Don’t let anyone shame you for having a day job.

Don’t let anyone shame you for having a day job.

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Work

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.

Your Turn

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.

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

25 Comments

  1. Ryan Back says:

    Love it! And never knew that about Phillip Glass. He’s probably my favorite contemporary composer, Pruit Igoe is a masterpiece.

  2. Sarah says:

    Very interesting! Ironically, I have the opposite feelings – guilt for not having a day job. Probably just because everyone around me has them. I think, “i should be more sensible and work 9-5”. I guess we can doubt ourselves about anything, depending on how we look at it!

  3. Eryc Eyl says:

    This is so powerful and a much-needed perspective! Thank you! Too often, folks are told to “take the leap” when that just might not be the right move for them. I actually wrote about this same topic a few years ago with a slightly different angle and some specific strategies. Just in case it’s useful to anyone, here’s the link: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/eryc-eyl/how-to-keep-your-dreams-and-your-day-job_b_7148818.html

  4. BQ says:

    The way I see it, having a day job is a gift I give to my art and creativity. It keeps it from being burdened by having to support me, and it keeps me from resenting my art. If I was suddenly dependent upon it for food, I would perhaps make different decisions with my art. With my day job, I have the luxury of being able to enter into creativity without an urgent goal. And also, I work better in compressed chunks. (See also: procrastination and waiting until the last minute to crank out something).

  5. Heather says:

    Ha….and I yet different again, have a day job, and have put so much energy into making it fit for me that I have lost my creative energy-which has thrown everything in my world off kilter. Working on hitting that reset button now to get stuff rearranged yet again…. I never thought of actually separating the two. Great article!

  6. Melissa A Bettcher says:

    Wow!!!!!! This is just what I needed to read today! I have to keep my “muggle” job as I am the sole provider for my family but I feel that I should be out living my passions and all that but working for myself and supporting myself though my passions stresses me out too much. Having a steady paycheck that I can more or less always count on does free up some of my energy to pursue my outside interests. That being said it would be nice to have more of a balance between my “muggle” work and my passion work. That will have to wait until I am done raising my kid.

  7. Jamee says:

    Great article! My Einstein job is traffic manager at a radio station. It’s very organized, detail-oriented job. I’ve done it for 15 years, and I like it well enough. I’ve got it down to a science, so it’s easy for me. I balance that with my creative side-hustle of being a voice actor. Voiceover allows me to be more creative and work the left side of my brain more. My plan is to work until the station is sold or the owner passes away. By that time, I’ll have paid off my debts and have enough voice work to live on.
    Thanks for making me feel better about my plans! I often feel that I’m not that good at it since I still have a day job, even though I made more money on the side than at my Einstein job for the past couple of years.

  8. Taz says:

    I am an architect by day and a writer/cartoonist by night (or rather by early mornings). I struggled with the idea of having a day job for a while, but honestly it’s been a life saver for me. It’s done exactly what you said, it’s alleviated the anxiety of paying the bills and meeting my financial goals. The only thing is is that I’m realizing that I actually enjoy being an architect and I take my work seriously. This can leave me too tired to pursue my writing and cartooning goals, but I persist. I do what I can when I can. I have set up a schedule for myself to produce a certain amount of creative work and this helps me get to it. It’s been important to me to keep my creative work alive, even if it means writing one essay every 2 months or publishing one cartoon every few weeks. I realize I need both – my day job as an architect and my creative pursuits – to fully satisfy all the different parts of my being. Thanks for this great article in support of day jobs for creatives!

  9. Gabi says:

    I am a Finance director by day and fiber arts ninja by night. Gotta feed the babies. I find it interesting that so many artist types have more left brained work for their “day jobs”.

    :)

  10. Sofia says:

    I really needed to read this today. Thank you!

  11. Lucy says:

    Fantastic piece – thank you, Kristin!

  12. Alyssa says:

    I am new to this website and the concept that I am a multipotentialite. I am so happy I found this website because article makes so much sense to me! I am currently a record store clerk by day and writer/artist by night.

