If everyone did what they loved, who would make the pencils?

The conflation of one’s profession and identity is one of those troubling American idioms, a strange, completely taken-for-granted part of our social vernacular that exists in direct contradiction with the reality of the capitalist machine. We’re told to follow our dreams, to find our niche, to dream big or risk betraying some part of who we really are.

But, if we all had jobs doing we loved, I asked my sister once, who would do the jobs that aren’t as lovable? Who would make the pencils? I’d watched the episode of “How It’s Made” featuring the Ticonderoga pencil factory. The factory workers seemed pretty unhappy. But I realized this was kind of a shitty prejudice on my part. “Of course, they’re doing manual labor in a factory, that’s GOTTA SUCK.” This attitude, I realized, was elitist bullshit. Yeah, these people work in a pencil factory, and that’s probably nobody’s lifelong dream. But they are employed, and they probably get decent benefits, and they have, at the end of the day, a tangible, usable product that they helped to create. That’s pretty cool. When contrasted with the laborious process of moving up through the ranks at some company to parlay one’s passion into a career, or the crushing realities of trying to integrate one’s passion into one’s own business, it doesn’t seem too bad.

We can’t all do the jobs we dream of, or there would be many things that would not get done, or made, or fixed. But this isn’t a crisis. It’s a reality that we exist in. Someone has to make the pencils. And clean the schools, and drive the buses, and test circuitboards, and cook eggs (thanks, honey!) and repair the machines at the adult bookstore (I actually know a guy who does this. He makes a ton of money). Yes, some people in these jobs are really passionate about what they do, and that’s fantastic. But some people are not. Some people just do their jobs and put food on their tables and their passions manifest themselves in other ways. I’m here to say that it’s OK to have a job that you are not passionate about, and still find a way to lead a life that you love. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

I want to call into question the whole idea that a singular passion in a person’s life should be the aspiration they carry into their working life. I want to question the idea that a job necessarily dictates your identity, your worth, and your personal happiness. I want to ask the question that nobody asks: Why should your dream be your job? Why can’t your dreams just be your dreams, your passions just your passions, and your job just be what you do to pay the bills? Maybe it’s enough to wake up and not hate what you face at work, because you have passions and aspirations outside of work that make it worthwhile?

And from a different angle: maybe being a passionate person about ONE thing isn’t necessarily the best or only way to be a passionate person or live a passionate life. I’ve struggled with this my whole life. We ask children, “What do you want to BE when you grow up?” Just look at this question: not “what do you want to DO,” or “what kind of job would you like to have,” or “what kind of human being would you like to be?” But “WHAT do you want to BE when you grow up?” And we expect a passionate answer: a dancer, a fireman, a zookeeper, a doctor. We want children to express something that requires lifelong commitment and passion to a craft. But do we, as adults, take a moment to consider the stable of grown-ups in our Facebook friends list and who they have grown up to “be”? Do we look at the people around us at our own jobs and imagine the child-versions of them, answering through gap-toothed grins, “I want to be a network analyst!” Why, as a culture, do we place such an emphasis on the dream job when we know it to be little more than a manifestation of our childish hope that a job could be just like play?

“When I grow up, I’m going to sell flood insurance. But in my spare time, I’m going to find happiness in independent films, craft brewing, and a wealth of fulfilling personal relationships.”

As Americans, what you do for a living becomes who you are as a person. And this is problematic. As a child, my answer to the “when you grow up” question swung wildly from firefighter to psychologist to advertising copywriter (I watched a lot of Bewitched ,and Darren Stephens had what I thought looked like the coolest job ever) to graphic artist to industrial designer, to physicist to meteorologist, and finally, when the STEM impulse was irrevocably beaten out of me by my own lack of confidence and a dearth of solid female role models in the field, I whittled all the things I was good at down to writing. I am, indeed, passionate about it; I look forward to the time I get to spend on it. I have been fortunate enough to work it into a few jobs I’ve had (and I am very lucky to be working on some exciting projects in my current job that will hopefully let me do that much, much more frequently). But as passions go, it’s a tough one to make money with, and as a result, I’ve had to find a niche as an accounting professional. It’s OK. When I’m not getting paid to write, I write when I can, and all the better if I get to do it on my own terms.

I tell people now that I’m an accountant, since that’s most of my job, and it’s amazing how quickly that kills anyone’s desire to engage me further. But I’m still the person I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m an accountant, but I’m also compassionate, caring, strong, creative, funny, kind and hardworking. When people ask me what I do, I’m tempted to go into greater detail. “I work hard, I cook a mean vegetarian goulash, I ride my bike, I go for walks during the sunrise, I go on road trips with my sister, I watch bad movies with my husband and my cat. These are the things I do. This is who I am.”

