Recently there was a discussion in the forum from which Creative Latitude was born, the About.com Graphic Design forum, with regard to whether it is better to do for a living what one loves or do what makes for a more practical career. It’s really the classic conundrum. Should one choose a career for love or money? Go with one’s head or go with one’s heart?
Graphic designers, and other arts professionals, are faced with this riddle as soon as they enter high school. While their artistic talents may be encouraged and lauded while they are children, by the time college is on the distant horizon they are encouraged – sometimes bullied – to choose a more conventional path in life or at least have something to “fall back on”.
So it should be no surprise that many of us struggle with this decision into adulthood. Do what pays well and maybe you’ll have an easier life financially. Do what you love and maybe you’ll actually look forward to waking up Monday through Friday.
While thinking about this topic the other day, I decided to visit one of my neighbors who had just recently opened a video game store in the neighborhood. As the football season approaches, I was trying to decide between video football games and knew that he had a couple of display models that I could demo. What I found when I stepped into his store was interesting. Opening a small business is very tough, particularly in the first couple of years. Retail is especially tough, since you have to deal with suppliers, inventory, local competition, seasonal lulls, etc.
Yet there was my neighbor, having the time of his life! His face was absolutely beaming and he was so excited that he could not even sit! There were about a half dozen customers in the store, most of us asking his assessment about various games and for recommendations as to which he felt were better values. It was clear and obvious that this was not just a business for him but a personal passion. He’d be playing all the games, reading all of the latest reviews and having all of these same discussions whether he operated his store or whether he was a junior associate at a law firm. He LOVED what he was doing and it not only showed all over his face but it oozed out of his pours!
I had to contrast, in my mind, my neighbor’s situation with that of a client I went to see about 2 1/2 years ago. He is a marketing manager for a mid-sized corporation, undoubtedly making a pretty good salary – even by New York City standards. Yet one of the first things he said to me after we exchanged the obligatory niceties was “Geez, I would LOVE to be doing what you’re doing now!” “What’s that?” I asked, to which he sincerely replied “Give all this up and go out on my own! I want to be a writer but I have 2 school-aged kids and a stay-at-home-wife.”
I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony. Here I was, a struggling entrepreneur with a fledgling young business just trying to stay afloat and here was this senior manager with a significant salary, a cushy job and – at the time – a huge impact on my young company’s future and he was sitting there telling me how much he envied MY position!
To be sure, it’s easy to say, in theory, that people should choose love over money when it comes to their careers, but we can’t ignore that the realities of life often impact our decision. It’s a far easier decision for an aspiring graphic design entrepreneur in a market like to New York City, San Francisco or Boston – where clients are far more plentiful – than it may be for an aspiring graphic design entrepreneur in Akron, Ohio or Billings, Montana.
Just as true, someone with many financial obligations at home may not realistically be able to leave a secure job and income for the uncertainty of becoming a new entrepreneur or pursuing a career as a singer/actor/ writer. A former co-worker with whom I worked in-house at a large, multi-national corporation once referred to this syndrome as “the golden handcuffs”. He opined, “We get paid pretty well, have excellent benefits and don’t have to work too hard! So even though the work is not that creative or satisfying, it makes it tough to seriously consider leaving!”
On the other hand, employers are probably full aware that legions of applicants covet certain positions, which of course tends to drive down the compensation for those positions. If they know that there are plenty of applicants who are so desperate to do the work that they will do so for less money, why should they pay someone a decent salary? This can be particularly true of arts fields, where there are very low barriers of entry and intense competition for positions.
A truism graphic designers hear from the first day in design school is “We do graphic design for the love, not for the money”. Actually, that’s not true. We do graphic design for both. I love graphic design and love what I do, but I wouldn’t do it for free. And although clients probably know that my love of graphic design is a huge motivator for me, they still send me checks for the work I do for them, for which I am very thankful.
It may be especially true today, as opposed to in the past, that doing what pays is no longer a guarantee that one will avoid financial hardship. Not even two generations ago, it was widely believed that a person should look to get a good job in a stable company/organization and that this would bring them financial security. In today’s age of corporate downsizing and outsourcing, it is expected that the average worker will move around more and need to constantly upgrade their skills. It’s also highly likely that even workers with “stable” positions will at some point experience an interruption in their employment. In fact, I wonder how many new entrants into non-practical careers since the dot-com bubble burst were previously holders of stable, “practical” careers.
For some, being laid-off from a job they hated but that paid too well for them to voluntarily leave might seem like a blessing in disguise. For now they can follow their hearts and choose a career that satisfies them and blame whatever temporary financial adjustments they or their families must make on the slumping economy.
People say life is short; however those who must wake up every day and go to a job that they hate would probably disagree. For them, life is long. Weekends may be short. Holidays are definitely short. The hours between 9AM and 5PM tend to crawl by endlessly whereas the hours between 5PM and 9AM simply whiz by in a blur.
Meanwhile, regardless of how much red ink my neighbor must be swimming in, in his video game store’s first year of operation, I see him practically skipping to work each day. He’s doing what he loves and in doing so, it doesn’t really even seem like work.
I recently watched a film in which one of the characters asked another one “What would you do for a living if money was NOT a factor?” This is a good exercise for us all. Ask ourselves what we would be doing if money wasn’t a factor. Afterward, ask ourselves why we’re not doing it?