What is a “Real Job,” exactly?

I keep hearing people use the phrase “Real Job.”

I’m only doing this temporarily until I can find a real job. — My parents are adamant about my need to get a real job. — Why don’t you get a real job?

The phrase seems silly to me. Isn’t a job just a job? What makes one job more real than another? And what is a “Real Job,” exactly?

Anxious to understand, I started asking people who used the term what they meant by it. Unsurprisingly, to different people it meant different things.

According to those I’ve asked, a real job is…

  1. a full-time job with set hours.
  2. a job in my major/field/area of specialization.
  3. a job that pays more than minimum wage.
  4. a job that pays salary.
  5. a job with health insurance/sick leave/paid vacation.
  6. a job with room for growth/advancement opportunity.
  7. a position with a job title and description.
  8. anything that’s NOT a temp job.
  9. anything that earns a steady paycheck.
  10. something that will make me feel like going into debt for a degree was worthwhile.

What’s fascinating about these responses is how nearly all of them focus exclusively on job details. That is, there is a common expectation for the job to satisfy the requirements for being “real.” The exception is #10, where the responder believes how they feel about the job is more important.

This exception among the typical responses made me wonder: Why don’t all people think this way? When asked to describe a “real job,” why don’t people concentrate on the feeling they’d get from it, rather than the actual job? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to hear people describe how a real job is…

  1. a job that’s fulfilling!
  2. a job that’s stimulating!
  3. a job that’s challenging!
  4. a job that’s rewarding!
  5. a job that’s enjoyable!

In other words, shouldn’t the single defining factor of how “real” a job is be determined by how it makes you feel? After all, you listen to your feelings when you decide which jobs aren’t real — and it makes them easy to identify because jobs that aren’t real feel wrong.

Consequently, you’re anxious to leave them. You may stay put for longer than you’d like (under the influence of sensibility and reason), but the feeling of displacement is undeniable. You’re always on the lookout for something better, something more real, something that feels right.

Amazingly, while writing this article I received a coincidental email from a friend I haven’t seen since high school. After reading some of the articles on LifeReboot, Rich contacted me to share the details of his own “life reboot.”

I majored in computer science, but I didn’t want to get a programming job right out of college — I wanted to come to Japan instead. My guidance counselor commented that as far as prospects for getting a good CS job went, “One year in Japan won’t kill you.” Four years later I’m still here.

I’ve reinvented myself as an English teacher. Teaching in high schools, junior high schools, and elementary schools has been a far more rewarding experience than coding ever was. For the past year I’ve taught exclusively at elementary schools. The kids’ energy, seeing their smiles, having them motion for a high-five and say “Higher! Higher!” and then muster all their energy to jump and smack my hand — it’s all awesome. My classes are simple and modest, today I taught kids to say things like “I’m going to the sea” and “I’m going to the mountains.” Even so, just seeing how happy the kids are and the unbelievable energy in the room during a great class — it’s awesome.

Not only my job, but simply living in Japan is great. I’ve made so many new friends, I’ve done so many new things I wouldn’t have dreamed of in the states, and even now my daily life can be an adventure. One of the best things about living here is meeting a new Japanese person, talking with them for a good hour or two in Japanese, and having them say things like “Wow, I’ve never talked with a foreigner (non-Japanese) person before. It was so interesting meet you. And your Japanese is amazing!” It feels like I’m really making a different and impact in the community, not just at my work, but in my daily life as well.

Some don’t consider this a “real job.” My parents keep bugging me to go back to the states, and my brother (who now has a programming job in Tokyo) wants to get me a job at his company next summer. I could go back to a computer job, but I have more fun doing other things. I like talking with people, I like being in front of a crowd, I like writing, I like telling stories. And although coding was fun for me back in the day, I feel like there’s something more I want to do with my life than write parsers and scan databases.

I don’t really know where my intro into self betterment, self improvement, or whatever you want to call it started. I suppose I’ve changed a bit since I’ve been here. One of my college friends came to visit me and she said, “Rich — you’re different. I don’t remember you being this energetic, this happy, this full of life when you were in college. It’s awesome!”

I can easily relate to many of Rich’s points, especially the notion of family members who encourage you to get a “real job.” The thing is, when you allow yourself to be influenced by the perspectives of other people, especially family, you miss out on the opportunity to define a “real job” for yourself. Remember, to different people it meant different things.

The intentions of Rich’s family are good. They’re only trying to “save” him by encouraging him to do something they believe is practical. What they fail to realize, though, is how Rich doesn’t need to be saved. He’s found a job that’s personally fulfilling that simultaneously rewards those around him.

