Two Perspectives on the Term 'Job'

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Looking back on notes from Barbara Sher's excellent I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, I ran across the following quote regarding work in a "wrong" job:

[R]emember what each day is for -- not to make your boss happy, not to impress your school chums, but to get knowledge and skills for yourself.
This is profound advice, but my immediate reaction on seeing this again was to think Shouldn't this be in the back of one's mind in any job? The quote also got me thinking on the subject of what a job actually is, and that eventually led me to the following rather lengthy quote by Ayn Rand on the subject of careers:
Image by Hunter's Race, via Unsplash, license.
"Productive work" does not mean the blind performance of the motions of some job. It means the conscious, rational pursuit of a productive career. In popular usage, the term "career" is applied only to the more ambitious types of work; but, in fact, it applies to all work: it denotes a man's attitude toward his work.

The difference between a career-man and a job-holder is as follows: a career-man regards his work as constant progress, as a constant upward motion from one achievement to another, higher one, driven by the constant expansion of his mind, his knowledge, his ability, his creative ingenuity, never stopping to stagnate on any level. A job-holder regards his work as a punishment imposed on him by the incomprehensible malevolence of reality or of society, which, somehow, does not let him exist without effort; so his policy is to go through the least amount of motions demanded of him by somebody and to stay put in any job or drift off to another, wherever chance, circumstances or relatives might happen to push him.

In this sense, a man of limited ability who rises by his own purposeful effort from unskilled laborer to shop-foreman, is a career-man in the proper, ethical meaning of the word -- while an intelligent man who stagnates in the role of a company president, using one-tenth of his potential ability, is a mere job-holder. And so is a parasite posturing in a job too big for his ability. It is not the degree of a man's ability that is ethically relevant in this issue, but the full, purposeful use of his ability. [bold added]
These two quotes together can lead to some very interesting thinking, such as about the nature of work or division of labor. (It occurs to me, for example, that, within our not fully free, yet still very efficient economy, so many people can confuse the metaphysical for the man-made, and yet can still enjoy very productive careers partly by accident, starting from an unquestioning acceptance of the conventional idea of "a job" and simply working hard.)

But that is not why I'm writing now. It is interesting to consider how different these two quotes are, although they both touch on the profound truth that a job is a convenient method by which people can trade with one another.

The first passage is pitched to people who want to build careers, but are unsure what those careers ought to be or how conventional jobs might fit in with pursuing them. (That or is not exclusive!)

The second is from a piece called "From My 'Future File'," a short miscellany by a great novelist-philosopher who, as far as I can tell, wanted to clarify her sweeping, abstract thoughts on the subject when she wrote it -- and later realized that her musings were worth sharing whether or not she chose to elaborate later.

Only with a great deal of other thinking might the second passage help someone in Sher's audience: The thinking is very good, but most such people will not be in a position to profit from it. (Indeed, the merely confused could understandably find the delineation of moral extremes in the second paragraph off-putting.) But for people who are unclear on their goals, or don't quite know how (even "wrong") jobs fit into careers, or don't have principles that will help them integrate those things, Sher's passage will jump-start them, and its shortness will make it memorable day-to-day.

Both passages are excellent, but for vastly different purposes. Interestingly, both intellectuals and career builders can, with additional effort or experience, profit from both.

-- CAV

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