Sunday, August 14, 2011

Yes, that's hard work, too; or, the Sunday Style section is a barrel of neverending fish.

The Sunday Style section of the New York Times is the eye-rolling gift that keeps on giving. Today, it's a story about downsized or disaffected white-collar professionals who dropped out to start their own service or labor or artisan businesses, only to discover that this, too, was hard, demanding work. Or, as the article's author puts it, "Many are surprised to find the hours and work grueling."


I think that many of us, ten years or so into one career, have fantasized at least once (and sometimes once a week) about greener pastures where we could pursue a passion without having to bring our work home with us. Just last year, I was thinking about walking away from academia entirely, moving somewhere closer to friends and family, and trying to support myself through writing popular nonfiction.* But there also seems to be an unrealistic component to the fantasies in the article: that somewhere out there, there is a job that provides a decent amount of cash, unlimited personal fulfillment, and lots of free time. Believe me, I've had those same fantasies about the job I currently have, from time to time, and the disjunction between fantasy and reality is what brought me to the breaking point last year. In fact, some of the quotes in the article, with only a few minor tweaks, could easily be written by someone with academic fantasies:

  • "This was supposed to be her Plan B: her chance to indulge a passion, lead a healthier life and downshift professionally — at least by a gear. Instead, Ms. Economou finds herself in overdrive."
  • "He daydreamed of an unfettered life at his kiln, creating Bollywood-inspired teapots and butter dishes. [...] Now, instead of spending his free time absorbed in visions of clay, he spends as much as 70 percent of his day on administration."
  • "She had envisioned a life of 'workouts, getting lots of sleep and blogging every day about health and fitness.' Instead, her classes start as early as 6 a.m. and she feels wiped out by day’s end, which can be 14 hours later."
  • "A few years ago, she moved to Paris to apprentice with a master chocolatier. Visions of decadent bonbons swirled in her head. Instead, she felt like a modern-day Lucy in the candy factory, hunched over in a chocolate lab packing chocolates and scrubbing pots. If she wasn’t doing that, she was sweeping floors, wrapping gifts, answering telephones or shipping orders."
Of course, the article also points out the important positive side: that sense of personal fulfillment is there. And that's true of most academic jobs, too. When I was going through my crisis last year, fellow bloggers and friends Historiann and Squadratomagico advised me (gently) to let go of the fantasy and remember that it's a job. I do love what I do. I just don't love it all the time. I'm coming to it a bit later than I probably should have, but I'm really working now on appreciating the good or even great things about my job, accepting the not-so-great, keeping an eye on the truly intolerable,** and making space to grow the rest of my life.*** And I'm slooowly coming to realize that expecting to love every aspect of even the thing you like to do best is more than a little unrealistic. There's a reason, after all, for the phrase "dream job."

And I think that last bit is what left the sourest taste in my mouth (next to the condescending idea that people who work in non-professional jobs really don't have to work as hard****). Because the title of the NYT piece? Yep: "Maybe it's time for plan C."


*At least I hoped that it would be popular.

**If a job -- if anything in your life -- is making you truly miserable over the long term, then I say it's time to let it go.

***This process of acceptance and boundary-setting is a work in progress, of course.

****This is a common fallacy, and I think it can be boiled down to the laughable belief that pay and effort are always commensurate. Scratch the surface of that idea, and you quickly find the assumption -- and I guess now we're getting at what was really the sand in my sandwich when I read the article -- that people with little to no money are that way because they don't work as hard as their socioeconomic betters.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Oh, yeah---I was mentally screaming "Duu-uuuhhhhhh" all through that piece. I read it because I was interested in what people had as Plans B (mostly things I would never consider). I do think it may well be the reporter, not those interviewed, who is most responsible for the cluelessness. I mean, really, who doesn't know that bakers get up at oh-god-hundred to get the food ready?

sophylou said...

Perhaps this as a corrective: Philip Levine at NPR, talking (in part) about work.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, was the advice that Historiann and Squadrato gave you on- or off-blog? If it was on, could you link to it? Because I could *really* use such advice right about now!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Dr. Virago, the advice was in response to a desperate e-mail I sent them both. E-mail me, and let me know what's going on, 'kay?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This reminds me of something I saw in someone's e-mail sig years ago (and which I quote at every opportunity, because I think it's brilliant, so apologies if I've said this already):

"Love your job. Make lots of money. Stay within the law: Choose any two of the three."

