This post may sound contradictory to my last “push through rejection and keep writing” post, but I don’t see it that way. It could be a footnote to that post, or a part 2. If part 1 was “keep going,” part 2 is, “but don’t quit your day job.”
When I was in my early twenties, I had fantasies of spending the entirety of my days writing fiction. I wasn’t really mature enough to consider income. I didn’t even know what real life cost at that point. I was tutoring part-time and working on a novel, trying to please my first agent who had signed me based on just hearing the story at a party (I think she was drunk). One day, she was in L.A. for a conference or something and suggested we meet at Jerry’s Deli to chat. I went, feeling very high and mighty as an up-and-coming writer having a meal with her literary agent. And then she proceeded to squash my dreams (or that’s how I saw it at the time).
We discussed my novel and how it was going and then she said I should get a job. Like, a real job. I was offended. And hurt. I thought this was her way of saying she didn’t believe in me. I left in a huff. I hated her for saying what she did. But now I realize it was really good advice, just harshly delivered.
The thing is that the writing business is hard. Even if you get published, the money is modest. I didn’t realize that at the time. When she told me she thought she could get me a $50,000 book deal, I thought that was a fortune that would last me the few years needed to write another book. Again, I had no idea what real life cost. I didn’t know that taxes suck. I didn’t know much at all. She was right–I had to get a job.
Reluctantly, I did take her advice. I went into copywriting, working in marketing at first, then finding a niche in pharmaceutical advertising. I have some financial security now, which frees up my creativity. Basically it’s like this: Because I’m not worried about my next mortgage payment, I have brain space to worry about my next chapter.
I say all this in response to something I read recently. Mike Rowe, the hilarious host of “Dirty Jobs,” gave a speech in which he said “follow your passion” was the worst advice he ever received. Someone wrote in to question this apparent cynicism and discouragement, and here is some of the wisdom Mike shared:
“Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?
When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”
Every time I watch The Oscars, I cringe when some famous movie star – trophy in hand – starts to deconstruct the secret to happiness. It’s always the same thing, and I can never hit “mute” fast enough to escape the inevitable cliches. “Don’t give up on your dreams kids, no matter what.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes.” And of course, “Always follow your passion!”
Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?”
(Read the whole thing here.)
There is a point in my life when I would have scoffed at this. But I don’t now. He is right on. Yes, you should pursue your passion, but don’t let that pursuit prevent you from having a successful, content life. Writing fiction is my passion (though I still struggle with that word; I told a friend recently that it’s less of a passion and more of an outright need). But, honestly, I’m too practical to just write fiction. I’m glad I have a separate career because this novel-writing thing seems to be a crap shoot, even with a lovely agent and a huge publishing house backing me. Am I passionate about my day job? No, not really. I enjoy it. I do it well. But, mostly, it allows me to exercise my left brain (and a little right brain on good days) so I’m ready to write fiction in my off time.
I do a lot of thinking about the “point” of life. What I hear in addition to “Follow your passion” is “Go after what you really want.” I find similar fault with that advice. Want? If I did that today, for example, I’d still be in bed, cuddling my puppy and watching re-runs of “Shark Tank” (latest obsession). But, no, I’m at work because I have a job and I want to be a productive member of society. I think it’s unrealistic to always follow what we want. And it’s dangerous for society to equate such a pursuit with “happiness.” I’m happy and my days are not spent indulging my every desire. My days are spent balancing things in a practical way. I have to sacrifice wants all the time. I’d love to be working on my new novel right now (yes, I couldn’t help but start something new…more on that in another post), but I have to get ready for a meeting. That’s life. And I’m totally fine with it.