Live in the Grays

I have been deliberately cutting back on my social media consumption this year, for a number of reasons. But like everyone else, I find myself scrolling around here and there to catch up on what I “missed.” So this past weekend, I’m scrolling through my FB feed and saw a post about an article that caught my eye.

The post was about “Going Hungry at the Most Prestigious MFA in America” by Katie Prout, an essay about the (unfortunately) all-too-common experience of food insecurity. (Aside: Usually the focus on food insecurity is on undergrads, so it’s, uh, refreshing (? I guess?) to have the spotlight redirected to the plight of graduate students, and I am glad I stumbled across her essay.)

But of course under the post were comments. Come for the article, stay for the comments!

When Doing What You Love Isn’t Worth It

While the overwhelming majority were sentiments of sympathy and solidarity, I’m still thinking about the sidebar discussions about one’s own agency over career choice. It started with someone saying something like “This is horrible, and nobody should have to tolerate these conditions for their work. So why people put up with this is beyond me. Move on, find a living wage. Doing what you love is not worth this.”

I have to disclose that I agree with that sentiment.

And Yet Why Some People MUST do What They Love

But I also understand why people put up with this.

Let me explain. My path has been all about figuring out what (else) I could do when my academic plans went awry. Twice. And having landed on the other side of that mess, I can safely say that while I took a long and winding road to get here, and it was not easy, nor pretty, I have landed in the kind of work I should have been doing all along. (A ‘regular’ staff job in higher ed in a line of work utterly unrelated to most anything I studied academically.) And yet my husband’s path, equally messy, and with essentially the same end-point (an alt-ac job but directly in his field), was the corollary. He’s a through-and-through academic. Someone who is suited only for working in his academic field in teaching and scholarly inquiry…and yet had to accept our financial & work-life reality and adjust course.

So I’ve really been grappling with why I was so triggered by a couple of the comments. At first I thought the commenters saying things like “it’s not enough to just get a job. We need to have work that inspires us. Following a dream is not a choice” were naive or…just lacking basic life experience or something. (God forbid these people ever face the need to financially support a loved one through failing health working in a job that pays poorly and has no benefits or stability, for instance.)

Your Assumptions About Office Work Might Be Wrong. Dead Wrong.

Commenters expressing things like “many of us are not exactly suited to sitting in a soul-sucking cubicle doing corporate office work” got under my skin, though I eventually brushed those insults off, too. I know when I was in grad school – and young – and naive about the work world – I had the same idea that working in a fluorescent cubicle farm for a generic office = churning out TPS reports or something; I couldn’t have imagined myself ever being content, nevermind satisfied doing “office work.”

I just kept ruminating about the comments, over and over. “Office work.” As if all jobs that are in offices are the same, and none require higher-level brain power. “It’s not enough to just get a job,” as if most of us can idly sit by awaiting work that inspires us to come along for…how long? At what costs?

Here’s where I realized what it really was that was bugging me so much. The black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking that was taking place.

I believe (and know!) it doesn’t have to be that way.

Career Advice Isn’t All Or Nothing

  • It doesn’t have to be follow your dream passion OR get a soul-sucking job in a cubicle farm.
  • Your job doesn’t need to be either: “do what you love” or “love what you do” to be right for you.
  • Smart and interesting people aren’t working ONLY as faculty in higher ed. They’re everywhere.
  • You don’t have to choose between doing something rewarding OR getting paid enough to afford groceries.
  • When you must do what you love, you will still have to make sacrifices.
  • You shouldn’t write something off [like, say, “office work”] until you have researched it, worked it, learned about it, and/or lived it.

I don’t know if it’s just a result of my own personal journey, or also because of my work that I’ve done in job design and position analysis, or coaching or what, but there is an enormous spectrum between “do what you love” and “I hate my soul-sucking work!” Sometimes you’re closer to “I hate this!” but incrementally, with each new project or job, moving closer to what you DO want to do. Or at least further from what you don’t want to do!

Even When You Start Doing What You Love….You may not Love It As Much!

Also, often, once you start doing something you love as a full-time, day-in, day-out JOB, you often find that reality doesn’t quite align with what you thought it would be. Every single job, even those you love, involve doing some things you hate, whether that’s writing reports, public speaking, no ability to telecommute, something. And it’s often like the Dunning-Kruger effect in that you can’t know what you do or don’t know, like, or hate about a job UNTIL YOU HAVE BEEN DOING IT.

It’s impossible to know what role your passion should play in the jigsaw puzzle of your career or how your career will fit with, complement, and/or facilitate your professional passion(s) and personal interests and goals until you do some serious introspection, self-reflection, and even self-assessments, and gather up some work experience (of different stripes, I would even say) under your belt. And it’s not just that I strongly believe, it’s that I am living proof that your passion does not have to equal your career! (And for many of us, that’s a recipe for disaster).

So it’s this black & white thinking we need to get away from. There are pluses and minuses to all kinds of approaches to careers, and all kinds of career plans. There’s room for it all!

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