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.

Ambition: Promised Land or Wasteland?

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

We’re exploring how inspiration, motivation, and ambition can help create meaningful work. We found that inspiration is essential, but has a dark side that includes mania and delusional risk taking, and that motivation is a ManagementSpeak relic and a brain stressor.  As for ambition, much current commentary focuses on my kids’ generation, but there’s plenty here for the rest of us if we view it in the larger economic context.

Here’s a quick summary:  Our parents came of age in the glory years of The Job and a Fair Income for the Middle Class. We Baby Boomers were born into that economic model, customized with our own iconoclastic and utopian social visions. The model weakened in the 70’s and 80’s, but we were too busy with kids and careers to notice. The Gen Xers got in early enough to ride the upward mobility escalator, but now that the Millennials are  young adults the model is bankrupt, leaving them to face a whole new gig — as in “gig economy.”

All that happened while most of us didn’t know it. Along with our policymakers, we were and still are stuck in the cognitive and cultural bias of the jobs heyday. Back in the day, we showered the Millennials with self-esteem-building, be-all-you-can-be positive thinking, and told them to follow their dreams. But when they came of age the economy wasn’t set up to support them. Maybe that’s why some parents habitually hedged their advice, urging the kids to have a Plan B and for crying out loud quit with all the cold filtering and get a real job.

(For a remarkable look at the current state of economic opportunity, see “I’m a Millionaire Who Creates Zero Jobs. Why Do I Pay Less Tax Than You?” by Morris Pearl, a career Wall Street One Percenter who is now chairman of the Patriotic Millionaires.)

No wonder people write books like Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before , by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge. This is from the flyleaf:

Generation Me“In this provocative and newly revised book, headline-making psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge explores why the young people she calls “Generation Me” are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.

“Born in the ’80s, and ’90s… the children of the Baby Boomers are … feeling the effects of the recession and the changing job market.

“Her often humorous, eyebrow-raising stories about real people vividly bring to life the hopes, disappointments, and challenges of Generation Me.  Engaging, controversial, prescriptive, and funny, Generation Me gives Boomers and GenX’ers new and fascinating insights into their offspring, and helps those in their teens, twenties, and thirties find their road to happiness.”

I was okay with the blurb until it got to “happiness.” I’m more in tune with the article we looked at last time — 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):

“Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, says that .. we’ve seen ‘rising expectations among everybody for work that’s more than just a salary… You see this among people who are highly educated… and that helps explain why job dissatisfaction tends to rise over the past couple of decades, because people are asking … to use their talents or passions in their work.’

“The shift in expectation has resulted in tremendous anxiety over achieving these goals and, paradoxically, sheer delusion. Point out to parents or teens just how difficult it can be to achieve such a high-level career and you’ll likely be treated to a catalogue of all the people who bucked the odds. Not just the Oprahs or the Steve Jobses who achieved super-status but the friend of a friend who just bought a modern all-glass home overlooking San Francisco Bay with his signing bonus, or the daughter of a work colleague who was cast in a new TV show, or the neighbour’s son who got a scholarship to Harvard.

“If it’s possible for them, we want to believe that it’s possible for our children too. Besides, who wants to be the killjoy who has to remind the struggling math student that medicine likely isn’t an option? … Besides, technically it is possible. At what point do we abandon possible for probable, and encourage our children to do the same?

“‘This links to the cult of positive thinking,’ says Krznaric, ‘where we’re always wanting to feel up and good and send positive messages… and so we feel that we should only be sending good messages and positive messages to our children and to young people. That it’s somehow wrong or bad or inappropriate to tell them: actually, it isn’t possible.’”

Ambition says it’s possible. Current economics says it’s not. Now what? Back for more next week.