big questions, career, questions, random thoughts

Teacher, Scientist, Artist, Nurse

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Perhaps this sentiment is more suited to an 11-year-old than to someone in her mid-30s, but I’m comfortable with it. After all, it’s not that uncommon: I have a substantial number of friends around my age who still don’t know what they want to be either. (Do you know what you want to be when you grow up, by the way?)

Sometimes I have this vague feeling that maybe if I’d done things differently I would have a more clearly established career today. Like maybe I should have chosen a different college major or maybe I should have done some kind of cool big city internship when I was younger or maybe I should have read more books with titles like What Color is Your Perfect Career. But I’ll never know what “would” have happened if I’d done those things, and most likely it doesn’t matter.

But I do feel like I’ve recently figured something out, and I want to share it with you here in case it is a useful concept for anyone else.

Ok, here goes.

Obviously there are lots of different types of jobs. But that being said, I feel like many, many, jobs fit fairly well into one of the following two categories:

1) Micro jobs. If you have a micro job, you provide direct, personal help or services to a relatively small, or at least finite, number of individuals (i.e. your clients, students, patients, customers, or whatever). Examples of micro jobs would be:

  • teacher
  • plumber
  • surgeon
  • massage therapist
  • psychiatrist
  • nurse
  • social worker
  • hairdresser
  • cashier
  • attorney

Micro jobs involve direct, immediate service delivery, usually in a personal, face-to-face context. A hairdresser can only cut one client’s hair at a time, a surgeon can only operate on one patient at a time, a cashier can only ring up one person at a time. While micro jobs may require high degrees of expertise and creativity (think: teaching third grade), they often function in the context of an already-established method or system (e.g. the Department of Education has educational standards that third grade teachers must adhere to).

2) Macro jobs. If you have a macro job, on the other hand, you are working to create something new or to change an existing system, and the thing you’re creating or changing may have the potential to impact a large number of people. Examples of macro jobs would be:

  • novelist
  • public policy analyst
  • artist
  • scientist
  • filmmaker
  • startup founder
  • nonprofit founder
  • musician
  • social media director
  • magazine editor

Macro jobs involve creating something that you hope will eventually reach lots of people in an indirect way. If you have a macro job, you might spend many of your days sitting in a room by yourself or with a colleague or two, working on something that you hope and believe will eventually have an impact. I don’t love business-y terms like scalable, but ok, macro jobs might involve creating a product that is scalable: you create it and then lots of people who you may never meet in person can enjoy it or benefit from it.

These categories aren’t perfect, and there are certainly jobs that include elements of both. It might be more accurate to say that there’s a micro-to-macro spectrum and different jobs fall in different places along the spectrum. But you get what I mean, right? There are jobs where we provide direct, immediate, face-to-face services to a relatively small number of individuals, and there are jobs where we take a larger view and try to create something that will (hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed) eventually reach a large number of people.

It occurred to me recently that nearly all of the jobs I’ve ever had in my life have tended pretty far in the micro direction. I’ve been a middle school teacher, a one-on-one special education aide, a writing instructor, a tutor, an ELL instructor, a cashier, an expeditor, and a bookseller. My current job (which I’m still keeping a bit vague here) is a micro job in healthcare.

One of the really awesome things about having a micro-job is that you can very easily point to what you are doing and say, Here, look, I am helping people. Teachers are clearly helping people. Psychiatrists are clearly helping people. Plumbers are clearly helping people. Sure, you might make mistakes, but assuming you are at least somewhat competent at your micro-job, you can always go home at the end of the day knowing that you’ve made a difference.

But I’m starting to wonder—after 15 years of working in mostly educational and clinical micro-jobs—if this type of work is really a good fit for me. I’m not sure if I can sustain micro-jobbing long-term. I’m not sure I want to sustain micro-jobbing long-term.

