Can informational interviewing cultivate purpose and dignity?

A new book on the significance of “connective labor” is instructive for the job seeker.

Good morning! Today we’re talking about Allison J. Pugh’s new book (not gonna be published till June, but you can pre-order it now), “The Last Human Job: The Work of Connecting in a Disconnected World.” It’s highly relevant for us informational interviewers, I promise!

As a reminder: we have a lovely little Slack community where can get feedback on your outreach emails, commiserate with fellow job seekers, and find share your wins and goals.

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Can informational interviewing cultivate purpose and dignity?

A new book on the significance of “connective labor” is instructive for the job seeker.

Job hunting has become a dispiriting activity. Job seekers submit hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applications spamming the inboxes of recruiters and hiring managers only to hear nothing but crickets. Applicants who are overqualified receive perfunctory responses to their applications saying the hiring team has just moved on… It is, in a word, dehumanizing. 

A new book (out in June) by Allison Pugh can help explain why. “The Last Human Job: The Work of Connecting in a Disconnected World,” published by the Princeton University Press, is an exploration of the way automation and artificial intelligence impact labor. Though she is focused on the workplace experiences of people who do what she calls “connective labor,” her book is instructive for us job seekers, too. 

Connective labor, according to Pugh, seems “to require some form of empathic listening, in which one cultivates a sense or a vision of the other person, and witnessing, in which that vision is reflected back to the other.” Doctors, therapists, teachers, and other caregivers are the professionals most commonly associated with this kind of labor, and Pugh focuses on these categories. But connective labor is present—and under valued!—in almost all workplaces. It is the thing that infuses labor with humanity. 

It is also at the heart of what we’re doing when we conduct informational interviews. We are attempting to connect. To the extent that we are successful we flourish, personally and professionally. To the extent that we are unsuccessful we feel drained and discouraged. 

These feelings of being drained and discouraged can, in time, lead to the oft misunderstood experience of burnout. Pugh notes that researchers disagree about the causes of burnout. Some say it’s feeling inadequate, some say it’s work overload, and others say it’s lack of control or insufficient emotional support. 

Pugh has her own ideas about what causes burnout.  She writes, “Burnout may instead be caused by the experience of impeded relationship, as what happens when factors — organizational, structural, personal — make it impossible for relationships to serve as sources of purpose or dignity.” 

When informational interviewing, there are many organizational, structural and personal factors that can disrupt the process of forming a relationship that will serve as a source of purpose and dignity. Your interlocutor could be in a role or organization that is causing burnout in her! One or both of you could be encountering structural challenges in your life (like losing access to your health insurance, or having to wrangle an indifferent bureaucracy over an incomprehensible medical bill) that impedes your ability to be available to one another during your conversation. You may simply by having personal issues that preclude your ability to really connect during your conversation. 

Whatever the case, I would say that the vast majority of informational interviews do not lead to relationships that serve as a source of purpose or dignity. And this reality can lead to burnout.

It’s not just the circumstances of the interlocutors that can impact the ability to form a relationship that is a source of dignity and purpose. In order to even have a chance at forming that kind of relationship you have to get in touch with a human first. That’s very challenging in today’s hiring landscape. 

Pugh spends a lot of time in her book discussing how automation and artificial intelligence makes it harder to form relationships that are a source of purpose and dignity. She is mostly focused on, for example, increased automation and related bureaucracy in caregiving professions. But the hiring process has experienced just as much automation and depersonalization as hospitals, schools and other caregiving settings. From bots that review resumes, to automated email response, the standard candidate experience involves very little human interaction, unless you happen to make it past all the robot gatekeepers to an interview process.  Even then the process is often standardized and depersonalized, especially if you’re not the lucky gal who gets the job. 

This is why we do informational interviews.  Because we know that, even if many informational interviews are “bad,” results only come from the human to human interaction.  The person who gets the job is usually the person who found a way around the robot gatekeepers. 

At times I have considered how I could productize the informational interviewing/job seeking process. I have not yet found a way to do that. I can’t conceive of a product that could meaningfully improve what is essentially a boots on the ground, manual, human to human process. 

And, notably, despite the absolute bounty of job hunting softwares and products, I have yet to find a single tool (other than LinkedIn!) that can meaningfully contribute to the job search process. 

As Pugh puts it, “The turn toward mechanization relies on a particularly thin vision of what humans do for each other, and how they do it.”  

All told, Pugh’s book is an affirmation of the practice and worth of informational interviewing. It affirms what we all already know. There is something irreplaceable about human connection. It resists efforts to scale, standardize or render more efficient. It’s unpredictable, magical, frustrating, and ultimately the reason anything and everything happens in the world. 

Someday, perhaps, when it is truly AI ruling the world, informational interviewing may no longer be useful. If AI decides who to hire, or who to allot specific resources to, then it will do so according to its own logic. Maybe this will be a spectacular future. Maybe it will be dystopian.  I have no idea. But for now, humans are still in charge. And, although we may be able to outsource many formerly human tasks to machines, humans are still, as Pugh put it, “special to other humans.”

🤝 Do you need more individual help? 🤝

I take on a limited number of coaching clients for individual professional development work. If you’re interested, we can explore your professional path together, and help you find your way towards a more nourishing, rewarding and ambitious professional future. Send me an email (at [email protected]) with the word “coaching” in the subject line, and I’ll share more information.

Optimize your self
Steve Schlafman’s Annual Review
Schlaf, as they call him, is a recovering VC and coach. If you wanna go HAM on your New Year self-evaluation and goal setting, you can’t go wrong with his VERY in-depth Annual Review template. In general, I like what Schlaf has to say a lot.

Save the world
How to quit your job for climate ~ Oscar Boyd and Akshat Rathi for Bloomberg
Never forget that there is a lot of important work that needs doing in our world. And its your job to “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” To that end, you can’t do better than climate work. This article is from exactly one year ago. But it seems like the trend they identified has continue apace. Plenty of people are making the move into climate and climate adjacent roles/orgs.

It’s harder than it looks 
How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) ~ Tim Urban aka the guy who writes Wait by Why
If you don’t already ready Wait but Why, you should. Tim Urban has a knack for making things clear (sometimes unnervingly so… check out his post on mortality). This post is hilarious and loooonnnnggggg but worth it in the end because he does such a great job of exploring the many tensions inherent in “choosing” a career.

New to informational interviewing?

Are you new to informational interviewing? Here are a few articles and resource to get your started:

That should get you started. For more related and adjacent informational interviewing content, visit the Art of the Informational Interview!

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