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:
- massage therapist
- social worker
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:
- public policy analyst
- startup founder
- nonprofit founder
- 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.