A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends. One of them was in a senior role at a traditionally well-paid and respectable firm. He was contemplating a move to a new firm and a new position, with more responsibility, a bigger title and presumably also more pay. But the hesitation was palpable. In an unsolicited attempt to be helpful, I asked a slightly pointy question: what is it you really want to do? What would you do with your time and life if you had no other responsibilities or financial commitments? There was a pause, and then: ‘be a jazz bassist’. Changing firms in a similar role is already difficult enough at the best of times; changing industries is harder; doing a 180 degree turn out of finance into music is something else entirely. As somebody who’d done something similar, I felt it my moral duty to offer my completely unsolicited advice.
One of the things, for instance, I enjoy about my current job is that I have the option to say no – even though I rarely do. But to know that it is firmly your choice, not your bosses’, and to take responsibility for that, is quite liberating. Similarly, if I see an opportunity I don’t have to convince somebody else we should do it – I just go and do it. That is the biggest difference between working for somebody and working for yourself. For instance, this post – is something that I’ve wanted to write for some time, and actually have the forum to do so and perhaps some of the audience who might actually be interested. Feel free to jump to the archives or come back another day if you were expecting a review, some images, or a little philosophy.
I would really like to believe that each and every individual has something that they’re at least good at, and probably also something they have at least some interest in doing. Burning passions aside – that isn’t so common – I also believe you should be happy in your job, since you’re also going to be spending the vast majority of the waking hours in the prime of your life doing it. It seems rather masochistic to spend all of your time doing something you detest. Yet judging from the unsurprisingly large number of people who complain about their jobs, and the more surprising number of people who ask me about making the career switch with some curiosity as to whether they could do it themselves – it would seem that most people are in the wrong place. I don’t know if this is because they don’t actually know what they want to do, they haven’t tried looking, or they lack the courage to take the plunge – or perhaps some degree of all three. I suspect the sad reality of modern societal and career expectations is that most may never find out because you never really earn enough to be able to not work for long enough to try. And the further one goes past the event horizon – family, mortgage etc. – the more risky and difficult it becomes to try.
The advice of making mistakes and experimenting when young (or at least without commitment) is therefore good. Even if you get older, I suspect the same still holds true – it’s probably better to at least do some serious thinking before deciding that there’s no way you try to fulfil your passion for baking.
It’s interesting to note that most of the time, when people have a burning desire to switch jobs, it’s from something uncreative – like finance – to something creative – like music, or photography, or art. I think the need to think and create is necessary to achieve fulfilment; we humans are most certainly not machines and have psychological requirements beyond food and reproduction that must also be satisfied to achieve that elusive goal of happiness. Unfortunately, there is almost zero machinery or assistance in place anywhere to support this kind of transition – perhaps because it’s not easy to achieve successfully, and perhaps because there’s no way of monetising it. The last thing a starving artist is going to do is pay you to tell them how to be a starving artist.
Don’t get me wrong: not all passions can be careers. It would be difficult to turn say, sunbathing into something that would pay the rent. But I’m pretty sure there are enough people who want to do something that the world would be a significantly better place if they did it. I’m talking about the difference between doing a task because you must do it in order to collect your paycheck at the end of the day as opposed to doing it because you want to; the extra passion that stems from the latter is something that can make the difference between a transaction and a memorable experience for the customer. And oddly enough, the memorable experience tends to create happy customers and bring repeat business. I think it’s pretty obvious that from a human relations standpoint, it’s highly beneficial to your business to hire people who want to be there. Happy people means a more pleasant environment. I see a palpable difference between say Malaysia – where people care about titles and pay, and have little pride in their work – and the Czech Republic; corruption, laziness and incompetence is rampant in one, and the other is a thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable experience. It is also probably not surprising that the GDP of one is many times the other, despite having one third of the population.
Yet what I tend to see – in Malaysia especially – is that human resources is staffed by people who couldn’t get sexier job titles and would rather be somewhere else themselves; but since they are responsible for hiring, they don’t really care so long as positions are filled and tasks generally completed. This culture of ennui then permeates the entire organization and you know they do not have much longer as a going concern.
