Seven great jobs that actually suck

At my daughter’s graduation, the president of Claremont said, “Some of you will go on to rewarding and productive careers in government and academia. And some of you will go into business.”  Since the school still hits me up for a donation every year, I can only assume that she believed the business-types in the audience were simply too upid-stay o-tay et-gay at-thay ey-thay ad-hay ust-jay een-bay issed-day.

But I’ve subsequently had any number of conversations with college kids and found many feel the same way. They view graduating and working in the business world as a death sentence, sort of Gulag with a dental plan.  When I press them to find out which jobs they consider cool, they say things like working for a not-for-profit.  Are you kidding me? A not-for-profit?  Spend the rest of your life broke, pestering your friends for money for your charity, and being bossed around by some rich dilettante who “gives back” by dropping in for board meetings? Really?

Admittedly, some jobs in the business world suck. Really suck. Working at the very bottom, say in retail, is the modern equivalent of stoop labor.  One famous retail chain has programmed its cash register to calculate how fast cookies are selling and then tell the retail associate when to put in a new batch. Now that sucks. You make minimum wage, wear a stupid uniform, stand in front of a hot oven all day and have to take orders from a cash register.  That would seem to me to be bad.

But most jobs college graduates get in the corporate world aren’t like that. Those jobs tend to pay pretty well, you don’t work very hard, and they are often downright interesting.  Some have tremendous perks like international travel and generous education reimbursement. Sure, some days they suck. All jobs suck some of the time. Even Hollywood sucks some of the time. Ask Lindsay Lohan.  But all in all, the suck factor in business is relatively low.  And even the  coolest jobs have some parts that suck. For example:

1. Not-for-Profit

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Because it sounds so darn noble. And rich kids do it, so it must be desirable.

The Part that Sucks: The basic job description is panhandling, hitting people up for money. And the not-for-profit people I know spend endless time in meetings, much of it with people who are well intended but perhaps not the most efficient in the world, including the rich donors who got a marketing degree way back when and now want to “help” you re-design the annual fundraiser invitation.

2. Medical Doctor

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Three reasons. Prestige, the chance to help people, and money.

The Part that Sucks: The typical med school graduate leaves school $150K in debt.  Some leave with $300K.

An average GP in private practice makes $150K.

It’s pretty hard to pay back $300K on a salary of $150K and move in the social circles doctors move in, so most doctors these days take a different route—they work for medical corporations. Medical corporations are large, complex operations, managed as factories.  Receptionist puts patient in a room; medical technician takes vitals and puts into computer; nurse takes blood sample; doctors comes in, reads chart, nods, writes scrip, leaves; a different nurse practitioner explains the prescribed therapy. Just like a car moving along the assembly line at the auto plant.  Every worker does their job, hits the button, and the line moves on. Next.

To hear my MD friends describe it, it’s a Faustian bargain. You can own your own practice, spend 30 minutes per patient, really get to know them, drive a Camry, and never pay your loans back. Or you can make some real money by working in a very high end factory where you spend 5 minutes per patient and don’t know their names. Deal or no deal?

Of course, you can make even more money if you become a specialist, and look at the same exact wart 45 times each day, every day, 250 days a year.


3. Pro Athlete

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Umpteen thousand years ago, the biggest, toughest hunter got the choicest hunk of mastodon meat and got to sleep closest to the fire with fattest girl.  And they still do.

The median pro football salary is $770,000 a year. A pro athlete can always get a table in a restaurant, and Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with 25,000 women. That’s three different women a day. Not likely. But it is true that professional athletes of both sexes tend to get lots of opportunities for sex. I recently read an article about groupies at bass fishing tournaments.

Seems fair to me. Being 7 feet tall and 300 lbs is pretty inconvenient. Might as well get something out of it.

The Part that Sucks: Short career, no job security, and a fifty year second act.

The average career of a top level pro football player is 3.5 years. (And remember, Brett Farve really messes up the average.  The median is probably far below that.) Baseball 2.7. Hockey 5.  A successful athlete is washed up and sent home at 28.

Every year, your employer holds tryouts with the stated objective of finding someone who can do your job better and cheaper.  This is true of every professional athletic endeavor, from baseball to ballet to bowling.

