That's Why It's Called Work

By Lisa Tandan posted 14 days ago

“It’s not supposed to be fun. That’s why they call it work!” 

This quote from my father was one of my first introductions to work, followed by the advice: “Don’t take sick days when you are actually sick.” For my father, who gained meaning and purpose outside of work, it was better to spend days when he was already miserable (or sick) at work, and save the days he felt good for when he could be at home with his family, woodworking, and serving in the community. It’s easy to get a sense from these two quotes of my early introduction to work as something that has to be done, rather than something you want to do. 

Thanks to an excellent session at NACE ’17, by Julia Lang at Tulane (Catalyze Students’ Careers: Human-Centered Design Methods and Mindsets), I had time and space to write down the first ideas and thoughts I had about career. It was an impactful session, one that shows we are all approaching career work from different lenses. Despite our differences, though, we are all still using the same word: career. For many of us it is in the titles of our departments, in our job titles, and permeates our work day. But, do we have a common definition? Are we all talking about the same thing? 

In conversations, career educators have several words we use along with career, sometimes interchangeably, including: work, employment, passion, job, mission, and purpose. All of these, including the word career, are singular. It seems sometimes to us, and likely to students, that we are working with students to determine only one thing. In reality, though, a student’s career is likely to be plural (and depending on the age of the student, may already be).

After a decade in higher education, working with students in both career services and internships for academic credit, and at four year universities and a two-year college, I have found that I don’t have a great grasp on how we, as a field, are defining the word career. It’s an umbrella term, a catchall. I sat down to brainstorm and came up the list below, based on my own experiences, the wants and needs of the students I have worked with over the years, and the way my friends and family view work. 

What is a career?
  •         That thing you do to eat?
  •         That thing you do because you love it?
  •         That thing you do to have an impact?
  •         That thing you just do, because doing is better than not doing?

I’ll admit, I love what I do. I find meaning and excitement in my work. It’s both more than employment and more than a job. But, would I call it a passion? I don’t relate to that word. It feels too intense, too personal for work. Maybe it’s my early introductions to work, but while my work is a part of my identity, it’s not the critical piece of who I am. There is so much more to me. Would your students say the same? Is trying to identify a single passion a turn off? 

As a field, we have moved on to the term purpose, but I wonder from time to time if purpose has the same inherent problems that I find with the word passion. As career educators, we are moving in a direction to address this, but some of our language puts pressure on students to conform.

What if a student wants to work to eat (thrive, even) and pursue meaning/passion/purpose in their time off? Are we open to that as a life choice? And, alternately, do we understand that work is not always a life choice? That students sometimes need to eat, need to provide for families. Do we use language of privilege and choice that can alienate students who don’t fit the ivory tower mold?

After attending NACE ’17, I am encouraged to see that as a field we are moving toward openness and letting students define what career means to them. If we acknowledge that we are not operating under the same assumed definition, that career is an umbrella, then we can better connect with all of our students, and challenge them to define their own career(s).

Choose from more than 80 professional development workshops at #NACE18, June 5 - 8, 2018, in New Orleans.