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Psychology At Work

Psychology At Work

The Best and Worst Jobs in America

April 16, 2012
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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Congratulations, human resources managers! According to a widely publicized list released last week by a career services firm, yours is the third best job in America. Apparently, this is because it is stress-free and you make a cool $100,000. So ignore those silly idiots in the office who make your life a living hell, relax and go shopping! You can afford it.

To my colleagues in the business of writing and reporting, condolences. “Reporter” ranked 195 out of the 200 jobs listed, and “photojournalist” only 166. Photojournalist? I thought that job meant flying around the world on expense account, having a three-day stubble and chain-smoking Gauloises with hot, mysterious locals. Guess not.

Returning back to the winners for a second, we have actuaries clocking in at No. 2.  Hard to argue here: when I think PARTY I think ACTUARY.

What about job No. 200, the worst of the worst? Lumberjack. “The second you lose respect for the trees or the tools, it can come back and bite you,” said Jake Rosa, owner of Dry Brook Custom Sawmilling in Upstate New York, when interviewed about lumberjacking in the report. Jake, I never lose respect for the trees or the tools, trust me.

Lumberjacking actually seems kind of cool - you’re outside in crisp air, wearing flannels and a woolen cap, and getting great exercise. Sooner or later there you’ll be a star on Discovery Channel, like those folks on "Deadliest Catch" or "Ice Road Truckers." What’s not to like? Remember the famous Monty Python bit: "I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK”? Lumberjack needs to be moved up. Along with photojournalist.

The point of this, of course, is that a list of the "Best and Worst Jobs in America" is utter nonsense. That didn’t prevent it from being picked up by many media outlets, like all too much that passes for “research” or “studies” in our attention-deficit culture. It's kind of sad. At a time when millions of young people are looking for careers that offer not just a paycheck but a hope for fulfillment and happiness at work, it is a symbol of the shallowness of our national dialogue about work and life that things like this make the news.

The “metrics” of the study, so to speak, focused on items like “safety” and “lack of stress,” as well as career prospects. Not unimportant, mind you, but they left out what also matters in a job -  freedom from tyrannical bosses, the ability to use your strengths in your job, your intrinsic motivation toward the work and the chance to find meaning in a career.

Herein lies the fallacy of rankings such as this. While common sense tells us some jobs are “better” than others in most ways (hedge fund billionaire vs. ditch digger, perhaps), they ignore the fact that work satisfaction depends on many other factors which aren’t usually measured in large surveys. If you love shovels and being outdoors, ditch digging might be the best job in America for you.

It is too easy to find exceptions to lists like these to give them the attention the mainstream media does. I know, “the exception makes the rule,” but not when they are so numerous. For example, butcher comes in at 191. If you are lucky enough to live in community with an old-time butcher, they seem to be pretty content in their jobs. Many are their own boss, and are friends with their regulars. Pretty good way to make a living. If a butcher happens to work at a big chain for some misanthrope of a meat manager, he can take out his frustrations with a blade on a chuck roast (an option not available to most of us). Or how about dental hygienist, No. 4 on the list of best jobs? The last time someone stuck her hands in my mouth in a dental chair, she didn’t look like she was having a very good time.

What is the key takeaway? The best jobs are one where you use your strengths and personality in your work, not ones that rank highly on some bogus list.  If you are a “devil may care” extrovert, try to avoid jobs where you spend the day locked in a basement in front of a computer screen. If you hate sales, turn down that “developmental opportunity” in trade marketing. If the only numbers you like to crunch are betting lines, don’t go into accounting. Know thyself, and find work that is a fit.

You will have one of the “Best Jobs in America.” You might even become a lumberjack.

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