My point is that passion is not predetermined, or unchangeable, or even all that important when it comes to one’s professional aspirations. And we’re not obliged to stay passionate about one thing or another (except, to a degree, in a marriage, but that’s a whole different blog). I find that people who are singularly passionate are actually not terribly interesting. So why, as a culture, do we continually build up this idea that everyone has the ONE thing they care deeply about, and THAT THING is what they should make into their job? Why is it that I can’t look at anyone’s Pinterest page without seeing some hackneyed quote to the effect of, “DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO,” or “WORK WITH YOUR PASSION, AND NEVER WORK A DAY IN YOUR LIFE?”

These kinds of quotes bother me for a couple reasons.

One: There’s really no good reason that your passions have to be included in your job, and several very good reasons why your passions can perform different, even more important functions in your life. Like, for example, a way to escape from your tedious job. Passions can change in both focus and intensity, and that’s OK. Unless, of course, you’ve built your entire professional life around them.

Two: They assume that you must be passionate about something, specifically something that you can make money with. In reality, capitalizing on something you’re passionate about might actually diminish your feelings for whatever it was that got you into the field in the first place. Some of my least favorite jobs have involved the most writing, because it was writing necessarily crafted to accomplish a dishonest, capitalist end.

Shitty truth: Sometimes, getting paid to do something you love will make you hate what you love.

This truth speaks directly to my final point: the ideal of the dream job ignores the fact that jobs exist in reality. Even someone who loves their job will hate it sometimes. I was fortunate enough to review rock shows for nearly four years. No, it wasn’t my day job, but it was a great job. And yet, there were times (late nights when my back hurt from standing and the beers at the venue were expensive and the drunk people around me were jerks who spilled vodka tonics in my hair) that I looked that gift horse RIGHT in the mouth.

Even the best job has bad days (I often think of the test driver for Mercedes Benz, on a day when he’s sick to death of new-car smell and would maybe just like to spend a day tooling around the Rhineland on his bicycle). Anyone who claims to love their job, every single moment of it, even if it is their dream job, is either stupid or lying. Jobs are a big part of our lives and life is complex… too complex to be happy all the time (another problematic ideal Americans seem to share). Conversely, even the worst jobs have good days. I was a temporary receptionist at a Methadone clinic for patients with HIV. The resolve of those patients, their desire to get through one more day, was inspiring in ways that still effect me, seven years later. A job is a job is a job. And passions are something else altogether. I think it’s time we realized that.

About vestalvespa

I was blogging before blogging was cool.
This entry was posted in Postmodern Problems, Ranty, Serious Face, Working for a Living. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to If everyone did what they loved, who would make the pencils?

  1. Nicole Miller says:

    Can I share this entry with my senior homeroom? I think you hit the nail on the head. Seniors are asked what they’re going to do next year all the time. Or that every interest they have should be turned into a job. You’re right: sometimes jobs are just jobs and hobbies are separate.

    • vestalvespa says:

      Absolutely! Actually, a lot of the roots of this rant lie in my experience as a kid in high school and just the immense pressure I felt to “choose” some kind of a career. It has taken me this long to be able to fully articulate my feelings on the subject. Thanks for reading!

  2. allison says:

    truth dude. even as someone who holds one of those “passionate dream jobs,” the best day of it so far was when I realized that it’s still just my job. it doesn’t have to define me. i like that i like my job, that is is challenging, surprising, and fun on most days, but i also like cooking with my husband and playing with my dogs and traveling and playing sports and learning about classical music and a whole host of other activities. my job pays the bills. it is also stressful, not especially lucrative, and requires long hours that drain me of a lot of energy. does it allow me to engage a passion? sure, but so do all those other activities I listed.

  3. Yvonne Montgomery says:

    What a great post! I’m a writer–and a published one at that–but I’ve never been able to support myself on what I’ve earned from it. My fiction writing is less a passion than a compulsion: what else can I do with the weird stuff floating through my mind? I worked in juvenile crime programs eons ago, writing grant proposals and quarterly reports, having discovered early on that, if you can write at all, you will find a job, but I was more interested in changing the world, which didn’t happen. The years I spent as a stay-at-home mom I was trying to change the world on a personal level and you’d better believe I was passionate about that. But for the most part, life has been a series of adaptations, a continuing attempt to ride the wave. It’s not passion about what I’m doing that’s helped with that. When asked, long ago, what I wanted to “be” when I grew up, I didn’t know
    the best answer would turn out to be, “I want to be interested and adaptable so I can be as happy as I can no matter what shit goes on in my life.”
    Thanks much for the rant. And thanks to the folks who make the pencils.

  4. Dad says:

    I’m right there with you. I’ve worked for13 different companies in 31 years. It’s always been about my passion for having fun at work. Life is way too short to not be having fun on weekdays, either at work or after.

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