Some people actually like what they do.
Sixteen percent of the United States’ roughly 100 million full-time workers are “actively disengaged” at work, according to a 2017 Gallup report, meaning they’re “miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build.” Another half (51%) are not engaged. But a third of workers, the polling company found, are engaged at work and love their jobs.
Moneyish spoke with 10 workers who would fall into this latter category about the often twisting professional paths that led to their passions — and the many reasons, some of them unexpected, that they love the work they do. Here are their stories:
The journalist: Soledad O’Brien
The award-winning veteran journalist serves as CEO of her own media production company and distributor, Starfish Media Group, and hosts the Hearst Television show “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.” “I always loved reporting,” O’Brien, 52, told Moneyish. “I liked being first on the scene and trying to dig in to understand people’s stories and motivations, and dig beyond the first obvious story.”
Now that she runs her own company, she added, she loves the challenge of pulling together deals to support the storytelling. “You have to figure out what’s the best platform for the story, and who should fund it, and where does it live. And how long is it — is it short-form, is it a doc, is it a series?” she said. “It’s piecing together a puzzle, sometimes a really complicated puzzle, in order to tell something the best way.”
O’Brien also relished the chance to build a diverse team made up of people of color, she said, and to hire paid interns. “I like being able to put into practice these things that sometimes I was pushing for as an employee in a big company,” she said. “Now the onus is on me to do it, and I really enjoy being able to execute on that.”
The actor: Poorna Jagannathan
You know the Los Angeles-based actress and producer (no relation to this writer) from HBO’s “The Night Of,” AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and her upcoming recurring role on “Big Little Lies.” Jagannathan, 45, says her work “never feels like work,” describing the process of researching for a script and character as “plain ol’ people-watching, reading tons of interesting stuff and watching documentaries.” She loves having her work “reflect some of the ordinariness of real life.”
Some projects have also allowed her to say something about issues she cares about. Playing a Pakistani immigrant mother whose son is implicated in a murder on “The Night Of” let her tackle Islamophobia, motherhood and “drowning in the criminal justice system.” Her forthcoming thriller “Share” allowed her to “explore the gray areas of sexual violence and how elusive justice can actually be.” While the prospect of showing her true self — like recounting her own childhood sexual abuse in the off-Broadway play “Nirbhaya” — is what draws her to this business, it’s also what terrifies her, she said.
Jagannathan says she would do something else for work if she needed to, pointing to her post-recession move to quit acting and return to advertising full-time to pay the bills. “As long (as) I was in acting classes and seeing a bunch of theater, I could live with that,” she said. “I found my way back to full-time acting very slowly, but it taught me I’m an actor no matter what. Working or not working. Successful or not. … And as long as I can carve out a tiny sliver of time to engage my heart in it, I’m OK.”
The Uber driver: Leon Melton
Years after a 2010 car accident, Melton learned that driving for Uber was “really about the easiest job that I could do for my struggles that I have physically” — plus, he said, the flexibility it offered fit well with his needs as a single parent.
So Melton, 43, of Louisville, has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the gig since early 2016. The license plate on his used Cadillac reads “UBER4U.” His aggregate rating based on nearly 6,000 trips, according to a screenshot he shared, is 4.99 out of 5. (“I’ve got improvement to do,” he joked.) He works as many as 70 hours a week when he doesn’t have his 10-year-old son, and 50 hours a week when he does, he said, adding he “would probably be homeless” without this job. He dreams of landing a full-time position working for the rideshare company’s corporate offices.
Melton says driving for Uber makes him feel like he’s giving back to the community. He greets his passengers with a smile, tries to forge a personal connection, and strives to be an ambassador of Louisville. “I try to meet everybody’s needs, no matter what it is. I will go out of my way for them, within reason,” Melton said. “I love helping people out. I feel like I was given a second chance in life, and I do Uber by paying that back.”
The nonprofit CEO: Kimberly Bryant
Bryant, an engineer, says she saw for herself the scarcity of women in the early-aughts Bay Area tech scene. The 51-year-old also watched as her daughter, who had expressed an interest in video-game culture, encountered a lack of diversity at a Stanford game-development camp.
So in 2011 she launched Black Girls Code, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that helps girls of color gain computer programming and technology skills. The inspiration, Bryant said, came from “seeing her experience and my experience be parallel in this space that was growing so exponentially — and providing opportunities for people, but not for people that looked like us.”
While the fundraising grind of a nonprofit CEO can be taxing, Bryant said, the job allows her to mentor young women in STEM with whom she shares a similar background and interests. “Seeing them go through the process of learning and building and creating, and to see the sense of wonder that they have, and sometimes to see the sense of defeat … and to be able to provide the guidance and encouragement, is the reaffirmation that I get consistently that I’m doing what I should be doing,” she said.
The Taco Bell restaurant manager: Trae Evans
Evans, a 26-year-old former teacher from Milwaukee, began working part-time at a Taco Bell a few years ago after moving to the Indianapolis area. He started as a team member and climbed through the ranks before being promoted to restaurant general manager. Along the way, he met both his fiancé and his best friend through work.
