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What do you do? Or, How do we talk about our profession?

I rather like The Book of Life, which is part of The School of Life, founded in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton. The School and the Book both offer a secular approach to making our emotional lives more fulfilling. In particular, I was struck the other day by their piece on how our work shapes our entire lives
Given the number of waking hours that our work consumes, and the prevailing culture of overworking (be it real or perceived) in many sectors, it is worth interrogating what our jobs mean for us. The question, “What do you do?”, although tedious, is a common one, particularly at networking events or events with friends of friends who might not share our own interests. For those of us who spend much of our social time with work colleagues, like I do, work-chat more generally can consume much of our free time.
When talking about work, we often link it to objective events and activities, day-to-day tasks and connections with things that are in the news. To focus on the psychological requirements and consequences of our work, as the article suggests, offers a radical shift away from seeing ourselves as tools that produce action in the world to see, instead, the equally real but more intangible human elements of our work. 
The question that the article poses is: “What is the psychological character of your work?” To answer requires deeper thought about elements of our professional lives that perhaps we do not think about very much at all. Except in my most cynical moments, I tend not to think about the emotional toll of my toil, or indeed the emotional rewards of it. Yet, of course, my work encourages certain of my traits and weakens others. The article suggests a set of possible traits to consider in formulating our answers to these questions:
  • Patience vs impatience: is the job ‘fire-fighting’ or strategic planning?
  • Suspicious vs trusting: does the job require getting at the hidden truth, or working with people who are upfront?
  • Speculative vs concrete: are you focused on innovation and what-might-be, or carefully attending to practical details of the here-and-now?
  • Consensus-seeking vs independent: is the ability to take a collective view more important than taking a personal viewpoint or offering an unusual approach?
  • Optimistic vs pessimistic: are you encouraged to focus on the positives, or to tackle dangers, pitfalls, and looming disasters?
  • Financially focused vs sheltered from finance: does status in the profession vary hugely with wealth, and the work encourage thinking in terms of profit-and-loss?
  • Fragile dignity vs solid status: are workers subject to deep rebuffs, with work in which they are heavily invested emotionally being easily and frequently rejected? Do capacity or qualifications dictate success?
  • Better nature vs worse nature: does the job remind you of the best in life, or introduce you to the worst of human nature?
  • Logical vs haphazard hierarchy: is it clear how progress and promotion are earned, or is there a strong element of chance, leading to anxiety and distrust? 
  • A declining vs growing industry: does it feel as though the golden age of your profession is past, or is it emerging into new arenas?

It might be possible to establish a generic profile for work, such as in academia. I am not, currently, an academic, but I am a PhD student, as well as holding down a full-time job in an organisation with some clear homologies with academia. I often think of whether or not I wish to jump ship and move into academia. Perhaps the way to make the best decision is to think not of the tasks that the job requires, but to think of the psychological profile of the career path. It would be easy to construct an ideal image of academia, founded on trust — a meritocratic, rational set of peers — and solid status, but that is clearly not the experience of a large number of people working in the industry. So, for those currently working as academics, how would you sum up the psychological profile of your job, and its impact on you?

Image used under a creative commons licence

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