What People Don't Get About My Job: From A(rmy Soldier) to Z(ookeeper)

What doesn't the public understand or appreciate about your job? You told us. We listened. Here are our favorite testimonials, one for each letter.

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Over the summer, The Atlantic gave our readers a simple prompt: Tell us what people don't get or appreciate about your job. The response was so eloquent and overwhelming, it was practically encyclopedic.

The Great Jobs Debate: An Atlantic/McKinsey Report

So we made an encyclopedia. From A to Z, we went through your responses to find the best vocational essays for each letter. These essays are as short as a short sentence and as long as an full article. They are funny, sad, often indignant, and always insightful. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed finding them in our comment sections and emails.

As always, keep writing.

A is for Army 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.

B is for 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...

C is for 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, 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.

D is for Dad
"Being a stay-at-home Dad is like unemployment."

I am an engineer. Most people are scientifically and mathematically illiterate. Consequently, most people cannot fathom how much pleasure and delight I derive from my work. Of course I am also lucky to have a great job with great coworkers. But the pleasure of analyzing, say, the overall efficiency of a combined heat and power facility is hard to describe.

Well, this is partially true.  My wife actually gets irritated that I never mind going to work.  She does not feel exactly the same about her job.

I also wish children could understand how much fun I have. Because we need more engineers in this country for sure if we hope to remain globally competitive.

F is for Fashion Model
"Here it is, plain and simple - some girls eat, some don't."

Reading and re-reading common misconceptions about other professions, I scrape up as much as I can to cohesively explain the backward-ology that exists in the professional modeling industry.  Personally, being signed to a few different agencies in my short, three-year career, I have seen the group mentality about the fashion industry and how the media propagates the information it receives. Which, isn't much. You can ask any Joe or Jane Schmo on the street about what they know about the modeling industry itself, not the fashion industry, and they are probably 70 percent likely to explain what they have previously seen on television in shows like America's Next Top Model or any of those design-based model-offs.

These are the questions I am most likely to be asked by someone in Anywheretown, USA.

Number 1: Do you have aspirations to be on America's Next Top Model?

I already have an agency. They found me, they instilled some belief that I will make them money. They gave me a contract, now they send me out on castings that will (fingers crossed) get me work. I go to my castings, I give clients my book and comp(osite) card, I leave. There is a 99 percent chance I will not get it. I move on to the next. Reality show be damned, this is a business.

Number 2: Wait, so you must make a ton of money, right?

Well, you can. And people do. I know models and commercial actors who can go for 10,000 dollar days - and then get residuals. It's madness. It changes by the person, the 'look', the size, how you looked at someone wrong or right, or if the casting director was hung-over or not that day. It also depends on how your agency is promoting your specific look to a client. If you are more of a commercial model, you won't be submitted for a fashion editorial and vice versa -- once again, all depending on the client and the requirements.

The large markets (New York, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles) are very model-saturated and it's harder and harder to get clients to book new people when they have used a lot of the same models for years. This is especially so in the commercial industry, (Target, Old Navy, Payless, Amazon, etc). So, just as anyone in the freelance world knows - it's trial by fire. You live on an everlasting roller coaster ride that takes you wherever it pleases.

Number 3: But it's okay when you book a job, right? Because they pay you right away and you just move on to the next job?

I wish it were that easy. By agency/client relations, they have 60-90 days to pay their till. That in itself is not binding, let alone enforced. Some of the biggest money jobs I've had have taken almost six months to pay, while the smaller jobs (think in the 300-500 dollar range, editorial rate - if there is one), pay within the bracket. You would think those massive clients would be more than happy to shed off a grand for your time within those three months? [Insert sad jalopy horn sound here] They are more likely to take their time, knowing that they are a huge company who books continuously through your agency - and they will.

Number 4: Well, when you do get your money finally, it must be pretty rewarding?

It is, it really is. It's even more so rewarding when you see those images/commercials that you are in and were actually paid for. It keeps you in it and keeps you working hard.

But, don't forget that as an agency-signed model, you are contract bound. They do find you the work, send your book to clients, print your comp-cards, host your digital book on their website - so they will take a percentage and charge where necessary, as they should. Though, it is in your own self (business) interest to check and recheck where the money is going and how often it's going out with every paycheck you're dolled out.

Number 5: So, you're a model. You don't eat then, right? None of you eat, that's just what you do.

I cannot tell you how much this is asked of me, it's even more of a stigma propagated within my own work environment. It is also something that gives me the most anxiety about the way that my industry is viewed. Here it is, plain and simple - some girls eat, some don't. Some work for the measurements on the back of their comp-card, some don't at all. Some are forced to lose weight by their agencies; some are dropped from their contracts for it. It's a variant situation with a lot of sad outcomes. As an appearance-only based profession, no one cares how you can deliver a line or cry on cue like an actor - it's solely based in the way you appear on camera and how a piece of clothing looks on you. This is a topic I can go on about forever, but I will spare you.

