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I can’t decide if I am an overachiever or an occupational strumpet. Does it really matter?

Today I decided to put together a sequential list of every job I have ever held – a life jobs list. I decided to do this after I happened to reminisce about the worst job I ever had. It was something I did upon my return to the U.S. from Japan – I needed to find work quickly, and I answered an ad promising the potential for substantial earnings, with no skills or experience required. Nowadays I would see that as a red flag, as blatant as an ad reading “Top dollar for your internal organs! No reasonable kidney refused!”, or perhaps “Couriers wanted. Must be capable of swallowing sealed plastic bags whole.” But back then I was less worldly, and I paid the price. It turned out the job wasn’t organ dealing or drug smuggling; it was telemarketing, which was only not worse because it was not illegal. Back then I was a full-fledged phonephobe; my fear and loathing of making telephone calls to strangers was crippling. Taking this job was equivalent to a claustrophobe taking a job as a coffin tester. By the end of the second day, instead of calling housewives asking if they wanted to donate money, I was calling hospitals asking if they were in the market for corneas or lungs. I had to quit.

The memory of that awful job, and of the lessons I learned from it (mainly: Don’t be mean to telemarketers. They could well be vomiting after each call), made me want to write out all the jobs I’d ever held, just to make sure I hadn’t overlooked an even worse position. My life jobs list started with “paperboy” and ended with my current position, and I worked forwards and backwards from each end to make sure I caught everything.

I ended up with 34 jobs in 39 years.

That seemed like an awful lot. I wanted to get some perspective on that number, so I went to the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They have a FAQ page that contains a lot of disclaimers about how hard it is to definitively determine such figures, but says that their best estimates show that the “average late baby boomer” (and I am about as late a boomer as can be, really in the fuzzy cusp with Gen X) has held 11.3 jobs.

Yikes! I’ve held three times as many!

Well, to be fair, when I read the fine print I saw that they were only counting jobs held between the ages of 18 and 46, which meant I could knock my current job, the paper route, and five other positions like “babysitter” and “McDonald’s cook” off my total, leaving me with 27. Okay, that is hardly “career abstinence,” but at least it’s not 34. Plus, 7 of the jobs I listed were moonlighting things I did for fun, experience, or extra cash while regularly employed in another position. I don’t know if those kinds of positions are counted in the BLS statistics (the site merely defines “job” as “uninterrupted period of work with a particular employer”), but I feel justified in pulling them out of the main life jobs list, if only because it brings my total down to 20, which is (whew!) less than twice the average.

Still, only 26% of those average late boomers have held 15 or more jobs during the same period of their lives, so there probably is only a small percentage that have held 20 or more. Is it good that I have tried so much, or bad that I have settled so infrequently? Am I part of an elite, prodigious cadre of fearless experimentalists, constantly seeking experience and variety? Or part of a flighty, prodigal gang of directionless wanderers, unable to establish stability and continuity?

I think the truth lies somewhere in between, as it often does. There is a scattershot feeling to my early jobs, which isn’t a totally bad thing when you are young, although it dampen the kind of momentum that those fixed early on a specific career are able to generate. And even after college, as I joined and moved within the professional world, there’s a lot of restlessness evident in my history. I remained in no position for longer than four years, and since 1990 there have been more years in which I have held two positions simultaneously than years in which I held only one job at a time. Early on, those were probably symptoms of dissatisfaction or lack of focus, but as my focus and satisfaction have increased, I have learned to draw productively upon the energy and curiosity that fed the restlessness in the first place. And even with all those jobs, there is a noticeable continuity to my work. Most of my jobs – nearly all of them since college – involve writing, teaching, or law, and several, including my most recent, involve all three. Looking at my life jobs list now, I can see three long threads that have finally come together to form a strong, reliable cable.

In fact, I wish I had undertaken this exercise several years ago, when I had my greatest career crisis in the wake of the Great Recession. Sure, I had a master resume that included a chronology of all the jobs I had held worth mentioning to a potential employer, but that did not include some of my earliest jobs, nor some of the side jobs taken. Plus, that resume was drawn up to highlight each individual job separately, with spaces and intervening narrative paragraphs that hindered looking at more than one position at a time. Looking now at this chronological list of every job I ever held, one right after another, I can more readily see patterns and progressions that I might have used several years ago to move more rapidly to the very happy place I am in today.

Make your own life jobs list and see what you discover. Put it down on paper; you can’t see the patterns if you just set it forth orally or in your head. And don’t stop with your first draft; you will probably overlook something. (I remembered five or six positions between my first and final drafts, which, admittedly, is easy to do when you have 34.) Once your list is complete, don’t judge yourself in comparison to BLS statistics, compliment yourself on your stability or spirit of adventure, or condemn yourself for being too tight or too loose. Just look at what your own history can tell you about your strengths, passions, preferences, and aversions. Maybe you will conclude that you are just where you need to be now, or maybe you will develop a vision of where you’d like to go next.