When I started my career, I was ambitious. As a young copywriter, I put in long hours, and went above and beyond whenever possible. I kept up on industry news and trends, and I read the relevant books. I set my sights on becoming a Creative Director and was prepared to do whatever I had to to get there. During those years, I worked on a lot of good stuff—stuff you’ve probably seen. I was at one of the early high-profile interactive agencies at a time when big brands were throwing all their money at high-profile interactive agencies. We won awards. I was promoted a few times and all of my goals seemed achievable.
Then, for a lot of reasons, things changed. Part of it was a personal adjustment of priorities, but there was something else, too. I realized that I didn’t really like my job. More than that, I kind of hated my career. I came to think of marketing and technology (yes, that’s a broad term, but you know what I mean) as vapid at best and culturally damaging at worst. In the midst of a communication revolution I was spending my days dreaming up microsites and banners ads and email campaigns. Worse, I found myself surrounded by bad people—assholes, morons and narcissists. The kind of people who call themselves “solutions architects” or “narrative designers.” It’s not that everyone working in the industry is terrible, it’s that almost everyone in the industry is terrible. They are also blissfully unaware of their own terribleness. It’s the sort of thing that really starts to grind on you once you become aware of it.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. I do that sometimes. The point is that shortly after turning 30 I came to realize that the thing I was doing for work wasn’t really work I liked doing. So, like many before me, I did the only thing I could: I considered all of the things in life I’m really passionate about and set about finding a way to turn those passions into my new career.
I didn’t do shit.
It turns out the things I’m passionate about—watching baseball, reading books, casually skipping stones on the river near my house—don’t make for good career options. And one of the things I’m most passionate about is paying my mortgage.
I still work in marketing and technology, and I still mostly don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to shoot myself in the head every morning when I go into the office. The group of people I work with right now are pretty good and occasionally we even get to do some interesting things. I get paid well and my job is relatively easy.
(There are people in my field that will tell you they work very, very hard. They don’t. Working hard and working a lot aren’t the same thing. If most of your job involves sitting in front of a computer, I promise you it isn’t all that hard.)
Would I be better off if I loved my job? Maybe. But you know what people who love their careers do? They work too much. The advantage in having a healthy contempt for your job is that you hardly ever go above and beyond. I show up, I do good work, I get paid and I don’t throw myself on any goddamn hand-grenades. This frees me up for watching baseball and reading books. I casually skip rocks on the river with my kids. I sleep extremely well.
This isn’t some self help essay telling you to just be happy with what you have and find meaning in the rest of your life. For all I know the rest of your life may suck, making it pretty useless advice. But I do think people take their careers way too seriously, which will often lead to them taking themselves too seriously. And nobody likes those people; they are miserable and say things like “let’s conversate around the ideation for the brand platform solution.” Ugh.
If you want to define yourself by your career, go nuts. If you would sooner stick an appendage in a meat grinder than go to work, quit. If you’re somewhere in the middle… that’s totally an okay place to be. It turns out there’s a lot of wiggle room between career bliss and working despair. It’s a place where you can be good at your job without being your job.
Also, Bill Hicks was probably right about marketing. Just sayin.’