What could possibly be more real?

If you've found this website helpful, please click the PayPal button. You will be helping me pursue my dream career as a writer. Thanks for your support!

36 Responses to “What is a “Real Job,” exactly?”

#1 Kelly Petrucci on 11, Sep, 2007 at 9:38 pm

I agree Shaun. A real job is something you are passionate about, a job that is stimulating, rewarding and enjoyable. I do have a real job, I teach Kindergarten children and I could not imagine myself doing anything but what I am doing now. You see, it is an art within…it makes me happy, pays most of my bills and I wake up every morning wanting to go to work and face the challenges each day has to bring.
Keep on writing. I enjoy reading your articles.

#2 WishBoNe on 11, Sep, 2007 at 9:41 pm

a job that’s fulfilling!
a job that’s stimulating!
a job that’s challenging!
a job that’s rewarding!
a job that’s enjoyable!

Aye, I’m lacking them, no wonder I feel so lifeless. I need a life reboot :D

#3 Mark Dykeman on 11, Sep, 2007 at 10:49 pm

Shaun, this certainly was a thought-provoking article.

I’ve always equated a “real job” with one of two things:

1) A job with an income that takes you above the point of subsistence so that you can start to accumulate assets.

2) A job that fits into the grand categories of prestigious or respectable (e.g. most professional jobs).

Unfortunately, neither of these things presupposes either fulfillment or making a positive contribution to the world around you. These days, “real jobs” rarely provide guarantees of stability either.

Good article!

#4 Wesa on 12, Sep, 2007 at 12:48 am

I think everyone’s ideal job is one that you love. Rich certainly has found it and I hope that he sticks with it!

#5 Thomas on 12, Sep, 2007 at 9:57 am

A real job is something offered by people who wants to own you. Or people who are
afraid to be blamed when free people make mistakes. “I told you to get a real job,
now look what happend!” Guess what: Mistakes are part of life and people are free to
make mistakes and learn from them. If you don’t make mistakes, it’s because you’re
standing still with no chance to learn anything. If you’re standing still you’re
just waiting to die. R.I.P.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live. That’s why I read this blog – Shaun is out there growing stronger, taking responsibility for his life and doing some serious living.

#6 Derrick Kwa on 12, Sep, 2007 at 11:53 am

I completely agree with what you’ve said.

Having quit school, I’ve experienced a lot of people thinking that I’m not doing anything “real”. But personally, I’ve learned and gained a lot more after I’ve left school.

I think at the end of the day, what’s “real” is an individual thing, but society always tries to define it for you.

#7 Ryan on 12, Sep, 2007 at 10:18 pm

in my experience, a “real job” has been one that has been defined by someone else as what I should be doing. of course i have no real interest in it. ideally, a real job should be one welove, however given the way society works, i think bill watterson of calvin & hobbes puts it best: “A REAL job is a job you hate.â€?

people who truly enjoy what they do probably don’t define it as just a job.

#8 Priscilla Palmer on 13, Sep, 2007 at 3:35 pm

You have been tagged for The Personal Development List. I would love for you to participate.

#9 story on 13, Sep, 2007 at 10:23 pm

Aye, Shaun. I just wish that my extremely stimulating, rewarding, and fulfilling job wasn’t so darn hard, exhausting, and emotionally draining so much of the time. :)

#10 Keara on 13, Sep, 2007 at 11:35 pm

this article was extremely satisfying to read. i am happy with my career choice, and am excited to get things rolling, so i don’t really ‘need’ much of the advice you give in that respect.

but i did need to find something straightforward, POSITIVE, and still realistic.

this article said to me “not only find a job/life/plan you LOVE, but also APPRECIATE IT for what it is!” and that is the part that made it extra great! Thanks :)

#11 Meg on 14, Sep, 2007 at 1:02 am

Tell me about it! While most of my family is supportive of my decision to try my hand at writing and web design (and a few other projects that keep me plenty busy), I can’t tell you how many times I’ve introduced myself to someone, told them about all my projects and jobs, and then the say something like, “So, do you have a job?” or “Must be nice not to have a job!”. I’m talking about seemingly nice and intelligent people!

Then there’s a couple family members who seem to want me go into teaching… as if that pays sooooo well where I live. Those and others manage to bring up all sorts of “jobs” that I could do, like tutoring, private lessons, substitute teaching, etc.

