Putting Work in Its Place

Gaining perspective from the world beyond web design, we’re reminded that work is not an end in itself. Instead we can each define for ourselves the place of work in our lives.

Ricky Scott is a pitmaster in a place called Hell’s Half Acre, South Carolina. He’s also the Director of Public Works for a nearby county, and in his spare time, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. I learned about Scott from a short documentary called Thursday in Hell’s Half Acre, made by 1504 Pictures for the Southern Foodways Alliance.1 “I have a day job, but after four o’clock on Thursdays I take off and go over on down to the barbecue business,” he says in the interview. Once a week, he smokes a pig and serves it to his neighbors. He’s open for three hours only, and he sells out every time.

There are a lot of people like Ricky Scott out there, splitting their time between things they need to do and things they want to do. He could quit his day job and try to live the pitmaster dream, but the Thursday-only barbecue business is working out just fine.

At some point in your life, someone has probably told you to “follow your dreams.” Maybe you’ve said it to someone else. It’s the quintessential inspirational advice. We tell our kids to follow their dreams from a young age. We say it in songs and commencement speeches, hand letter it for posters and journal covers. Most of the time it’s empty advice, designed to trigger emotion but not action.

These days, “follow your dreams” has sister phrases like “do what you love” and “quit your day job.” If you listen for these mantras, they’ll lead you to an entire genre of storytelling in creative industries, particularly in web design. The stories come in different forms: essays, marketing campaigns, conference talks, interviews. They’re usually formulaic, involving someone turning a personal experience into motivational advice for a wide audience. They are treated as gospel.

These stories can be deeply inspiring. Now, more than ever, people can direct their own paths and make a living from creative work. For many, the barrier to starting a business and selling your work is low. You can make a website in an hour with Squarespace. Raise thousands of dollars in a month with Kickstarter. Begin selling your products tomorrow with Etsy. Share your work instantly on Twitter, and measure it all with Google Analytics. There’s so much possibility for entrepreneurs and freelancers. If you have the right combination of resources, flexibility, and skills, you can start following your dreams right away.

For someone who knows they want a career change, is in the position to make one, and just needs to take a few steps to get there, motivational advice works. Personal testimony can be transformative. Finding a tribe of like-minded people who put a lot on the line to pursue their passions may be just the push someone needs to move forward.

But where does that leave the people who don’t have a calling or enough resources? To drop everything and do what you love, you need a safety net, flexibility, and a passion that also happens to be a marketable skill. It’s a beautiful thing when someone turns the fire in their belly into a fulfilling career, but the stories we tell about creativity don’t apply to everyone.

It’s time we examine the messages we’re sending about creative fulfillment and explore new ways to talk about our work.

Opening Up the Narrative

Work is one part of life. It plays different roles for everyone. There’s not a single, teachable path to professional fulfillment. Translating “this worked for me” into “you should do what I did” is an anecdotal fallacy that can be as damaging over time as it is inspiring in the moment. When delivered without empathy, this kind of advice isolates people and devalues the kind of work most of us do every day.

Our world is much bigger than our industry. The concept of work, and expectations for professional autonomy and creative freedom, completely change when you shift your gaze outside the design community. Even within the mostly insulated design world, there’s nuance. There are varying levels of privilege. When we speak to people in our industry, we must consider the effect our words have on those who have chosen, or have had no choice but to take, different paths. And creating a more inclusive, more diverse, deeper-rooted design community requires—at the very least—speaking to people outside of it.

If you have a success story about pursuing your passions, choose language that’s sensitive to people who are different from you. You could make a command like “quit your day job” or “do what you love,” or you could soften the tone by saying “I quit my day job” or “here’s what worked for me.” Opening up our language will open up our audience.

It’s helpful to tell the whole story, including victories, failures, and all the vulnerable spots. Sometimes we get squeamish about the financial side of conversations about work, but it’s important. If you cashed in your retirement account, had resources from a past job, or called on an existing network of people to help fund your dreams, that’s part of the story. Stories of artists who quit their full-time jobs and and put everything on the line are compelling, but the same decision may be irresponsible for different people. We can glorify risk taking, but the risks should be calculated.

We can also explore new places to share stories about creativity and passion. I’ve witnessed some of the most inspiring conversations about work at neighborhood events, political functions, or standing in line somewhere. I’ve even changed my perspective by following people who aren’t like me on Twitter. It seems so simple because it is. We all benefit, as individuals and as a community, from actively seeking out perspectives that are different from our own.

The Myth of a Calling

Mantras like “do what you love” and “quit your day job” often presume the listener has one clear creative passion that they can ultimately profit from. But not everyone has a calling. It’s a myth that in order to be truly happy, you need to find and pursue your one true passion. Many people have joyous lives filled with interests and hobbies and people they love, but not passions.

Even if you are blessed with a singular passion, it doesn’t have to be your full-time job. Some people aren’t comfortable turning their passions into a career. Maybe they want to keep their passions for themselves. A writer or artist who does intensely personal work may choose not to turn it into a business. Maybe they practice their passion as a way to relieve stress, and the experience would change if they made it their job. Maybe their full-time job funds their dreams, and they want to pursue their passion while relying on a steady paycheck. Or maybe they love their job very much, even though they have deep interests outside of work.

Some people have passions that are inherently unrelated to work. There are many among us who’ve always wanted a family. They go to work every day; and every night, they follow their dreams home to their families. Passions can also take the form of hobbies, fulfilling people emotionally or intellectually outside of work.

