Ambition [2]:  Keep Your Day Job?

Into the Woods

“Dreams come true but not free.”

Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

The experts quoted in last week’s post were focused on Millennials, but their advice also applies to people making mid-career/midlife changes. No matter your age, it’s the same dilemma:  you’re inspired and ambitious, but the economic realities are unimpressed. What’s a dreamer to do?

This article[1] suggests a middle ground:

The popular mantra [of positive thinking] comes from the actor Will Smith, who said: ‘Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.’

But ‘mediocrity’ is a loaded term. Who, after all, wants to be ‘mediocre’ or ordinary? And yet, save for a few, aren’t we all? By implying that the only options are superstardom or mediocrity, we ignore where most of us ultimately land – that huge middle ground between anything and nothing much at all.

Mediocre?! Who you calling mediocre?! Well, um… you. Just like the rest of us.

Mediocrity is a hard truth for high achievers to swallow. Will Smith didn’t have mediocre in mind when he said that, neither did Steve Martin when he advised “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport debunks them both on in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

“Cal Newport [says] that we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work,’ he says. ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’

“Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.[2]

Seems reasonable, but not everyone is convinced:

“Newport’s recommendation begs examination of another aspect of the ‘you-can-be-anything’ framework: should we expect to pursue a passion within our career or is it wiser to try to satisfy it outside of one? Sure, it’s convenient (and nice!) to be paid for something we’d love to do anyway. But is it realistic?

“Marty Nemko, a career counsellor in the San Francisco Bay Area and the public radio host of “Work with Marty Nemko,” offers up a resounding ‘no’. He’s all for people pursuing their dreams, as a hobby. ‘Do what you love,’ he says, ‘but don’t expect to get paid for it.’” [3]

I.e., separate your dreams from the economics and there won’t be a problem. How? Keep your day job. Click below for a six-minute look at someone who followed this advice.

Working stiff

“Didn’t Einstein have to have a job in the post office or something?”

“As any artist knows, for every Banksy or Beyoncé, there are thousands of dreamers whose artistic impulse has to be sustained by paid gigs, which tend to be unglamorous. Such is the life of Robert Friedrich, a New York City-based comic artist who splits his time between creative work and a dull cubicle job he’s held down for more than 20 years. Starting with a love of superheroes, he eventually began mining the minutiae of his daily life to create Failing Fast, a ‘visual diary’ of the modern workforce. Finding a refreshing twist on the often fawning sub-genre of artist profiles, the director Sarah Hanssen makes Working Stiff a broadly relatable take on the creative life, in which passion doesn’t pay the bills and every small success is savoured, if fleeting.”

I confess, I tried, but was never good at keeping my day job.  I was too much in tune with the point of view of another cartoonist (click the image below for the full text):

bill-watterson-commencement-speech-1-728

“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

“Having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Watterson gave that advice in 1990. Economic realities have changed a lot since then, but dreamers still dream. I’d say go ahead — inspiration will make you happy — but then also take Stephen Sondheim’s advice to heart. I sure do these days.

[1] You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015:

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Op. cit.

Go For It!!

Inspiration. Motivation. Ambition. Similar words with different connotations. We’ll look at the impact of all three on loving your work, pursuing your passion, finding your true calling. First up:  inspiration.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed 6.5 million times.

Larry Miller TED

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

Larry Miller Book“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[1]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Sound like fun, doesn’t it? Inspiration throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, and replaces them with a world of new possibilities. No wonder it has a “history of being treated as supernatural or divine.” Truth is, the brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all that punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable, unlikely, and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” and the roar of approval when you wave the field goal unit back to the sideline. We get a rush of it when we bust out, try new things, take risks. George Bernard Shaw wrote the dopamine manifesto in his Maxims for Revolutionaries:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I wrote the following about inspiration in another context:[2]

Reason only works in the bright light of hindsight, and by definition, new is what hasn’t yet been. Therefore reason doesn’t know anything about it, doesn’t understand it, can’t explain it, and definitely can’t trust it. If reason is going to create at all, it looks at where we are and how we got here, then projects its conclusions into the future, reverse engineering what worked in the past so we can do more of the same in the future.

We call people who operate that way realists.  They can cite facts, data, track records, past performance. We credit them with being more in touch with reality than daydreamers and visionaries. We trust them to not lead us astray.

Each of us has that realist’s voice inside us. Do something new? No way. It’s not reasonable.

Inspiration isn’t impressed. It wants idealists:  unreasonable people who don’t give a rip about reverse engineering. Inspiration buys what Einstein said about imagination being more powerful than knowledge. It pushes boundaries, asks us to believe what’s irrational, illogical, impossible, even irreverent and heretical.

Doing any of that is hard and unpleasant and of uncertain outcome, which is why we usually choose to be reasonable and adapt ourselves to the world. We keep our day jobs, hedge our bets, cut our losses, try to be prudent and practical…

And so status quo goes safely on, and we keep living our reasonable lives until one day inspiration comes along and turns us into unreasonable people who want the world to adapt itself to us, and who are prepared to give ourselves to the dangerous ways of mania to make that happen.

Inspiration wants response, not reason. It hooks our hearts, then reels us in. Inspiration isn’t just thrilling and fun, it’s also unrelenting, insisting, demanding… even violent if we leave it no other choice. If it weren’t, nothing creative would ever get started. Or finished.

Dopamine-powered inspiration will get you moving, alright, but we talked about “the dangerous ways of mania” in a prior post and will go there again next time, when we consider motivation.

[1] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[2] Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download.