I’d say that the big factor is salary. My husband and I actually own a company, but since I do work for the company without actually receiving a salary at this time (since we’re using the money to invest further into the company), I’m just a “housewife” in some people’s eyes (nothing against housewives – I’m just not one). Fortunately, my husband is very supportive and realizes how much work I do.

#12 Carlos on 14, Sep, 2007 at 11:14 am

My parents always were on my case about getting a real job. I didn’t know what was “right” for me out of high school so I delayed doing anything with college. I ended up doing something that was originally more like a hobby.. working with computers. Even though I work at a private firm (Shaun’s fav place), I still really enjoy what I do and I now have my own own netorking and web hosting companies. I’m pretty sure my parents are proud and I know they were looking out for me in a way. I don’t think you should ever get to the point where ever day you wake up you hate your job. Life is too short for that.

#13 Rich on 16, Sep, 2007 at 2:56 am

Awesome article man! (Not that I’m biased or anything haha)

#14 Bobby Karaoke on 17, Sep, 2007 at 5:51 pm

A real job is like a friendship with a yak – you never know what you’re gonna get. Oh wait… maybe that was supposed to be “box of chocolates”? Nevertheless, love the Rich reference.

Blog or die,
BK

#15 smith on 23, Nov, 2007 at 8:49 am

Hey Shaun! You are fabulous. Your writing style is so simple. How can i write like you??

#16 Bill on 22, Oct, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for the input. When people ask me what I do for a living??? I never know what to say. I like the analogy of being a generalist, “I is what I is” as a favourite person used to say. Just starting a new venture to help people redfine themselves. Would like to hear any ideas people have.

#17 Daessa on 09, Dec, 2008 at 5:05 am

Hi, Your website is interesting and I also wonder about the phrase people often say such as “get a real job”.
I am in my 30’s a single parent, and have completed a degree in Graphic design. With all the energy it took to obtain this degree I then felt it was a good stepping stone into doing another degree, and then to transfer from that into Radiography. So now I am studying in an area that has alot of work and is interesting. But all through this I have had to work casual hours. I sometimes never sleep well and go to work feeling tired with a happy face. My work is teaching swimming. The thing that upsets me most is when people comment “when are you going to get a real job”, it is most hurtful and makes me feel as though what I am doing is not good enough… I have to be patient to make it through my degree.. I think a job is real regardless of what it is.. It’s all about money right, well it’s about what you do with your money and not how much you earn.

#18 WorldWideBlog » I graduated, now what? on 16, Dec, 2008 at 8:06 pm

[...] Patti and I served pizza at a sit-down, gourmet pizza joint. We made the same amount of money (min. wage + tips). Patti had graduated with her MA in sociology while we were working together, but, alas, her pay didn’t change, nor did she bail for a real job. [...]

#19 james on 23, Feb, 2009 at 9:16 pm

tbh i don’t listen to other people, so I really don’t care what they think…I am a freelance video director and that is a real job to me. I have worked in ‘real job’ companies before earning upto $60,000 a year, and the business I do on my own right now is way harder…but I enjoy it x10

No offense, but people who get ‘real jobs’ will never become significant in history if you ask me, i mean what artists and musicians do you know that worked 9-5 jobs to get where they are? exactly

just because you feel insecure about your own being please don’t try and transpose it on to me

#20 Jeanine on 28, Oct, 2009 at 8:56 am

A real job is a job that meets your financial needs in life and enables you to save money over and beyond your monthly needs in addition to providing health benefits. It makes it easier if you like what you do, but it has to pay the bills.

#21 Rick lopez on 12, Nov, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I need a real job!!!!

#22 Luke Mitchell on 16, Nov, 2009 at 3:48 pm

fuck you funny man James!

#23 Capt Ron on 16, Feb, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Whats the use dont get caught up in debt and things of this world, work your ass off from 18 to 35, dont spend one dime save save save then at 35 you will have tons of money and should be able to live the rest of your life out which in the big picture our lifes is nothing but a flash and it means nothing

#24 aviram on 30, Apr, 2010 at 11:02 am

brilliant artical ,what you are doing is rewarding to all ,you,the children , the comminity , and of course the people that read this artical .
The point i find most interesting is the fact that you didnt go to Japan to find job ,but rather ot of curiousity and adventure ,eventually it led to the position you are in.
i think that all aspects in life should be this way,a series of misshaps that lead to joy.
Thanks !!

