Every week, Ask Laura features responses to your questions about religion, relationships, and the mess they often create. You can submit questions to Laura anonymously at this form, or via Twitter (@lkoturner) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I graduated from a college a few years ago and after a series of part-time jobs at coffee shops and restaurants have finally gotten a job in the field I majored in. The problem is that even though the job has decent pay for a starting level and offers full benefits, I don’t think the 9-5 lifestyle fits me. Also, even though the job is in my field, it’s not as fulfilling as I’d hoped it would be. I really want to pursue my passions, but I guess I’m not sure how to do that and work to pay my bills, too. Do you have any advice?
Oh, the quandary of a generation is contained in your letter! It’s an interesting thing, to think of each generation’s general attitude toward work: Our grandparents, who did what they needed to do, passion be damned; our parents, who got advanced degrees and made good money; and now those of us who were told to follow our dreams but who live in a world that won’t support hundreds of thousands of writers or actors or sock makers or dancers. So, here is my promise to you: I promise not to use the word “entitled” in my response, and I hope you promise to listen a little from someone who is, perhaps, six years older than you.
I am writing this at four in the afternoon in a dive bar in my neighborhood. I am twenty-nine and the youngest person in here by about thirty years, and I love it. That’s part of what the freelance lifestyle, whatever that is, affords: sitting in the company of geriatrics with a Deschutes Pale Ale at my side.
Do you want to know what the previous eight hours were like? I will tell you. I woke up stressed as all get out because I wasn’t sure if an article I had pitched was going to work out, and spent several hours trying to track down the person who might help it work, only to realize that person had quit their job and I had to start the search all over again. I heated up a can of lentil soup for lunch while I filled out an Excel spreadsheet of work assignments, and nobody goes freelance so that they can fill out more Excel spreadsheets. Then, all afternoon, I sent emails. Emails and emails and more emails. Emails asking people to pay me money they owed me; emails with overdue edits; emails that had seemed to spawn further email offspring. This I did all alone, with no coworkers to yell jokes at or people to go to lunch with or friends to ask if I wanted to take a YouTube break.
All of this is to say, I get it, because I wanted what you want, too, and I still want it. Or at least halfway — I work in an office half-time, and do freelance work the other half. The nine-to-five can be a grind, but do you know what else can be a grind? Everything. Life is a grind.
Here is a list of things that are important in life: Health insurance. A room of one’s own. Enough food. Transportation. Saving. The ability to see family and friends when you need to. So, here’s an experiment you could take on: Look at all of those categories, and figure out how much it would cost you. What is the amount of money you need to feel good about your life each year? If you’re making a lot more than that, great! Keep working, save up, contribute to your 401(K), and look for ways to follow your passion after work, or before work, or at lunch. If I’ve learned anything since graduating from college, it’s that the world can wait. Very few things are actually urgent, although they will feel terribly urgent to you. Your amygdala will scream at you that you must figure everything out right now, and it will be the easiest lie you’ve ever believed. You have so much time, and you have to be patient.
Are there people in your field you admire? Ask them questions, lots of questions, if they will let you! Remember that no one owes you anything, so say thank you and write thank you notes and follow through on what you say will do. So much of life is about knowing the motions you need to go through — the things your mom told you to do when you were eight — and going through them. Emotions, to borrow a phrase, are wonderful servants and terrible masters.
There is also a terrible misconception highly prevalent among Christian liberal arts students (and possibly others) that the highest and best thing you can do in life is to find a job where your giftedness meets the world’s deep needs. That’s a mangling of a quote from Frederick Buechner, and if I ever hear it again I will scream and maybe murder someone. You can find such significance in your 9-to-5 job, and that is the thing that I wish most for you. You may not be saving whales or souls, but who cares? You are entrusted with a job, with things to do and people to talk with and blah blah blah. It might be super boring, and literally everyone I know, which includes some really interesting people, has had a boring job at some point. The point of it all is to be faithful and honest and hardworking in the job that is in front of you now, and not spend all your energy wishing you were doing something else. That might be the secret to life, come to think of it.
So, keep your day job for now, is the best thing I can say to you. Keep it and do it really well for at least two years. And while you are doing that, schedule one or two nights a week to devote to your passion. Put it on your calendar, like you would any other commitment, and do it with other people you like, and then, at the end of two years, look at your bank account and your resumé and think about whether you can take a bigger risk. You’ll never know for certain, but you can start with something more stable than where you are now. You can give that gift to yourself.
Image by Ryan Maguire.