I had two job interviews last week, and I am currently trying to figure out whether or not I want to work in a large multinational corporation. At least one of the jobs sounds very attractive, with a likable boss, a nice team, and an interesting and complex topic to work on. The working conditions would be really nice too.
Should I accept the job if I get it?
This is what I imagine working for a big corporation feels like:
You’re somewhere in the belly of a huge ocean cruiser, making sure that some aspect of the engines run smoothly, but you do not see where the cruiser is going, why it is going where it goes, and you are not sure whether it might currently be in the process of running over a small fishing boat or polluting the sea with oil. But at least someone is paying the cruiser for what it does. You feel some loyalty to the rest of the huge crew in the cruiser and you know that they all depend on the engines working well, maybe you also feel loyalty to the passengers who are paying your salary, but the captain and his plans are extremely far away from you, and you suspect the captain may be evil, you don’t know, you will certainly never meet him except when you see him in the news.
But you are surrounded by a nice team of specialists working on the engines with you. You have fun together and you can use your talents and capacities really well. Your direct boss is likable and praises you for your effort. You earn good money and you can live a life in safety.
Is that good enough?
There are other types of jobs possible, of course, besides working in a huge corporation. I could teach, work in some small start-up, maybe even in non-profit organisations, in applied research etc.
But now the big shiny cruiser does look beautiful to me in some way. I am not entirely sure why. Maybe it is because I would be working in a team with female economists and law specialists, instead with again a majority of men, like would be the case in most other jobs I have been considering. I would really like to work closely with people with a completely different background than me, I would really not mind to learn about law and economics.
Another suspicion I have about the jobs that seem more meaningful than working for a large corporation – like working in a start-up, or in a non-profit, or some king of research institution – is that those jobs want you to give yourself to them entirely, and get very little in return in terms of stability and money. I have had enough of this in research. My effort was partially paid in me “feeling I was doing something useful and noble and meaningful” (which I am not sure I did in retrospect). And looking back, this payment was clearly not enough and still makes me feel cheated somehow. I feel I have been giving much more than I got back. In teaching, the ratio between giving and receiving seemed somewhat more fair to me, although it is still a job that wants to eat you up if you take it seriously (and I can’t avoid taking teaching seriously).
Maybe every job everywhere always wants you to give it everything, and what you have to do is simply to fight back as much as you can. Maybe my positive feeling about the corporation job partially comes from a vague idea that it is easier fighting back if the job is less idealistic. Perhaps it is easier to not work on the weekends if the job is not about “expanding the human knowledge” or “looking after the new generation”, which are really noble goals, but “letting a huge, very profitable cruiser make even more profit”. Is that the reason I am considering it?
I am someone who can get very obsessive, very driven, and who can easily give up her well-being in order to reach some goal that I find meaningful. Is the solution to that to have a work that is not too meaningful?
I once read a story about a guy who was a successful theater director. He was so passionate about theater that he became manic during work-intense persiods, following by depression, and so developed the full-blown bipolar disorder that was running in his family. He then realized that it was impossible for him to be a sane person while doing something he cared about so much. And he actually got another degree, became an accountant, and lived happily ever after.
This story is absolutely the opposite of what you read in every career-counseling book, about “following your passion”, even when this means living in poor conditions and working like crazy, because “work will feel like free time” in this way, and also “success will magically happen if you do whatever you are really passionate about”.
First of all, this is not true, but even if you manage to be successful with your passionate about, at what cost will this success come? If you are doing what you are passionate about, but are so stressed and driven that the seasons go by without you noticing, and the friendships feel like a chore, then something is wrong.
Of course, something might also be wrong if your work feels so pointless that the pointlessness of it starts to infect your personality, your outlook on life, and your mood. But I am not sure if this actually happens if the work is challenging and your colleagues are nice. Maybe then the eventual pointlessness is something you do not care about.
I think the type of work I would be doing is not unethical, but it is also not especially ethical. I guess it is neutral. And that feels a bit weird. But I have to admit that most of my research has had an entirely neutral effect on the world too, and it ate me up completely and made my life very hard. And so my net effect on the world, if I include myself and the people closest to me in the calculation, which I should, might be more positive in the big corporation than it was in academia.