One of the major challenges of micro-work (for me) is that it requires a lot of social energy. A LOT. Going to work in the morning often means entering an eight-hour stretch of nearly non-stop mandatory high-energy interpersonal interactions. I’m not going to label myself an “introvert” because that’s too simplistic, but I will say that spending the entire day filling up time and airspace with my own voice, initiating and driving interactions with students or clients or patients for predetermined blocks of time, is often difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, and almost always draining. I’m reasonably good at these kinds of jobs, but if I’m going to be honest, I usually dread going to work in the morning.

Don’t worry, it’s not all bad! I’ve gotten a great deal out of micro work on a personal level. I’ve gotten to meet lots of different people who I probably would never have met otherwise, and I know that I have definitely helped a lot of them in various ways. But I still have to ask myself: Is this really for me?

I think the only real macro job I’ve ever had was being a PhD student. (Important side note: the term “PhD student” is incredibly misleading. PhD students are not going to class or taking tests or doing any normal student-type stuff. PhD students are simply low-level researchers. If you are a PhD student, you have a boss and you work 40+ hours a week on projects for not-very-high pay. It is a totally regular job except that after 4 or 5 years they hand you a diploma and say “Bye!”) And what is interesting to me in retrospect is that although being a PhD student involved lots of challenges and frustrations and difficulties, I don’t think I ever dreaded going in to work.

It was a lot of solitary work, a lot of reading and writing and research and data analysis, plus some project meetings and Skype calls and talking with research participants. And I have to acknowledge that I like work like that. I like thinking up new ideas, working on projects, problem-solving, and collaborating. I like creating something and improving it and eventually coming up with a finished product that feels important.

When I was a PhD student, I remember thinking, “This work isn’t helping anybody!” and feeling regretful about that. And on some level this was true, because sitting in front of a computer all day doing analyses doesn’t “help” anybody on a daily basis in the same way that being a teacher or a nurse helps people.

But I’ve been thinking recently that that’s just the nature of macro jobs. Macro work is important, just like micro work; it’s just that the impact of macro work is less direct and less immediate and less personal, and yes it could fail or fall short, but it could also be important and far-reaching. Think of all the cool people in the world who do macro work. Think of J. K. Rowling. Think of Oprah. Think of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Think of Al Gore. Think of Malala. Think of literally anyone who has ever received a MacArthur Genius Grant. Think of your favorite author. Think of your favorite musician, your favorite artist, your favorite politician. All these people have worked to build or create something that they hoped would reach people. And they all knew they might fail, but they all did it anyway.

I’m not trying to make a value judgment about macro jobs being better than micro jobs or vice versa. This is definitely not a contest between Oprah and a really amazing third grade teacher. (Nor is it a delusional rant about how I think I can be Oprah, lol.) This is just me realizing that after 15 years of nearly constant full-time micro-jobbing, I’m yearning for more macro work. I miss designing and creating and thinking up new ideas. I miss working on projects. It’s not that I’m totally done with micro work, because I do like micro work sometimes. I just might not like it all day, every day.

I’m trying to be realistic. I’m not doing anything drastic like quitting my micro-job. But I am thinking forward in a big way towards the next year or so, to see if (and how) I might be able to edge a little more towards the macro end of the spectrum. I’ll keep you posted.

And in the meantime, I’m interested to hear any thoughts on micro-work, macro-work, what color your parachute is, or anything else. 

14 Comments on “Teacher, Scientist, Artist, Nurse

  1. I wish I had more to add, but i’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up too. I have a long list of what I DON’T want to be doing, but that isn’t super helpful. I think my current career, in fact, the one I’ve always had, I like more as a hobby. I don’t like being creative on cue and churn out crap just to hit “target numbers.” So I wonder…

    1. Hahaha, that’s kind of what my path has been like too: Ok, I don’t want to do that, don’t want to do that…what’s left? Lol.

      I also think it’s really hard to figure out whether something you really like to do should be your job or your hobby. All that “pursue your passion” advice is actually pretty confusing. Like when I was in my early 20s, reading books was my passion, so I decided I should go and work in a bookstore…logical, and yet ultimately probably not the best fit for me career-wise!

  2. My job is a unique blend of micro and macro, and that balance is why this particular job works better for me than any other job I’ve had so far which have mostly been in the micro category. There’s a huge benefit to spending most of my days working at the macro level but getting feedback on the micro side bolsters the macro work, if that makes sense without getting into specifics.

