Let’s talk about this cultural obsession with “quitting your day job.”
There is an attitude—propagated by those perky millennial solopreneurs who pay to insert themselves into your Instagram and Facebook feeds—that any creative person still working a day job isn’t ambitious or savvy enough to “make it.” This may be true for some folks, but certainly not for all of us. As I wrote in Day Job? I Wish!, I’ve been writing novels and various works of nonfiction for almost half my life now. Hustle? Yup, I’ve spent the past nineteen years hustling. Self promotion? Uh huh, I do that too. Sure, I could take (or create) other opportunities for a more reliable income—I could copy-write, ghostwrite, edit, coach—but all of these career-related work options will siphon my creative energy from the work I actually want to do. For a resolutely-impractical artist like me, a good day job provides the financial security that unlocks the freedom to write those gleefully-uncommercial books-of-the-heart—not to mention a prime chance to level up on my time management skills.
Some day jobs will suck your soul, and there’s no mindset adjustment that will render them much more livable. It may take awhile, but you will eventually find a day job that’s a bridge, not a trap. For the past month and a half I’ve been working as an office assistant for a much-beloved nonprofit (I got this gig too soon after writing that last piece for it not to be a wink from the universe!), and I actually look forward to coming into work every day. Here are some boxes an artist or entrepreneur’s day job should definitely tick.
It pays you enough to live on, and then some.
I once had a job at a vegan cafe, and I loved everything about it but the paycheck: two weeks of pretty much full-time work didn’t even cover my rent. On-shift lunches were included, but I couldn’t take much advantage of free food otherwise because it was all so delicious there was almost never any left over except for a few bagels. I still had to worry about money, which did no favors for my creativity. Though I learned a lot from that job and I adored my co-workers, it made no sense for me to keep it.
I include the phrase “and then some” because your time and energy are far too valuable to give to an employer who only pays you enough to “get by.” Yes, you may have to take a minimum-wage job if you’re really in a pickle, but make sure you trade up for a better gig as soon as you possibly can.
You don’t have to think about it after five o’clock.
This is the most important criterion: do you retain enough bandwidth for your real work? During the day, I go through the motions (restock coffee stations, process mail, answer phone) that support a team of fundraisers, and I get my real work done in the early mornings and on evenings and weekends. At five o’clock I promptly stop thinking about which printers in the office will need a new cartridge soon. When I worked at a yarn store, a man I was dating remarked, “You have a master’s degree. Why are you working in a shop?” Because the shop doesn’t follow me home. (And yes, that was a snobby thing to say, and I didn’t hesitate to tell him so.)
Your commute is (relatively) enjoyable.
This is where I really hit the jackpot, because my entire hourlong walk (or 20-minute bike ride) from my boyfriend’s apartment takes me through a string of Boston parks known as the Emerald Necklace. I arrive at the office feeling invigorated and inspired, jotting down notes for my next book project before I start my morning tasks. Truth be told, when I’m writing full time I invariably make coffee and go back to bed with my laptop for a few hours, which is terrible for my back, whereas I now get enough exercise every weekday. While such a dream commute may not be possible for you, look for ways to make your trip to and from work as pleasurable as it possibly can be, even when you’re smushed into a subway car nose to elbow. An audiobook or podcast—carefully chosen for research and/or inspiration—will save your sanity in bumper-to-bumper traffic, too.
You’d be friends with your co-workers (if you had the time!)
One of my ongoing tasks is assembling welcome binders for new employees with all the organizational background and tech how-tos they need to get acclimated. This means that I spend a couple weeks with someone’s name and new job title, wondering who they are and what they’re like before I actually get to meet them. I’ve become especially friendly with one of these new colleagues, who emailed me the other day: We need more Camilles in the world. (I receive happy feedback like this to the point that you might even say my new co-workers appreciate me more than most folks I’ve worked with in the publishing industry ever have. Funny, that.) These little sunshine-in-my-heart moments tell me that this office is where I belong, for the time being anyway—and I get to practice and refine my guiding principles much more so than if I were working alone at the library every day (see items #2 and #5).
…And even the not-so-nice ones offer opportunities for character study and self reflection.
Those folks who treat me like a robot who validates their parking tickets are showing me just how important it is to put those guiding principles into consistent practice.
I felt more than a little self conscious when my new boss sent out a “meet Camille” email to the whole department that mentioned my being an author, but that wasn’t me being modest: my ego wants me to put my head down and do the work with no possibility of any office busybody thinking, “hmm, she must not be that successful if she still needs temp jobs.” That seems downright hilarious now that I’ve written it out, since the better part of me is zero-percent interested in what a snob might think or say about my failures (real or imagined). When my nine-year-old self daydreamed about becoming an author someday, I pictured my name on a book cover, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of handwritten pages stacked on an antique desk, combinations of words that were uniquely and indelibly mine. There was nothing in that fantasy about giving readings to standing-room-only crowds or being as rich and famous as Stephen King.
Truth is, the day-job version of my life is superior to my full-time-writing life in several important respects—I’m much more physically active, I plan for better-quality meals for myself and my partner, I manage my time more effectively—and this realization has been tremendously empowering. A well-chosen day job offers a continual reminder to keep looking for the good in the life that’s in front of you. It’s a paycheck and a through-line to all the wonderful lives you’ve yet to live—and yes, they’ll be wonderful even if you never “make it.”
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation. For more where this came from, join the comet party.