From my early- to mid-twenties I was a full-time technical writer who had big dreams of becoming a full-time freelance or creative writer someday. And I looked at my technical job as an asset, not a roadblock, to that dream. My plan was to freelance in my spare time, then save enough money until I could switch careers and try to pursue freelance writing full-time.
It sounded like a reasonably calculated risk to me, but then another writer offered some unsubstantiated (and totally unsolicited) advice: “You just need to quit. Artists care about art. Writers care about writing. If you’re serious about this, you just need to quit your job and do it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.”
Yikes. Suddenly, my entire plan was a sham. And even worse, I felt like a fraud. After all, real writers don’t care about income stability. Artists don’t take silly old calculated risks. According to this fella, they just quit. It took a long time to stop questioning myself and get back on track with my plan. If I could give my younger self better advice, I’d tell her:
Don’t let anyone shame you for having a day job.
Author and career counselor Barbara Sher calls it a “good enough job”—the nine-to-five that pays the bills while you work on your goals, hobbies, and passion projects outside of those hours. If “good enough” sounds like a little bleak, you might also call it an Einstein Job. Albert Einstein reportedly worked at a patent office when he came up with the theory of Special Relativity. He wrote:
“I was sitting in a chair in the patent office at Bern when all of a sudden a thought occurred to me: ‘If a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight.’ I was startled. This simple thought made a deep impression on me. It impelled me toward a theory of gravitation.”
If a day job is good enough for Einstein, perhaps there’s something to it for the rest of us. You might not love your day job, but it can serve a useful purpose for a multipotentialite. Here are a few reasons you might find to value yours—in the form of some of my favorite stories of creatives who had day jobs.
1. It alleviates pressure
“Don’t quit your job, because the pressure on you then will be so great you’ll be thwarted.” —Brian Koppelman, screenwriter
In an interview with author Ramit Sethi, screenwriter Brian Koppelman explains that he wrote his first screenplay, Rounders, while working a full-time job. He only had a few hours a day to write, and while most of us would see this as a limitation, Koppelman points out it was actually a massive advantage because it allowed him to focus. In the interview, Koppelman says:
“I felt alive in those two hours in a way that was different than I felt in any other point in my day… in that period of time, I felt alive, engaged, like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing… I had gotten a piece of advice that said, don’t quit your job, because the pressure on you then will be so great you’ll be thwarted. You want to eliminate sources of anxiety when you’re creating. So in an hour a day, you just get rid of all the nonsense. You’re going to come in there, and you’re going to do your thing.”
What an incredibly methodical way to go about achieving your dream. We tend to think of dreams in an abstract, romanticized way–if you don’t quit your job to write your Great American Novel, then you must not be that dedicated. But there’s not much logic in this way of thinking. If you want to make any goal a reality, you have to plan it out, and you have to be methodical about it. There are a thousand distractions that will pull you away from that goal, and anxiety is a big one.
Our editor, Claire Nyles, pointed me to this great quote from Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” If you can eliminate a major source of anxiety—paying rent, affording groceries—you’ll have one less distraction from your goal. All the more energy to put into the work that really matters to you.
2. It Gives You Inspiration
“At work, I have no choice but to talk to people.” —Sujatha Gidla, author
Sujatha Gidla is an author whose recent memoir, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, was named Best Book of 2017 by Publisher’s Weekly, and a Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2017 by The Wall Street Journal.
Gidla also became the first Indian female New York City Subway conductor in 2009—and she still holds this position. In an interview, Gidla said she keeps this job because she has “romantic feelings about being a working class person.” She also “wanted to do something that men are supposed to be doing.”
But it’s also the experience and environment that seems to draw her in, as she tells the New York Times: “Writing is kind of lonely. It doesn’t make me feel like, this is my environment. At work, I have no choice but to talk to people.”
Being in the right environment is everything. Most of the time, inspiration doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at your laptop trying to crank out 1,000 words, or when you’re sitting in an art studio trying to make something beautiful. It usually strikes when you’re out doing stuff, talking to people, working on something entirely different—in this way, your day job can almost serve as a muse for the stuff you create.
3. It helps you focus
“I was careful to take a job that couldn’t have any possible meaning for me.” —Philip Glass, composer
In one of my favorite eccentric-artist stories, Philip Glass tells The Guardian about how he worked as a cab driver and plumber, long after he had established himself as a composer, and even in the midst of some of his biggest successes. Glass says:
“I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo. While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
In another interview, Glass explained that he was “careful to take a job that couldn’t have any possible meaning for me,” and this helped him stay focused on his musical ambitions.
It helps to have a job that utilizes a completely different skill set, or a completely different part of the brain, than your outside projects. This way, your creative energy builds up, ready to be released.
For example, when I was a technical writer, I was still writing at my day job, but it was a very different type of writing than the freelancing and screenwriting I was doing on the side. My job wasn’t creative. It was completely organized, left-brained, and well, technical. When I got off of work, I found myself dying to write anything else, and I would do so for hours at a time.
You don’t have to be a wildly successful composer, writer, artist, or leader to get utility from a day job. And having one doesn’t make you any less of an artist.
But this advice doesn’t just apply to multipods who consider themselves artists, either. Whether you’re pursuing a hobby in your spare time or trying to launch a business as an entrepreneur, a good enough job can support those goals and interests.
There are other solid reasons to have a day job. Health benefits, for instance—that can be a costly expense for a self-employed person. Or maybe your day job teaches you skills you can transfer to your other pursuits. (When I was a technical writer, for example, I would interview engineers and manufacturers to write maintenance manuals; I wasn’t terribly passionate about it, but I didn’t know that I’d use those same skills years later to interview researchers and scientists for articles I’d write as a journalist.) Maybe you’ll meet people in your day job who will be crucial to your success in another industry. And let’s not forget that for most of us, a day job is less a luxury and more a necessity—those bills aren’t going to pay themselves.
When you know how a day job supports your other work, it’s much easier to calculate the risks you want to take to pursue your wildest dreams, goals, and passions. But ultimately, if you want to achieve those goals, you need a plan, not some romanticized definition of what it means to be creative. A day job can be just the thing you need to pull off that plan and go after your wild dreams.
Readers, let’s hear from you. Do you have an Einstein Job? How do you feel about it? How do you balance your own day job with your creative pursuits? Share in the comments below.
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