Careers, compromise and capitalism

just a girl in a capitalist world

Time for the latest installment in the ‘loving your work’ series! (Previously: Can we all realistically expect to love our jobs? and The job-that-you-wake-up-excited-for propaganda.)

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.

lthough my friends sometimes accuse me of being unromantic, I don’t believe in the concept of soulmates.  I just don’t think that there is one person out there with whom we are destined to spend our lives.  Rather, I feel that there are a number of people out there who could make us happy – See more at: http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2013/09/23/how-to-love-what-you-do/?priorityCode=3969702399&cid=aff_cj_6150161#sthash.Sfp4gCaa.dpufAt the risk of aiming too low, perhaps – just don’t do something you hate.

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

Did you always know what you wanted to be/do?

The form you have selected does not exist.

Although my friends sometimes accuse me of being unromantic, I don’t believe in the concept of soulmates.  I just don’t think that there is one person out there with whom we are destined to spend our lives.  Rather, I feel that there are a number of people out there who could make us happy. – See more at: http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2013/09/23/how-to-love-what-you-do/?priorityCode=3969702399&cid=aff_cj_6150161#sthash.Sfp4gCaa.dpuf

16 thoughts on “Careers, compromise and capitalism

  • Reply Jessie's Money June 2, 2015 at 07:37

    This is a great post!

    Jordan and I are choosing to work to live, rather than live to work. I love what I do, and the company I work for – but we’re moving to small town British Columbia to start having a bit more life.

  • Reply That Blue House June 2, 2015 at 08:44

    I absolutely hate it when people say to follow your passion and if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. You know what?? Even the people who LOVE what they do, work hours and hours and hours and have rotten personal lives because they work so hard on their passion, they have little time for anything else. I LIKE my job. The pay is good, the benefits are excellent, I can manage the coworkers, and I find it interesting enough to keep me going. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t quit in a second if someone offered me a job reviewing pina colodas at the top beach resorts around the world (thats MY dream job). We’ve been able to save enough in recent years, and hope to save more in a couple more years, that hopefully I will get to the point where I can actually take a paycut and do the work I REALLY want to do. But it didn’t happen overnight, and I’ve worked my butt off to get to that point.

  • Reply Kate June 2, 2015 at 20:52

    I thought I did, and I got the job. I’ve done it for nearly ten years now, and yeah, a lot of it was as awesome as I thought it would be. A lot of it sucked far more than I thought it would.

    And so I am starting to look further afield. I am tempted to stay for a few more years because the money is good and we can pay off our mortgage, but I am actively sowing the seeds to be able to move on.

  • Reply Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank June 2, 2015 at 21:37

    That kinda prove that money can somehow give us happiness. We have to accept the fact that to have that dream house, car, and a lot more, we need to have money.

  • Reply Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents June 3, 2015 at 00:27

    I don’t particularly like my job, as in I don’t have a particular passion for it, but it is pleasant enough and the pay and work environment are both great. That said, I as a person feel terribly constrained working for money, it’s just the way my brain is. The obligation is suffocating. So hopefully I can reach semi-FIRE soonish (10-12 years) so that I can let my brain run free, Scanner that I too likely am.

  • Reply Someone June 3, 2015 at 13:22

    Being a teacher was something that has always been in the make of my mind, but an Early Childhood Teacher was not what I pictured haha.

  • Reply Amanda @ My Life, I Guess June 3, 2015 at 22:40

    I read it yesterday, thought about it all day, and now I’m reading it again (and commenting to tell you how much I love it).
    For the most part, you could just replace T’s name with mine. I still don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I had that toxic boss that I could no longer work for. I “can’t afford to bounce around from low level job to low level job forever, never increasing your income, or your earning potential.” (THAT quote really hit home for me!)
    I’ve spent years (well, my whole life, really) trying to discover my passion. I read books, blog posts, took quizzes, etc. and I get nothing. I *thought* that using theatre as a tool for educating was it, but now I think I just chose that path because it was easy to me.
    Now that I’ve been unemployed/underemployed for the last year, in yet another toxic-ish environment, I’m realizing that it’s not about the job itself – it’s about all those other things you mention – a fair boss, nice coworkers, reasonable pay and hours, etc. My current job has none of these things (except the short commute part). I’d happily do data entry for minimum wage, 40 hours a week if the environment is right.
    That’s really all I’m looking for right now.

  • Reply Zenmoo June 4, 2015 at 22:49

    Just curious – in all of the job hunting you & T have done, have you considered leaving Auckland for somewhere else in NZ with less ridiculous real estate? I lived in Auckland from 2002-2004 and can’t imagine ever going back! Post Chch eq, I’m a bit nervous about living in Wellington – but I love Christchurch & then there is Tauranga or Nelson if you’re after warmer weather…

    • Reply eemusings June 4, 2015 at 23:24

      I may have to stop replying to comments like this… That’s just not for us. Sorry if that sounds rude, but all ground covered here before.

