In my late twenties, I was an ambitious journalist on an upward trajectory. I’d already won awards, gone on international assignments, and broken front-page stories. I’d missed a promotion to the Washington bureau by an eyelash, but I was confident I’d soon make the jump—and many jumps after that.
I was also the father of a toddler—a single parent, to be precise, with primary custody and a determination to be a good and present dad. Yet I frequently had to make 5 p.m. calls to my daughter’s care provider from my office desk: “The Legislature is going overtime. It’s going to be another hour or two before I can get out of here. Sorry.” The care provider made it clear she would not tolerate the calls much longer.
She wasn’t the only one. A realization was gnawing on my conscience: Career and parenting could not both be No. 1. So, when I overheard a colleague mention an opening for a writer in the communications office of the university down the road, I followed an impulse and applied.
Such was my exit from full-time journalism. Someone who knew me said it wasn’t much of a career move. Of course it wasn’t. It was a non-career move, compelled by a different life imperative.
My non-career moves have been some of the best “career moves” I’ve ever made.
Reassessing the standard path
A reassessment of work and its meaning in our lives is rampant in American culture today. Among the so-called professionals and knowledge workers, those with their university degrees and 60-hour work weeks, it’s as if there’s been a great awakening from the dream of an awesome career and the prestige and money and fulfillment it brings, and a realization that there is so much more to life—from which single-minded career devotion detracts.
I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read lately, or how many podcasts I’ve listened to, exploring this great reassessment. Running through all the talk of burnout and disillusionment is a growing awareness that we have expected too much of work and career—more than they’re capable of giving.
The office cannot be the cure for our loneliness (even though we might make some friends there). The workplace cannot be a substitute for the church we don’t attend (despite places like Nike having quasi-religious shrines glorifying their founding story). Our work cannot be our ultimate (despite what our employer might like us to think).
It is unwise to expect to love our work, because—to quote Sarah Jaffe—“Work Won’t Love You Back”
Wiser to accept the necessity of work—you know, food and shelter and all that—and to find work that aligns as much as possible with our interests and values.
But to expect our work to be our everything, or even our main thing, is to set ourselves up for a fall.
It’s past time to retire the silly nostrum we’ve been hearing so long, the one that tells us, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
The truth, as many, many more people are realizing, is that if we do what we love as a job, we won’t love it much longer. Not like we did before. Because work is work—even meaningful work that aligns with our passions—and it’s full of necessary but tedious and annoying and sometimes-stressful things we’d rather not do but have to get done, things that have to get done by us regardless of whether we want to do them, because, you know: Food. Health care. Mortgage. Clothes.
There’s an illuminating scene from my own story of relegating career to the back seat and promoting parenthood to the front. It’s not exactly flattering, but I’ll describe it for you if you promise not to tell anyone.
Picture a pack of reporters around the governor or Senate majority leader or some other figure at the Statehouse. They’re firing questions at him, scribbling furiously in their notebooks. Zoom in on the one with the spiky hair and Malcolm X glasses—on his notebook, more specifically. What’s he writing? It doesn’t seem to be the stuff the speaker is saying. Looks more like…song lyrics?
That was me a time or two, working on my latest song, shortly before I left full-time journalism.
I’d always been an ardent lover of music, of rock and punk and New Wave and indie, and my music desires were now going beyond listening. I fantasized about making music.
That new job of mine at the university allowed me to pick up my daughter at 5:30 every day. Mission accomplished. And there was another benefit: I now had more time and energy for other interests. I was unleashed to pursue my music. And I did.
This is a real-life story, not a movie, so I’m not going to tell you I became an international superstar. But I did a lot and fulfilled many music dreams. I wrote bushels of songs, finding the moments of inspiration and bursts of creativity to be among the most vivid experiences I’ve ever had. To have people hear them and be touched by them was thrilling. I made recordings (sampling of tracks here) and got reviews. My stuff was played on college radio stations—I performed live on some, too—and I strummed and sang and blew my harmonica on some of the biggest indie stages in and around the city where I lived.
All a stunning and beautiful surprise to the earlier me who just wanted to be a journalist and never dared to dream of making and performing his own music.
Yes, I parked my daughter with babysitters a few nights a month. An abandonment of my parenting commitment? Not really. Because playing gigs is a late-night affair, the hours I missed with her were, for the most part, hours she spent sleeping.
After six or seven years, I’d had my fill of music-making. Married now and less keen on being out late on “school nights,” I started channeling more of my before-and-after-work time to writing prose, not songs. I’ve since published a few hundred columns and articles and three books—all on my own time, not as part of my job. I’ve developed and chased other non-career passions, like backpacking and mountain climbing. My daughter and son-in-law were with me on my highest summit.
Through it all, I’ve never not had a full-time job at a college or university—jobs with increasing levels of responsibility and time demands. I have not risen to a lofty rank like vice president. When I sometimes feel like a no-ambition loser about that and jealous of the salaries that attach to such positions, I have a talk with myself to quell the regrets.
Could I have been more ambitious about my “day career”? Probably. Would that scenario have allowed space for me to be a devoted front-line parent, a music-maker, a columnist and author? No chance.
Had I not done all those non-work things, my life up to this point would have been greatly impoverished.
Our one and only life
Time, as Yale philosopher Martin Hagglund argues compellingly, is our most precious possession. Its finitude is what shapes and defines it, what brings urgency and meaning to our lives and our decisions about how to live them. The fact that our allotment is limited raises the stakes quite dramatically when we ask ourselves a crucial question:
How will we spend our limited time?
Our work, and our relationship with it, has a massive bearing on our answer.
In this moment of late-stage pandemic, some cultural observers sense a new age of “anti-ambition.” That was the phrase used by Noreen Malone, the author of a much-discussed New York Times commentary last winter.
“A lot of office workers…seem to be thinking about our jobs more like the way many working-class people have forever,” Malone writes. “As just a job, a paycheck to take care of the bills! Not the sum total of us, not an identity.”
A sensible course correction. Not that I would take it too far. If it’s “just a job,” why not work for tobacco or a predatory payday lending company? Although our work should not be our “sum total,” it’s always going to be a big total, and it always going to consume a significant percentage of our hours. Best to do something that’s enjoyable at least some of the time and that overlaps, to the greatest degree possible, with our personal missions in life.
And best to cultivate sources of meaning and fulfillment other than, or in addition to, one’s career and work—and to insist on work structures that allow us that crucial freedom.
The forms these sources can take are as endless as people’s personalities and creativity. It could be bird-watching and other forms of communing with nature. It could be art. It could be activism. It could be volunteering. (I hope to do much more of the latter two when I no longer have to work my main job Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekend.) Alongside that, there should be time for rest. And fun.
Our time—our precious, finite time—is the richest endowment we have in this life. We ought not devote too much of it to an undeserving ultimate.