Finding Out ‘What It’s Like to Be…’ Through Slow Curiosity

My new podcast, What It’s Like To Be…, debuts this week, but its origin goes back a while—to a time when I called a plumber to fix a toilet.

Before I’d called, I had conducted some careful diagnostics myself, which involved lifting the tank’s porcelain lid, confirming that I still lacked basic comprehension of the components inside, and then replacing the lid.

When the plumber was doing his work, I fought an urge to pepper him with questions: Was he secretly disgusted by clueless laptop people like me? Or was I a dream client—in the sense that ignorance begets revenue? What were his favorite plumbing problems to solve? Was Liquid Plumr really as pointless as he claimed? Had he ever dealt with a truly gnarly, Stranger-Things-worthy plumbing incident? Etc.

I asked none of these questions.

Then, a while later, I was having a holiday dinner with relatives, and I realized I could faithfully recite each person’s job and employer, but I didn’t have the foggiest sense of how they actually spent their days. Around the table, we knew each other’s food preferences and childhood stories and sports team affiliations—but almost nothing about each other’s work. Why, I wondered, do we have so little curiosity about each other’s jobs?

Experiences like these were what prompted me to launch the new podcast. It indulges that missing curiosity about people’s jobs. In each episode, I interview someone from a different profession and ask countless nosy questions about what it’s like to do what they do. I’ve talked to a stadium beer vendor, a couples therapist, a criminal defense attorney, a mystery novelist, and many more. (Hopefully I can book my plumber too.)

In my normal job, I write behavioral science–infused books that help readers do things in their lives—such as make ideas stick or solve problems before they happen. In a typical book cycle, I’ll spend years digging up answers because that’s what readers need and want.

But in these podcast interviews, I give up all pretense of having the answers. There’s power in asking genuinely dumb questions. I asked a welder, Lucky Reed, why things needed to be welded. I genuinely didn’t know. And he explained it patiently—as well as explaining how welding works in outer space (since the lack of oxygen poses a problem) and what happens when you don’t wear your protective hood (you get a “flash burn”—like a sunburn on your eyes). And he shared the story of why welding, as a career, offered him a welcome escape from the tobacco farm where he was raised.

It’s odd that a normal and compelling story like Reed’s would come to be such an endangered species in our media environment. We want our stories to come with a red/blue tribal hook: Gender inequality persists in boys-club welding industry. Or we want something lurid or extreme: Cheating couple fused in revenge-welding incident! Or we want a practical hook: A welder’s 10 lessons for handling workplace pressure when things get hot.

Curiosity can be a means to an end. But couldn’t it also be … the end? A reward in itself?

As an analogy, the slow food movement was a reaction to the use of food as a “means”—the widespread habit of quick-serve, on-the-go, calories-down-the-gullet-style cooking and eating. But—as food gurus taught us—when we slow things down, a source of stress could become a source of enjoyment.

Maybe we need a slow curiosity movement.

This is not a manifesto, or at least not a very good one. Certainly I’m not breaking new ground in my interest in jobs: Studs Terkel beat me to the working beat by several decades, and there are plenty of job-themed podcasts.

But if I can’t promise novelty or profundity, I can promise sincerity. It’s real people talking about their jobs. Their highs and lows. A meteorologist who despairs when people cite to her the weather forecasts on their phone apps. A criminal defense attorney who shares what it’s like to be the last line of defense between a human being and a cage. A forensic accountant who caught a guy who was buying himself electronics and disguising them as reimbursements for “HDMI cables.” Very, very expensive and plentiful HDMI cables. Humanity in all its colors.

Here’s a retired stadium beer vendor describing his response to his relatives’ criticism about his line of work:

“I had relatives that said, ‘Man, you squandered your life. You had so much potential to do so many things.’ And I said, ‘No, I didn’t. I’ve had a great life.’ It gave me a lot of free time. I worked very, very hard. I never missed work. I never complained about the job. I kept my nose clean. And I loved it. And I was able to make a living. 

“But no, could I buy a brand new car? No. Could I get a big house? No. Could I take vacations to the Caribbean or fly to Europe? No. But could I have a good life? The answer was yes, a very, very, very good life, in my mind. And I loved what I was doing, and I know for a fact that I brought something good to the ballpark, and that the people brought something good back to me.”

There is something that has been profoundly healthy for me about unclenching my brain and just listening. Relishing my own ignorance. And enjoying what it feels like to lose some of it.

Maybe a deep dive on jobs is not your thing—which is fair enough—but here’s hoping that you’ll find some comparable outlet in your life, some means of sharing in my joy at being slow and curious.

Episode 1

What It’s Like To Be… debuted on October 17, 2023 with three episodes: Stadium Beer Vendor, Couples Therapist, and Criminal Defense Attorney. Subsequent episodes will drop every other Tuesday. Behavioral Scientist serves as a distribution partner and will post each new show as it drops.