career tips
5:00 am
Mon April 22, 2013

Want to be a gorilla caretaker? Go for it! Job lessons from Workstew

Kate Gace Walton was tired of public relations. Helping create goofy marketing campaigns like unspooling the world's longest hot dog at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics just wasn't fulfilling anymore.

But what would be fulfilling? She stewed about it. Then she wrote an essay, Random Acts of Business, about her search for a job with meaning.

She posted her essay online, and started to hear from people who wanted do the same thing.

Kate Gace Walton at work on her web site, Workstew
Credit Chris Walton

"Suddenly I realized there was something here—that a forum for people to stew out loud a little bit about what they do for a living, how they feel about it that isn't the kind of conversation we're having about careers most of the time," Walton said.

Workstew

So Walton started an Internet salon of sorts called Workstew. She now works by day as a manager of a small recruitment business, and, after putting her kids to bed, curates and edits essays by people from all over exploring their career twists and turns and their efforts to find work with meaning. She also interviews people for a podcast—everyone from a high-rise window washer to a python hunter, to a lice removal expert.

It's a labor of love. She doesn't make any money from it, but she's satisfied.

"It's just something I love doing," Walton said. "It has brought me to a new understanding of what exactly I should appreciate about the job that I'm in now. And it's a complete delight to connect with the range of characters I connect with and to hear their stories."

Python hunter Ruben Ramirez

So what are some of the biggest lessons about work that have emerged from Workstew?

1. Find flow

Flow is a concept coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. It's the sense of being completely absorbed by what you're doing. And it's what Walton was searching for when she began writing about her hunt for a more satisfying career.

"I want to fully inhabit my work, to be wholly absorbed and utterly earnest," Walton wrote.

But isn't searching for flow a luxury only available to navel-gazing Yuppies? Walton says it can certainly be perceived that way.

"To yearn for flow amid high unemployment can sound a lot like bemoaning the price of arugula," she wrote.

But many Workstew essays show the payoff for people who do search for flow. 

Meg Heimovics Kumin wrote about her dad's mantra to her while she was growing up: “If you know what you want to do by age 32, you are going to be all right.” Except at age 32, Kumin's world fell apart. Out of that trauma and through the process of writing her essay, she eventually launched her dream career as a photographer.

The act of writing an essay for Workstew helped prompt Meg Heimovics Kumin to start her dream career as a photographer. This is one of her photos.

Walton says searching for flow doesn't have to be a full-time occupation; you can work your day job, pay the bills and search for meaning at the same time. Which leads to lesson #2.

2. 'Compromise is inevitable'; Don't feel bad about it

Even Gerald Casale, one of the founders of the punk band Devo, writes that he's had to compromise.

"We came with a fresh message and a shocking body of songs. People took notice and took it seriously," Casale wrote for Workstew. "Then reality set in."

Casale described how the band unraveled and how he has reinvented his career as a music video and TV commercial director—a job that's not as satisfying as his Devo career, but something that's made him money.

Walton says that is just a part of life. We can't ignore the need to provide for ourselves.

"Part of the reason why there is a real Workstew, why it's so complex is that there isn't just one need," Walton said. "You do have to make a living. You want it to be meaningful. You want to feel fulfilled. And all of these needs compete, and that's why it's a continual conundrum."

Still, listen to the crazy voices in your head.

3. If you want to be a gorilla caretaker, go for it.

How's this for a career 180? Going from flight attendant to gorilla caretaker.

That's what John Safkow did, and he explained why and how to Walton during a podcast.

Hearing stories of people who have actually pulled off massive career changes can inspire all of us, said Walton. 

"People make these extraordinary changes, not overnight, but I think part of it is just having the imagination to do that, to realize that you can do that," she said.

But how do you know what it is you want to do? Walton has a suggestion.

4. Listen to song lyrics

Kevin McHargue writes that the Counting Crows saved him from a career in corporate law.

Kevin McHargue writes that he had "stumbled into someone else's life"

He was toiling away at a corporate firm in Austin. But he was "profoundly unhappy." And the way he realized that was that he couldn't get these lyrics out of his head:

You get what you pay for, but I just had no
intention of living this way.

"I had talked myself into a life of working extremely hard to achieve goals that meant nothing to me," McHargue wrote. "I deserved better."

He took a leap, and—for a 50 percent pay cut—landed a job as a staffer on Capitol Hill.

"That choice ultimately led to a career path that was both fulfilling and financially rewarding," McHargue wrote. "But even if my new direction had turned out to be less lucrative, I think I would have still been happier. Following my own intentions rather than other people’s expectations is just more fun."

And that leads to the last lesson.

5. Would you jump off a cliff if everyone else was doing it, too?

No. But why, when it comes to careers, do so many of us wind up walking down well-worn paths that turn out to be unsatisfying?

The reason is that it can be scary to do something other people think is strange, or not worthy of your fancy degree.

Samantha Cole shared her story of growing up in a well-to-do Connecticut town and attending a private girls' school. Everyone was pressured to go to Ivy League colleges and pursue prestigious careers.

But all she really wanted to do was understand how things were put together. At 8 years old, she could take her bike apart and put it back together.

Samantha Cole is a prep school grad who embraced her "inner laborer"

After a series of office jobs, she finally realized what she really wanted to do was renovate houses.

"I put on a tool belt and filled it with tools that I learned to use while quieting the disapproving voices in my head that reminded me that I was supposed to want a corner office with a commanding view of the city," Cole wrote. "It's not glamorous... but at the end of the day I can see the tangible results.

"At the end of a project, I know what I have accomplished and then I look forward to a new venture."

In other words, she's found flow.

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