We encourage children to explore all of their interests, try new experiences, and embrace change. But at some point during young adulthood, a switch flips and you’re expected to know what you want in this life and go get it. This perspective is reinforced in school: in your first year of college, it’s time to choose a major and think about your career goals. Change becomes uncomfortable. What if we show ourselves the same grace we show children? People who deeply love more than one thing shouldn’t feel pressured to choose a dream.

The myth of the calling leads people to believe that if they answer the call, they’ll reach some sort of creative enlightenment that transcends work and transforms their life. That scenario is possible, but so rare.

You Can’t Always Do What You Love

Of course, you will never do only what you love. To change the narrative around creative careers, we have to start with a realistic perspective on work. Most people spend a majority of their time working. And just like the other major parts of life, work is sometimes fulfilling and sometimes not. There is gray area. You can love your job most of the time. You can kind of pursue your passion. You can stand behind your work even if it’s not your dream job.

It’s helpful to look at your career from a holistic perspective, made up of different tasks and components with varying levels of meaning. For an art director at a publishing company, work may look something like this: 60 percent design and illustration, 20 percent meetings, ten percent writing, five percent travel, and five percent budget spreadsheets. Similarly, a potter has to perform a lot of tasks that are unrelated to pottery but related to her pottery business: Sending invoices, financial planning, maintaining a website, hiring and managing employees.

Even for someone who practices their passion as a career, it’s not going to be 100 percent passion all the time. When you look at it that way, pursuing your interests by freelancing isn’t that different from pursuing your interests by working for a company and doing something you like most of the time. No matter the career path you choose, you should expect both sacrifices and rewards pretty much every day.

It’s always going to be a mix. So you weigh the pros and the cons, including tangible things like pay and time off and intangible things like friends at work and pride of ownership. And there’s no shame in weighing the paycheck heavily; we all work for money.

Making Work Meaningful

I love my job, but I wouldn’t say I do what I love the most in this world. I care about the company, my coworkers, and the people we serve. I’m invested and engaged at work. But if my job ever becomes my deepest source of happiness, my life will fall out of balance. This is my truth. It may not be yours.

A 2015 Gallup poll of employee engagement said “the percentage of U.S. workers engaged in their jobs rose from an average 31.7% in January to an average 32.9% in February.”2 This is a three year high. Most people are either indifferent or actively disengaged at work. That’s a problem that we can help solve.

Here’s a more achievable goal than “follow your dreams”: be engaged at work. Look for meaning in it. This is hard sometimes. Being engaged at work takes work, and it’s an ongoing process. Turning a creative passion into a job is certainly one way to find meaning in your work, but it’s not the only way.

I’ve seen friends become disillusioned because early in their careers they told themselves that by working at a tech company they were going to change the world. You may not be changing people’s lives on a large scale (or you may be!), but are you changing the way people work? Are you improving someone’s day, making it easier for them to do their job, or giving them information they need? Chances are, you’re helping people. You can find purpose there.

No work is wasted. Even if you’re not in your ideal career, you can start taking small steps toward it right now. You may be doing that already, without realizing it. If you learned a new skill, met friends or mentors, or became a better communicator, then your imperfect job served a purpose.

What’s meaningful to one person may not be meaningful to another. The more we can align what we value with what we do, the happier we’ll be at work. Someone who values efficiency, consistency, and predictability may like working in production. Someone who values creativity, independence, and adventure may prefer working as a freelance designer. You can be yourself at the office if your job is in alignment with your values. It’s a joy to bring your whole self to work.

So, instead of asking ourselves what we want to be doing all the time—because we’ll never do only one thing—let’s ask some more practical questions: What do I want to do more of? What do I want to do less of? Can I stand behind my work?

Room to Grow

People evolve and passion can be transient. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they say things like astronaut, teacher, movie star, or president. But when they actually grow up, figure out who they are, and hone their skills, other options become available to them. Your dream one day isn’t the same as your dream ten years later, when you know more and have access to more. Following your dreams around can get complicated.

Even if your current job is not your final destination, it can mean something to you. Even if you’re not in a field related to your personal interests, you can be happy and fulfilled at work. And if you’re working to pay the bills so you can take care of your family, that doesn’t mean you’re denying your dreams. It might mean exactly the opposite.

“Follow your dreams” sounds nice, but it’s almost always more fulfilling to follow your needs.

I can’t stop thinking about Ricky Scott in Hell’s Half Acre. Rewatching the documentary, my respect for him grew deeper. Every day he goes to work at the county office and does what he needs to do. As a firefighter, he volunteers his time doing hard work that matters to him and his community. And on Thursdays, when he’s doling out pulled pork on Styrofoam plates, he’s simply doing what he loves. He’s arranged his life in a way that suits him. It’s malleable, can change at any time, and it’s not for anyone else to replicate. He has financial and emotional needs, and his abundant life fulfills them. Ricky Scott’s work does not define him.

“Some day I may go full-time with barbecue,” he says in the film. “But so far, rather than doing that I’d rather keep it like it is right now. I put one hundred and one percent in it, and make sure it goes on as long as I can do it.”

  1. Thursday in Hell’s Half Acre, 1504 Pictures for the Southern Foodways Alliance (2015).

  2. Amy Adkins, “U.S. Employee Engagement Reaches Three-Year High,” Gallup, March 9, 2015.

Kate kiefer lee

Kate Kiefer Lee is the Communications Director at MailChimp. She’s a former magazine editor and coauthor of the book Nicely Said: Writing for the Web With Style and Purpose. She’s slowly but surely working on a master’s degree in strategic communications. Kate lives in Atlanta with her husband, Andrew, and dog, Leon.

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Illustration by Aisha Franz · Portrait by Roman Muradov