In the bowels of America’s heartland, a lone truck is leaving a parking lot in the early morning. Inside, a poet. He will work a few years, drifting into factories, roaring a chainsaw above a lake, and helping the men tear roads through America with giant machines. He will work. And you will hear about all of these wayward jobs in his later chapbooks; solemn hymns of the banality of manual labor, the idiocy of money, and dreariness of not being able to read all day.
‘Poets have to dream,’ says Saul Bellow, ‘and dreaming in America is no cinch.’
Inside a few graduate seminar rooms, bright students will read these books. These people of letters, out there in exile. Brilliant minds wasting away in the most minimal of all wages. And they will feel happy to be in this aesthetic room. Because they know that this too could be them.
Work is the curse of the thinking classes. It fights against our generation’s desire for an absence of functionality.
Work is the scar of poets who drift from their jobs as teachers, librarians, and commercial writers. Their salvation comes with the publication of their books, their grants, and the collective sigh of their audiences, happy to see them out on the other side.
When I left grad school, I thought that I was a literary scholar/cultural critic looking for work. Private industry doesn’t need any of those, I discovered.
As I mowed the lawns of rich estates, I’d remember the peasant mowers in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House. I don’t think that Marxist ideology was meant to be taught to liberal arts majors during their early twenties so that they could ruminate on the inequality of labour after they graduated into menial jobs.
It isn’t easy to be a poet in America. We all wish it was different. But it’s not. You’ll have to work. And the longer you dream of pure abstraction, the harder the fight.
There is an easier way for non-academics
Not a better way. Not an intellectual way. But an easier way.
Recently, the Adjunct Project published a post that featured some Pittsburgh united steelworkers union inspiring academic change. This is brilliant. I think that what academia needs is a little more blue-collar solidarity. And what holds a lot of our generation back is our refusal and fear of practical work. The middle-class thinks itself above labour. It idealizes the professional, the self-sufficient and highly trained, protected by their degree, their personal ambition, and their reluctance to settle for an ordinary day job.
This is perhaps proving to be a broken model. More and more, the middle-class is becoming the most vulnerable of worker. If the corporation fires you, none of your colleagues speak. And you have nowhere to go. You train yourself to fit inside the system and if the system ever rejects you, then you become irrelevant.
This is my perspective. Maybe all academics don’t resist blue-collar life. But I know I did. And I contradict myself to offer this way. This blog was written against it. I am without a doubt very middle-class.
Work, Freedom, and Thinking Beyond Abstract Skills
Here’s a book I admire. A book that I think some out-of-work MA’s and PhD’s should at least entertain. That is, if it seems impossibly hard.
This is not judgement. This is not–you MUST do this. It’s a reminder that when things seem impossibly hard–you could do this.
We–grad students, liberal arts majors, PhDs, academics–we make life harder for ourselves than it needs to be. We expect a lot. That isn’t a bad thing. But it is important to remember, like good Existentialists, that you always have a choice. You always have freedom.
Anyways, the book.
It’s called Never Get a Real Job. The author’s thesis? People our age, the babies of the baby-boomer generation, see getting rich as tied up with a job with social prestige. For us, you either start Facebook and get rich from abstraction. Or land a job in a think-tank. Or you live your fate of failure and wither in poverty.
Selling an app and making $50,000 is cool. Running a janitorial business that earns your family $5,000 per month is a meaningless existence and a waste of your talent.
But, the real business opportunities aren’t always abstract. Mostly, they are downright practical solutions to common needs.
It isn’t the only route. It isn’t the perfect route. But it is an option.
Because if there is one thing I’d like this blog to do for you, it’s to show you there is always a choice, an exit.
A story I like is a semi-famous internet marketer. While building his business, he worked as a janitor. The job allowed him time to study, to prepare, and enough money to get by. He was then able to work part-time after starting his business. And then leave it completely.
A dead-end job doesn’t need to be a dead-end. It can be a chance to prepare. Or a chance to reinvent yourself.
An example–the CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk had $500 in the bank. He bought a truck and began a junk-hauling business. This is a menial job not many of us would even consider. But his business grew. Now, he is the CEO of a massive company. It takes talent, humility, and intelligence to see that type opportunity.
The big point is this: don’t expect your life to change all at once. Don’t expect to be a graduate one day, a high-paid researcher in a marketing firm the next. Expect a period of transition between your MA or PhD and your new place outside of academia. By taking small calculated steps towards a non-academic job, you’ll find success and relevance outside of the academy.
The other point is–know what you want. Do you want money? Is that what a good job means to you? Or do you want prestige? For me, I think, I’d rather have more money than prestige. Simply because, in our culture, money is respected. Or would you settle for little pay as long as you have passion?
The clearer you are about your goal, the easier it becomes to plot a route. And there is no right or wrong way. A PhD turned entrepreneur is not a failure. And your success doesn’t need to stay within something you’d consider prestigious such as education, publishing, or consulting. The best business ideas solve very practical problems.
SO do you think our liberal arts and middle-class bias towards abstract jobs is holding us back from security, freedom, and success? What has been your experience with menial work? What do you want from your future job–money, prestige, passion?
How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days
This ebook is a 18 week challenge (126 days) where you are shown the exact steps and actions needed to get out of ‘liberal arts career limbo.’
The 126 Day challenge begins right where you are—broke, no idea of what you want to do, working a crappy job, and nothing more than a degree on your resume.
Week by week, the book offers a step-by-step program, helping you turn the big goal of finding a career into smaller, manageable daily actions.
- Weekly schedule and action list
- How to sell your BA, MA, or PhD to employers
- Actionable advice on how to find a job with no experience