In Praise of “Pearl Jobs” or the Value of Extreme Irritation

out of the fireOften the work experiences that are the most frustrating and irritating yield the most value over the long term.

While you’re in the thick of it, you may not be able to think about anything except your extreme aggravation, but I would like to suggest that you adopt a different perspective.

My second job was a pearl job. I was the assistant to the managing partner of a technical analysis software boutique. We originally had a DOS-based product, and later one of the first Windows-based charting software products for traders, hedge funds, and money managers.

This was bleeding-edge technology at the time, believe it or not. (And yes, I am that old.)

This job stretched me in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. I went from not being able to type at all (I paid a friend to type my college papers) and having never interacted with a PC to installing software, troubleshooting problems on the phone and at client sites, preparing for annual audits – and SO much more.

My boss was a brilliant and occasionally difficult man. His business partner once looked at me and said, “You seem to do well with his hypoglycemic manic-depressive fits.”

And I did. Mostly, we worked extremely well together.

Almost 20 years later, I did a radio interview with him and he said he couldn’t have done it without me. He and his partner sold the tech startup to Reuters and made a tidy profit.

This job was pivotal for me. I realized that I could do or learn anything. When my boss lost both of his parents within two weeks, I ran the day-to-day operations of the company for almost a month.

I received inestimable value from this difficult job: An unshakable confidence in my abilities that has served me well for 25 years. Also, the understanding of what it takes to build something to sell, and the hands-on aspect of growing a startup.

Last night, my mother was telling me a story about a young woman who is working on an amazing project to build a gorgeous mosaic wall in the middle of rural Mexico, depicting the history of the area. It is a labor of love that will make generations proud.

In the middle of cat-herding volunteers and working within tight budgets, she is not seeing the value that this pearl job will have on every aspect of her life going forward. She will:

  • Have the experience of living in a foreign country as a local.
  • Build deep friendships that she will treasure for a lifetime.
  • Speak much better Spanish.
  • Know how to cook and appreciate some wonderful delicacies.
  • Understand how to motivate volunteers.
  • Be able to point to an amazing artistic accomplishment that she helped create.
  • Realize the true meaning of “It takes a village.”
  • Gain confidence that she can be successful in any situation.

But, I am also sympathetic. In the middle of a pearl job, it’s not fun. You’re so deep in the mess that you can’t imagine what it will be like to look back on it one year, five years, or ten years out.

Please remember: Pearls only develop as a result of the irritation of sand in the tenderest oyster flesh. It can be uncomfortable to create a treasure. 

What do you think? Have you ever had a pearl job? How do you feel about it now? Was it worth it?


I have had some "pearl jobs" ! I didn't think of them that way and I wish I had! Absolutely brilliant Catherine! Thanks so much. Julie