In Praise of “Lame Jobs,” and Against Prestige

Yesterday, I shared a letter I wrote while unable to find a job after law school. I struggled with feelings of insecurity, in the face of my classmates’ apparent successes.

I wrote:

“I have a job, sort of. I work with a legal temp agency, where law firms hire me to come in and sort documents for their lawsuits. I’m more or less an administrative assistant in law firms where my classmates work as associates. I remember one day walking into a law firm and instantly feeling embarrassed as I saw a former classmate. She’s doing her dream job. I sort documents for her coworkers.”

The letter went on to describe the value of perseverance, and the refusal to give up, the commitment to keep working towards my goals even if they didn’t materialize immediately. I decided I’d share this letter on perseverance after I finally got that legal job I’d been working towards, and I did.

But I have one addition to and one regret from this letter. 

First, I hope that this letter can help dispel some of the insecurities that lead us to project false images of ourselves. These insecurities were extremely common among my peers at Notre Dame, many of whom are excessively career-oriented and come from families with high incomes (and even if they don’t, the majority of their peers have such families). Unfortunately, I think this breeds a lot of paranoia among students that everyone else somehow has figured out the “secret” to being super successful, while at the same time everyone works to put out an image of themselves as super successful, while at the same time they constantly feel like they’re not living up to the community’s expectations and are presenting it with a sham.

Notre Dame students, I think, are extremely prone to anxieties stemming from professional and prestige-oriented insecurities. The University doesn’t help with this. It seeks to cultivate “global leaders” with laundry lists of measurable achievements. Notre Dame both implicitly and explicitly pressures its students to be big fish in big ponds, and it leaves the students struggling just to keep their heads above water (or at least to appear that they’re doing so, when in reality they feel like they’re drowning). Incoming classes are praised for percentages of class presidents and valedictorians, record-breaking SAT scores, and national–or international–awards attained before the age of eighteen. As you sit at orientation, you shift in your chair, hoping your peers won’t notice you’ve done none of the above. Once at the University, we’re told to double major, to take on leadership roles in multiple clubs, to write a senior thesis, to apply for research grants, and to study abroad.

We don’t know why we should “take advantage of every opportunity,” except that this is what “the successful kids” are doing and these opportunities will lead to future opportunities which will lead to future opportunities which will leave us middle-aged and exhausted and unreflective and still unfulfilled, because our success is measured by prestige, something which eludes us as soon as we think we’ve attained it. Why is it that students already at a supposedly prestigious college still feel the need to pursue prestige? Because prestige is never truly attained, only pursued and perceived by its admirers.

The water of prestige is toxic, but we swim in it because we’re told it’s what we’re supposed to do. My regret is that my letter feeds in to these insecurities, by implying that my time as a “document sorter” was justified as a stepping stone in my career.

But contrary to what your ridiculously expensive degree may tell you, there really is nothing wrong with becoming that “document sorter” and then deciding to stay in that job. For some people, that really is a good job that fits in to what they want in life. And sometimes you are that person, but you won’t let yourself realize it because you’re obsessed with getting something else that you’ve convinced yourself you need (but really don’t). “Settling” shouldn’t just be perceived as something people do when they’ve given up. It can also be something people do when they’ve made a decision for happiness, when they’ve ended the Sisyphean push to prestige and found something worth holding on to.

For me, the “document sorter” job had flexibility and reasonable hours that gave me time to prioritize friendship, community, and creative pursuits. The lifestyle it facilitated was humane, a frequent antonym of “prestigious.” And I don’t think I’m better now for having a more competitive or higher-paying job. Rather, I now have other concerns, such as how to resist the allures of money and reputation that tempt us to turn our careers into our livelihoods, rather than our friends, families, and communities.

So if you are that “document sorter,” try to find ways to cherish your job. There are many goods that come with it. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that prestige is synonymous with value, or with happiness.

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