What People Don't Get About Your Job: The Best Early Responses

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This week, The Atlantic asked our readers to tell us the one thing the public doesn't understand or appreciate about their job. The response has been overwhelming. We've received hundreds of replies on Twitter, our Tumblr page, our special email account (aboutmyjob1@gmail.com), and our comment pages. And they're still pouring in.

As we continue to sort through the responses, here are some of the most surprising, heart-breaking and informative answers from of our early batch, including: the soldier, the bass player, the telecommuter, and the child services worker.

The Professional Soldier
"Some of the most free-thinking people in the United States are in the US Army."

Hollywood portrays Soldiers in many different ways.  Sometimes we are burnt out social misfits that are incapable of fitting in and plagued by PTSD and associated terrors.  Sometimes we are the devil-may-care thrill seekers that are an equal danger to the enemy and ourselves. Sometimes we are rapists and killers given to wanton slaughter. Most of all, we are often portrayed as mindless automatons that are incapable of independent thought.  The reality is very different.
 
The thing that surprises people is that some of the most free-thinking people in the United States are in the US Army. The problems that we have to contend with require innovative solutions and given the breadth of educational backgrounds of Army Officers, you find some incredibly adaptive people. Deployments and combat result in an environment where evolution is sped up by a million and those that cannot adapt fail. As long as basic forms are obeyed, you find that most leaders actively encourage free thinking within their ranks. To be sure, we have our share of intellectual dullards and buffoons but the reality is that the more time you spend with Soldiers, the more you begin to realize how vibrant, adaptive and broad they are in their thoughts.
 
The other thing that surprises people is the discipline in our ranks particularly towards issues of morality and restraint.  Because matters of life and death are involved, you find an incredible focus amongst Soldiers. Given the combat environments of the last ten years and the close proximity of civilians and the media, there is a focus within the ranks towards acting responsibly and very often the decision is not when to shoot...but when not to shoot. I have personally been involved in many decisions where people were literally in our sights and moments from death, but the round was never fired because the cost in collateral would have been too high and/or the information was not ironclad that we were looking at a bad guy so we decided to err on caution. A lot of ink is spilled on our mistakes but one thing that few understand is that thousands of contacts with civilians happen in the environment everyday and situations like this occur every single day and it is a testament to the discipline, morality and restraint of the forces involved that mistakes do not occur more often.
 
At the end of the day, I would say to all that being a Soldier is a profession with its own language and its own set of skills that are every bit as precise and intricate as a Doctor and Lawyer and those of us in this role pay a lot of heed towards being the best. Few understand the life/death complex issues of morality/restraint that we put on our young kids in these positions and just how well they perform in some of the most stressful environments imaginable.

The Opera Singer
"We sing without microphones about 99% of the time."

The Bass Player
"I'm making their backsides wiggle
and bringing us all together in funky communion."

As they stare at the singer who has abandoned the melody in favor of melismatically emoting, or the guitar player who has put his foot on the monitor and thrown his hair back to squintily wee a mishmash of pentatonic drivel, people don't understand that I'm making their backsides wiggle and bringing us all together in funky communion.

Of course, I kind of like it like that...

The Child Services Worker
"People call us baby snatchers."

They call us baby snatchers. We are referred to as "the state" as "the hotline". Our lettered abbreviation is CPS, DFS, DCFS, but it all means the same, Child Services. We are in the business of people, specifically in trying to save people, trying to save children. What people don't understand is that we most often help families rebuild their lives. Ten times out of ten, we knock on a door and walk into a world of chaos. The families we meet have been under burdens of stress, unemployment, poverty, isolation, addiction, and countless other problems. Our job is to enter that world with them, pick apart the chaos, and find salvageable pieces to start rebuilding a life. Nine times out of ten, we use glue, string and spit, we engage our inner MacGyver, we hustle, convince, beg, borrow, and plead for anything (we have zero dollars)... nine times out of ten, we keep a family together. People don't realize, don't know, don't appreciate that we are in the business of family. My job is to keep your family together and to keep your kids safe. I will do everything I can, with everything I don't have and everything I do have, to make sure your child stays safe and stays in your arms. People call us baby snatchers. When answering the question of what we do, conversations stop. Friends are wary of us watching their parenting techniques. What they don't realize is we don't want your kids. We want you to keep them, keep them safe, and keep yourself safe.

Glossy Magazine Subscriptions Worker
"No, I can't send you the magazine for free."

I run the subscriptions department of a prominent, high-end magazine. No, I can't send you the magazine for free. The magazine costs us a lot of money to publish, so if we just gave it away for free to everyone, we would be bankrupt. Do you walk into the grocery store and demand free apples? No of course you don't because that's insane. Well so is demanding free magazines from me.

