This week our friend Becky from The Tangential wrote a post about what working 9-5 is like now that she’s a few years out of college. I always like reading Becky’s posts about work because we both work in marketing so I can always relate and I like reading about how creative people use their creativity in a way that helps the world function rather than like, doing performance art outside their Brooklyn commune and having 3-7 kickstarters at any given time for similar ideas. Our other Tangential friend, Jay, chimed in on his experience as a 37 year-old-Harvard-PhD-having individual who has never held a 9-5 job.
I’m one of those people that thinks life needs to be meaningful, and so since you’re 9-5 job is what you do most of your waking hours each day I’ve given a lot of thought on how I can balance this thing that’s important to me with the reality of a job that pays me money. One way I’ve done this is by working at non-profits that have a mission of helping people. For awhile, I volunteered at a nursing home talking with old people who the chaplain told me were particularly lonely/didn’t often had visitors. This was when I realized the most that I am an introvert and probably talking to people/helping them in a 1:1 capacity wasn’t what I was going to excel at/mentally enjoy as a career. So I started working in events and fundraising and marketing because I’m actually good at all those things and they give me energy verses sucking it away. Additionally, non-profit marketers make a lot more than non-profit social workers and it’s a lot easier to go home at the end of the day and leave my work at work.
So at some point, I realized that meaningful work is still doing something that you like to do, not necessarily what most needs to be done. This is your first lesson in selling out. The second lesson is that the idea that you “do what you love” isn’t a very modern worldview. If everyone did what they loved no one would be a CEO because you work 100 hours a week, everyone would be a prostitute or a professional amateur athlete or TV recap-er. If everyone wanted to change the world there wouldn’t be thousands of nonprofits in the U.S., there would be a few that did a great job and people without egos who were working in them. The fact that so many people who claim to want meaning and change start their own non-profit instead of a more financially sound option of working with an existing group shows that it’s only a little bit about helping people and a lot about ego and comfort.
The second lesson in ‘selling out’ came when I read Tracey Kidder’s account of spending time with Paul Farmer, the doctor who is trying to get rid of curable diseases in Haiti, Mountains Beyond Mountains. I could never be Paul Farmer. It’s like when I watched Into the Wild or hung out with my crazy hurricane best friend in college. Christopher McCandles can go live off the land and my friend can go get wasted at parties because there’s someone with my personality around them that can figure out the details/tell them when it’s time to make yourself throw up. Paul Farmer had this guy, Tom White, in his life. Tom was a business man, owner of a construction company, a “sell out” maybe because he had some lame non-creative business job that was just feeding corporate America. He didn’t get to be Paul Farmer, the guy who changed the world. He just wrote the checks that allowed him to do it. Paul operates without a plan, Tom figured it out ad hoc and made his plans come to life.
As someone who related more to Tom than Paul reading the book it almost felt like Paul was a little bit selfish. Of course its heartwarming and meaningful to give malaria and TB shots to people and see their lives get better and it takes guts to do so without a plan or a home or a future per se but someone has to smooth it over for you when you steal microscopes from Harvard.
My point is that if you want to do something meaningful or non-sell outish with your life, you will do it no matter what. Working at a non-profit is a label, it doesn’t mean you are changing the world for the better unless you make it mean that. There are a ton of ineffective non-profits that would be better run as for-profit business that help the community. If your 9-5 work is a corporate zombie job you happen to enjoy enough to work and opens up your life to allow you to pursue your real passions: travel (can’t afford that on a non-profit salary amirite?), blogging (lol), raising kids, whatever, then good for you.
If you are a creative person, you will be creative in any job you take. If you are a meaning-driven person you will find meaning in your life no matter what. Your job isn’t a value statement. It’s your job.