Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why can't a lumberjack be happy?

I was reading CNBC this morning and they had a slideshow where they ranked the best and worst jobs in America. The best job? A mathematician. The worst? A lumberjack. You can see how your job stacks up here.

I read up on the methodology used to determine how jobs rank and it seemed that jobs requiring physical energy were determined to be more negative. That is, the more energy required the more likely the job was to be in the "worst" category. This methodology seems flawed to me. What if moving around is something you love. Some people would die in some of the less active jobs mentioned as "best" jobs. I think whether your job is the best or worst depends on how you perceive and feel about the work you are doing. I understand that some of the jobs described as "worst" are dangerous, but does that always mean that the person doing them is unhappy? What if they felt miserable as an accountant or statistician?

It seems to me that people would be better off choosing a job based on their strengths-- even if those strengths happen to be in one America's worst jobs. A book like What Color Is Your Parachute? 2009: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers would be a more helpful way of deciding on a career than ditching a job choice because CNBC or some study group called it "the worst job in America."


Blogger Cham said...

I know a mathematician. He and I have similar interests and some of the same social circles. He's miserable. In fact, he is the most miserable person I know. When he's around I find an excuse to leave. He's pessimistic, feels like the world hasn't given him enough and he also knows more than everyone else. He might have one of the best jobs, but the job doesn't seem to be making him a very happy person.

I've often wondered about physical jobs and whether I would be happier with a job that would allow me to move around all day. I could get my physical exercise on the job and then be able to relax in the evening. I think it would be fun to work at a coffee place, I could move around and meet people all day.

8:11 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

I never wanted to be a math teacher in the first place...

I wanted to be...


I'm a lumberjack, and I'm okay! I sleep all night and I...

sorry. Couldn't resist. In all seriousness, I've been a public school math teacher for 6 years. I'm equally torn between wanting to spend my career as being one of the only things standing between these kids and the incompetents all around them, and wanting to ditch this career for one with more brain usage and less BS.

One of the big things about teaching is how great the hours are for raising a family. I occasionally think about going into the culinary arts, but the problem is that the hours a chef has to work are precisely the hours I don't want to work. Staying in this area and raising my family are my biggest priority. Since my wife will be making more than enough money once she finishes her anesthesia fellowship, I can subordinate other considerations to those.

8:34 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger pst314 said...

My closest friend is extremely well-read and people who meet him often assume that he must be a professor at the university down the street. They are very surprised to learn that he works at factory. He said once that he knew as a young man that he could never stand to be cooped up indoors all day with no sun and no physical activity, and so he chose to skip college and has always had jobs that required physical labor and at least some time outdoors.

I suppose the only lesson we can learn from that study is that any fool with a college degree can create a "study" and any fool with a journalism degree can quote it. No wonder journalists get so little respect.

8:37 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger The Anachronist said...

Well, I already knew chartered accountants are miserable, as well as boring, dreary, dull, and irrepressibly awful. Perhaps lion tamers are happier.

9:21 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger David Foster said...

The analysis is silly, in that it discounts individual preferences and implicitly assumes that everyone is looking to minimize stress. It also seems to completely ignore the sense of satisfaction that most people get from tangible accomplishment.

Immediately after getting a PhD in English, Linda Niemann took a job as a brakeman with the Southern Pacific railroad. In her memoir, she writes:

"We moved stuff people used to build their houses, get from place to place, and to put on their table. I felt a part of it all, whatever 'it all' was--something I had never felt before."

9:24 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I'm in there with OWTFV, as a kid I wanted to be a lumberjack, pretended to be Paul Bunyan and read stories of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. I changed my mind when I realized that lumberjacks spend too much time away from women. I'm still pretty good with an axe.

I'd recommend caution against "What Color is Your Parachuste." I used it to decide what area to study in graduate school and it was a complete bust. The book doesn't consider job demand and earning potential heavily enough.

The theory of the book is to find a job doing something you love to do and everything else will be OK. I say find a job that you can at least happily tolerate that pays at least decently and then have fun on your free time.

9:56 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree the methodology seems flawed.

While a mathematician may be in a job that has less external pressure, it can also lend itself to isolation and lack of physical activity. (They aren't all professors. One of the largest employers of mathematicians is the security-defense complex. Think cryptography and analysis.)

