The best/worst job you ever had

(AP Photo)

Every 23 years or so, I like to do a talk show on MPR News just to stay sharp. Monday is the day. So let’s prepare accordingly.

I don’t have any guests lined up, except for you, assuming you’ve had a job of some sort in your life. The subject is your journey in search of your work self.

We’ve all mostly had them – the jobs that make us shake our head wondering why we ever took them. And – if we’re very lucky – the job that we never talk about using the word “job” (like this, for example).

Studs Terkel said every worker wants to point to something s(he) creates by toiling and say, “that’s me up there.”

Here’s why this subject has always fascinated me.

A few years ago, right around the time the economy was melting down and the hopelessness and fear about the future was on the rise, I spent every Wednesday on a MnSCU campus – a state or community college.

Stealing an idea from public radio legend Alex Chadwick, I brought a roll of quarters and a handmade sign that said “Conversations 50 Cents”, and I sat and waited for students to come talk to me about where their passion for what they intended to do came from – if indeed there was any passion at all.

jeff_swansonHis name was Jeff Swanson, and he was from Des Moines, Iowa, and he was a Lutheran pastor who didn’t want to be a Lutheran pastor anymore.

He wanted to get into forestry management and – if things went really well – some sort of job that involved bison. He loved bison.

He thought he was going to love being a pastor too. But he had health problems.

“I miss Sunday mornings,” he said at the time. “But I don’t miss Tuesdays through Saturdays too much,” he says.

Here’s what I wrote on NewsCut about him:

Swanson acknowledges that life at 52 isn’t what he expected at age 5, that’s when he first wanted to become a pastor. He thought he’d be a pastor of a large church, with a staff, living a comfortable life. “I’m missing the target,” he said. “My goals are different. I want to be less successful and more happy.” So far, so good, he says.

At Vermilion, he’s surrounded by students younger than him. And he’s got a message for them: “Do what makes you happy; you, not mom and dad and aunts and uncles. I became a pastor because of three blue-haired ladies in the front row at church. And I was a very good pastor but at the core of which is not what makes me happy and what makes me happy is nature, and outdoors.”

(Update) I learned after writing this post that Jeff worked for the National Forest Service and the Minnesota DNR. He’s now a pastor in Iowa. Now there’s a journey.

We make lots of compromises in our lives and sometimes with our jobs, too. Maybe they don’t fit quite right but they serve a financial purpose. We call this situation, “the golden handcuffs.”

Bob Borson, an architect, jumped to a firm that offered him a 36 percent raise, only to find that when he didn’t have a building to design, he read books to kill the time.

Well, I was sick of reading books so I went back to my prototype and continued to develop it … until the partner who told me not to spend more than 40 hours on it saw me spending more than 40 hours on it.

So she called me out – loudly – in front of the entire office to come into her office immediately! And by office, I mean 3-sided space on the other side of the wall … it was pretty much wide open for all to hear what was going on.

She chewed me out for a few minutes – maybe more than a few minutes, I don’t know … I stopped listening. When she was done, it went a little like this:

Partner: “Well? What do you have to say for yourself??”
Bob: “I quit”
Partner: [shocked looked on face] “What?”
Bob: “I quit. I am not going to work here. You have my two weeks notice as of this moment.”
Partner: “You’ve only been here for a few months … you certainly haven’t given it much time.”
Bob: “I see how this place is run … what is here for me? Partner? I don’t want your job so why would I want to stay and keep my job?”

So I turned, walked out of the partners office, and went back to my desk … with every set of eyeballs in the place boring into me. The guy I sat next to whispered over the partition “they’ll be over here in less than 5 minutes telling you to pack your things and leave.”

Five minutes came and went. The end of the day came and went. They never did ask me to leave but they didn’t ask me to do any work either. So I sat there for two weeks reading my books, basically doing nothing.

At one point, one of the other partners came over and asked if I would model an airplane he was currently building as a hobby. I politely told him “No, but if you have some work for me, I will gladly do it.” He didn’t, so I went back to reading my book.

When I left, the new job I had accepted paid me $32,500 – $5,500 less than what I was making at “cool building” firm … but $4,500 more than I was making just 4 months earlier. I learned a lesson at that time of my life that has stuck with me for the last 16 years … two lessons actually.

You can probably guess what the lesson he learned was. Perhaps you’ve learned it too.

What we do we do for a reason. What’s yours? What’s the best job you ever had? What was the worst? What are the compromises you’ve made? What job taught you lessons, the value of which you didn’t recognize until much later?

Submit your own story below. And take a break from taking a break on Monday, starting around 11 a.m., and give us a call at 651-227-6000 or 800-242-2828.