It's not *quite* apropos here since it sounds like the people in the article weren't necessarily motivated by money (though I kinda don't want to go read the article because I don't want to be annoyed). But still. For some reason, I blame the baby boomers for the idea that work should be fulfilling, make reasonable money, and provide lots of free time. ;-)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

NK: you're right that they weren't motivated by money. What I think they were motivated by was something much more insidious (and I added a new footnote to reflect this): that they'd be trading income for fulfillment and free time. But the assumption behind this is that less income necessarily correlates with less work. Most of us were graduate TAs at one time or another, so you think we'd know better by now. But this is a pretty deeply ingrained belief in a capitalist culture.

On the other hand, if you can accept that you won't be making the money you used to OR have unlimited time for creative ventures and time off, you can get about the business of enjoying your work for what it is. At least, that's my current theory.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The idea that academia is a "calling" and not a profession is very damaging, both to individual academics and to academia as a whole. The better way to think of it is as a profession on which the main source of personal fulfillment is that your own intellectual autonomy can lead directly to professional success.

Janice said...

Speaking as someone who's getting into writing popular non-fiction (and editing the same): there's certainly not a huge amount of money unless you hit the big time. And I haven't. Let's just say that I've worked for more than a year on a project before I saw a penny. In the end, I won't make half a month's salary from one of these projects, though I'm putting in the better part of two summers on the same.

I love my job and I love the pop history projects. I'm lucky to be able to combine the two!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

That's excellent, Janice! But I'll bet that you have a good insight into how being your own boss to do what you love is hardly a life of ease and financial independence, no?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this link and showing me there's still a good dose of realism on the other side of the fence as well. I know people (*cough my inlaws*) who really do think this way. That running your own business will mean a lot more time and eventually more money as well. Okay you've inspired a rant- I mean blogpost on this.

Ken said...

Going with the "grass is always greener" viewpoint. As I now speak of retirement as a goal, not a far away place, in a forgot land, I find that as I look back at my "career" choices, or lack of them, I have more regrets then anything else. One of the things I wished I had pursued was becoming a history teacher, at some level, but hopefully at the highest, (professor). But, I went for the money now, which of course, is/was never enough.

Fancy Pants said...

I had a head-desk moment with that piece, no small part because it called to mind someone who told me that they would LOVE to be a college professor because they would have summers off. Um, no. Not really. (And they pronounced it luuuuuuuv.)

I am finally realizing that I absolutely, positively hate grading. Simultaneously, I am realizing that at one institution where I teach, the ONLY thing that students care about (seemingly) is their grades. Are their grades copious enough? Are they high enough? What can they do to get better grades? Are the grades FAIR?

Love my job. Hate, hate, hate, hate grading. This is reflected in a recent set of course evals that disparaged (fairly) my lack of 'graded' feedback. I will happily talk to you about your project. I hate grading you.

So, with that in mind, I am going back to my university's teaching resource center on a quest to make myself a better (faster, more efficient, less consistent) grader.

At first I thought that these evals meant I should just get out of teaching. Nope, I just need to (a) recognize that the problem is in the grading and (b) get help with the problem!


Clio Bluestocking said...

This is actually kind of cute because we all learn that at some point, don't we? Living in a place every day is not the same as vacationing there. Writing a book is not the same as reading a book. Being the teacher is not the same as being the student; and, doing something as a hobby is not the same as doing it every single day, all day or longer, in order to make a living at it. Which is not to say that someone should stick with some profession if it is killing you, just that work has a lot more external factors like editors or customers or students or whatever and whomever, whereas a hobby means you don't have to deal with those factors.

Also, having tried starting a new career once and deciding it wasn't for me, one thing that is soooo easy to forget is that you are, in fact, starting from the beginning, going back to being in your twenties in ways that sometimes feel humiliating if you are accustomed to the prestige and paycheck of being furhter along in a career.

I wonder about the whole story that the people in the article told the reporters and what actually showed up in the article. They may have told the painful part, then said something like "but, for all of that, dang! This is a million times better than whatever the heck else I was doing."

Darkwing Duck said...

Um, I meant more consistent grader. Freudian clip. Slip. I need a new keyboard.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Clio's last paragraph: I hadn't thought of that!

Historiann said...

I love New Kid's forumation of pick two out of three. That reminds me of something a wise friend once told me: you can never have the perfect job, the perfect apartment, AND the perfect boy/girlfriend. Consider yourself lucky if you get 2/3.

This is an excellent formulation for deciding to be happy with what you've got. Look around: does anyone you know have the perfect job AND the perfect house/geographical location AND the perfect lover/spouse/partner/etc.? Everyone I know has made sacrifices in at least one of the three realms.