It’s less about you than you might think

Image by Rabasse from Pixabay

My husband, an actor, landed the role he’d pined for

It was a leading-man part he’d wanted to play for years, one he knew he was right for but that would challenge him. The theater was prestigious and well-attended, with a lush budget for sets and costumes. The job meant moving across the country for months, but that’s the actor’s life, and he was thrilled. He trained. He studied the script until he’d honed his understanding of it to a fine point. He had his lines down cold before the first rehearsal.

By the third rehearsal, two things became clear. The director had the imagination of a clam. The leading lady, while beautiful, was hostile and given to unhinged tantrums. The entire experience was a misery.

Sometime later, he accepted a role in a play he’d never heard of, with a director he’d never heard of, partly because he owed the casting director a favor. It was the kind of play in which all the actors were part of an ensemble, each playing multiple roles, therefore no leads. Some of the lines were in a Central European language. He showed up to the first rehearsal with no idea what to expect.

Again, two things quickly became clear. The director was brilliant, with a sparkling wit and a deep respect for his cast. The actors were supportive, delightful, and aces at their craft. The play ended up being a hit, and my husband had one of the best experiences of his life in the theater.

This explains why he no longer cherishes dream roles. He’s learned that a good gig depends on multiple variables, most of which are not about which character he plays or how much time he spends in the spotlight.

Other jobs aren’t all that different

Most of us have more conventional ways of making a living than performing in front of an audience night after night. And the nature of our work usually involves fewer and far less abrupt changes in location and co-workers. But the essentials of what makes us happy on the job are similar, and they often have less to do with the role we take on than it appears.

In America and in much of Western culture the first question we’re often asked is, “What do you do?” We know right away what that means: what is it we do that someone else values enough to pay for? We’re not being asked about our stamp collection or our fascination with rock climbing. That conversation comes later, once we’re done talking about work.

It’s not that we’re all status hounds, necessarily: it’s simply that work occupies such a central, organizing principle in our lives. We ask the what-do-you-do question because it allows us to place one another in a world order we understand, one that determines the shape of our days and fills so much of our time.

Some professions, of course, are haloed by prestige. A heart surgeon gets more nods than a lifeguard, even though both of them are in the business of saving lives. It has to do with money, of course, as well as the specialized skill and training a job requires, and even more so the singular difficulty of either getting the job or being able to do it well. Star athletes command breathtaking sums, not because — unlike nurses and farmers — we couldn’t get along without them. Tom Brady and LeBron James have those eye-goggling contracts because they’re at the pinnacle of human performance, luminaries of sports that entrance millions of us. Talents like theirs are rarer than diamonds, and rarity, to the human mind, equates with value.

Most of us have somewhat humbler callings

Yet we still have huge expectations surrounding work. We want a job that provides us with satisfaction, recognition, respect, and appreciation — many of the same qualities we look for in an ideal partner. Beyond that, we want (and need, if we live under the dysfunctional American medical system) good health care. We also look for a solid retirement plan.

And, of course, a paycheck. The bigger, the better.

The brass ring is when we land a position that has all the tangibles we aspire to. The fat paycheck, the perks, the prestige. We get in on the ground floor of a hot new start-up with a keg in the staff room, a ping-pong table in the workspace, and the alluring dangle of stock options. Maybe we get the coveted residency at the top hospital in the city. Or we get the call from our agent: we’ve got the part, and the second season is already a shoo-in.

It feels like winning the lottery. And sometimes, it is exactly that. There are dream jobs that do indeed turn out to be a dream.

But having those boxes ticked is no guarantee. The prestige, pay, and perks might be abundant, but if the chemistry is off, even the plushest job will devolve into, at best, the thing we do that pays the bills. We start living for weekends, or vacations if we feel like we can take them (many Americans don’t).

The fancy nameplate, the corner office, the enviable salary exact a steep price. Our bosses, or our customers, or our patients, or our shareholders have sky-high expectations of us in return. Meeting those expectations can drain our time and energy to the point where we do little else but work, and in the corners of our day that aren’t spent on the job, we can’t stop thinking about it.

This is why the impossible-to-quantify term “work-life balance” is such an entrenched buzzword. We probably discussed it with the hiring committee during our job interview and were met with nodding heads and reassurances. And then we find ourselves working 65 hour weeks and having to tell our kid that no, we can’t coach the T-ball team this year either.

The right job for you is about other people

Being on either side of the hiring process is like speed dating followed by an arranged wedding. Both parties go in with high hopes and a laundry list of what they’re looking for. But there’s never enough time and no way to guarantee things will gel after the commitment is made.

Once the honeymoon period is over (which these days, might last until after lunch on Day 1 of the job)the partnership only works if both sides feel like they’re getting a good deal. That rarely happens through sheer luck. Whatever our field and aspirations, it helps if we know ourselves well and can get our egos to pipe down a little.

What really makes us happy to climb out of our warm beds and head off to work? Obviously, if you’ve invested a fortune in time, money, and education to be, say, an endodontist, you rightfully expect to work in that field. Even so, what’s going to get you through a long day of root canals and dental implants? Your income, yes. Satisfaction in a job well done, sure. But even when things don’t go so well (which I hope, if you’re an endodontist, is extremely rare), the element that makes your day is the people you work with.

Relationships are the key

Even if you’re an introvert who works from home — even if you’re a writer, an extreme case if ever there was one — what keeps you going against the slings and arrows of working life is other people. They may be right there next to you in the surgical suite or only appear as talking heads on Zoom or part of a Slack channel, but if you’re happy in your work, or at least committed to it, you have people whom you don’t want to let down.

Multiple studies show that soldiers in combat are less motivated to fight for a cause than they are for their comrades in arms. These are the people they trust to look out for them no matter what. Soldiers aren’t so much willing to die for a flag as they are for a buddy.

Most occupations are not as poised on the brink of survival, but the principle remains. All jobs have their rough days. All contain some moments that make us wish we could have stayed in bed. After all, that’s why they call it work.

But if you’ve got people around you who you care about, respect, and enjoy, then even under tough conditions you’ll keep showing up. It’s other people who provide those intangibles — satisfaction, recognition, respect, and appreciation — that make work worthwhile.

So don’t worry so much about the dream role. Find out who else is in the cast.

6 Comments

  1. Would that all jobseekers would read and inwardly digest your last sentence. As someone who spent nearly 30 years in the the executive search business – less elegantly called headhunting – I know whereof you speak!

  2. Wonderful words of wisdom, Jan. I was so lucky that for 31 years, I worked with people I cared about, respected, and enjoyed.

  3. Yes, indeed! I had to leave a job I truly loved because my new supervisor turned out to be a sociopath. I got great advice from the HR director: “Jobs are like real estate. You can have a bad house in a great neighborhood, or a great house in a bad neighborhood.” So… I moved out.

    • That’s a great simile. Maybe jobs are a mix of dating AND real estate. Also, sometimes, parenting. All the high-stakes stuff! And I know from experience that a bad boss can poison an otherwise dreamy job.

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