I was searching “career change” on Reddit last week, shopping around for possible subreddits where I might link my blog to find a larger audience. I came across this post in r/engineering. It’s a question from a 30-year-old redditor who is thinking of quitting his unsatisfying job in IT to become a civil or mechanical engineer and is looking for advice and validation. Burrowowl’s comment about halfway down the page got me thinking (yet again) about how much joy we can and should get from our jobs.
At the end of burrowowl’s lengthy comment describing the frustrating details of his day-to-day work as a civil engineer, he says:
“I had one project a while back that renovated a school for blind kids. That is all sorts of warm and fuzzy. But the day-to-day shit to get to that point is some times very mind numbing. For every day you use your judgement and your abstract thinking you will spend a week with the nuts and bolts implementation that is a whole lot less exciting.”
This should have discouraged me. It did, for a fraction of a second, and then it didn’t. A self-proclaimed overthinker, I’ve chewed on this topic for more time than is probably healthy. I spent years mulling over my abilities and interests when I was trying to decide whether or not to change careers. I wanted to figure out what my real passion was, so I could focus my life’s work on that.
I never figured out a realistic career passion. Maybe I don’t have one. Anyway, the point is, I woke up on a plane and the universe had decided that I should become an engineer, the job my dad had been telling me I’d be good at for pretty much my entire life. I don’t have a passion for engineering. I like math. I like problem-solving. I am good with details. Engineering is a high-paying field with stable, in-demand jobs. So that’s what I’m doing. And I’m as confident as ever that this is the right choice.
I don’t think people should follow their passions. Stay with me here. What if someone actually is passionate about engineering? I fear that person is going to be incredibly disappointed and frustrated when they become an engineer and discover that the day-to-day work is often repetitive, bureaucratic and uninspiring. Worse still are all the wide-eyed, idealistic people who think they are doing the “right” thing by following their passion and becoming artists, musicians, writers and other creative professionals. I should know – once upon a time I was one of them.
One of three things will happen to someone pursuing a creative passion. One: they will not be able to make a living, be it working for a company or doing their own thing, and will be forced to get a “day job.” Two: they will be able to get a job in their field but will come to realize that being creative for clients and income forces so much compromise and “trimming down” of real creativity that they have trouble finding much of the joy they originally got from their work. Three: they will be highly successful in their work, paid well, and will be afforded the creative freedom that makes them love their work every day.
Scenario three is extremely, extremely rare. And yet, scenario three is exactly what we’re all looking for in our career, whether in a creative field or not. That’s what our culture tells us we should want above all else. And dammit, if we’re not enjoying scenario three every day of our working lives, we’re doing something wrong.
Or, maybe, work is work. Maybe instead of going into our careers with the expectation that they will fulfill our deepest passions, we should go into them knowing that we have the skills and the willingness to do them well and that we believe in the overall mission. I do think that we need to have an understanding of what the day-to-day work entails and that we need to be able and willing to do that work. I also think that we need to feel good about the ultimate outcome of our work (I, for example, would prefer not to work for an oil company because I want to benefit the environment). But our jobs don’t need to make us feel like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music.
Yep, it kind of sucks that we have to relegate our passions to off-hours (click that link, it’s hilarious), but the truth is, most of us do. If you can get away with living scenario three, hats off to you. You, sir or madame, have won. Congratulations! But most of us are in our most fortunate position if we can find work that we are good at, that we don’t mind doing most days, and that pays the bills.
I love art and I love writing. I went to school for graphic design because it seemed more likely that I could find a graphic design job than support myself as a writer. I did find a graphic design job. Several of them. And in doing work for clients, my work is more often than not repetitive, bureaucratic and uninspiring. I turn down fun design work from friends and family because after “designing” all day at work, it’s the last thing I want to do when I get home.
People sometimes ask me if I will miss graphic design. No, I won’t. I’ll actually get to do graphic design again, for fun, on my own terms. I can’t wait. Thank god I didn’t pursue writing as a career. What a tragedy it would have been to lose my passion for it. I write in the evenings or on weekends. I write this blog. I write whatever the heck I want. And that’s how I want it to stay.
So here’s to not pursuing our passions (at least not eight to five). Here’s to realistic expectations. Here’s to giving it our all in the off hours. Cheers!