Day Jobs and/vs. Passion Jobs

I received another question from the student who I'm corresponding with regarding editing and writing jobs:

Is it true that like a writer, editors should not quit their day jobs for a very long time (low, inconsistent pay)?

Here's my answer:

This is question is a Really Big One. I’m also really sad that it needs to be asked, but I totally understand why you’re asking it! I’ve felt the same way many times since I began my undergrad in 2006. I’m going to try to answer in a way that remains genuine but that doesn’t sound too pessimistic.

The short answer is probably that yes, you gotta pay the bills. The long answer begins: yes, you gotta pay the bills, but whatever you devote the most time to in your life should be what you really want to do. Most people, except the very fortunate, need to continue in some job they don’t love in order to make ends meet until they can hopefully move onto something more fulfilling. The problem with this, especially for our generation and especially for creative projects, is that creativity is so often devalued in our society as not being lucrative enough, that often people will never break free of the mindset that they can’t possibly make a living doing what they love.

I’m not an idiot, or even an idealist, and I understand that not everyone’s circumstances are such that they can devote themselves to work that they find meaningful instead of work that keeps them alive. Capitalism works by making it necessary that people need to continue doing work they hate to survive.

That said, and while acknowledging my own bias and privilege, I have seen how a focus on my creative pursuits as Legitimate Career Options has helped me to not only ameliorate those skills and become more successful, but has also made me a happier person. I’ve been really lucky in that I have often found employment that has at least tangentially fulfilled some aspect of my creative interests, but I’ve also been in situations where I’ve worked jobs I absolutely hated, where I was treated badly, making minimum wage, with no creative or intellectual stimulation whatsoever. I worked these jobs because I had to. I was in a terrible financial situation where I was reliant on a partner who resented having to support me. I hated that whole situation, and it made me hate myself. My point to this overshare is that there are those who say that they can work at their “day jobs” and then work on their own fulfilling creative work on the side. In my experience, I was so incredibly beaten down by how much I hated my job that it sucked all creativity out of me, anyway. Instead of spending the evenings and weekends on my own fun work, I spent it dreading going back to my day job, and became very depressed.

So what’s the alternative? I shared your question with a friend of mine whose response more succinctly sums mine up: “Make it your day job. Well, your day jobs. Three of your six day jobs.” That’s basically how I’ve operated. While I need multiple gigs to stay afloat, and I’m really busy as a result, I’m way happier than 9-5 Mon-Fri in retail would ever make me. The only insight I can offer here is something you’ve mentioned before: the value of building a portfolio (or CV). I’m not saying the work you find will be fulfilling. I’ve written way too many smarmily flattering words about jewelry boxes and bikinis for search engine optimization that I know that nobody will ever actually read. But they’re all part of a portfolio of writing, that show me practicing my skills. Of course, these types of gigs can be inconsistent, but the pay typically isn’t “low” – not nearly as low as soul-crushing retail where men sexually harassed me on the regular. Friends of mine who are creative writers work at career counseling companies editing cover letters, or at newspapers writing copy for ads, as their “day job,” while they shop their writing around and work on their own projects. These “entry-level” writing & editing jobs require skills and degrees and experience, but they can be stepping stones as they help you hone these skills, get new experience, and make connections in the field.

I’m also not saying that this method is a sure-fire path to success. If I wasn’t a PhD student full-time, I’d have to be hustling a lot harder trying to find jobs to pay the bills (which is, by the way, another reason why I recommended considering grad programs that offer entrance scholarships rather than ones you have to pay for). In a way, the PhD is my “day job” – but it’s something that specifically ties into writing and editing. And as long as (you’re lucky enough that) your “day job” is in service of your passion jobs and eventual dream job, I think you can hit that medium between “happy” and “fed” (maybe even both!?).

I hope this answer provided some insight without coming across as narrow-minded or naïve. I really do have faith in creative careers and the people who seek them out. And I believe that the only way we can change the system that precipitates your ubiquitous question is by relentlessly and courageously turning the jobs we actually want into our “day jobs.”