How to Pick a Career

My kids are in high school. One knows exactly what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. The other has no idea what he wants to do even next year. I’m pretty sure all that will change for both in the next few years. My son who knows what he wants will enter a bigger world in college and will likely graduate with a degree in an entirely different program. My other son will likely find The Thing and pursue a passion he never thought possible.

At least, I hope this is what happens. Life should be an adventure, right?

My favorite job of all time. Here at kindergarten recess, we’re sliding in the January snow.

The public school my kids attend does a good job of preparing them for college, as far as selecting prep courses, getting AP credit, and college entrance exams. The entire school also takes a career assessment once a year with a follow-up that provides information on the requirements of entering a career and the living one can make from it.

My high school did a similar thing way back when. I never found it helpful then, and later, after experiencing several careers and many jobs, I found it lacking in some vital ways. Here’s the thing: you work to make money, but if money is your only selection method, you’re going to be very unhappy.

No, this is not a post about following your bliss. Quite the opposite, in fact. The work you love may not be wrapped in a package you love.

The thing I try to get my kids to consider — and really they can’t because they have such little life experience so far — is that a job is:

  • income
  • work
  • culture

I haven’t seen the schools or any jobs program really talk about culture. So, what’s culture?

The Best Jobs I Ever Hated

Screen Print Artist

A job I really enjoyed was as a screen print artist. I got to employ my imagination and gain skills in Adobe Photoshop. And get paid for it. The skills I gained at this time were invaluable for my future. I knew that even then, as I learned the power of Photoshop and got experience in graphic design within a business setting. Why would I ever leave?

Here’s the thing. Screen print artists designing images and screens for businesses didn’t need college or trade school, just a particular skill. I sat at a computer in a room with four men. They were young men who had never been to college. Water-cooler talk was about sports and the girls they took home that weekend. They played rap music, think Snoop Dog, on the speakers all day. On the other hand, I was a college-educated gay woman with a feminist outlook. I found things to like about these guys, but really, day-in, day-out was torture.

Still, I didn’t leave right away. This was my first “real” full-time job after college and, having been an adolescent looking for work during the Reagan recession, I was (and still am a little) insecure about getting any kind of work. I finally left when the owner of this small business decided the artists had to work 50 hours/week for the same pay.

Database Programmer

Later, I moved into database and web programming. I learned quickly and did well. I loved how I could put lines of text in a machine, click a button, and my creation would DO stuff. It was very satisfying. And I was working at a university, which provided a great culture for me.

First, I was seeing and meeting more people, not just the same few every day. Second, this new job had more professionalism, but still allowed individuality; for example, the computer workers could listen to music, but on headphones. Human resources was also better at this large government institution — business decisions weren’t made by the owner for his benefit but with rules that everyone had to follow. Third, and most importantly, our water-cooler conversations included events in the world, academics, and ideas, and I could be open about being “married” to a woman (this was before equal marriage was passed).

So why did I leave? Culture isn’t just the non-work talk. Culture is also the way the business does its business. I couldn’t navigate the politics. I had found people who shared my personal values. I got to see many people throughout the day, too, which I loved. What I didn’t love was the passive-aggressive decision-making.

Management was focused on preserving their turf and saving face, gaining advantages, and tiptoeing around those in power. They wouldn’t be direct and make tough decisions. I had to make a lot of my own, which won both accolades and hand slaps. I wanted to design the best tech. I didn’t care about managing people’s insecurities and bureaucracy. I ended up getting in arguments with powerful people, and having bosses try to manage me. I finally told them to fuck off and quit. It took me about 3 more jobs to understand this pattern.

The Best Job I Ever Left

I won’t go through every job I have had. If you visit my Life is Big page, you’ll see there are many. After a few decades of work, I discovered I liked variety. Doing one job 8-10 hours a day — especially one sitting at a desk and seeing the same few people — made me so bored.

Recess Supervisor

For five years, I was a recess supervisor. This was a part-time job at local elementary schools. I worked 15-20 hours/week (and made up the other hours with other jobs). I helped in the lunch room opening milks, chatting with the kids, helping with many different issues. After their lunch, I went with them to the playground where I helped them to play fair, be safe, and have fun. I was outside in the middle of the day every day. And getting paid for it. OMG I loved working with the kids. The best thing about little kids? A fight, discipline, whatever…five minutes later, we’re all feeling good again.

I talked with the elementary teachers occasionally, but most of my time was with kids 5-12 years old. I especially liked being with the five-year olds. I thought I would miss the conversations like I had with my former co-workers, but I didn’t. Instead, I enjoyed the physical activity and being outside. I enjoyed the simplicity of kid-talk, the fun, the joy. I was learning to live more in the moment (a lifetime goal) and these kids helped that. I would come home refreshed and often with a funny anecdote.

So why would I leave? Income. As my kids are getting near college, our family needed more income. Unfortunately, no one needs a full-time recess supervisor. Can you believe that? It’s the PERFECT job for me, but I’ll never make a living at it.

Ask the Important Questions

I’ve been reading and seeing that the new generation coming out into the work force is very different. The economy is different, too. I can’t say my experiences will be my kids’ (Gen Z) experiences. The Millennials I know have had a hard time finding salaried positions and enough money to pay off college loans.

But the thing that will likely not change is the impact of these three aspects of work: income, activity, and culture. Job programs would provide a better service by discussing the cultural aspect of different careers and industries.

  • Does the job require post-secondary education and how much — what does that mean not just for the prep you need but for the education of the people you’ll work with?
  • Does the job provide a large or small environment — how many people will you interact with? Will you need to navigate a complex HR bureaucracy or risk the whims of a small business owner? Can you work from home…and are you sure you want to (blog post for another day)? What about working for yourself (also a post for another day)?
  • Does the job have a gender or racial gap? Do you prefer a diverse group? I was the “Betty” several times, and there were good and bad times being a marginalized worker.

To a great extent, workers just need to experience a variety to know what they like, but discussing all the aspects of work can let new workers prepare and manage the experience better.