When I tell people what I do, and receive such questions, I always say, "It is about a bottom line, and you are it." All you can do is enjoy your time, go to your castings and give it your best - all without losing yourself. It's possible.

I'm sure it is.

G is for Graphic Designer

"The vast majority of designers make ugly things for incompetent people."

Thanks to Mad Men and the countless ads on TV for schools that "allow you to express your creativity to its fullest potential," the thought is that every design job is a sexy glamorous job. Once you're through with school, you'll land a job at Leo Burnett, BBDO, Nike, Apple, or another company that has a pool table, sexy promiscuous secretaries, very entertaining socio-political drama, or something your parents and friends would recognize on the shelf.

The reality of it is the vast majority of designers will work to make ugly things for strategically incompetent people only to have more people still think very little of you. The GAP logo for instance, was more than likely the victim of a long line of vice presidents, product managers, communication directors, marketing chiefs, and other people with business degrees who think themselves experts in design solely because they work for a company that is reputed to care about design. Even designers across the world joined the flogging though they, by personal experience, know how little it takes from a VP to completely destroy the integrity of a project.

There is also the myth that by sheer virtue of your talent, you will receive adulation and recognition. That is the most accurate theme in Mad Men that can translate to today: we are an industry of networking and meritocracy. Who do you know? What clients have you worked for you? If you went to a fantastic school like SVA, Parsons, SCAD, SAIC, ACD, or another acronym that none of your friends or family will recognize, it won't matter till your portfolio can reflect where you want to work. You are an ant in a colony with many queens.

Most clients are small, so your work will likely go unnoticed. Nobody who looks at a can of Coke thinks a big agency hired a small firm who in turn assigned an underpaid designer to typeset the word "classic" on the can. The credit goes to one hotshot designer that billions of people cannot and should not be able to name. I say they shouldn't because the biggest myth about design is about recognition.

Design isn't a job, a career, or a calling. It's a total lifestyle. We dominate decision making that is about cultural construction and make-up: music, food, bikes, clothing. You can't walk down the street and safely guess who's a doctor or lawyer, but you can guess who has an interest in graphic design.

It's not simply pushing a button and clicking a few functions in Photoshop. It's a complicated industry with its own ecology made up of incredibly hard work individuals that is routinely undermined by its own customers.

I love what I do. I wouldn't change much about what I do. Some people can't go vegetarian, I can't stop thinking or practicing design.

H is for Historical Archivist
"I am the preserver of history itself."

I am an Archivist.

This statement receives blank looks at parties, or excited platitudes on how much they loved Nicolas Cage in National Treasure.  My job also gets very easily misconstrued with being a curator, historian, librarian, or office clerk. Though I can understand the confusion as my job encompasses all of the above.

I preserve, organize, and make accessible every old historical document, photograph, and 3d ephemera that enters into the Archives. I am the preserver of history itself, and I roll up my sleeves to make sure the documents are taken care of so that they can last beyond several of our lifetimes. I make sure the documents are organized  so that you can easily find what you need. I then digitize as much as I can because society now expects everything to be online (despite crippling funding issues), and if it's not online it doesn't exist. I also promote, promote, promote these online resources and tirelessly work to make them better so that your research is as pleasant and effortless as possible.

I is for IRS Employee
"You are the middle class! I'm helping you!"

I have the job to be in between you and the most intimate part of your life: your money.  With a tax code that can stretch around the world three times, can anyone really be 100% certain they are in compliance when they get a letter from me? With the populist anti-tax fervor among the nation, now more than ever my job has become one of ridicule and despise.

What people don't understand about my job is that chances are you are not the person I'm examining. I examine doctors who expense three Cadillacs, insurance brokers who claim jet skis for business use only, and real estate agents who haven't paid taxes in eight years. The public doesn't realize that tax auditors are the only people between a balanced effective tax rate among all social classes and the bourgeoisie stealing what isn't bolted down. Don't kid yourself; these people are stealing from you. This money helps pay for schools, roads and with any luck can keep mortgage interest deduction alive for a few more years. I read a report on NPR that Italy has 40% of its population evading taxes. Imagine our debt crisis if we had the same problem. (Our tax evasion rate is estimated between 8-18%).

So if you're one of those "Joe the Plumber" people who take time out of work to throw teabags at me on my way into the office in the morning: You are the middle class! I'm helping you!
Next page: J: Journalist - Q: Quiz Master

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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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