozen.
Some people specialize, and certainly the modern economy encourages that. But there are still people, even if only out in the African wilderness, with a wandering curiosity, alighting on every interesting part of their environment.
The late Richard Holbrooke used to give the essential piece of advice for a question-driven life: Know something about something. Don’t just present your wonderful self to the world. Constantly amass knowledge and offer it around.
I chose journalism for many reasons — perhaps the main one being the chance to get paid to learn and share what I find out.
My intense and unquenchable curiosity about the world remains undiminished, allowing me to explore subjects that intrigue me, tell others about them, and get paid for so doing. I know of no other work that would allow me, as journalism has, to sit and query everyone from a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons, Prime Ministers and scientists, conducting interviews from Sicily to Salluit.
I still love that, so curiosity has also been the engine of my worklife.
What made you choose the work you do?
What aptitudes and qualities do you use in it…and are they what you wanted or hoped for?
I love the idea of testing out 52 jobs to find the one that might fit!
Maybe because I never doubted what I wanted to do, and knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer. (My dreams of being a radio disc jockey were dashed after one visit to CHUM-FM, then Toronto’s number one rock station, when I realized DJs at commercial stations don’t just play their favorite music all day.)
I grew up in a family of professional communicators — all freelance — who wrote television series, directed feature films and documentaries, wrote and edited magazine articles, so it seemed perfectly normal and logical to:
1) not have a “real” job but sit around the house and negotiate with agents and work when necessary;
2) have a ton of creative ideas all the time, knowing full well that some of them would never sell or find favor;
3) fight hard for the ideas I truly believe in and find supportive partners to pay for them, because someone will always say no — but someone will also, quite possibly say Yes!
I didn’t realize it at the time, but their behavior and experiences strongly shaped my notion of what “work” means. It includes a lot of travel, whenever possible, meeting lots of new people all the time, creating your own concepts — whether articles, films, shows or books, having the self-confidence and stamina to hang in there when times (as they certainly have) get tough. (It also means living within your means because a fantastic year can easily be followed by a leaner one and you need cash in the bank and a low overhead and no debt, all good lessons to learn.)
In 2007, I took a part-time job as a retail sales associate at a mall. Eye-opener! I was 20 to 30 years older than all my co-workers and had never had a job requiring me to stand up for five or six hours at a time, let alone deal with the public in a service role.
In it, I talk honestly about what it felt like to go from being a newspaper reporter at the U.S.’s 6th.-largest daily to wearing a plastic badge, folding T-shirts for $11/hour. I also talk to many others about what our jobs means to our identities and sense of self-worth.
What we do at work, at its best, is who we are, not just something we do to earn a living.
I recently took an amazing test designed to ferret out our work-related motivations, administered on-line. In 15 minutes, it tactfully and succinctly forces you to face your deepest values….
Why do you work? What do most want, and enjoy, from your work emotionally?
James Sale, a British executive who created this system, is offering it FREE to anyone who emails him before February 28 and says, in their subject line, “friend of Caitlin Kelly.”
And be prepared to learn a lot, some of it perhaps even a little painful. I did. I learned a great deal about myself and suspect you will too.
The test measures nine key indicators of what truly, even unconsciously, motivates us in our work, whether you are a Director (likes to be in charge), Defender (very attached to security), Creator (yup, me), Searcher (me, too), Spirit (that was me.) You might most powerfully wish to be a Friend, A Star or a Builder.
But if your current work is not allowing you to express your deepest self, it can feel like a straitjacket, no matter how much status, income or lifestyle it provides.
Do you love your current work?
If so, why?
How did you discover this was the right fit for you?
I knew from the age of 12 or so I wanted to be a writer, especially a foreign correspondent. I grew up in a family of journalists and film-makers and writers and actresses and it all looked like a lot of fun.
For some, it’s clear what our vocation — from the Latin word “to call” — will be, and nothing will deter us in our efforts. But job markets have a nasty habit of drying up and disappearing (mortgage lending), sometimes overnight.
In 1989, burned out and utterly fed up with journalism and desperate for some idea what other paths might even fit my skills and behavior patterns, I took three days’ worth of career and psychological testing. It cost a fortune and suggested I become a…journalist. Or lawyer or florist.
I’m still here, writing for a living. The tests did help me much better understand some of my other aptitudes and how I might use them in other fields. Turns out not everyone loves being decisive all the time or talking to strangers every day for a living. My retail job taught me a lot more about what I love and hate about certain kinds of work — love meeting tons of new people, loathe being emotionally abused by them. Loved selling a great product, hated the mindless tedium of cleaning shelves and folding T-shirts month after month.
Woodward and Bernstein — no, that’s not a law firm — were nuts!
According to a new list ranking 200 careers, being a newspaper reporter is almost the worst choice you can make, according to their judgment, which looked at the physical and emotional environment, income, physical demands, outlook, and stress of 200 jobs.
Economists (26), parole officers (29) dental hygienists (10) and bank tellers (68) easily beat out pounding the pavement with a notebook. Even nuclear plant decontamination technicians (165) have it better.
Fascinating to see that jobs like choreographer (hello, Twyla) and police officer were ranked almost as poorly. Ask 90 percent of cops and choreographers — and newspaper reporters — and passion informs a huge part, if not all, of their vocational decision. I’ve yet to meet a reporter who values a pretty office and cuddly co-workers and a calm, mellow environment. It sure ain’t for the job security. A very fortunate few will, and do, surpass this list’s top salary ranking of $77,000; The New York Times union-set minimum is higher than that.
Newspaper reporters — I’ve worked for three major dailies — groove on stress. I think it’s actually a form of fuel. They send us out in freezing cold, pouring rain, 100 degree heat, into wars and refugee camps, and we love it. When they asked us for volunteers, post-Katrina, at the Daily News, a number of hands went up. Every ambitious reporter knows the more unpleasant the environment, physical demands and stress the greater the chances it’s a fantastic story.
Emotional environment? Hah. Editors, some of them, are so insane they need to be medicated, (one of mine proudly displayed his on his desk), and most wouldn’t last 20 minutes in a tidy, polite, corporate environment. Neither would we.
After one guy shouted at me in front of the entire newsroom and I went to my boss, he calmly replied, “He threw a radio at me once.”
The “outlook” piece of the ranking — i.e. will those of us now wandering the world newsroom-less ever find another place another newspaper — is the killer, with 24,000 print writers canned last year. That part, without argument, is sadly true.
You’ve all heard of Studs Terkel, I hope. His 1972 book “Working” is a classic, simple-but-not, an examination — through the blessedly ego-less lens of oral history — how we choose, and feel about, the work we do. Anyone fascinated by how and why we make our vocational choices knows it’s a timeless must-read.
There are newer books on this theme, like Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do With My Life?” and the perennial bestseller “What Color is My Parachute?”, written by Dick Bolles, a former minister. His simple description of a typical job search is so perfectly compassionate and brutal: “Nonononononononononononononononononono. Yes.”
Bronson has added some helpful notes to his website for people trying to decide what to be(come) professionally. In this recession, this is no idle fantasy but a harsh, sudden reality for many people in many industries, from journalists (12,000 fired in the past two years, many of them mid-career) to autoworkers to bankers and marketers. If you have spent, as many of us do, decades planning, training and studying for a career in X, perfecting your skills through additional education, attending conferences, maybe even teaching others to do it and perhaps even gaining visibility and respect within your field, it’s a loss of terrific proportions — certainly if (oh, that) you love what you do with an unreasonable passion, let alone make a good buck at it. Your career, your industry dumps you. There may not be a way back in.