The Unexpected Joys of #FirstSevenJobs

A hashtag-fueled celebration of crooked career paths and unlikely beginnings

Mujahid Safodien / AP

It (almost) goes without saying that all social-media-based calls for self-disclosure are bait for parody, political satire, and incisive social criticism, and #FirstSevenJobs—a meme that came to life this past weekend— was no different. The initial solicitation came from Marion Call, a singer-songwriter who asked her fans to chime in with a list of their early jobs to help her write a song. Soon enough, there were thousands upon thousands of entries.

Of course, much of the attention has gone to the array of participating celebrities, many of whom reached their anointed positions by circuitous routes. It’s fun to imagine a young Stephen Colbert marrying ketchup bottles in a diner or aspiring to be the Richard Roma of the futon world or to picture Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda peddling slushees or Happy Meals. Prior to becoming the COO of Facebook and head of a movement, Sheryl Sandberg was a twice-fired babysitter who made the leap to a World Bank post in India after a stint as an aerobics instructor. (Naturally, Sandberg posted her entry on Facebook, where hundreds of commenters attached their own stories.)

What is compelling about this snapshot of career trajectories is that it, by nature, emphasizes a career as a journey and not necessarily the logical result of a blinkered, do what you love mantra. It also implicitly belies and discourages narratives fashioned by nepotism and privilege (although this path was the target of some of the meme’s ire). It’s easy to reduce working a paper route to an empty trope until hundreds of people claim it before your very eyes. That the meme started, however inadvertently, over the weekend allowed it to serve, however inadvertently, as a counterweight to the ritual unfurling of resume highlights served up by wedding and celebration announcements in major papers.

It was also illuminating. Over at Bloomberg, for example, the meme offered up a chance to highlight some stats on the changing nature of teen employment and trace the steady decline of the American rite of the summer job. And, with the younger set in mind, there was also rightly some despair.

Nevertheless, beneath many of the entries hummed a sense of pride. Is this particular brand of navel-gazing a good thing or a bad thing? It depends. Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year,  Robert H. Frank copped E.B. White’s famous remark on the divide between those who see themselves as industrious and those who see themselves as lucky. “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men,” White once wrote.

Citing some studies, Frank offers that fixating on one’s own mythology without also acknowledging good fortune apparently makes a person “less generous and public-spirited” and less willing to invest in what might help deliver success to others. “Happily, though,” he added, “when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.” It’s an encouraging thought, but it’s hard to see that catching on as a meme anytime soon.