      • Reply Zenmoo June 5, 2015 at 17:56

        Oh no, that’s fine – I just wondered (as I haven’t been reading here for that long).

  • Reply middle class June 5, 2015 at 03:51

    I think the advice from Marty Nemko that you cited is dead-on. However, I think it’s very hard for younger people to ignore the “follow your passion” advice. I think if you are young and have a passion for something, you should explore it. However, you also have to know when to make trade-offs, modifying or giving up the dream if it is incompatible with other aspects of the life you want.

    To answer your question, I did know what I wanted to do/be at high school. That dream did not happen for me, but I was able to find a field that I enjoy and that “matched” my strengths and interests enough that I don’t dread going into work every day. I also have a good boss and co-workers which can be just as, if not more important, than the job itself.

  • Reply Sandy L June 6, 2015 at 07:00

    Ah..the passion. For a long time, I didn’t think such a thing existed…that perfect job that was just right for you and settled on doing something that pays well and has good job security…because when you grow up poor, #1 priority is to not ever be that again if you can help it.

    For me, even though I’ve been at the same company a long time, I did job hop within it a lot. With each experience, I not only gained knowledge, but a greater understanding of myself. What I like, what I don’t like, what kinds of people motivate me, etc. So, I started cherry picking the important bits out of each experience to help take me to the next logical step. Eventually, I ended up in a sales job with a home office and the ability to largely make my own schedule and here I have stayed for 10 years because giving up some of the perks isn’t worth whatever new experience I could have moved to.

    One’s career path is not a straight line, and the ideal job is often times not something that you can identify ahead of time. In fact, when I told one of my college buddies I was in a sales job, he laughed and said hell must have frozen over because I’m not really the shaking hands, kissing babies type.

    The ideal job is often the place that best matches your values and your personality. And let’s face it, when I was in my 20’s I didn’t even know myself well enough to even answer some of those basic questions about myself. I had to learn through trial and error.

    In the end for me, much of it is the soft stuff which very much relates to the people and the culture of the company you work for. I want to feel valued and appreciated and make an impact. Part of that is where you work, but the larger part frankly falls to yourself. If you’re just mailing it in and doing a mediocre job, then you’re just a cog in a bigger wheel. I really don’t think it matters if you’re a rocket scientist or a janitor. Take pride in your work and do the best job you can. The job satisfaction will come when you feel valued and have a sense of purpose. Job satisfaction isn’t an entitlement that someone owes you either. Much of it comes from within.

    I met the most amazing guy who owns a “make to order” clothing business for boutique low volume designers in LA. When he started out in the industry, his first job was in the warehouse throwing boxes. I met another guy yesterday who also started in a warehouse, and now he runs the manufacturing engineering of the plant he works in. He’s only 30 and getting his degree at night. It’s not about the job you’re in but the doors it can open by being exceptional at whatever that job of today is. Each experience has something unique to offer. To be blind to the learning potential of those experiences is just spinning your wheels.

  • Reply Katie C May 28, 2016 at 13:10

    This post is so great, and I read it at exactly the right moment in my life!

    I thought I knew what I wanted to do in high school – be a journalist. But I landed my first real job (non-internship) in the field and realized 1) the pay was terrible, 2) the print journalism industry was headed in a direction that didn’t inspire optimism and 3) I actually preferred being able to spend time with my husband instead of devoting every waking hour to “my passion.”

    Now I work in HR, and there are definitely days when I wonder if this is it, if I’m “settling” by working in the field I’m in. But I like the work, and I really like my new job. (Commute is just right. Coworkers are amazing. Company atmosphere is fantastic. The work is interesting and challenging. Pay is pretty good. It feels like a place where I could grow and learn and have fun doing it.) I think hearing the “find your passion and follow your dreams” advice so much growing up poisoned me in a way that makes it impossible to feel good about my work because my work isn’t saving the world.

    • Reply eemusings May 28, 2016 at 13:14

      “I think hearing the “find your passion and follow your dreams” advice so much growing up poisoned me in a way that makes it impossible to feel good about my work because my work isn’t saving the world.”

      That sucks, and yet I feel ‘poisoned’ is just the right word. It’s strong, but so is the pervasive notions of DYWL. Dominant discourse tends to make anyone who doesn’t LOVE their work feel like a failure/loser.

  • Reply Julie @ Millennial Boss July 15, 2016 at 07:07

    100% agree. Very well-researched and said. I especially liked the part about the danger of assuming something is your dream job. People invest thousands of dollars and time pursuing a dream job and then find out they were totally wrong.

  • Reply Piggy April 20, 2017 at 02:17

    Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. I’m so tired of the “Find your passion”/”If you love your work you’ll never work a day” rhetoric. I think it’s much more damaging than most people let on. You hit the nail on the head, as always.

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