I Am What I Play

Last week at a "Strengths Essentials" workshop with many of my coworkers, we were asked to think of what our dream job would be. I hate questions like that in moments like that. I suddenly go blank and default to what I'm doing right now. It may be a question only for people at crisis points--fresh out of college, laid off, in the throes of a mid- or quarter-life crisis. But you can't not answer it, you know? I made the mistake of sitting at the front of the room, at the same table as the head of our company, and everyone else knew exactly what they would do. So I scanned my brain and came up with "radio DJ."

That's about the only thing that stuck with me from the course. I've come across some of this material before; I took a Strengths Finder(tm) assessment some years ago, and I wrote a pretty negative review of the source material for this spinoff, The Truth About You, when I read that. That's where Buckingham makes the argument that "strengths" are what strengthens you, and therefore you need to identify what you lose track of time doing, what puts wind beneath your wings, that sort of thing.

But back to the dream job. I wouldn't have thought that such an icebreaker question would be so provocative for me, but I keep thinking about it. It depends, first, on what you initially imagine when you hear DJ. My boss heard it and thought of those guys who play music at wedding receptions, which for the record is not my dream job. I do like to be in charge of the music and to craft something by the range and sequence of my musical choices, but for the record my dream job as I identified it that day was a radio DJ, which for me involves waking people up in the morning or accompanying them on their ride home or road trip, picking songs for them, telling them stories, getting behind the music by talking to artists and groups, dissecting and unpacking the songs to discern what makes them brilliant, that sort of thing.

I think (or better, I like to think) I listen to a slightly higher class of radio; Chicago's WXRT is a perennial on the short list of top stations for Rolling Stone, Paste and other music industry trackers. Its DJs are artists, historians, musicologists, cultural anthropologists, all sorts of ists. WXRT is the National Public Radio of rock n roll, if you could imagine such a thing. Their morning drive show, hosted by Lin Brehmer, is utterly unique; their late-night and weekend offerings are predictably fresh and well-presented. I interviewed afternoon on-air talent Frank E. Lee for my first book (Comic Book Character), and he confirmed every geeky, idolatrous quality I'd projected on to him over the airwaves. These DJs know their stuff; they know what they're doing; they add value to music that's already a national treasure.

Sure, that's over the top, but it's a dream job. Lighten up. DJs are also celebrities, sort of by proxy. We know their names, mainly because they put us in more direct contact with people whose names we know. Frank E. Lee interviews Led Zeppelin alum Robert Plant and I suddenly know both better, and I am more awestruck by both. Lin Brehmer talks shop with Elvis Costello or Death Cab for Cutie and I get new insight into the songwriting process. Paul McCartney wins the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music and performs at the White House, and I squeal and point and shout, "There's WXRT DJ Teri Hemmert in the second row!" I'm embarrassed to admit it, but there are parts of me that want that squeal for myself.

So, radio DJ is my dream job, but I will never pursue it, and more than that, I'll likely never leave my current job as a book editor unless forced. Because when I think about radio DJs, I realize that what they do for music, I sort of do for books--at least enough of it to keep it interesting. I get to know and spend time with people I admire. I get to crack open the craftsmanship of writing with them. I get early exposure to what their fans will be reading from them next. I get to think about artist and audience and cultural moment, and I regularly get to help craft a catalog that brings those three elements together in a creative concoction. I get to go into green rooms or after parties and meet people who have interested me from afar. I get to show off to my friends about who I've talked to or hung out with or read manuscripts by lately. I get to dabble in my own creative process, and no one is surprised or put off by the fact that I do that. I don't need to become a DJ because, in my mind at least, I already am a DJ.

That, I think, is what's most valuable about that "dream job" question. It's not a great question for making career decisions or for letting off steam about what frustrates you at work. I'm not sure it's even a helpful question for people who are actively job-seeking, the victims of our economic downturn. The lead-in to the "dream job" question is always, if only implicitly, "If money were no object . . ." or "In a perfect world . . ." Money is always an object--it's the object, actually, of a job. And the world will be perfect only after our fantasies and realities have been redeemed by the Great Redeemer. No, the "dream job" is a working metaphor, a parable even, shedding light on what you're doing right now, and what sustains you in that work over time. As for me, I quote David Bowie: "I am a DJ; I am what I play."


Mary Dixon said…
I love the dream job as a working metaphor, and I love the nice things you've written about my friends. All true. Thank you.
David Zimmerman said…
Wow--a visit from Mary Dixon! Thank you Google Alerts!

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