Not Near As Straightforward As It Looks

Not too long ago, I had what felt like the same conversation twice in a span of about twenty-four hours. One day, on my commute home, I found myself talking to a fellow trolley rider who knew what my occupation was, didn’t quite get why I “needed to go to school for that”…. and then, unlike a lot of the other people who ask me, listened while I explained about how catalog records worked, and what it took to process new materials, and the joys of tech support—and actually came off of it seeing my work as more in-depth than I did. Then the next day, one of our gunnery sergeants came in, turned in some books, and out of seemingly nowhere apologized for having viewed our work as so easy, explaining that he’d had this research class, and now he understood.

What I got from this was a basic principle about a character’s occupation and how everyone (often including the character) views it, which boils down to this: most people will assume the job is easier, and that less rides on it, than it actually is. They might not underestimate it to the same degree, but they’ll still probably underestimate it. Interestingly, this does also include the character, but for a different set of reasons.

Why does everyone underestimate a person’s work? Basically, they don’t see all of it. To use the example of my conversational companions and library work, most people, when they think librarian, think of a person who finds the books, might help with internet searches, maybe hosts storytime, and probably shushes unruly patrons. Leaving aside the fact that that’s usually one of the assistants or technicians, that completely misses things like cataloging and processing materials, creating organizational materials, collection development, weeding, and so on. Or take teachers, who usually spend a lot of time outside their contract hours grading or refining their lesson plans; or professional musicians, who aren’t being paid to practice; or waiters, who have to manage data entry and mediating between the cook and the customers and small-scale clean-up at the same time…. point is, everyone’s job is an iceberg, and most of the people interacting with them (and in some cases writing/playing them) are only seeing a small part of it.

On the other hand, the people who actually know what the job entails are probably going to consider it harder, more complicated or more in-depth than the person doing the job perceives it as—and they’ll probably at that point be closer to the truth. It isn’t a case of cluelessness causing them to overestimate the job (even if they were underestimating it a conversation ago)–it’s also that the person who’s actually learning the job has been doing it long enough that things that to an outsider seem difficult are, to them, routine. To use the example of the guy on the trolley, when I was talking about what one actually had to do to process an individual book, he expected it would take half an hour per book, and seemed just as startled by my six-minute average as he had been by the complexity of my work not long before.

In short, nothing’s ever as easy as it sounds, particularly when it comes to people’s occupations.


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