#25 aviram on 30, Apr, 2010 at 11:27 am

in college i studied industrial egineering and managment (sounds good doesnt it ),though i wanted to study english lit. i grduated with no smile and added a few white hairs plus i didnt want to work as an engineer. up to today i wish i would have studied english lit, there were much more question marks there and probably much more smiles.

#26 juggalo on 25, Jul, 2010 at 11:23 pm

ahaha real job jus get a real job

#27 Diva4Jesus on 24, Aug, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Since God is the Ultimate Reality, a real job is doing the thing HE has whispered into your heart to do. Money and other people’s expectations of us are NOT the Ultimate Reality. Therefore, if you are performing a job based upon those factors, while ignoring and disobeying God’s instructions, then that’s not YOUR real job, no matter how much it may fit into the conventional societal ideas of what employment should be!

#28 teresa young on 07, Sep, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Thanks for this article. I was just feeling melancholy about my resent change to a job that was suppose to be my “dream” job…I needed to be reminded why I am here. Sometimes, the “dream” job isn’t always great either…maybe I am still searching…

#29 J.P. Fischer on 16, Sep, 2010 at 7:57 pm

You will find that the phrase “a real job” is used primarily by the clueless, thoughtless and easily led. There are only two components that make up human life: the circumstances in which we find ourselves and our attitude toward those circumstances. Within this model there is a flux of possibilities. Unfortunately, the definitions of many words are approaching meaninglessness, as they have been corrupted by decades of mediocre thought and communication. Where have all the wise men gone? The great mind of humanity must be re-stoked with sense and acute questioning. Philosophy used to be the center of intellectual life in great civilizations, now it is a “useless” liberal arts degree that fails to get one a “real job.”

#30 Allison on 12, Dec, 2010 at 2:18 am

Does a job have to have a traditional definition and only be labour for money? Do what you enjoy, work as little as possible your nature is to survive not be a product of society.

#31 Robert on 11, Apr, 2011 at 1:34 am

This was a nice read, but I think the phrase “real job” is usually referring to the type that pays enough to take care of basic needs.

#32 NJM on 30, May, 2011 at 10:21 pm

A “real job” is something you get to finance your “dream job”. Your “dream job” is what usually starts out as a hobby…This is why they say “Don’t quit you day job”. For example: My dream job is to become an actor. I have a “real job” which is in satellite communications. It pays the bills, keeps food in my stomach and a roof over my head…It ALSO funds my acting lessons, gas for auditions, headshots, etc. The day I get that opportunity where my “dream job”/hobby becomes sufficient for my basic needs, then I will quit my “real job”…My two cents with love!

#33 Emi Green on 06, Aug, 2011 at 10:09 am

I just wrote a song about this very thing.
(The link is below. It is entitled “Real Job”)

I work as a waitress, bar girl, teacher and part time secretary…but I am a singer/songwriter. That’s the dream.
I got into med school…but I deferred it to chase what I am chasing because I saw ahead into a life of unhappy security and knew I would regret it if I didn’t try.

I wrote a song called Real Job….which to me means the opposite ofhow I’ve heard the term…what I really want to do in life. What fulfills me…rather than the hard working, poorly paid jobs that often define me in my day to day life, but say little about what I aspire to. They are necessary of course and i don’t begrudge a moment.
I ask my colleagues at all my minimum wage jobs what their ‘real jobs’ are and they don’t question me…they look straight back at me and grin and say “dancer, actor, make up artist…you name it!” They know…

Hope this brings a smile to your dial…
Listen to my song at http://soundcloud.com/emigreenmusic/real-job

#34 IDIOTBOMB » Are you your job? on 09, Aug, 2012 at 8:14 am

[...] And who decides? My career has predominantly been in the media, and a common and consistent criticism of meeja types, by non-meeja types, is that it’s not a Real Job™. [...]

#35 Azzaman on 04, Oct, 2012 at 3:01 am

I have a somewhat different definition of the term REAL job.
It’s simple really; If your vocational talents allow you to still be usefull in the event of some catastrophic disaster that dissolves civilisation. then you have a REAL job. Things like building, fixing, labouring, growing. Usually trades that are still relevant, stuff that can not be outsourced due the the need for physical proximity.

In other words, if your labour yields tangible benefit in the real world. Anything that is tenuously linked to an intangible arbitrary system I would label a “not real” job.

#36 Daren Scot Wilson on 18, Jul, 2014 at 11:04 pm

“work your ass off” (from Feb 2010 comment) – that’s another phrase people say in relation to work, but just exactly what does it mean?

All I can say, my cats have no idea.

Leave a Reply