Yes, it’s great to be a top ten golfer and fly around the world in your private jet.  But most pros travel by car, don’t get paid at half the tournaments they compete in, and worry about making the top 125 in money winnings each year so they aren’t relegated to the minor leagues (Nationwide Tour or Q School.)  It’s like working in a company that lays off 30% of the workforce every single year.

For those who do wash out, the future’s not that great. Every sport has injuries, even golf, and ex-athletes are often injured for life. Many are maimed. Sadly, very few keep all those big bucks. According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of ex-football players end up broke and 60% of NBA players are broke after five years.

Even worse, though, at least based on the retired pros I’ve met, is the “didn’t-you-used-to-be” factor.  Most of us can gracefully edge away from the reality that we were smarter, stronger, faster and more interesting twenty years ago. We don’t have people in restaurants tapping us on the shoulder and reminding us how much better our younger selves were.

4. CEO

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Fabulous pay and everyone has to do what you tell them. CEOs are to our modern society what dukes were to thirteenth century England.

The Part that Sucks: I know a lot of CEOs.  Some of them have suggested that I might want to be a CEO at some point. I tell them: Never. Never. Never. Not for a minute.

The problem with being a CEO is it’s 24/7.  You’re always on. Always being watched. From the moment your driver picks you up at 6 a.m. until he drops you off at midnight, you are ON. Every morning you get a list of what you will be doing every minute of the day.

Forget going into your office, kicking off your shoes, and calling in a colleague for a relaxed five minute chat. There are no five minute holes in the schedule or colleagues or relaxed chats. The CEO of a large corporation can make or break a career with a few words. Everyone he meets has an agenda and shapes their answer to get his or her support. “Is it raining outside?” “Do you want it to be raining outside, sir?” The bigger the corporation, the worse the problem.

Forget letting your hair down. Forget being goofy or stupid at a party. It’s a lonely gig. Sort of like being the winner of Survivor Nicaragua, but worse. You have the immunity necklace, but you never get to go home.

5. Farmer

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Because they have never worked on a farm.

The Part that Sucks: It’s relentless.  You never get caught up, much less ahead, and all your hard work can be wiped out with a single hailstorm.

Nor is the job quite as noble as the Farm Aid guys suggest. I own a farm and most of my neighbors are pretty outspoken that government handouts need to end. They better be glad no one takes them at their word, because agriculture receives huge levels of government support. In countries where agriculture is not subsidized, farmers live at subsistence levels.

6. Concert Violinist

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: The prestige associated with being “an artist.”

The Part that Sucks: (Let’s not get hung up on whether or not executing a series of carefully prescribed physical tasks is really “art.”)

The truth is working as a concert musician actually is a great gig. The pay is very good, the hours light, and it’s heavily unionized. It’s sufficiently undemanding that many concert musicians actually have fulltime side jobs and you can work until you’re eighty years old if you want to, just sit up on stage and take a nap until the guy behind you pokes you with his bow.

The problem is it’s such a good gig that no one every leaves it. Every year dozens of wonderfully talented young people fly all over the world auditioning for the two or three jobs that open up.  Most will end up doing something else.

Nice work if you can get it. But you can’t.

7. Novelist

Why People Think The Job is  Cool: Because Hemingway sold the world on the idea that novelists lead great and glamorous lives full of travel, drunken fun and unapologetic promiscuity.

The Part that Sucks: I confess, I have written five novels and had two published. I love the process of writing, but I hated being a novelist.

First of all, novelist is a job. You write what people want to read, not necessarily what you want to write. If you’re lucky, it’s both. But most aren’t.

And the pay is horrible because novelist is a job with what we MBAs call low barriers to entry, meaning anyone can give it a try.  Low barrier jobs tend to not pay well. True, Jim Patterson makes millions, but the average novelist makes almost nothing. A few years ago at an Author’s Guild panel a publisher made an impassioned plea for publishers to pay enough so every novelist could earn a “fair living wage.” In answer to a follow-up question, he said that would be “about $25,000.”  I don’t think the Hemingway lifestyle works on $25K a year.

And finally, until you consistently hit the bestseller list, it is the author’s responsibility to market his or her work. Most of us writers are introverts, and self-promotion doesn’t come naturally.  I can tell you, the loneliest place in the world is at a table in Border’s, watching while someone walks over, picks up your book, reads the back cover, puts it down and walks away.  It’s like having an endless line of people walk up and tell you your child is ugly. It hurts.

