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.

Working With Passion [2]

I’m wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

From the Broadway show “Pal Joey,”
Rodgers and Hart

(Click here or on the image below to treat yourself to the silken sound of Ella Fitzgerald.)

Ella Fitzgerald

The ManagementSpeak argument for working with passion is that disengagement is expensive and risky:  it compromises products and services, generates client and customer dissatisfaction, stirs up co-worker resentment and mistrust, impairs leadership judgment, exposes the firm and the people in it to ethical and legal hazards.

The Compassionate ManagementSpeak (if there is such a thing) argument is that disengagement wears down human beings: it makes us unhappy and unproductive at work, and sours the rest of life.

The Working With Passion Remedy is that we need to fall in love again — with work, to be sure, but if we do, we’ll probably also fall in love again with being alive. The company wins, and so do the people in it.

jokerTrouble is, there’s a joker in the deck:  the part about love. Love involves an unpredictable mix of brain and body hormones that generate its familiar delights and dark sides. This article from Harvard[1] catalogues the hormonal progression from lust to love to long-term bonding:  testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin. The dynamic blend of these volatile hormones accounts for both delight and disaster. Not only that, but falling in love can “turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex. In short, love makes us dumb.”

The Dark Side of Dumb includes addiction and bipolar disorder — both of which involve a condition known as “mania.” According to the Mayo Clinic, mania is characterized by:

  • Feeling abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired.
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation.
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria).
  • Decreased need for sleep.[2]

There’s more, but if we’re desperate, just that much makes us think what’s not to like? It sure beats the usual drudge. What have we got to lose?

A lot, actually. Passion turns us into high risk takers at best, delusional risk takers at worst. We go to a workshop (like the ones I used to lead), we take a vacation, go on a retreat, read a self-help bestseller… and we get a hormonal jolt of inspiration. It feels good — way better than business as usual, in fact so good that no amount of warning (I also gave plenty of those in my workshops) can deter us from taking the plunge.

I’ve done it myself:  I was in the grip of it when I made my bumbling exit out of law practice. I wrote a book about that experience, and here’s what I said about mania:

When we’re in [a state of mania], life has a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, serendipity and synchronicity rule the day, and everything in and around us is an amazing unified oneness – perfect, whole, and complete. It’s the place where auspicious connections are easily made, where imagination makes visions and dreams come true.

Neuroscientists locate that state of mind in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where the brain tells us all is well, where all of our perceptions come together into a meaningful whole, in a happy stew of the right hormones and chemicals in the right balance to make us feel really, really good.

Compare that to the opposite state of depression, where all is disjointed, fragmented, without meaning or purpose, where social bonds are severed and life is a random walk of disintegration, where the most basic life activities are burdensome, and fruitfulness is a pipedream.

But watch out, the neuroscientists tell us:  you can have too much of a good thing. Get the wrong mix in your neurotransmitter soup, and your natural high can be replaced with delusion, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Disease, addictions.

Not the prettiest list.

That’s why mania is plutonium for the for human soul:  powerful almost beyond measure, equally suited to creation or destruction, and tricky to control once we let it loose. But dark side or not, mania is why we dream big dreams, and the bigger they are, the more mania we need. If we want to make our dreams come true, we risk mania’s dark side.

atomic bomb

“Mania is plutonium for the human soul.”

Love risks mania, so does working with passion. Both create, both destroy. That doesn’t mean don’t go there, just keep your eyes open if you do. I don’t regret my personal Working With Passion Remedy, you might not regret yours either.

But then again, you might. And now you’ve been warned.

You also hear about finding your calling or purpose in your work as a cure for the disengagement blues. We’ll talk about that next time.

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I tell my mania story in Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania. It’s available as a free download here, or you can get it inexpensively in print or digitally from Amazon here. I’m currently writing a sequel about how I’ve been learning to make mania safe and sustainable.

[1]Love, Actually: The Science Behind Lust, Attraction, And Companionship,” Katherine Wu, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website ( Feb. 14, 2017).

[2] For more on mania, see also this article from Psych Central.