In what can now be considered a “classic” comedy, Robin Williams invents a few hilarious characters on the phone before concocting the iconic Mrs. Doubtfire. Consequently, his wife’s initial inquiries into a nanny for her children are met with lines like “Are your kids well-behaved, or do they need, like, a few light slams every now and then?” and “Oh, I don’t verk vit da males… ‘cuss I used to be vone.” And finally, “I. Am. Job.”
“Do you speak English?” she replies.
“I. Am. Job.”
It’s pretty doubtful that Mrs. Doubtfire intended any deeper meaning to be implied here. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because last night in our Art of Conversation group with four Saudi guys, we were talking about jobs and occupations. One of these young men was telling me how he planned to study accounting, even though he hated math. Since he still had plenty of opportunity to change his mind, we talked with him about his other interests, and what other occupations he might enjoy.
It turns out he was very interested in computers, especially the hardware aspect. But, despite his limited grasp of English, he was able to communicate to us that only jobs in banks and hospitals are respected in Saudi Arabia. “I want to have a job at a desk, in an office. People ask you what kind of job you have… it’s the first question they ask. That way I can have a wife, have children. And I have money for them.”
Whether or not my new friend’s perspective is a perfect match with Saudi reality, I was disheartened to hear it. Although it doesn’t make sense for everyone to pursue a career that reflects their ultimate passion, we should all at least be able to do something we’re good at. Especially if we travel overseas to study for it, like this young man is doing. People who hate math should not feel pressured to be accountants, any more than people who can’t stand the sight of blood should feel pressured to be surgeons.
And yes, it’s easy for us Americans to look askance at foreign cultures, especially middle-eastern ones, and lament the lack of freedom in one area or another. But when it comes to careers and the workforce, I’m not sure the situation is a whole lot better here.
I’m sure we’ve all observed the “I Am Job” identity crisis; perhaps even in ourselves. Either we wrap our personhood around our position (“I am ________), or we sink it all into our dreams for the future. (“I am an aspiring ________”, or “I am a ________ major.”) And others, at that point, can have us mostly figured out.
I understand this might be a tired point; that you are not what you do. So I’m going to wrap up this post by taking it a different direction, in other words, the way we choose our careers. As in many things, I think there’s an error on one side, a different error on the other side, and an ideal path down the middle.
CHOOSING A CAREER: THE ERROR OF PASSION
This is the more common error amongst Americans and other Westerners; choosing a career or major based solely on one’s passion. This, of course, would apply to most (but not all) music, art and theater majors, along with students of philosophy, literature, history, or Latin. (Don’t be mad, I got my degree in music.) Of course the error is not limited to these areas. Many people choose majors or career paths based on all kinds of interests, and find out later that all it takes is two years of intense study or productivity to rid them of that passion entirely.
And that’s the less obvious problem which arises from following your heart into the workplace. (The obvious one being that you’re not likely to make a living at it.) It’s not unlike the pitfalls inherent in dating your best friend. There’s a chance it might work out romantically, but if it doesn’t, you’ve got a lose-lose on your hands. Likewise, even if you do find your passion does translate into a short-lived dream job, you may end up ruining both a career, and a hobby.
That being said, I’m still very glad that some people choose to pursue studies in music, the arts and the humanities. We need them. Maybe just not so many of them.
THE ERROR OF PRAGMATISM
Then there are those who stray in the opposite direction, either at the prompting of their parents, or at the urge of their practical nature. They want a job with a future, with good prospects, with market demand, and yes, a good salary. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. But it comes back to my Saudi friend who is about to spend every day doing something he hates. At this point, I don’t care how lucrative or secure the job is, it’s not sustainable. Someone in this position will be lucky if he makes it to his mid-life crisis before breaking down and/or bailing out. And the wife and kids will wish they could trade the 4000 square-foot house for a non-disgruntled husband and father. Of course, the same thing happens with wives and mothers who make these kinds of choices.
THE MIDDLE WAY
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few people lately about their career choices, and I don’t pretend to be able to give them professional guidance. But I do like to encourage them to combine their skills with the needs of the market, and use their imagination. I may loooove music, but I don’t think I’d want to do it (or profit from doing it) professionally. I really like graphic design, however, and it turns out that the graphic design market has a place for me. And I can do it every day without spoiling an intimate passion of mine; I can still enjoy music all I want.
I guess we have to back up and remember that Career and Calling are two different things. God has made us for both, but there’s still a line to be drawn between them. We’re created for a Calling, certainly; to pursue our spiritual purpose through prayer, study and worship. Maybe that calling will be of a practical nature, or of a more mystical nature, but either way it’s straight from God, intended for the benefit of his Kingdom.
But amongst all that, we’re also created to contribute to society around us. Don’t think of it as a market, think of it as a community. What does my community need? Where are the gaps? What skills can I apply to those gaps to be a blessing to the people around me?
If I choose a career based on my interests (even if I’m only interested in a big paycheck,) Then 40 hours or more of my week is centered around me. But if I look at the needs of my community, then I have an opportunity to spend half of my waking hours every weekday making my life about others. And that’s a Calling that we all need to embrace.