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“Follow Your Bliss”…REALLY?

Have you read this exceptionally fine post at I Pick Up Pennies? If not, you absolutely should. It’s the most articulate rant I’ve seen yet on an idiotic idea that permeates the American middle class. As Abby encapsulates it: “I’m sick unto death of hearing, ‘Do what you love, and the money will follow.'”

Amen, sister!

The truth of the matter is, there’s a reason we call our jobs “work.” We’re not supposed to think of them as defining our lives. Work is what you do to put food on the table and a roof over your head. Fun, fulfillment, and all that good stuff is what you do outside of work. Nowhere is it written that you have to “follow your bliss” to make a living.

Well. Nowhere credible, anyway.

While there certainly are jobs that are fun and fulfilling for people with a cast of  mind that fits said work, there aren’t enough such jobs to go around. Even those of us who have the skills to become, say, a forest ranger, a handsomely paid travel writer for the New York Times, a rock guitarist, a mightily marketed dog trainer, or an artisanal bread baker are unlikely to find that kind of work, because lots of other folks, most of them with more talent, better training, and more experience than ours, want those jobs, too.

Abby managed to survive a life-threatening illness that very nearly spirited her away and that left her with some long-term disabilities, which she has described at her blog. Now that she can return to the workplace, she has a decidedly pragmatic view of work:

Now, each time I get a paycheck, I’m flooded with an emotion that I can only describe as equal parts pride and greed. Well, 60/40 tops.

Maybe the ability to work — or, more realistically, the paycheck — should be a passion in and of itself. Whether due to unemployment or physical limitations, there are a lot of folks who wouldn’t care what they did, just that they could do it.

I, on the other hand, have been amazingly lucky in the health department and uncommonly privileged in other ways. These circumstances have made it possible for me, over the years, indeed to “follow my bliss.” Several “dream” jobs have come my way, and every time I’ve settled in to a desk at a workplace where some people would kill to be, I’ve thought, “Gee! I could do this forever! I’m going to hang onto this job for as long as I live.”

Uh huh.

I’ve been a freelance writer. I’ve been a magazine editor for the largest regional in the United States. I’ve been a full-time faculty member at a large research university, teaching writing and editing to upper-division and graduate students. I founded and directed a nonfiction writing program at that university. For the same vast learning factory, I founded and directed a scholarly publishing office that was unique in the land, possibly in the world. Today I’m a contract editor and I teach an online course in magazine writing, from home. All in all, these were (and are) pretty fun jobs.

But lemme tellya something: the money does not follow.

When you get a raise after ten years at your job and then you learn that a cashier at Costco earns as much as you do but she doesn’t have to take work home with her, she doesn’t put in hours of unpaid overtime with no comp time, she isn’t expected to spend her weekends and vacation time working for no pay…well. It does something to your “bliss.”

At one point I learned Costco was paying its forklift operators more than I was earning.

For this I got a Ph.D.? For this I cranked out a string of books through major publishers and more articles than you or I can count? For this I ended up with Social Security benefits that are a fraction of SDXB’s, who never finished a bachelor’s degree?

Okay, okay. No, money isn’t everything. But it sure as hell beats whatever’s in second place. When you realize you have significant talents, finely honed skills, and can do a job that benefits the society at large and that you’re earning less than a janitor for the City of Phoenix earns, you realize that your “bliss” is simply not valued. And the “bliss” part of the job slips away — imperceptibly at first, but over time the slippage becomes noticeable.

When you’re working every weekend, most evenings, and every holiday for nothing, the bliss starts to show some tarnish.

When you’re paid nine months of the year but are expected to spend your summers in meetings, teacher training,  and course prep — free of pay of course — “bliss” gets tired.

When a former student of yours who’s doing public relations declines to apply for the job you had at the regional magazine (which circulates in every country in the world!) because it pays nowhere near enough — nothing like what she earns in her 9-to-5, paid-overtime job — the blissful bubble in which you dwell gets a hole in it.

Would I care to be a janitor at the City of Phoenix? No. Would I like to be a Costco cashier? Maybe — maybe not. Do I want to be a forklift operator? Mmmm…I think I could do that job. Would I like to work in the PR department of a huge utility producing its light-weight in-house newsletter, tweeting messages from Management over the company’s intranet, and serving on the outfit’s Dilbertish cheerleading team, nine to five, no weekend work, no evening work, full benefits, a defined pension plan and Social Security? Damn right I would.

Just imagine having a life outside of work!

When you “follow your bliss” (heaven help us 🙄 ), what happens is that work merges with life. And when that happens, there is no life outside of work. All of your life is your work.

And that is why, IMHO, it’s not only foolish to go around trumpeting that people should make their living at something that makes them “passionate,” it’s probably dangerous. When you identify yourself with your work, you have no escape from work. And ultimately, you feel you have no worth outside of work.

Seriously. I had an editor who talked about having been out of work for three months after being laid off a job. The words he used in describing that period in his life were “I felt like I wasn’t worth anything.” This was a guy who wasn’t a worker with a fungible job. He was an editor.

That was his identity. No identity, no personhood. No personhood, no value.

From the vantage point of two careers started, built, and (mostly) wrapped up, I’d say the healthy approach is to think of work as separate from self. Work is something you do to support yourself and your children. If you enjoy it, bully for you. If you don’t, try to find a new trade or a new employer.

Either way, build a life outside of work, and seek your “bliss” there.

13 thoughts on ““Follow Your Bliss”…REALLY?”