Those are my seven, but I probably could have made the list much longer. Bed and breakfast owner. Porn star. (Supposedly, porn stars don’t get paid terribly well, and there’s a sliding scale depending on what the actor is willing to do and with whom.  Getting paid to have sex that doesn’t hurt with beautiful people of the opposite sex is bottom of the pay scale. But I admit, I don’t really know much about it. Darn it.) Chef. Flight attendant.

My guess is every job sucks some. Otherwise, no one would pay you to come to work.

Categories: Arts/Literature, Business/Finance

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9 replies »

  1. 1) There’s a big difference between a non-profit (yes, you spend your time begging or ass-kissing) and not-for-profit. I’ve worked for a not-for-profit and it was the best job in all respects – creativity, respect, pay, benefits. professionalism.

    2) Friend was a fine neurosurgeon, huge income – but also huge malpractice insurance.

    4/5) CEOs get a break from time to time, farmers never. I’ve known farmers/ranchers who literally haven’t had a day off in 50 years. You farm only if you love it – otherwise it’s the pits.

    6) For every successful musician, there are hundreds more just as good – just not as lucky.

    7) Good: anyone can write and publish aa book.
    Bad: anyone can write and publish a book.
    Ugly: Damn few can make a decent living at it, particularly writing quality prose.

  2. Wow, you’ve got a lot of the bases covered. I might add from personal experience.

    I worked for not-for-profits for twenty some years. It was hard work, compensation was low compared to the business world, but, I still have no regrets because I was able to maintain a passion for doing something that I thought mattered. I still think it mattered. I might have been able to design, develop and market widgets, and that might have benefited the world too. But, I wouldn’t have been as happy. The worst part was working long hours, Eighty hour weeks were not uncommon, and if I told you the worst of it you would call me a liar. (I was doing this while Reagan was President and everyone was convinced that we just filled out a timesheet and collected our pay.) I wouldn’t change it if I could.

    I should add that the programs I managed were involved a lot of medical care which contributed to the demands of the job. Maybe there are some rich kids at the top of the chain, but that wasn’t true with any of the programs that I worked for. Whether it “sounds noble” or not is subjective. We were doing something that needed to be done.

    My wife is a Mid Level Service Provider, you know, “almost a doctor”. I helped her through school, but we still had a lot of debt when she graduated. The answer, work for a few years in an underserved rural area, many of which will have a programs to pay off your school loans. It worked for us.

    The downside? It is very taxing both physically and mentally. If you’ve never had to work a 24 or 32 hour shift you have no idea. If you have, imagine doing so if every one of your decisions could affect someone’s life. Burnout is high.

    As an anecdote, when my wife was a Labor and Delivery Nurse a family came in for care and said, “Excuse me, but a homeless person has fallen asleep on your side walk.” My wife looked out and explained, “Oh no, that’s just our Ob-Gyn.” The doctor had been on call for 72 hours and she had fallen asleep from exhaustion.

    I have been farming for 12 years. My parents had a farm when I was a kid and it didn’t end well. You are right on the money about it. But, somehow, even when I think of retiring overseas, I still look at micro-farms. It’s lousy at times, but hard to quit.

    I think your main point is spot on. All jobs have aspects that “suck”. The best you can do is try to make a bit of money and do a bit of good while you soldier on. But, don’t forget, there’s more to life than just your career.

  3. You left out “academic dean.” Mine is retiring at the end of this academic year, and the university’s president asked me I was interested in applying (you know, got a PHuD and 20 years’ professional experience.)

    I told her I know where she lives and I’d slash her tires if she ever mentioned it again. It. Is. Not. For. Me.

  4. Dr. D–my word yes! I would guess that academic dean would combine the worst of non profits and CEO-dom.

    And goatherd–you know, that’s a particularly interesting argument. For me, my careers have been the central organizaing principle of my life. I have a strong family and my writing constitutes a very strong hobby, but clearly both have been hung around my careers. I get the argument that it’s not a great central pillar–but it works for me. The clarity and lack of ambiguity inherent to exchanging time for money seems to work for me.

  5. Right. A man of vision, watching his life being shortened by several years, fighting with academic CEOs for resources, etc. Noooo thanks.