There Are Only Three Kinds of Jobs in the World

I was on a flight recently and sat next to a nice middle-aged woman from middle America (somewhere between the Midwest and Middle Earth, judging from her conservative hemlines and boxy low heels) who asked me what I did for a living. I said to her, jokingly, “the oldest job in the world after hunting, farming, and prostitution.” She blinked a few times, confused. “But what kind of job would that be?” she carefully probed. I said, “Advertising”.

Turns out she was sharper and more inquisitive than I’d given her credit for, and she worked for a big recruiting firm. So she knew people, and had pretty much seen it all in terms of human skills and life stories. As we talked, I let her in on a theory I’ve been developing for years: that there are, have always been, and will only ever be, three kinds of jobs in the world (if you strip away cultural packaging, mores, norms, etc.):

1) You make something that someone else wants to buy. Whether that’s a car, or a chair, or a coffee maker. You make it, and they want to buy it. So whether you’re a farmer or a car manufacturer, this is how you make your money.

2) You sell something that someone else made. Because likely you’re better at selling it than they are. Or you have the time, as they’re quite busy making the stuff. Advertising, marketing, retail – all fit into this category.

3) You provide a service that someone else will pay for, because it makes them feel better for having it. I stress the “feel better” part, because none of these jobs guarantee an outcome, they only promise a better ride than you’d have otherwise. When you hire a doctor, they can never guarantee they’ll cure you of whatever ailment you have, but you sure feel better in having their good counsel. When you hire a lawyer, you’re not guaranteed you’ll win the case, but it sure feels better than representing yourself. So this category of job includes all the service professions, from doctors and lawyers to massage therapists, consultants, counselors, and yes, even prostitutes.

And some jobs can be a hybrid of two of these categories. For example, an actor in a movie is providing a service, for which they’re paid (category 3) but is also part of an endeavor that creates a product that hopefully people will want to buy (category 1). This is, in part, because they have talented people persuading folks like you and me to go see the movie (category 2). In fact, an actor may participate in a series of press interviews to promote the film, in which case they’re fully in category 2.

There is virtually no job that doesn’t fit into the above framework. And why is it valuable at all to see things in this stripped down “deep structure” kind of way? Because it can help us to see beyond our own social conditioning regarding what’s acceptable/unacceptable, right/wrong, moral/immoral – and see forest for the trees. New solutions come from seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar way, or to see inside the familiar for its blueprint or deeper meaning.

So next time you’re at a party and meeting new people, I encourage you to ask everyone you meet what they do for a living and see what type of job they really have behind the veneer of what’s cool or acceptable. You’ll likely enjoy what you find, and perhaps form a connection with someone you wouldn’t otherwise, if you only looked at their surface.