  1. I’ll see you your “amen” and raise you a “hallelujah! preach it!” — and I’d say that even if I weren’t Abby’s mom.
    No, I don’t want to be a supermarket cashier, drive a city bus, do medical billing or handle household garbage. But I am grateful that some people are willing to do that, because these and other non-glam jobs keep our system running smoothly.
    Don’t wanna be a teacher, or a doctor, or a lawyer, either.
    I’m blessed to be able to do what I like (even as I plan to throttle back a bit to consider my next move). Would I want to go back to cleaning houses, typesetting or picking tomatoes? Not really. If I had to? You bet I would.
    My life partner, who’s done all sorts of work in his time, is currently in a creative field. He’s said that if he were laid off he’d try to get as good a job as possible, but he’s not ruling out stuff like a TSA gig at the nearby airport or a clerk job at the gas station/convenience store that’s within walking distance of our home.
    That’s because he believes in the same mantra my dad always preached: “That’s why they call it ‘work’. If it were fun, they’d call it ‘fun’.”
    Work is the rent you pay for your spot on the planet. As I noted in the article to which Abby linked, I feel a little bit sorry for the trust-fund types because they may never learn the satisfaction of a good day’s work.

    • LOL! I’m not bright enough to do medical billing and am too spavined these days to pick tomatoes. Working at the convenience store puts you at too much risk of hold-ups (leastwise around here it does). TSA, eh? How much do they pay those folks to put up with abuse from the public?

      It all makes “fork lift operator” sound like a fine job description, no matter what Jestjack sez. 😀

  2. Aw, shucks. Thanks for the mention.

    But, yes, I agree that a job can become all-consuming — even when it isn’t necessarily something you love — so people should stop worrying so much about their dream job and more about a job that lets them build a life. As long as the job doesn’t suck at your soul, I think it’s a good thing.

    And if you want to pursue any passion you do discover, start it as a side gig. But, like Funny said, make sure it isn’t one that will swallow your life whole.

    • The side gig strategy has as its benefit that it could help support you should you ever lose your day job. Or, on the other hand, with a regular income from the day job flowing into the bank account, you can pursue your passion on a volunteer basis without feeling deprived.

  3. First …the fork truck job not what it’s cracked up to be. In another life I was a fork truck driver…a pretty good one at that…at a steel yard. I enjoyed it…made good money…but it is mind numbing work. It has some challenges BUT to me anyway, it lacked some personal gratification…the job was OK…but was I making a difference?
    As for the whole outlook on jobs…IMHO…it seems we as a Nation place a lot of importance on our occupation. At a party when you meet someone new … first or second question….”so what do you do?”…Many times our job is our identity…who we are…how we arrive at our sense of worth. And to me someone should be at peace with who they are…Just my 2 cents….

    • “What do you do”…hee! Reminds me of SDXB’s tales of what happened after he retired, in his late 40s. He was a handsome man from the git-go, and at 48 or so he was still a very good-looking fellow.

      So when he’d show up at a PR or journalist’s cocktail party, naturally the women would start circling. He described these encounters…

      SHE: Well, hello!

      HE: Hello there.

      SHE and HE exchange names and brief small talk.

      SHE: And what do you do?

      HE: Nothing.

      SHE: Uhm…nothing?

      HE: Nothing.

      SHE: You’re between jobs?

      HE: No, I don’t do anything. I’m a bum.

      SHE: Exit, stage left.

  4. A trillion times, this. I like to summarize my feelings with this quote: “Life is what you do when you aren’t at work.”

    No mention of sleeping… but you get it.

    Anyway, Silverchair fits nicely with your money quote: “You say that money isn’t everything. But I’d like to see you live without it.”

    • Adore that line. I belt it out everytime I hear that song (and given it’s on our Spotify faves, that’s a LOT of times over our US road trip). It’s more or less my life mantra.

  5. You’re so right! After I got laid off from a job in 2003, I decided to find my bliss… though I didn’t use those words. I found an awesome job as staff at a large university. But it paid a fairly low salary compared to other jobs there. And over time I became resentful of all the time I spent working for less than my peers. And I decided to try something else. I’m now in a more visible area making twice that salary, and guess what? I love it. The tasks and skills are not all that different, but I focus on the parts I love, and kinda let go of my disdain for the ones I don’t. We can all be happy doing a wide varietygof jobs… there isn’t only one “right path”.

    I now know that if i follow the money, my bliss will follow.

  6. I couldn’t do something I absolutely hated for lots of money, but nor do I believe in starving for passion’s sake. Though sometimes I wonder if the people who work their assess off for 10 years in the corporate world and make their fortune, who can then retire in their 30s, don’t have the right idea…

    To a degree (and I’m sure this is true for many others) it’s not just about the actual duties for me, it’s also about the other elements of a job, like the people, the environment, the hours, the commute. Jen Dziura (my fave career writer) recently wrote about this – she refers to it as ‘form’ vs ‘content’.

    • It also depends to a great extent on how employees are treated on the job and whether they’re paid the going rate.

      My son was absolutely despondent on his previous job, because his employer, a vast insurance company, treated employees in a way that can only be described as abusive (he wasn’t alone in observing this). He’s much less unhappy now that he’s doing a third of the same work for better pay at a different company, where management treats the peons courteously. And at the Great Desert University, morale is so low that there are therapists in this city who actually specialize in GDU employees. Most mid-level faculty there are always looking for work elsewhere. At both places, people are miserable on their jobs but feel forced to stay because they need the health insurance and have to put food on the table.

      You don’t have to be blissful on the job, but neither should you put up with outright abuse.

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