Working On the Job

By David Himmel

“All professional men are handicapped by not being allowed to ignore things which are useless.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

During freshmen orientation in college, our group of about 20 was asked what our career goals were. My initial major was hotel/restaurant management. The answers provided by everyone in that small lecture hall were strikingly similar. “I want to open my own chain of hotels. And be really wealthy.” I want to own an international chain of successful restaurants and be rich.” “I want to make a lot of money.” “Riches." "Nice cars." "Big houses." "Tax breaks.”

I was the last person to go. “Being rich would be nice. But as long as I have enough money to afford a few bowls of Cocoa Puffs each day, I’ll be happy.” It got a laugh. And that’s why I said it. I also wanted to depart from the apparent theme of money. And at the time, I meant what I said. But holy god was I wrong. Well, half of what I said was wrong. Following a change in major to journalism and with the benefit of two decades’ worth of hindsight, I certainly need more than a few bowls of Cocoa Puffs to be happy. But I was right in that money wasn’t the only driver for me.

Having meaning and purpose in our jobs is a surefire way of being happy. Moderately happy at least. For most of the day for most of the week anyway. But finding that meaning and purpose in our jobs can prove difficult. Because at its most stripped down form, a job is the thing we do so we can afford to live the life we want. Money for a boat, vacations, charitable donations, drugs, crappy healthcare, chocolate breakfast cereal, summer camp for the kids… Our job title or place on the ladder or status in the Rat Race should not be the thing that defines us. Because many of us wouldn’t work if we didn’t have to as a way of surviving. That’s the reason we plan for retirement. The goal is to never have to work again. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that.

A job is the thing we do so we can afford to live the life we want. Money for a boat, vacations, charitable donations, drugs, crappy healthcare, chocolate breakfast cereal, summer camp for the kids.

Until, that is, someone paraphrases Confucius; that if we love our work, it no longer becomes work. Do what you love and the money will follow is another idiom that gets tossed around high school guidance counselor offices and the therapy sessions of middle-management workers in the grips of a mid-life–mid-career crisis. Lean in; you can have it all: Value, money, glory, the respect of your children and the envy of your contemporaries.

That is all utter hogwash. Working a job, building a career, achieving your professional and personal dreams, which are unavoidably conjoined, is not that easy for most of us. To get there, each job you take requires three things.

1)    Money
2)    Education
3)    Opportunity

If your job doesn’t have one of these three things, it must have at least plenty of the other two. And if it doesn’t have two of the three, then there better be a whole helluva lot of the one thing. Enough of these jobs is what makes up your career. In my career, one of the three has mostly outweighed the other two.

My first job out of college offered me a 401K. I was 23-years-old and I rejected it. Despite the job being a director position, the salary was a measly $23,000 and after taxes and health benefits deductions, I was left with barely enough to cover rent and my early-twenties drinking habit. Besides, I had no plans on ever retiring.

I still have no plans on retiring. But now, a little more than a decade later, it’s not only because I enjoy the prospect of dying while earning money doing what I love, but also because I’m not confident I’ll ever be able to afford a luxury such as retirement. My career has been built of jobs in radio, journalism, creative writing, corporate communications and brand marketing. Along the way, I’ve made some decent wages but never enough to sit back and coast on. I’ve earned six figures before but that amount was made up of one full-time job in corporate branding and a smattering of freelance gigs in the aforementioned creative writing and journalism. Freelance jobs come and go. Contracts end. Full-time positions get eliminated. Nothing lasts forever but failure and success.

It’s partly my fault for choosing a career that inherently pays dirty peanuts for the majority of the workers for the majority of their active careers—journalism, radio and creative writing. And it’s partly my parents’ fault for dumping DNA in me that designed me to thrust after the creative—dare I say, artistic—professions with a distaste for ubiquitous, dull, human resources-driven corporate cultures. As such, I have struggled to be an artist while avoiding being a starving artist. I have worked really hard at working. I took full-time jobs or long-term contracts that skewed more corporate and less creative as a way to pay the bills so I could focus on building the career I was truly after. But as cost of living increased and desires shifted, I found myself trying to build upon the more corporate successes as a way to earn more money.

I have spent most of my career chasing the chum rather than hunting the prey.

Building two different careers at the same time is a difficult thing to do. I don’t recommend it. What I’ve come to realize is that I have spent most of my career chasing the chum rather than hunting the prey. The prey is a career that is rich with success—or attempts at success—in all that I want to do at the scale I desire. A career with a balanced amount of the three job requirements available at all times. The chum is capitalistic distraction.

I recently completed a four-year contracted stint where I served as the director of marketing communications. On paper, it was a pretty sweet deal. Sixty hours a month, a healthy, livable paycheck and near complete control of my schedule. But this particular client was one of the difficult ones. Fearful of change, in need on my hired expertise but rejecting it at every other turn. (I’m not always right but they were paying me to know things they didn’t.) It was the kind of client that sucked brain power and emotional energy when it shouldn’t have. I’ve had several clients like this. To a large degree, that’s on me.

This is what I mean when I say I was chasing the chum instead of hunting the prey. I needed to eat, and the pre-mulched fish guts kept my belly mostly full. But because I was left with exhaustion and distraction, I was unable to focus and commit myself to churning out the quality work on that other, more creative, career of mine. By missing out on education and opportunity, I was missing out on a real scrumptious meal like a whole seal over there on Seal Island.

No more. I won’t—I can’t—let myself be distracted by the bloody waters and tasty fish-gut nibbles.

But I still have to eat during the hunt. I’ve learned that I write better, create better, work better, live better in general when there’s money in my pocket. It’s one less thing to worry about. I don’t mind other struggles, but struggling to pay for Red Bulls, Post-It Notes and pencils to help get the work done is not something that has ever been useful for me. By this logic, I will only be a bestselling, well-paid novelist after I’m a bestselling, well-paid novelist.

Unless I can find the right kind of full-time gig that pays enough and doesn’t demand anymore brain power or emotional energy than the employee handbook demands. Make no mistake, future employers, I’ll never mail it in. Ever. All I ask is that you leave me my early mornings, occasional nights and my weekends to work on those bestselling novels. And that you buy a copy. Maybe two or three as gifts for your family at Christmas.

I have held down a lot of different jobs throughout my career, none of them being blue collar jobs. But I’ve been close to those who have. I’ve seen the way they worked and lived. I have a blue collar work ethic. I want to work hard. I want to have something to show for it at the end of eight to twelve hours. I want to call it quits, be alone with my thoughts and get on with the rest of my life. Then I want to get a decent bit of sleep before I get back to work.

If I can do that, I’ll have no need to retire. Oh, and the Cocoa Puffs. I still want the Cocoa Puffs.