So you wanna be an artist. You want to be a creator. You really, really just want to spend your time making things.
But you need some time to get good. You need to work on your craft. You need to practice and practice and practice some more.
You can’t make much (or any) money at it yet. But you need to live. You need to eat and you need a roof over your head.
So you gotta get a job. Something that pays the bills, keeps you alive, buys you some ramen and maybe a chicken dinner now and then, keeps the lights on so you can keep practicing. Expert guitarist (& my friend) Christopher Schlegel calls it “money-grubbin.”
What kind of job should I get?… you wonder
Most of us creators have had many different kinds of jobs, and when I was younger, I didn’t think it mattered what mine was. I’ll do whatever job, I thought, just to pay the bills, and I will write the rest of the time, and then someday I’ll get to write full-time and that’s when I’ll be happy. That’s when my life will really look like what I want it to be. Until then, work with a small “w” doesn’t matter — only Work with a capital W.
I thought it might be good to make that bill-paying job something related to what I really wanted to do, so I became an editor. I worked as a series book editor, a catalog editor, and a proofreader. Then I moved to New York and became a full-time copy editor for a magazine.
Not only did I not give a tiny rat’s ASS about whether there was a period after every article intro or not, I worked for many years under a boss who refused to promote anyone, didn’t listen, lied to people, yelled at people for leaving five minutes early, refused to plan ahead, didn’t want to make our working lives more efficient, and generally made life an ugly mess for everyone.
Buuuuut… it was a relatively easy job for me; it paid the bills; and it came with more vacation time than I could get anywhere else, ever.
I figured it made it easy to do that thing I really wanted to do: write. So the grand plan was that I would coast at work, and I would write on the side, and then, I dunno, someday things would be different.
What happens then?
You could say it worked. I wrote four novels in the seven years I worked there. But I also hated myself. I had an awkward separation between my work life and my real self, as though they were unconnected. I could never be myself at work. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that meant I couldn’t be myself the rest of the time, either.
I was deeply unhappy. I was frustrated and angry, and I was bored. Although I kept writing, I stagnated. The quality of my writing suffered. I wasn’t willing to take on the most challenging things. I wasn’t willing to write the things that scared me or the things that connected with my truer, deeper emotions — because I couldn’t get in touch with those emotions. I had stuffed them too far down. I wanted something I could write fast, without a lot of pain, and then sell. Sell so I could get out of that job.
But then things change…
Yesterday, I realized that, just over two years after having been laid off from that job, I am incredibly, unbelievably happy. Every day is good. I still have my cranky moments, my difficult moments, but I have a new level of confidence that has unfolded as joy, and I’m now able to treat writing as play, to work on the things that scare me most, to connect emotionally with what goes on the page.
I realized, suddenly, last week, that I had been wrong, all those years where I thought the day job didn’t matter. It wasn’t true. So much of my progress in the last year has come directly from my day job.
I’m not afraid, anymore, to talk about things that I know other people will think are weird or wrong. I like being the person who tells people about things they’ve never heard of before. I’m willing to stand up and stand out. Before, I always wanted to keep my writing and my job as two separate things and to not have to talk too loudly about either one. Now, I can just be me, and show you everything.
How could that not change my writing? It has changed my emotional experience of life – every day.
And so I wanted to warn you, that if you’re thinking the way I used to, that your day job doesn’t matter, that it won’t affect anything else, and you can keep it separate, you’re wrong. It’s not true. You spend too much of your life there; it has a profound influence on everything else. You should choose it as carefully as you choose a long-term romantic partner, and you should judge its fitness for you as much as the interviewer judges your fitness for the role and the company.
If I could go back and tell my younger self to say no to that copy editor job, I would, but I can’t, so I’m telling you instead. Don’t just take any old job because you think it doesn’t matter because you’ve got this other thing.
But you still need a job! So what is it about this job that has changed me so much? What about it has allowed me to be my whole self both at work and at home? What about it has allowed me to come back to my writing as my real self?
More importantly, what should you be looking for when you look for your day job? How do you get a good one that’s going to prop you up and help you along instead of cripple you?
