Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Job thoughts

As I get ready to start a new job for the first time in about 9 years, and having just listened to the "Plan B" episode of This American Life (in one of the acts, Jonathan Goldstein describes his 10 year career as a telemarketer), I got to thinking about jobs in general.

In the "Plan B" episode, Goldstein talks about how he was embarrassed to tell anyone what he did. I've never actually been embarrassed by a job, but for a while, I wasn't really proud of what I was doing. My self-image, as long as I can remember, has been defined in large part by my intellect. I think I'm a pretty smart guy. I'm no genius, but I do well at most of the things I attempt and I know my limitations, and I'm comfortable with them. I had always figured that my eventual career would be something intellectually stimulating, although I never really zeroed in on anything, even in college. After graduating college with the training to be a Latin teacher, something that truly didn't interest me, I found myself at a loss. I spent several months in a minimum-wage job as a mailroom guy, then landed at Principal as a claims examiner.

Now medical claims examiner isn't a job for trained monkeys, but it's not rocket science either. There was a lot of drudgery - answering phones all day topping the list. And the pay was pretty bad, mid-20's per year. I worked with some really good people (Michelline worked there, too) and some real dunces. It didn't fit my self-image and I always thought I should be doing something more challenging (and better-paying wouldn't hurt). My self-esteem definitely suffered for it. After 5 years, I escaped into IT, doing Y2K testing and have worked my way up from there. Finally, I was doing something that felt right.

So that was one thought I had about work, how people's self-worth gets tied up in their careers, and how it happened to me for a while. But the other thing is, looking back, that 5 year stretch was really valuable in a couple of ways. First, it gave me a very solid grounding in the business side of medical insurance. This has served me very well as I've worked my way into software development. Most people in IT don't have any background in business operations, and the fact that I do has helped me to move into some unique positions. Second, and more importantly, having a job I hated has given me a much greater appreciation for what I do know. I hear people complain about working in IT all the time, and I wonder if they've ever had a really shitty job. I feel very fortunate to be where I am.

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