When I was in my, perhaps, second or third year of teaching, one of my freshmen classes met with a guidance counselor in the computer lab so they could all fill out one of those interest inventories. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the inventory’s purpose is to gather information about your strengths and interests and then it suggests all these possible jobs for your future. Students can act on this information (or not) and keep it in mind as they select their studies and then eventually as they look at college programs. Fancy stuff for fourteen-year-olds, wouldn’t you say?
I think I was feeling particularly beaten down that day as a relatively new teacher, so I stuck around with my freshmen class and took my own interest inventory. I thought “maybe it could point me in a new direction.” I don’t remember all the questions or what I entered, but I know I sat there and said to myself, “be really honest. Don’t hold back. Say what you really want.”
So I did. Then I clicked “submit.”
There are no jobs that match all of your search criteria.
There are no jobs that match all but one of your search criteria.
There are no jobs that match all but two of your search criteria.
I’m not sure where the inventory finally whittled away enough of my criteria that it started giving me job options. I don’t even remember what it suggested as options. All I remember is how crushed I felt sitting there in front of that computer, in that sweltering computer lab with the room fans blowing, dying to change my daily routine, and next to me all the little freshmen excitedly chirping about their futures and what they could imagine themselves doing.
If you read any of the more recent books on the meaning of work, most of them focus on the fact that people have come to view their work no longer as just “something they do to get a paycheck,” but as a representation of who they are. (Perhaps more accurate would be to say that people want to view their work as who they are; they want it to be meaningful.)
I can relate to that. I want what I do to matter. As “easy” as it might be to just take home a paycheck and compartmentalize job from home—from the rest of one’s life—I know that passion within one’s work can be a source of joy. It’s not joyful to me to just take home a paycheck, and I finally this past year began to refuse to become one of those people who does so. There are plenty of people who are “happy” suffering through work and then living the rest of their life during vacation, and that’s fine; it’s just not for me.
And while I’m still nowhere near done figuring this whole job or career thing out, I do realize now what the interest inventory couldn’t have ever told me back then.
The interest inventory couldn’t have told me the philosophy or climate behind any work place I might find. At that point, I didn’t realize—and the inventory wasn’t about to tell me—that what might matter more to me than the actual details of “the job” is how I am treated there. How respected do I feel? How much will people invest in me so I can grow? How strongly do I feel a sense that what I do matters—not just to the people I serve but to those I work with?
No inventory knows that.
I have an array of interests, and I can get enthusiastic about almost anything once I begin to learn about it. It’s a slight curse in the sense that it set me up in the past to have a hard time deciding which direction to take myself. Still does. I’m sure the interest inventory was thoroughly overwhelmed at one point. She loves being outdoors but could get happily lost in a book store for hours…entertains the fantasy of moving to New York City but holds the happiest of memories working on a farm in rural upstate New York…loves color and and fabric and flipping through magazines searching for the newest way to design a room but could easily pass the time under the hood of her car learning how all the parts work together…and putting them together herself.
The blessing behind finding so many things interesting is that it means I have so many possibilities for where I can find enjoyment, which also means I have so many possibilities for where I can enjoy employment. It actually now makes complete sense to me why business magazines annually publish “the top 100 companies to work for.” For many people—as it is for me, it’s just as important how they are treated as an employee and how they are allowed to grow while there, as it is to enjoy the day-to-day operations of the position. For me, this means it is utmost important to be in a job where I’m not only treated with respect but I believe in what the company does and how it aims to serve others.
So no matter what that interest inventory spit out that day in the computer lab, it probably was never going to really point me in any sort of meaningful direction. It was never going to be able to take my degrees in English and Cognition and tell me what I’d enjoy doing or in what capacity I would enjoy working because it would never be able to consider the human element of the job.
It could suggest teaching, and are there different places where I could probably flourish as a teacher? Yes. Sure. I love learning, I love learning about how people learn, and I like helping other people learn. I bet the interest inventory saw that. Does that mean every teaching job is equal, though the job description is the same? No. And that’s where we reach the inventory’s limitations.
For now, as much as I chuckle from time to time about where I have ended up and where I continue to go, at least I am learning what it means to find and experience meaningful work. At least I’m pointed in the right direction…with my back to that inventory.