To be sure, the move from teaching to taco-making was a bit of a culture shock, Evans told Moneyish — but he clicked with his coworkers and customers. Today, Evans says he loves coaching his team members and promoting them internally. “The main reason that I taught was so that I would have the ability to impact the lives of others and to build relationships and to help influence the future of our nation and our community,” Evans told Moneyish. “I found that I could also do the same thing at Taco Bell.”
He even enjoys pacifying angry customers, he said. “My goal at the end of each conversation with the angry customer,” he said, “is to make sure that they’re happy, and just to see them go from being furious and then leaving my restaurant with a smile on their face.”
The artist: Diana Stelin
Stelin, a 39-year-old professional artist in Boston who owns her own teaching art studio, left a well-paying position in the gallery world to open the Plein-Air Art Academy about six years ago.
Stelin says she loves seeing the impact she makes on her students, whom she exposes to art history, outdoor time and a variety of materials. “Their minds open to new ideas; they relax and find joy in life around them. They become more attuned with their inner selves,” she told Moneyish. “I feel like I am privy to lots of things happening in both kids and adults alike in terms of watching their imaginations grow; in terms of seeing them become more relaxed and less stressed out.”
The job requires lots of energy, said Stelin. On the tough days, she tries to pay attention to the small victories. “Every single day, somebody has a little epiphany,” she said. “A little 4-year-old who has been (making) scribbles for months and months at a time all of a sudden might finally arrive at making a person.”
The master plumber: Erin Swetland
Swetland, a 38-year-old resident of Maplewood, Minn., has a fine-arts background. But after buying a house during the 2009 economic downturn, she wound up hitting it off with a plumber she hired — noting that he got a glimpse into other people’s lives, could set his own schedule, was able to fix anything and cost a lot of money to hire.
“I was like, ‘I want to make that money. I want to do this stuff,’” Swetland recalled. “He was like, ‘Erin, you could do this.’” The idea, she said, blew her mind. “It would be great if more women, more people of color … would join the trades. It’s a lucrative career, and one that’s only going to be in more demand.”
Swetland now works as a commercial plumber, primarily on hospitals and stadiums, for the mechanical contractor Harris. “I love that I get to work with my hands; that every day something’s a little bit different; that some days I get to save the day,” she said. The skill, she added, is one “that nobody can take away from you, ever.” “Once you have it, it can’t be outsourced,” she said. “It’s just with you.”
The Humane Society worker: Bryant Taylor
Taylor, a program coordinator within the Humane Society of the United States’ equine protection department, harbored a love for horses growing up. “I was always that horse-crazy kid that was always going to the library and getting horse books; watching horse movies,” Taylor, 31, of Poolesville, Md., told Moneyish.
Almost three years ago, Taylor stumbled upon what seemed like “a dream opportunity.” “I get to talk about horses and help horses and help other horse people,” he said. “I would’ve been happy to work on anything with animals, but to get my favorite animal made it even better.” His job involves working with equine advocates, folks in the equine industry and other animal lovers to make a positive impact on the lives of horses across the country.
While it can be difficult to see animals in grim situations, he said, “I love the fact that we are working to take them out of those situations, and expose what’s happening in order to get them to a better place.” “The ‘after’ part of knowing that we’re making an impact is what keeps me going,” he added.
The oncologist: Alan Lyss
Lyss, a clinical oncologist at the Missouri Baptist Cancer Center in St. Louis, has been in practice for 36 years. The ever-evolving field of medical oncology has consistently stimulated and challenged him, the 68-year-old told Moneyish, while working hard to make a difference in people’s lives gives him gratification.
Lyss marvels at the courage of those who participate in clinical research to potentially help forge medical advances for others. He also loves interacting with patients: “I feel that cancer patients often come to us with expectations of the worst, and we can almost always provide something more than that,” he said. “Even if we can’t provide a home run, we have the opportunity to exceed their expectations for what they expect cancer will meant to them or their loved ones.”
In a sense, he added, he gets to see people at their most elemental selves. “I get to work with people who are in many ways stripped down to their basic core,” Lyss said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re someone who’s been down and out on your luck or whether you’re a bank president — when you have cancer, it does fundamentally the same sorts of things to you.”
The farmer: Melony Edwards
Edwards attended Le Cordon Bleu and Johnson & Wales University Miami, later working in fine dining and on cruise ships. But the 34-year-old grew frustrated with a lack of connection to the food’s origins — so she started volunteering at local community gardens during her free time, worked a stint at Whole Foods Market and took a farming class at Washington State University. She ultimately landed an internship at Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, where she now works as farm manager and harvest manager.
She likes that she gets to work outside instead of under synthetic indoor lighting; she can bring her rat terrier, Buttercup, to work with her. She likes creating something tangible. “In the beginning of a season you have these little teeny tiny seeds, and pretty much you have to nurse them; you have to take care of them like children until they’re grown, when you can actually harvest them,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see the seasons change and the plants flourish throughout the year.”
“I love farming because it allows me the opportunity to connect with my food and understand seasonality and where food comes from,” Edwards said, “and also to be able to use these skills to teach people how to create a sustainable food source for themselves.”
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