  13. Mabel says:

    Thanks so much for this! I had been told by peers time over time that if I don’t focus, I’ll be good at nothing. I am a composer and marketer, plus having a strong interest in jewelry design(which I hope to make into a career). The part about Phillip Glass is inspiring. I have no idea he had a day job. You can say my marketing is a day job, but it’s also a job I like. I just have two sides to my character and it’s so good to know there are people like me out in the world.

  14. Yari says:

    I especially like where Phillip says “I was careful to take a job that couldn’t have any possible meaning for me.” Often the thought might be to get a job that’s at least in or near your field to feel that you’re doing something that means something, but really all this “bridge job” is doing is paying the bills so you can focus on what you truly love doing. It’s not to say that you don’t do your job well, but that it’s not something that will take focus away from your true goal. Great article.

  15. Greg says:

    I definitely respect Barbara Sher and the idea of a “Good Enough Job”. But man, commuting an hour to a busy job, commuting back, cooking dinner etc etc, all I have time and energy left over for is an hour or so of TV before I go to sleep and wake up the next day to do it all over again! A “Good Enough Job” for me would be perfect at 25-30 hours per week. I think the key is to find a job that doesn’t drain your mental capacities or emotions too much, which for many I think can a challenge in and of itself. I’m always happy just with a job I don’t hate!

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, I would probably call that a definitely-not-good-enough job. :) To be “good enough” a job really needs to leave you with enough time and energy to pursue your passions.

  16. Kim says:

    Greg put it very well. If your main job takes up all your energy, that is not good either. My passion is writing and producing music, doing metal- and woodwork, gardening, etc. My ultimate goal is to try to find a 20-25 hrs a week job that would pay well enough to survive on. I’ve been very careful to keep my running expenses low, so that is not entirely impossible. Also I want this job also to be meaningful, I have a degree in environmental sciences, but the competition is pretty fierce, now I’m doing a 6-month nonpaid internship in the government that is very interesting, that O hope will open some doors into new places where I could do some good… But not burn myself completely out! Luckily it seems lately that employers are more understanding towards wanting to work less also in the professional fields.

  17. Jessica says:

    I loved this article. I’ll read it again every time I feel demotivated about having a day job. I clean houses three times a week which is perfect because it doesn’t take all my time, energy, and focus. I balance my Einsten job with my creative side-hustle of being a writer and a business owner.

  18. Ryan says:

    Great article. I immediately went out and read your book. My regular/ day/ Einstein job is steady and it’s afforded me a solid middle class life with time to pursue interests. I’ll probably write a book about this job that may end up terminating my employment but it may become an inspirational comedy to someone else.

  19. V L says:

    I discovered the book “how to be everything” in 2017 and i read it.
    I just read this article and the only one thing that makes sense in my mind is the being anxiety-free part. that’s a good point indeed.

    Now there’s a point that maybe even Emilie is missing and that must be considered in the whole multipotentialite affair: our problems have a solid political-economical root.
    I thought a lot about this and i hope emilie will add this to the whole multipotentiaite conversation.

    There’s a comment of an architect here who has the will to pursue here creative goals in her spare time. In the renaissance bein an architect was just a skill of being a creative! This was called just “being an artist”.
    When did things started being ugly? I’ll tell you when: machines, then mass production (and capitalism). If this speech sounds old-fashioned is because the problem is still unsolved after 300 years!
    An economy based on mass production requires people to work as in a factory: over-specializing, just as a robot in the factory.
    This puts our multipotential ability in the condition of not being suitable, and then trouble start: indecision, psychological distress, the urge of finding a way to make money to create in the remaining time…

    I don’t feel like being a graphic designer, though my graphic design degree, i feel like wanting to be an artist, which means create everything: graphics, buildings, photos, movies. Being an architect, at least in italy, means working for 12 hours a day!

    So, this is the point i’d like to be added at the whole discussion on being a multipotentialite: the economical (and then political) reasons for our difficulties.
    everything is connected.

    p.s. how can i have a pic of me in my comment?

  20. Benjamin Connell says:

    This is the most useful career advice I’ve ever had! Thank you so much! I think this is going to make me so much happier at home and work!

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