Thursday, April 6, 2017

Doing what you love vs Doing what you're good at vs Doing what pays the bills

There's a piece over at my favourite workplace advice blog, Ask a Manager, at the moment which addresses the question of a letter-writer who frequently finds themselves bored and moving on from jobs after relatively short periods, because the jobs are unfulfilling / dull in some way.

Alison Green, as usual, gives sensible advice, but what's even more interesting is the discussion in the comments triggered by this para in Alison's response:
To me, it sounds like you’re looking to work to provide a type of fulfillment that you probably shouldn’t be expecting. It’s great if you’re lucky enough to find work that’s deeply fulfilling long-term, but an awful lot of people — probably the vast majority — work in jobs that are sometimes interesting, sometimes not, and primarily (if not entirely) a way to make money.
This resonated deeply with many people, judging by the myriad of responses, and it certainly struck a chord with me. I'm currently on a week's break from work (I would say "leave", but as I am self-employed, that term would mislead on two fronts - I neither had to seek permission, nor am I being paid, for this week of repose!) So, having a little time, I thought I'd unpick what struck me about this letter and responses, and how it relates to my thoughts about work and life.

Firstly, I should say that I am firmly in the camp of those who posit that "there is no such thing as the perfect job." There are certainly better and worse jobs - jobs that fit your life, convictions and skills more closely than others, jobs with better pay and conditions, jobs with better management and organisational culture. However, I do not think a job exists that is 100% exactly what you want it to be in every respect all the time. All jobs will have up and down sides (and up and down days!) In my life I have had jobs that I would class as "very good", "good", "adequate for the short term", "dull but not evil", "mixed bag" and "awful", but I have never described, or been tempted to describe, a job as "perfect".

Secondly, I would say that every job, no matter how exciting it sounds, has boring or undesirable elements. Unless you are phenomenally successful and can employ assistants to do all the scutwork for you, and sometimes even then, everyone ends up spending a percentage of their work time filling out paperwork and doing mechanical yet irritating tasks. I don't care if you're a scientist researching cancer cures or a speculative fiction author or a pro basketballer - you'll still have moments of boredom, frustration and ennui. Loading pipettes for 12 hours or wrestling with galley proofs or doing 100 squats just isn't fun for anyone, but it's part of the job, part that has to be done to allow you to do the better and bigger parts. Even the sexy jobs are usually 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, after all.

I also think that, as several of the commenters identify on the Ask a Manager post, that it behooves people to think hard about whether they feel like work has to provide them with a sense of meaning and overarching purpose, and if they do feel that, why they do. Certainly, no-one should try to reconcile themselves to being miserable at work. But you can be (billions are) content with a work situation where you are well-treated, well or at least adequately remunerated, and find some interest in your day to day activities, without feeling like your whole soul is wrapped up in your work.

This is something I talk to my teenager and preteen about a lot. We talk about the fact that "pursuing a remunerative career" and "pursuing your dreams" do NOT have to coalesce into one perfect package - that in fact, you can do the two things in parallel, and may even benefit from the exercise. Indeed, for many whose dreams are creative, the relief of financial stress and need to monetise art is incredibly energising and liberating. My girls see this in my life - my passion / dream is to write poetry, but my job is to write and develop organisational governance documentation, and being good at / earning money from the latter has freed me to experience my poetic practice as pure delight. I am a better poet because I don't have to think about markets for my poems.

So overall, when thinking about work, I try to think of it as a nexus - what am I good at, what do I enjoy, and what pays well. I have engineered my freelance business to focus on skills that I have which are in demand and well-compensated, and in areas that interest me and provide some challenge. This means that while I still get the frustrations, scutwork and irritations, I don't dislike what I do day to day; I find it reasonably engaging, and quite satisfying, especially when I deliver results that my clients want.

One thing I do not think about in evaluating if a job situation is a good fit is this - is this work my passion? The answer is no, of course it isn't. No one pays me or is ever likely to pay me a living wage for pursuing my passion (poetry), and - this is important - even if they did, I am 100% sure that poetry would also develop boring, irritating elements if I did it day in, day out as the way to put bread on the table.

Work is the thing you do because you can't opt not to and still meet your obligations and material aspirations (whatever they may be). Some people are lucky enough to find a larger purpose in their work, and good for them, but they are the clear minority. I really think, for most people, finding work that plays to your strengths, provides some challenges and interest, and pays you enough to live your life as you wish to, is as good as it gets - and that, at the end of the day, is more than good enough.

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