I am coming to the crux of the matter: we as individuals have a choice. Don’t choose to be part of the problem; choose to be your own solution. The worst thing that can happen is that you have to go back to your old job – but at least you can say you tried, and your employer actually benefits since you won’t be spending quite as much time on internet forums.
There is obviously a degree of risk involved here. All we can do is mitigate it to the best of our ability by a) having a plan, b) having some backup resources, and c) knowing when to pull the plug – if that becomes necessary. Gambling is a problem when the addicted cannot quit: it isn’t the wager that’s damaging, it’s the mistaken belief that change is around the corner and a different (i.e. winning) outcome will happen without changing any of the process. I myself have had to attempt professional photography four times before it stuck; I can honestly say there are few things more humiliating than begging your boss for your old job with your tail between your legs, and few things more soul crushing than waking up in the morning to know you’re going back to something you hate. You endure the ridicule of your colleagues and a permanent black mark on your career record, and you’ve got to work twice as hard to get to the same point as your colleagues. But that may well be the cost of trying.
I do not believe that hard work alone will make an alternative career work, but I do believe that it’s a very big part of it. I think being passionate is even more important – it’s what drives the underlying hard work to begin with, it’s what keeps you going when things are unpleasant or difficult and it’s what makes you continually push yourself that extra little bit. That extra little bit may well be the difference between being seen and getting the break you desperately need, or sitting at home waiting for work and relying on hope. Unfortunately, luck is still required – but the good news is that isn’t really within anybody’s control, and can be viewed as being mostly democratic. Then, hard work makes the difference: you have to be lucky and prepared in order to take advantage of any opportunities.
When I left corporate for the final time in 2012, I knew that a) I couldn’t go back, and b) this was really going to be all or nothing. I knew that the photographic industry had changed dramatically since I first considered it in 2005, and would change even more in the coming years – and not necessarily for the better. I knew that it would be increasingly difficult to make a living, and I’d have to do things I’d never been good at or enjoyed (i.e. selling). There would be some serious compromises in the beginning – and even now – but there was also an extremely high chance of achieving the kind of fulfilment that I would never have in a more conventional career. I won’t deny that it’s been even more work than I imagined, and there were periods that were bad almost to the point of me having to give up – but I remind myself that a bad day doing something related to your passion is always going to be better than a good day doing something you despise. I work 16 hour days or longer, but I don’t have to waste time being unproductive and political in meetings or making hundreds of revisions to a powerpoint slide or excel model. I travel even more than I did as a consultant, but I choose to do so, and there’s always an interesting project at the other end of it as opposed to a grumpy partner and an even grumpier client – one of whom probably wants to be a professional dive instructor, and the other one who might want to teach pottery. But neither has the courage to leave, and frankly, I pity them.
The fear of not being able to maintain their current lifestyles keeps them going, in a never-ending circle: you spend more to distract yourself from the reality of your job, but you need an increasingly larger hit to maintain the same level of impact, for which you have to work harder and earn more and…you can see where this is going. I have not needed to buy distractions for some time, and oddly enough, though I earn significantly less now, I don’t find my lifestyle has changed as much as I expected it would. Probably because I get fulfilment from creating instead of consuming. Don’t get me wrong; money is still necessary, you still very much need to have a commercial mindset in order to survive at all in business. But I also believe that if you’re passionate enough, and are willing to put in a bit of effort into promotion, you’ll be able to find enough income to survive – and eventually do quite well by virtue of merit. My fulfilment + income now is definitely of greater value than my previous (much higher) salary, and my family is much happier since I’m a lot less grumpy and cynical, too.
To all and any of you in the audience who’ve always wanted to do something else, all I can say is you’re going to have to take a risk at some point or be prepared to be forever wondering ‘what if’ and never experiencing those euphoric highs of both fulfilment and excitement. There’s nothing worse than looking back when it really is too late and having that turn into an ‘if only’ – so for yourselves and for the rest of the world, if have a burning desire to do something – please at least give it a try. You never know what might happen next. MT
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