The Telecommuter
"Working from home means I never leave the office."

Working from home doesn't mean "slacking off". It means I never leave the office. I literally start working the moment I wake up, and finish when I shut down my laptop and go to sleep. In between I eat, exercise, see my children off to school. Sometimes I'll throw in a load of laundry. I made the transition to working in my home office a few years ago, and although I was productive before, I find I get so much more done in a day now. I don't sit in traffic. I don't need to pick up dry cleaning, or shower and do my hair before work unless I feel like it. I don't get caught up in non-productive water-cooler chitchat about the latest TV show (I don't watch TV anyway, there's no time). I do miss the face to face social interaction, but think it would be very hard to go back to commuting to and working from an office every day.

The Attorney and Part-Time Law Professor
"I am an attorney and part-time law school professor. Most people do not understand that "Legal Ethics" is not an oxymoron."

The Librarian
"Libraries offer free Internet access that is utterly vital in many poor and rural communities."

People have made an extremely strong link between librarians, libraries and books. This is only natural, but it really sells short the full value of libraries and the full scope of librarian work. Libraries offer so much more than moldy old books. There's also music, movies, TV shows, video games, and electronic databases that span a whole galaxy of scholarly and practical information unavailable to any level of googling. Additionally, libraries offer free Internet access that is utterly vital in many poor and rural communities. As government services migrate online, good citizenship almost requires an Internet connection. Libraries also provide a free space for local groups and communities and have been at the forefront of job search training and computer instruction. Coordinating all of this are the humble librarians. We are not mere cart pushers, let me assure you. This job requires a Masters degree for a reason.

The Business Consultant
"Stop arguing with me."

I am a business consultant. You hired me because your business isn't working in some fashion. So stop arguing with me. It just wastes time and money. I ~may~ not have all the answers, I ~may~ not always be right, however we ~know~ that you do not have the answers and we ~know~ that you are not right. So shut it.

The College Kid Working in Admissions
"I can never be honest."

When most people think work study, they see students halfheartedly swiping cards,listening to their iPods, and doing homework. However, my work study requires commitment of a completely different level.

Working in Admissions means I'm always working. It doesn't matter if I'm just walking through campus and off the clock. If I see a prospective student or family, it is the expectation that I answer any questions for them and bend over backwards to convince them that the school is right for them.

I can never be honest. While I don't lie, I can't voice my opinion. On Facebook, Twitter, in person, etc. Any questioning of the administration comes off as dissent.

Other work-study students don't understand why the Admissions kids are near tears at the end of an Open House. Any Admissions event (Open House, Accepted Students Day, College Jumpstart) requires weeks and weeks of planning, pulling promotional materials, assembling tote bags. The week of, the Office feels like a war zone with students running back and forth with fact sheets, schedules, crates filled with miscellany. We're expected to skip class, stay late, and sacrifice our personal lives and sanity to the admissions process.

The day of these events, I usually come in around 5 am and leave around 5 pm. During my lunch "break" I have to mingle with parents. I do trivial things like get Diet Coke and name tags. I shuttle people around on golf carts. I put up signs. I convince people to come to the school I work for. "You're interested in (major)? Our (major) program is incredible here!"

I feel less like a work study student and more like a entry-level personal assistant. The only difference is that I don't make coffee runs and am not trusted with keys to the office.

The Construction Worker
"People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he's lazy."

It's 95 degrees and the humidity is 80%. People don't understand that. People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he's lazy because he's just standing there. What they don't see is the struggle going on inside your brain. The part of you that has lived in the wild for millions of years is saying it's too exhausting, it's too hot, why don't you go lay in the shade for a while. That part of your brain sees the shovel, sees the ditch, sees the pipe to be laid, and it doesn't see how this is getting you food or sex. That other civilized part of you is saying, but not there is food and sex to be found in that ditch. You just need to hunch over that pipe for another 5 hours, and then for another three days, and then it'll be this made up thing, Friday, and you'll have this other made up thing, money. Then you can go out and eat and try to procure a mate.

You just need to clinch that shovel tightly for a little longer and you can get what you want. The little tribesman in your mind doesn't understand this. Things were easier in his time. Sure you only lived to be 26, but if it was too hot you didn't move, if some bit of fruit was too hard to reach you walked to the next tree and looked for lower fruit. There is no low hanging fruit left in this world though.

You hold that shovel and think if only I could bludgeon that little tribesman in my brain. Then I could be free to give myself to wage labor, free to force my body to do what it doesn't want to. So when you see a man on the side of the road not moving just watching some machine manipulate earth, know that he may not be lazy, but just engaged in a struggle between a past that shaped us and a present that was made by us but not for us.

- Josh, general labor for a dirt and concrete construction company
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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