From other studies I've seen a satisfying job needs:

1) A feeling of accomplishment or an obvious measure of success or failure. This is one good aspect of sales -- you immediately have a daily measure of your performance and don't have to wait for feedback.

2) A sense that what you do is important or meaningful. (Would anyone notice if you weren't there?)

3) A sense that you are appreciated. Even if your job is saving the world, it can get frustrating if no one gives you any credit.

Now satisfying isn't necessarily a synonym for happy, but they are related. It seems to me a lumberjack would have a fairly good shot at fulfilling the first two criteria without much effort. The third often depends on the individuals you work with, and a bad boss can sour even the best job. It also seems to me that being President of the US is only strong on the second one, and you have the most fickle bosses on the planet.

10:04 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger David Foster said...

Also, it's not correct that jobs like "mathematician" and "computer engineer" are inherently low stress. I'm pretty sure that being a computer engineer at Apple, working on the iPhone, with deadline time approaching, was a pretty high-stress job. And being a mathematician at NSA, in the aftermath of 9/11, was probably even higher stress.

There really is a shortage of good information & analysis for kids who are trying to choose careers.

10:18 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger George Weiss said...

how does paralegal beat federal judge by more than 20 slots!

10:31 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Adrian said...

I think you guys are missing the point. OBVIOUSLY individual preferences and exceptional cases exist to make just going by the report a silly move for career counseling for anyone. Is that what this is really all about? I think this is more supposed to be kind of like "the market-value of" based on "typical preferences and typical situations". In fact, it strikes me as being very much like what investment bankers sometimes do when they try to find undervalued stock in a value-type mutual fund. In some sense the market has spoken such that all jobs should have exactly equal market value. But, like the surface of a lake, there is always something going on to make it uneven, and so some jobs are better than others in some sort of case of short term arbitrage or something.

To me, the *real* flaw in it all is it doesn't account for what it takes to become one of those. To become a mathematician, you have to get your PhD in math which includes passing some of the hardest tests of all professions (from doing well on the GRE to qualifying exams to comprehensive exams to actually being able to solve a significant problem in mathematics). Being an actuary is similar -- you get out of school and then you have a long road of actuarial exams ahead of you. Being a lumberjack or a dairy farmer doesn't require any of that or even a college degree -- probably not even a high school diploma if push comes to shove. So, the job of a mathematician can be pretty sweet... once you are a full tenured professor somewhere. But, that's only after you have stayed in school longer and passed more exams than most professions as well as published or perished and so on for literally decades.

10:42 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger David Foster said...

The fact that two people have the same job title--like "welder"--doesn't mean that their jobs are very similar in terms of the actual work or the compensation. A welder working in Joe's Auto Repair Shop has a very different job from one working at an auto assembly plant, who in turn has a very different working life from a welder working on offshore oil platforms.

I also question the accuracy of some of the data in the report. #116, "pilot," cites an average income of $118K. This may be true for Captains with major airlines, but it cannot be true across the spectrum of all those who earn their living as pilots. And the job descripton for #119, "railroad conductor," is just plain wrong.

10:50 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Adrian said...

Incidentally, I could have been a mathematician. I had passed the qualifying exams, but instead of going on to pick a specialty and and advisor, I basically just got out with my masters degree with little or no further effort on my part. I wrapped up in 2 years after my bachelors degree. My office mates in graduate school both ended up walking away without their PhDs but after several more years. They passed their comprehensive exams just fine. (You normally do if you have an advisor that takes care of you.) But, they just petered out on the dissertation. One of them did it -- he solved the problem and everything, but in the end it just ended up not being big enough for his advisor. So, after 6 years I think it was of graduate school, he eventually just went and became a programmer.

At the time I dropped out, there were all these horror stories about people going for years without jobs and endless post-docing (where you have gotten your PhD but take a non-tenure-track temporary appointment -- it became quite common in the 90s when I left school). You have to do some good work after you get out to show that you can do it without your advisor holding your hand. All along the way, I think you will find people dropping out in droves. A lot of the time, people just lose interest -- they are tired of having to wait around to finally get started with the rest of their life. (You know, get married, buy a house, have some kids, etc.) If you wait until you finally get tenure to actually FINALLY be able to settle down, then you could be in your 40s. (I don't think most people do that, though, but yes -- you are talking 8 years of grad school being typical now. Another 3 years of post doc that used to never exist. Another 5 or 6 before you actually GET the tenure in your tenure TRACK position. That all adds up to being like 38 or 39.)

