Why a Career Will Kill Your Professional Goals


Although they swap around in our commercial soup, there are obvious distinctions between the modes — job, trade, profession, career — of how we earn our daily bread and some not so obvious distinctions, especially between profession and career where subtle differences can have huge and resounding implications in America’s most prized institutions: government, education, finance, health care, energy, and justice to name just a few.

I have had jobs, jobs that I liked and jobs that I didn’t like although there didn’t seem to be much difference in their doing because my motive was to do the work, be paid accordingly, and live like hell on the weekends. I have never had a trade although at one time I wanted to be a plumber because not only did it pay well, it also seemed to pay, from what I could observe, even larger dividends in pride, independence, and ownership. I just retired from the teaching profession which I never regarded as work but as passion. I used to tell my students that the best part of my day was with them. Although I didn’t make much money at it, actually less that I made on the job, I absolutely loved it because it came with a spiritual resonance of altruism, that the endeavor was directed to the well-being of others (profession comes from the Latin professio; the taking of vows upon entering a religious order, a public acknowledgement). I suppose doctors, among other professionals, must feel the same way in their service.

I have never had a career, nor did I want one, because career did not resonate with my character. It was just not me anymore than the job I did eons ago was me. Career seems to have a general and transitional quality about it rather than one of focus and steadfastness (career comes from the Latin carraria meaning "road"). Even though career people may have come from a profession, the profession serves as the first credential rung in the ladder and a step to get past on the journey up. The principal of the school had to teach to become the principal but he or she is no longer a teacher. There is no “principal profession.” Professionals must continually practice their art to qualify. I would take no comfort in a cardiologist, who, while inserting a stent into my heart, ups and tells me “Jeesh! I haven’t done this in years,” no matter how high he or she perches on the corporate career ladder. (Interestingly, Arne Duncan, U.S. Department of Education Secretary, has never taught school in a traditional, mainstream setting.)

Another more volatile distinction between profession and career is their respective degree of accountability. When the teacher, nurse, pro athlete, actor, et al slip up it is often the case, relatively, that they are shredded by an enviable public because they are easy prey. People quite naturally do not like to feel diminished by those around them and tearing professionals down, especially once blood has been drawn, is an American sport. I distinctly remember in public schools how some classified support staff often made concerted, furtive efforts to get a teacher and how students roared with laughter whenever I erred. Additionally, because professionals are in service to the public it logically follows that they are — and should be — accountable to the public. However, once a professional steps up on the career ladder into administration and the corporate elite, they not only disconnect from their profession but they disconnect from the public. Teachers, for example, receive — and rightly so — significantly more accolades from students, parents, and peers than do administrators but at a cost of being whipping posts for education's ills.

Careers, like it or not, are for the sake of the career, for the road up and, consequently, even though society benefits greatly from those upward dynamics, the price to society comes at the loss of a huge body of accountability — and therein lies the danger. Once an impropriety in an institution reaches the career camaraderie — or originates among their ranks — up the ladder it goes and then as far as you and I are concerned, which isn’t far: Nothing. Whatever the impropriety was gets lost circulating in an “in-house chain of command” like clothes on the spin cycle and outlanders, the public, are assumed to be none the worse off — until, of course, someone retrieves the laundry and then down the ladder it goes lickety-split landing in a back-alley dumpster too grimy and scary to rummage in or on some suitable and unsuspecting scapegoat. The Penn State scandal comes to mind. Of course, once the impropriety hits the streets, the damage to real lives ends up as the shibboleth “scandal” that wafts into the blue like early morning haze. The careerist elites know this.

Transparency and accountability of 21st century lexical vogue are carelessly tossed about catchwords used as palliatives for what ails America’s institutions rather than practiced as effective policy. It’s almost as if the words function as the career administrators’ Freudian “yalps” of pent up guilt for protecting career for its own sake. The way to keep and hold career administrators and the corporate elite transparent and accountable is the same principle that keeps the public-at-large honest: The consequences of exposure.