The best job I ever had…

We were sitting around the dining table, dinner over, really, but still chatting. I threw into the discussion a theme I had been talking about with my driving son on a recent Saturday. My companions are used to me doing this sort of thing.

‘What’s the best job you ever had?’

They looked at each other. One is a retired graphic artist, another is a retired gas fitter, a third is a former Treasury guy, and the fifth is a former Army officer, and he spoke first. He’d only really had one job, in the army, and he’d enjoyed it, rising to the most senior position in his area. The gas fitter, an immigrant from Serbia, had done all sorts of things, but the occupation that most satisfied him was his stint as a gas fitter. The artist enjoyed most the time when he had a job as a cleaner, when he had formed himself into a company. The man from Treasury occupied a significant role in that powerful place. They waited for my contribution, which was when I was a young academic researcher, able to do pretty well whatever I chose to do, and paid reasonably to do it. Indeed, I’d never had a real income before, so I was in a sort of heaven, doing what I wanted to do, not subject to supervision of any kind (I had to produce, but that was not a problem in my case), and paid a decent salary.

We went more deeply into the question, about which all of us had opinions and stories. What were the core ingredients for a really good job? One common theme was what we might call ‘autonomy’: you were trusted to do whatever it was with minimum supervision, which meant you were valued. That was a good feeling. Another was being properly paid, not so much highly paid, but what was appropriate given the level of skill you had, and all of my friends had specific skills. A third ingredient was something we might call ‘passion’ — we wanted very much to do what we were doing in our favourite job. In my case I could hardly believe my luck. I was being paid to do something, research, at which I was pretty good, and I simply loved it. I could work at any time, before dawn, at midnight, whenever I wanted to. And the best part was that I never saw it as work. It was fun, not drudgery. I could do it at home or at the university. I thought about it much of the time. The others had similar accounts. You would decide when you started and when you finished. You were good at it, whatever it was. Your clients, your colleagues, your superiors, they were all happy with what you did. You were keen to start the day’s work, and almost sorry when it ended.

After those came one about which we all had some reservations. I’d put it like this: the level of responsibility we had in our ‘best’ job was appropriate to where we were. I was asked why I hadn’t chosen being a vice-chancellor rather than being a junior wood-chuck. I’d thought about this. Being a V-C when I was in my fifties was exactly right. I was well prepared for the task, emotionally ready, too, and certainly well looked after. But that job came with a huge amount of responsibility — 10,000 students and 1,000 staff, a large budget, 120 hectares of campus, and so on and so on. Every difficult issue, if it couldn’t be solved further down the system, found its way to my table. One of our students suicided, another complained that her ‘boyfriend’ had insisted on sex and promised to tell her parents that they had been intimate, which would ruin her marriage prospects in her home country. Inevitably the boss is drawn into such matters, and you are never really prepared for them. So while I could say that being the V-C for more than a decade was an immensely satisfying job, because I thought I’d been most effective, it wasn’t fun in the way my first job was. And there were a few days, like the time we had a garbage strike, when I didn’t want to go to work at all. My dining companions could all provide their own equivalent tales.

So there it is, an interesting subject that we could all relate to and wrestle with. I engaged my companions with it because my son had been talking about his work. He loves what he does (he’s a middling senior public servant) and I asked him whether he thought his work was properly valued. Yes, he said, he was sure it was. He is what is sometimes called a ‘policy wonk’, and is given a good deal of latitude where he is for deciding his own priorities for work. He would have enjoyed the dining table conversation.

Do we all have a ‘best job’, I wonder. I fear that some people never have one. Some years ago I wrote a novel (Turning Point) part of whose story was the introduction of ‘flatter structures’ into a government defence factory. It had a dozen levels of management, the large number apparently due to the need for ‘co-ordination’, though what was being co-ordinated was not clear to anyone. By reducing the number of levels to about five the workers were given the opportunity to work together on what it was they were making, rather than being subject to continual direction, often by managers who had little idea of how it was actually done. The real opponents of this change were management and the unions, both of whom were used to hierarchy, and saw much less place for them in a factory based on flatter structures. My novel was set in the 1960s, and things may have changed.

Certainly the shift to self-employed tradies from the days when workers needed foremen to supervise them is a sign of change, as is the increasing number working from home. Canberra’s roads every day carry hundreds, maybe thousands, of tradie utilities. There may be a shift in the knowledge base of all trades, just as there had been an immense increase in the knowledge needed for almost anything. When I was deeply interested in ‘knowledge’, and that was the 1980s, it was claimed that the amount of human knowledge had increased by at least fifty times since the end of the second world war. That was forty years ago. How much has it expanded since then, I wonder.

But back to my readers. What was your best job, and why was it the best?






Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • The best job ever? Becoming the mother of three, all born in 1971. I’d never babysat; I’d never changed a nappy; I’d never even fed a child before that moment. The second best job? Watching them all grow up. Income? Zip. Rewards? Infinite. Loved (almost) every moment!

    • Chris Warren says:

      A big factor in terms of job – is the quality of work colleagues. I worked in a wide range of public service research and policy jobs including contributing to Ministers programs I (sometimes) never agreed with. The work environment was always the key for me.

      However for others I think job security is number one. Would you choose a high paid exciting job for 12 months over a 30 year plus career with permanency with some “ups and downs”.

      You do not need to be in a job to do your own research at least in the humanities as our public library and academic publications systems are completely open to so-called “independent scholars”. So even on a retirement pension, you can give yourself a job with all the attributes you would want.

