What Do You Do All Day?

by Stephanie Stern

I have always been very concerned with becoming a respectable job candidate, even before I really knew what I wanted to do. I’d thought the goal was to master information that would set me up for a successful career. I took school seriously and got good grades, and I believed that doing well on tests was a good indication that I was doing well, that I would be successful in life.

But, it turns out that my brain is like a sieve and I remember little of the factual, subject-based information I learned in high school and college (and probably even grad school), and little of it is useful in my day-to-day work. With the benefit of a decade of hindsight, I wonder if perhaps I mistook the fundamental point of it all.

School trains us to think by subject. Classes are divided by topic, where history is different from literature, and science is separate from art. We are forced to pick favorites at an early age when we pick electives and majors and when adults ask, “what is your favorite subject in school?”

I had a hard time picking a major in college. There were lots of things that I liked, yet I had no idea how they translated into a career. After trying to reason it out, I picked biology in part because I thought studying a “hard science” would be helpful to get a job working on environmental issues. I now use none of the information I learned, and have come to realize that my interest in biology was a desire to understand how things work and to interact with it in a hands-on way. I loved the lab work, especially when we were out in the field.

Now, several years into a career working on environmental issues, I can see that it would have been equally practical to study psychology or sociology to learn how to motivate people towards more environmental behaviors, or business to make a financial case for eco-friendly decisions. The world today is cross-cutting, not organized by subject. Our academic system now includes a wider range of subjects than ever, yet thinking of the world this way is a disservice when considering the impact it will have on one’s career.

My friend Leda is a great example of this: she works for a company that manufactures a product. This could be construed as an engineering product, but one used by urban planners and landscape architects. In some places, a product like theirs is required by law. And yet, Leda’s role is creative and marketing related. In addition to crossing so many topics, she has learned so much on the job that was never even taught at school, from information about soil depth to how to use Twitter for a business. (Her major, by the way, was comparative literature.)

Picking a subject that interests us is only one way to pick a career. I think it is equally, if not more important, to think about what we actually like to do all day. It’s taken me about 10 years, but I have finally learned some things I like to do: I do like to work with people, to brainstorm ideas, to write, to design new programs and problem-solve; and I don’t like to analyze data, spend too much time alone at my desk, or conduct precise biology experiments. The tasks I do like could lead to a number of different jobs in many different fields. Having the right mix is essential to my happiness and satisfaction at work. It is how I spend my day, every day, and therefore has as much — if not more — influence over my satisfaction at work than if I work on environmental issues or something else.

I wish I had thought about my career differently while I was still in school. While learning the skills and discipline to get things done (something that school taught me well), I wish I had not worried about mastering a body of knowledge or preparing for a job, but had instead explored and gained a understanding of the range of things that the world has to offer. Maybe I would have tried more subjects, and maybe I would have learned more about myself and figured out the “what I actually like to do all day” even earlier.

Now, when thinking about work and my career, I’ve broadened the fields that are interesting to me, while narrowing the tasks. A friend recently contacted me to connect me with someone hiring in my field. The company was a cool one, one that I respect and would love to work for, but the job description was very quantitative. I imagined myself slumped unhappily in front of an Excel spreadsheet, or worse, a SAS model. Envisioning what my day-to-day would consist of made it easy to see that I wouldn’t be happy, even though the subject was a perfect fit for me. When I go to look for my next career move, I won’t feel as wed to the narrow field I’ve been working in. I will look to keep doing meaningful work, but also work that allows me to help people (my favorite task in the whole world), think creatively, develop new programs and ideas, and to stay away from spreadsheets.

It’s taken me a long time, and a graduate degree, to realize my mistake. Now, I no longer see the world as information to master, but instead, as either people and activities that I enjoy and want more of, or that I do not. This makes it easier to inch my way towards doing the things I love every day.

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

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