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Get a job where:
You deeply like and respect the people you work with and they respect you.
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. If you are not respected, you will feel terrible about yourself. If you don’t like the people around you, you won’t feel good and have fun at work. These things will influence the rest of your life, including your artwork.
How can you write or paint an incredible hero while surrounded by ants?
You are using your strengths doing at least some things you genuinely enjoy that make you feel accomplished.
You might surprise yourself here. I thought I would like to be an editor because it’s kind of close to writing and at least I could be in a world with writers and editors and people publishing books. But truthfully, I hate editing and I always have. It breaks my brain and makes me feel like an idiot. I think becoming an editor actually made it harder for me to write more and to write well, because I got more self-conscious about the quality rather than focusing on simply getting the words down. I got lost in my perfectionist tendencies instead of practicing taking more risks, which is what I needed to be doing.
Once I was promoted to being a managing editor, I realized that I loved helping people prioritize. I also began to see that I loved finding ways to make work more efficient, to help make my teammates’ work lives easier and help them get their work done faster. I liked overseeing projects and people, and I liked solving problems. These things made me feel like I was accomplishing something daily and doing it well.
Now I have a dual role as a kind of operations manager cum customer experience manager, and I love it. But I never would have even thought of this type of job as a possibility when I was 25. I would’ve had no idea what it was or how it could feel so important.
Consider yourself as a whole person. Think about the more abstract things you enjoy. Get creative. That perfect day job might not look like what you think it should look like at first.
You get to take on new challenges and learn.
This is essential. You cannot allow yourself to stagnate. And if that means changing day jobs at some point, you should put in the time and energy to change day jobs. If you aren’t being challenged at work, it will slow your whole life down — this one thing also has huge influence over every other area. Stagnation there will bleed into your artwork, because it becomes your emotional experience. Someone who lives their life feeling bored for 40 of their best hours a week will not be able to write an exciting, challenging novel or paint an incredible vision of human achievement or write a new anthem to the spirit of youth, because they won’t be able to get in touch with that emotional experience. The longer the stagnation goes on, the harder it gets.
Challenge yourself in one area to produce innovation in another. The sense of accomplishment you feel from conquering the challenges of your day job will carry over and motivate you to carry on. You’ll be much more in touch with what that feels like when you go to recreate it in your Work.
The work is meaningful to you.
I used to think the only thing I’d ever want to do was write. Fiction, specifically. Storytelling!
But, being a writer, I’m an insatiably curious person. I’m interested in the world and the unique and incredible things in it. I’m interested in people and how all their different parts work, how they relate to each other, what kind of strange things they get themselves into. I’m interested in cats and otters and sloths and monkeys with hair that makes them look like old men. Also old men. I’m interested in natural history and the American Revolution and silly heartfelt comics and how teams work together and whether businesses that have good company culture and treat their people well are more profitable or not. I’m interested in strange and unusual experiences, in exploring cities and curating weird parties and unique events.
All of which is to say, there are a lot of different kinds of work I could do, and a lot of different companies I could work for that would be meaningful to me. Writing is nowhere near the only. It’s the one I chose to stick with, and that hasn’t changed, but when I get to work on my day job, I know that I am helping women like me figure themselves out and have happier lives. That, at the end of the day, everything we do as a company helps them build the confidence they need to create a life that will bring them the same kind of happiness I’m experiencing.
And that gives a sense of accomplishment to every minute of my life, to my overall emotional experience, every day, that then bleeds into how capable I feel in other areas. (Like a superheroine!) It makes all the difference, and I had no idea it would be like this.
So if you’re looking for a day job, or you’re in one you hate, don’t make the mistake of thinking it doesn’t matter what it is or what it’s like. Don’t think you can compartmentalize and be fine. Craft your situation there as carefully as you would craft any other part of your life, and it can be a huge asset in getting more done and being happier. Pick just any old thing, and you’ll be sorry later.
You really can do anything you want to. Just choose carefully, and your art (and you) will be the better for it.