    Soon I’ll be facing midlife crisis age territory and honestly I couldn’t tell you what I hope I’ll have landed on as far as career hopes and goals, at least not in the “when I grow up” sense. I’m realizing that if the work I do is both fulfilling and brings home a sufficiently large paycheck, I’m doing pretty well. I’d like to have the ability to walk away and write my own ticket at any point as well but that’s a little more hazy.

    1. Ah, the elusive micro-and-macro job! I think that sounds great. Especially if the micro work and macro work are interconnected and can impact one another, as you say. I think about that a lot in the context of my academic field, which has a research side (macro) and a clinical side (micro) — most people just choose one or the other because that’s the easiest thing to do, but I always feel like it’s too bad that there isn’t more thoughtful consideration of how they are/should be intertwined.

      Uh-oh, what is midlife crisis age territory? I might be there soon too! :O

  3. Interesting. I’ve always done micro-jobs as well, now that I think about it. I recently thought that I like my teaching job slightly better now that I’m going out of my way to make sure I buy, read aloud, and incorporate books that feature immigrants, people of color, and women as main characters into student book clubs and my everyday lessons (that also need to adhere to those Dept. of Ed educational standards like you said), even though those types of books are harder to find and cost more. After reading your post, I’m wondering maybe I like my job better because I’ve found a way to macro my micro-job. I have hope that… well, right now I’m micro-jobbing, but these kids will grow up and be at the very least slightly more compassionate to those with less power in society due to their 10 months spent with me, so eventually I’ll be macro-jobbing through them. One can hope, anyway.
    I’m also still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

    1. You know, after I published this post I started having all these other thoughts about teaching and how it really is macro in so many ways. Like to begin with, teachers do actually spend a ton of time on their own, planning lessons and creating curriculums. And, as you point out, whatever a teacher teaches (and how they teach it) can have a ripple effect on society through their students. So maybe it’s more complex than I was originally thinking. 🙂

      And that’s awesome that you’re being really intentional about the books you’re choosing. Your comment reminded me of this cool non-profit that I’ve forgotten the name of (maybe you know it?) that is trying to increase the percentage of children’s picture books that feature children/families of color, since this percentage is currently super low. Wish I could remember what it is called…

  4. I don’t know if I’m micro or macro. As a petroleum geologist I help a lot of people at work that I mentor, and I help maximise the resource potential we have, but I don’t think it fits micro category. So, in the macro sense I have to say I don’t sit and think, “is this helping anyone?” I mostly think, “man, I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” 😁

    I like teaching and helping people and will probably do that once I get to more free time and no “real job”. Until then I’ll appreciate how much I like my work and people I work with, whatever it is. I don’t know my parachute color but on the personality test I took at megacorps, I was a yellow green. Talker/socializer, and thinker if I remember correctly. I thought, “yep, that sounds about right.” 😀

    1. Wow, a petroleum geologist! I have only the very vaguest sense of what that might entail, but it sounds like it could have a strong macro element. I think one interesting thing about macro jobs is that the people doing them are not always necessarily focused on “helping people” per se, but rather on problem-solving or bringing an idea to fruition or creating something. But I feel like if you problem-solve something or bring an idea to fruition or create something, it is likely to have an impact on the world/society in some way, somewhere down the line.

      And I also think it’s cool that you get to mentor at work! Maybe you have a job that falls nicely around the middle of the spectrum someplace. 🙂

  5. Interesting division – this is a new way of thinking to me!

    I feel like my work has moved from micro to more macro (daily online news/publishing, so working on small stories each day, basically starting fresh each day) to digital content and marketing which spreads out larger projects over longer timelines.

    For me I think the more vital delineation is working with people directly vs not. I’m much happier working on my own like 95% of the time.

    1. Yeah, digital content and marketing definitely sound pretty macro to me. It’s cool because whatever you create has the potential to be seen by essentially an unlimited number of people online! I think the Internet has opened up a lot of possibility for macro work that wasn’t necessarily there before.

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