Monday, October 21, 2013

On Being Nonessential

I've never been an essential worker, so I have to talk about the other side of the equation. The government shutdown, now thankfully behind us, divided the workforce into people we can't do without, and people we can. I like Joel's Stein's take in Time. We all know who's essential in this world: doctors, farmers and the like. He owns his nonessential status, lumps it in with the arts, but points out that nonessential workers can make life beautiful.

I hear from a lot of people about what they want in their future careers, and so many people want to be essential. They want to influence large groups of people. It's a criteria that comes even before "working with animals" or "finding exciting work." They list careers like the law and banking as possibilities, things that have status.

But this need for status, to at least appear important to the world, really screws up our chances at career happiness, and it gets us stuck in a boring way of looking at the world.

I once attended a career counselor conference session about finding meaning in work. The presenter relayed an account of a hospital janitor who had once been a doctor in the country she had emigrated from. Many people saw that as a huge drop in status, but the janitor found that she was sometimes the only person alone with someone if they died in the night. When she heard someone in need, she could be there for them, if not in the same way.

Is she nonessential? If a family couldn't make it to the bedside of a loved one, but the janitor could assure the son or daughter that their mom wasn't alone when she died, isn't that essential? Our views of careers need to allow for this scenario, and scenarios like it. Can we view each other with curiosity and imagination?

And what do we learn from the colossal fail of government to pass a budget? I think it's part of the same problem. We're quick to judge each others' usefulness. It's like we can't get out of consumer mode when we view our fellow human beings. What can they do for me? Our lawmakers are just trying to deliver the goods. They've perfected their "brands" and they go into the government to get what their constituents and donors bought from them, either with money or a vote. There's no room for logic anymore, for compromise.

So if we're going to move forward from this fiasco with some dignity, we need to allow for some mystery in the world. Could there be a scenario where the janitor is more important than the heart surgeon? Could we imagine dedicating ourselves to something nonessential, with the idea that maybe we would end up essential in a different way?

I saw the Gravity this weekend, and I loved the objects floating in space stations: the Buddha, the statue of a saint, or even a Marvin the Martian toy. I like to knit, and sometimes I make these toys for people. They're not nearly as useful as hand knit hats, but sometimes they're something to hang on to in a different way. It's the kind of uselessness that I pride myself on.

I'm not essential as a career coach. I believe people can get on in life without me. But I can make the experience better. So can other people in our lives who can listen with an open mind. Being essential isn't, well, essential. It's enough that we're alive, that we treat each other well while we're on this planet (or orbiting it). And maybe some of us are here to be the George Clooney in the movie, to point to the sunrise and say, "Look."

That can be its own kind of essential.

Some nonessential links for your Monday:

A resume app, so you're never without your credentials.

A checklist for "engaging" with information.

The November issue of Real Simple magazine has a great article on how people in different professions stay in the moment.

Have a good one!

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