Right before I graduated from college I made myself a promise: I swore to take at least two years of working in the ‘real’ world before even considering graduate school.
I wanted to prove to myself that I could find, keep, and perhaps even enjoy a job in my field of study. I wanted a career, goddamnit. And I decided that, if need be, I would sell my soul to get that first foothold in the industry. At least temporarily.
What do I mean by this “temporary soul-selling”? I mean working for a company that is evil goes against my values, at least for a limited period of time.
There’s a whole spectrum of soul-selling employment, ranging from not-particularly-helping the world (e.g. advertising) to downright destroying humanity (e.g. weapons design). I told myself I was ready for any and all of it.
Obviously, I wouldn’t specifically seek out these evil jobs, but I wouldn’t refuse them either. If one came to me, I would take it. I’d seen too many friends pass up a job offer because they refused to compromise their values, then not see another offer for over 8 months. Whether they were privileged enough to have stable housing during unemployment or not, the longer they went unemployed, the harder it was for them to find work. Depression set in, resources dried up, their knowledge base deteriorated.
That route was their choice, something to be respected. But I wasn’t choosing that path. It was 2011, the economy was still crap (still is, largely), and the internet was exploding with criticism of the ‘entitled millenials’ who are so naïve to expect a good-paying job that they actually like straight out of college (how unrealistic!).
So I was going to take whatever I could get, as soon as possible.
After a ton of serious networking and job-hunting, I finally landed a paid internship at a scientific consulting company. I was ecstatic! It came with full-time hours, decent pay, and potential permanent-hire after three months. The only one thing was I was worried about was potential moral ambiguity issues… But how bad could it be?
Pretty freakin’ bad. As it turns out, I had accepted a job working for a company that defended corporations in mesothelioma cases or ‘asbestos-tort’ litigation.
Now that’s a mouthful, so I’ll break it down:
- Back in the day, people used asbestos for everything under the sun—but mostly insulation and other construction materials.
- Mesothelioma is a type of lung cancer, specifically caused by asbestos.
- People diagnosed with mesothelioma would sue corporations that manufactured asbestos-containing products.
- Those corporations would hire lawyers.
- Then those lawyers would hire the company I was working for to defend them in court…with SCIENCE.
My company’s job was to go to court and says, “Nope, asbestos from Corporation X, did not cause your mesothelioma; here’s why…”
The job was damned depressing.
My task was to read legal depositions of mesothelioma patients and pick out information to use against them in court. (Depositions are just like witness-stand testimony, except they happen outside court, before the trial.) Usually the patient was dead by the time we got the case, but the depositions were alive with natural conversational flair.
It was depressing to read about the brutal side effects of the medical treatments such as chemotherapy, lung-fluid draining, and lung removal. It was even more depressing to hear the patients talk about what they wanted to do before they died, how much they loved their family, and how their loved ones reacted upon hearing the diagnosis.
The fact that was that I was working to prevent the family from getting a larger settlement was just icing on the cake.
I tried to rationalize what I was doing:
Corporations do have a right to defend themselves. The scientific arguments our company used did have some validity. There are different types of asbestos that have different probabilities of causing mesothelioma. We always argued that the mesothelioma was caused by alternative asbestos exposure–that is, exposure to asbestos from other companies (not our client).
But this rationalization wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling sick when I came home at the end of the day. Even when I got my lovely paycheck, I still felt gross.
Even if I rationalized what I was doing, I could only get to a neutral point at best: maybe I could get myself to believe that my company wasn’t actually doing anything ‘evil’. But they certainly were not doing anything good. If I could help it, I didn’t want to be using my time, effort, and education towards something that supports the ‘status-quo’ at best and is evil at worst. Maybe it’s idealistic, but I want to be putting my effort towards making the world a better place.
Maybe I am an ‘entitled overly optimistic millenial’. But I am also extremely privileged. I graduated with zero debt. My family is emotionally supportive. I am a white, heterosexual, cis-female. All of these are “resources” that I have. If I don’t use my resources to try to make the world a better place, who will?
Within two weeks of the asbestos job I decided that (so long as I lined up something new) there was absolutely no amount of money the asbestos company could pay me to stay on as a permanent hire. I went on the job hunt again.
There certainly were benefits to taking that evil internship. Honestly, it worked out pretty much as expected. I learned a ton of technical skills and knowledge. I built my resume. Although there is no way to be certain, it seems that having any job helped me get a better, make-the-world-healthier/not-eviler job as I continued my search for employment.
But I also benefited in ways I hadn’t expected. Selling my soul provided some serious life-perspective. Albeit completely different from (not as serious as) the oppression of people of color, women, queers, those in poverty, etc…. I finally saw the oppression of the ‘suits’.
Until we are all free, we are none of us free
I saw the emotional fatigue of those with ‘good office jobs’ and the resentment it bred. When you do something you hate for 40+ hrs/wk, your life is literally filled with hate. Although I have never worked in retail or fast food, I imagine that the feelings of resentment may even be worse there. Unfortunately, many office-rats often lack awareness- they believe that their 40+ hours of hate per week is ‘success’. All of the sudden I saw the source of choices, attitudes, and behaviors that previously seemed inexplicable. All of the sudden I understood why people would support cutting food stamps or angrily tell a professional artist to “get a real job!”.
I gained a lot from my temporary soul-selling. As expected, I sold my soul for a foothold in the industry, then propelled myself off that foothold as quickly as possible. I lined up a new job (one with at least some opportunity to help the world) just in time- two weeks before the internship was over.
Good thing too, because when the internship was over and it was time for the evil asbestos company to decide whether to offer me permanent employment, they said, “We know you are smart and capable enough for a permanent position here, but we just don’t think you are a good fit for the company”.
Really? You think? Go figure.