10:57 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Ern said...

The poll is a measure of how happy the people in those jobs are in those jobs. It certainly can't be used as a measure of how happy the "average" person would be in each of those jobs. Each occupation is already self-selected to a great extent.

My own advice, to those who, on occasion, ask it, is to find something that you do well, that you love doing, and at which you can earn a living. I find that people with jobs that satisfy those three criteria are typically very happy in them. I had to change from being a pricing manager for a software vendor to being a self-employed software developer (a job in which my academic credentials are irrelevant) at age forty-eight to put myself in a situation like that.

11:13 AM, January 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd always wanted to write but decided to pursue employment in an industry where I could make enough to support my family, put a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my belly...I only ask that my job leave me enough time to write...That way I can write whatever I want weather it sells or not without somebody else telling what to write for a living...

11:18 AM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger J. Bowen said...

You know, I was looking through that list and something struck me. The worse a job is, according to this list, the more I want to have it. Why? Well, common sense tells me that many of those jobs are going to be male-dominated. Most of the jobs that I've had were in male-dominated fields or were in areas of companies that were male-dominated. The few jobs that I had where there were women [i]in[/i] the workplace with me were terrible. I was always having to walk on eggshells, do extra work, lift this, and move that. I would rather enjoy my crappy job than have a great job that I hated.

12:02 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Helen said...


"I'd recommend caution against "What Color is Your Parachuste." I used it to decide what area to study in graduate school and it was a complete bust. The book doesn't consider job demand and earning potential heavily enough."

Good point. Sometimes, something you love should be a hobby--not a job.

12:06 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger David Foster said...

Ern..."The poll is a measure of how happy the people in those jobs are in those jobs"...that's not how the methodology is described in the link that Helen provides above.

12:35 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger John said...

Guys, really. Have any of you ever had a job where you had to do manual labor week in and week out? It stinks. Your back aches, you're exhausted at the end of the day, and it's boring. You can't do it much after you reach 40. Somebody would have to have a VERY sanguine attitude to enjoy it on anything other than a temporary basis. I bet most people who have the worst jobs only do it for a few years.

1:03 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Mark O. Martin said...

My wife is a mathematician, and she laughed and laughed about the poll. She said that there were mathematicians and then there were mathematicians.

She is sometimes obscure, but I think I get where she is going: the difference between a job and a career and a calling.

The real measure is if you love it. That's it.

There is a great book, called "Feynman's Rainbow." It's on Amazon, and worth your time. The author, a self-absorbed physics whiz kid had a very fancy postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech: he got to do anything he wanted. And he stressed and stressed and stressed about it. He had many conversations with the late great physicist R.P. Feynman.

Feynman's "Final Exam" on the subject of whether or not the author should continue to "do" physics is wonderful. It's worth your time to read, because it applies to so much more than physics.

6:28 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Porky said...

Sounds like a bunch of middle class researchers minimizing the worth of the working class.

7:05 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger BobH said...

There's no reason that a lumberjack can't feel happy, assming that he (or she) feels adequately "compensated" for the risk, physical effort and other unpleasantries associated with the job. That's why it's called compensation and it might take the form of social status, special benefits and/or cold hard cash. Military personnel may sometimes be shot at as part of their jobs, but they receive tremendous social status as a result of that risk. Being a coal miner is likewise pretty risky, but I suspect that they are very will paid.

7:10 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Ern said...

David -

You are absolutely right. I stand corrected.

7:38 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger highlander said...

CNBC here has come up with a really stupid analysis.

What is the "best" and "worst" job is a purely individual matter. The best job for one person will be the worst for someone else.

And what's the point anyway? Anyone who chooses a career based on CNBC's rankings would, if anything, be stupider than those who came up with the rankings.

A good job is one which allows a person to make a genuine contribution based on their particular skills and interests, and which provides them with adequate compensation and recognition in return.

Depending on the individual characteristics of the person doing it, any job can be the best -- or the worst.

10:04 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Adrian --

"Being a lumberjack or a dairy farmer doesn't require any of that or even a college degree -- probably not even a high school diploma if push comes to shove."