  • Tony Taylor says:

    My current job, teaching, which I’ve been in for 20 years.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don. Yes, your job is your life’s focus and being self employed for most of my life, most of my favourite jobs I was able to create from imagination.

    Being a “wheelbarrow executive” on commercial and industrial developments of my own conception was one of my favourites where I was the site labourer, whilst supervising and financing the project.

    Sub-contractors found it a bit strange at first but they soon found that it worked better than the usual method.

    Apart from being right there to make everything fit as designed, it removed enormous overheads and increased profits considerably.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    My PhD supervisor (an acerbic Liverpudlian) told me the best job in a University was a Reader. All the fun and none of the responsibility. He was correct.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Bryan, I think the Reader position has gone. But yes, it was the equivalent of having a full-time research position, with no one supervising what you did, or didn’t do.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Correct. I was appointed as one, but it soon enough morphed into Associate Professor. A research record wasn’t enough to make full Professor-for that you needed ‘responsibility’. One of the quirks of the trade.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Flying jets off an air craft carrier is a pretty good job. I thought I was such hot stuff, they had trouble finding a cap big enough to fit me.

    Tiring of that I went back & finished my engineering, then got involved in the plastics industry when new plastic materials & applications were exploding in the early/mid 60. Helping to develop new applications & new products that couldn’t be produced before was heady stuff, tiring but exciting. A couple of company take overs found me working for a company I didn’t like. We had a disagreement about me driving racing cars on the weekend. I quit & went for a sail up to the barrier reef & Pacific islands.

    Found a new world, got my masters ticket, & took hundreds of tourists to the reef & Islands. Isn’t it funny how we often turn a great hobby into a not so great job. I ended up running the companies rather than the boats.

    The tourist industry is stimulating. That which had you top dog last year is often not so good this year. You have to be on your toes as the easiest thing to do in the tourist industry is go broke. I avoided those traps, but it often took a lot of agility to do so.

    What was the best job, teaching the kids to sail, & helping them with their math, which is so different to mine, it doesn’t look like the same subject.

  • spangled drongo says:

    In the early ’60s I was offered a job selling real estate in Surfers Paradise with wages awa commission. Too good to refuse.

    In those days real estate was unbelievably cheap. Waterfront land for $600 [300 quid in those days] a block. I could see the enormous potential and spent a lot of time trying to convince the people who had all the money in those days – insurance companies who thought it was a good investment to build warehouses for people like Woolworths and lease them at 6% – to buy Cavill Ave property and develop it to return up to 50% pa.

    I would design the project, cost it and give them the details. The standard reply was; “How do we know we can get a tenant”? “You’ve already got one” I’d tell them. “I’ll give you 20%, which is three times what you are getting for warehouses which will never grow in value, whereas this will at least double every 10 years”. “Well, we can’t fault the project but Surfers Paradise is a high risk area and we don’t do high risk”.

    After a fair bit of this I got a few retired graziers who had money in the bank and paid them 10% interest only and did a bit of Cavill Ave development myself. It was very rewarding. I retired at the ripe old age of 33.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Hey spangled drongo, what did you do with the next 40 years?

    I raced a few tines at Kieth Williams Surfers circuit. I could see the potential of Surfers, but racing cars are expensive, so I had no money to spare.

    Again I sailed into Mooloolaba when water fronts were a dime a dozen, & then Airlie Beach when a cane farmers holiday shack on the main drag was no more than $3500.

    There has been so much opportunity to grow rich it is hard to believe most missed it.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Hasbeen, I then became a “wheelbarrow executive” on jobs I enjoyed. Plus many other things. I wanted to build a boat and sail around the world but my cheese’n’kisses, rightly, didn’t think that was smart with our young family.

      I remember you driving that Ferrari in the first Surfers Paradise 12 hour race. Remember, I caught up with you at Tamborine Village one time? I was driving a silver 330GT Ferrari. One of the jobs I took up after retiring was to go to Hollywood and buy the old wrecks of the film stars Ferraris and restore them. It was a good, tax-free earner and I would make at least $100,000 a time which was more that the price of a house then but I foolishly walked past old competition Ferrari wrecks which sold a short time later for up to 25 million.

      I also had a good earner designing racing yachts and selling them on the world market. I also had a firm that was building them under license to me and I would collect royalties. Now that is a fruity job!

  • Lauchlan McIntosh says:

    As often the case, you were ahead of the game with your novel and 5 levels of management. Rio Tinto for example made that a key part of their core business many years ago. From my own experience the best jobs were no so much the levels of authority but where the owners of the business or the activity had faith in me to do what was best and were happy and available to offer guidance rather than direction. I am not sure how that happens in academia or government, although from years as an observer maybe not often (?).

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Your question, Don, has set me thinking; I can’t define the “best” job for me that I ever had, as for me there are so many facets. Creative? Vigorous? Calm? Deeply satisfying? Mentally enjoyable? Physically exhilarating?

    I can think of one that was quite boring, one that Spangled will understand: chipping the face of old brickwork so it would take a mortar rendering. We used a hammer with replaceable teeth to scutch the bricks. Did this for some days on end. What one does to earn a quid during Uni vacation.

    The most creative? To identify more clearly the relationships among data and the rules among the data invoking change. We later named this approach in programming as “object orientation”.

    Deeply satisfying? Mustering sheep slowly in low gear on an ag bike, on a sunny spring morning, while solving many of the world’s problems.

    Mentally and emotionally enjoyable, and challenging? Starting on my memoirs.

    I’ve ducked your question. But it’s been one helluva ride.

    But I agree with Nicole – the best part has been the blessing of children, with all the hubbub and love that goes with that. And in a quieter way, still does.

Leave a Reply