The TLDR version: It’s hard to not feel a bit hypocritical whenever I write about this, since I’ve always known basically what I wanted to do, followed it where it led and had it work out. BUT! I am married to a textbook Scanner who still doesn’t know what he wants to do for the rest of his life. At last, thankfully, I think we’ve weaned him off the ‘find your passion’ Kool-Aid (it’s so ridiculously pervasive). At some point I think you need to choose: spend a lifetime chasing that elusive and possibly nonexistent thing, or stick with something and be able to fund the other things in life you enjoy or aspire to, such as having a family, playing sports, travel.
We all know money matters
It may not always buy happiness, but a lack of it is a surefire path to unhappiness. Money, (or lack thereof) more than job dissatisfaction, sex, housework or any other issue you can name, has always been the toughest issue for us. It’s no coincidence the two times that nearly broke us were during times of unemployment.
As this excellent Aeon piece on happiness/meaningfulness (worth a read in its entirety) observes, “Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need.” Security of employment/resources falls in the second most important tier of Maslow’s hierarchy; ‘self-actualisation’ is just the cherry at the very top.
The intersection of money + career has reared its head for me again recently, with my change of direction and T finding, then losing what seemed to be a 90% dream job, followed by a good job that turned toxic.
T has always worked to live, rather than lived to work. Certain material things and being able to spend somewhat freely are important. Dog, kids, motorbike, project car – these things all cost money. And here, they boil down to needing to buy a house (not to mention all the other things that make renting here a genuine nightmare). Oh, and that in turn ties back into needing even more money. We cannot afford to wait around for years for my husband to figure out a dream job (which I doubt exists for him), and he knows it.
In short, we have dreams, and none of those dreams come for free.
Find a job that lights your fire? Fantastic, but if not, well, you’re not getting any younger and at some point you need to stick with something. The recession and layoffs aside, you can’t afford to bounce around from low level job to low level job forever, never increasing your income, or your earning potential.
What if you don’t have a passion?
When you know how you like to spend your money, but not what you want to do to earn that money, to me it only makes sense to search out a job that fits your lifestyle.
I rather like the plan laid out by Marty Nemko in Kiplinger:
My advice? Unless you’re a driven superstar, pick a non-glam career that you’d be good at… Pick the one offering as many of these characteristics as possible:
- Moderately challenging
- Meaningful work
- A kind, competent boss
- Pleasant co-workers
- Learning opportunities
- Reasonable pay
- Reasonable work hours
- A short commute
At one point in his job hunt last year, I came across an advice letter penned by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, which seemed like it could have been written just for him. Here’s Mike’s response to a guy seeking excitement and flexibility but with steady pay; a hands-on type of person who hates offices and gets bored easily but wants to have a family at some point. No big ask, huh?
Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.
Harsh? Yes. But there’s truth in it. Job satisfaction is complex and happiness is not going to come from trying to figure out some inchoate passion. Every single job where he’s enjoyed the actual work has had major, potentially unsustainable inherent downsides. Lack of money/potential advancement. Physical exhaustion/danger. Less than ideal hours/schedule. And that’s before even getting to peripheral things like bad managers/colleagues.
As Penelope Trunk once wrote of his personality type, or very close to it: “The key to being a successful ENTP is followthrough. Because lack of followthrough is such a huge risk factor for an ENTP, it’s almost more important to followthrough on anything than to followthrough on the right thing.”
Finding happiness at work
Work is about so much more than your actual duties. There’s the environmental factors – commute, your physical surroundings, dress code, etc. The people factors – are you treated like an adult, does your boss micromanage, do you get along with colleagues? All these intangible elements that can make or break working conditions, and that’s before we even get to whether the job offers variety, autonomy, challenge.
What we’ve come to realise is that in a way, this is a bit of a crapshoot. As my career hero Ask A Manager lays out:
I’d even go so far as to say that there’s no such thing as a dream job that you can truly recognize from the outside. Because as much as you think you might love doing that work for that company, it might turn out that the boss is a nightmare, or your coworkers are horrible, or the company makes you sign out for bathroom breaks and bring in a doctor’s note every time you have a cold, or you’re abused daily by clients, or your workload is so unreasonably high that you end up having panic attacks every morning.
Dream jobs do exist — when it’s work you love, at a company that treats employees well, working for a great manager, alongside coworkers who are competent and kind, or at least unobjectionable — but it’s dangerous to think something is your dream job before you’re really in a position to know.
It doesn’t have to be a choice between extremes – a $150k job you hate and a $40k job you love – there’s usually options in between. It’s hard to place any hard and fast rules on this kind of thing, but for example, I’d personally trade a ‘dreamy’ $50k job up to an ‘okay’ $80k job any day. (Adjust the numbers accordingly for your area’s cost of living…)
‘Do what you love’ is a nice philosophy and it works for some of us, but I absolutely detest it as blanket advice. At the risk of aiming too low, perhaps – just don’t do something you hate.
We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it. Professional gamblers, stuntmen, washed up cartoonists like myself: we don’t give speeches at corporate events. We aren’t paid to go to the World Domination Summit and make people feel bad. We don’t land book deals or speak on Good Morning America.
Or how about letting your passion follow you? There is so much goodness to unpack in this Billfold piece on discovering job satisfaction, written by someone who was toying with taking up fulltime work in a field she volunteered in but came to realise that mission and purpose are not everything:
While I had always believed generally in the cause I was working for, it didn’t speak to a deep part of my identity. The day to day tasks, however, did excite me. I liked the variety, the creativity, the people I worked with, and the latitude I had in my role. I recognized that I had a lot more control and flexibility around my responsibilities than I had previously thought. I also loved my work environment, which included wonderful colleagues, a predictable schedule, and natural light. Ultimately, I realized that these elements were far more influential to my overall satisfaction and emotional health than working for a cause I’d believed in since I was a kid, but whose day-to-day responsibilities were a poor fit for my personality.
Life’s too short to starve for passion’s sake. It can be fun when you’re young but it gets old fast. Trading glamour/ego for more money/a normal workload is something I do not regret one iota. It’s also nice being on the side of a growing niche, rather than a struggling one – feeling positive and hopeful about lifetime career prospects rather than depressed.
At some point in my 20s, I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe in soulmates. I believe there are a lot of people out there we could be happy with. If we waited for total perfection, nobody would ever get married. And likewise I suspect there are a lot of jobs out there that many of us could be perfectly happy with. I was pretty excited about all the possibilities when I started job hunting a year ago, and I hope I get to explore all those paths over the coming years (unless of course I lose interest in some of them, which is always a possibility).
Because don’t get me wrong: I need a lot of variety. Honestly, even if traditional publishing wasn’t in the state it is in now, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck around forever. I was ready for a change.
Having grown up in this era, I started out with rose-tinted visions of some unicorn of a dream job. Now I’m older and wiser and perhaps a tad more cynical and mercenary.
“The work world has become a battleground for the struggle between the boring and the stimulating. The emphasis on intensity has seeped into our value system. We still cling to the idea that work should not only be challenging and meaningful — but also invigorating and entertaining. But really, work should be like life: sometimes fun, sometimes moving, often frustrating, and defined by meaningful events.” – Po Bronson