True. But it can maim and kill you.

Having actually done lumber work, from the tree cutting to the saw-mill, I can tell you first hand it sucks very big time.

Accidents are frequent and sometimes they're fatal. There's a way a tree can get hung up in other trees that gives it the name "widow maker" and I've seen a split saw kick a three or four hundred pound log backwards past the operator by some twenty feet.

11:26 PM, January 11, 2009  
Blogger Ken said...

CNBC is required as part of the lapdog media to make intellectuals feel superior. Academics and journalists must be praised at all cost and anyone who accomplishes anything physical must be degraded.

1:27 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger highlander said...

Yeah, Oligonicella, I've heard tell up here in the NW that working on the green chain is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps the best part is that it provides strong motivation to go find something else to do.

1:57 AM, January 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems the best job in America is to work for where one can sit at a computer screen and judge everyone elses job from on high. If they're not hiring, get the second best job in America with CNBC and report's findings.

At my age and place in time, I would love to teach what I have been doing for the last 35 years to people who are completely interested in doing it themselves. That would be, in my current state of mind, a "dream job". As long as I could walk and think, I would be there every day. The look in a person's eyes, the look on their face when they "get it", makes life worth living.

If people can start out at a level of knowledge that took me 35 years to attain, I can't help but wonder what they could learn and perhaps pass on themselves.

6:40 AM, January 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with being a lumberjack is that they won't be able to get a quality wife - they simply don't earn enough.

7:24 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger Todd said...

Well honestly, your first mistake was reading CNBC. Why any rational person would put themselves through that is a mystery to me…

8:30 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger Brett Rogers said...

The book, 12: The Elements of Great Managing, is a worthwhile book from Gallup (the folks who published StrengthsFinder) about what makes for happiness in the workplace and on the job.

9:26 AM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger ak said...

During our state fair, we have a daily lumberjack demonstration. Having seen a few now, I'd say it's a terrifying profession. Just the demos are scary enough, with all the axes and chain saws. I've almost bled out cutting vegetables for dinner, so I wouldn't have survived five minutes as a lumberjack.

My job ranks at no. 31. "Editor" is the go-to job in movies, I've noticed, when it needs to be suggested that the main character is smart but a little nerdy and needs to get out more. For an office job, it's probably above-average. It can get boring, but on the hand, it doesn't usually involve axes and chain saws.

1:02 PM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger iconoclast said...

Lydia***is a "quality wife" defined by her use of MONEY as the main thing she looks for in choosing a husband?

Maybe there are some women who are not overwhelmingly obsessed by status & possession and/or who have enough income of their own that they can choose a man based on his other attributes. Ya think--or is this just fantasy?

2:10 PM, January 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:57 PM, January 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:57 PM, January 12, 2009  
Blogger Mad William Flint said...

+1 for reversing those professions.

3:36 PM, January 12, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lydia, I must say it is a blast to read your posts. No matter how warped your points of view are, it is refreshing, at least, to see you come right out and speak them. It's rare. That's not to say that some things aren't better off rare.

8:09 AM, January 13, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:28 PM, January 13, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sometimes perplexed by the desire of many women to marry men in the fields of medicine, law or business management of larger corporations.

All I can conclude is that these women would like interesting conversation in areas other than their own major fields. But it is still odd that medicine and law, in particular, have more of a focus than other pursuits that the women themselves are not involved in.

12:28 PM, January 13, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes women develop odd interests - Jackie Kennedy, for instance, developed a keen interest in Greek shipping after her husband was shot. I guess it didn't hurt any that Aristotle O. was very good looking!

1:18 PM, January 13, 2009  
Blogger The Dude said...

I saw wood - not a full time lumberjack, just enough wood to keep my house warm and to produce stock for my woodworking hobby. I am very happy.

Used to be an engineer. That was nice, and the money made me happy, but all things considered, I would rather be in the woods.

6:22 PM, January 14, 2009  
Blogger SGT Ted said...

What else could one expect of a review of jobs by people who sit on their ass in A/C offices all day? Their idea of hard work is a late night putting together a Powerpoint presentation for the bosses morning meeting, or maybe some heavy yard work on the weekend.

1:18 PM, January 19, 2009  
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