A few years ago, I was playing golf with a friend who is an attorney. Between shots he began telling me how much he detested his job.
"Why?" I asked.
"You have to understand my business," he said with a huff. "My day basically consists of writing nasty letters on behalf of my clients. Then we get nasty letters back. This goes on for a few weeks until my clients realize how many billable hours they’ve run up. Then they start getting nasty with me. The whole business," he said with a shake of his head, "is just nasty."
"So why don’t you do something else?" I asked.
From the look on his face, you would have thought I suggested he stop breathing.
"Do something else?" he said. "You don’t understand. I live in a big house. I have two big cars. My wife and I take big trips. She runs up big bills. What else am I gonna do?"
"I don’t know," I said. "But it sure sounds like a big mistake."
The sad part is my buddy is a bright, talented guy. He’s giving up a lot. With his experience and law degree, there are plenty of other things he could do.
But he doesn’t believe that’s realistic. Why? Probably because he can’t tolerate even the thought of a temporary loss of status and income. Unfortunately, that’s usually the price of admission.
As the psychologist Laurence G. Boldt once wrote, "The life you spend doing what you love is a different life indeed from putting your life out for hire to the highest bidder. The only way you can say it makes no difference is to say life makes no difference."
These words hit me between the eyes when I first read them 14 years ago. At the time I had spent 16 years working on Wall Street. My job paid well, but I had grown increasingly bored with what I did.
I loved researching and analyzing investments, but I’d grown tired of having the same repetitive conversations with my clients each day about the market and their accounts.
So I left to write about the financial markets instead.
My old colleagues swore I had lost my mind. "Nobody gets to the point where he has all these clients, all these assets and all these fees rolling in and then just walks away," one told me, incredulous. "People work their whole lives to get where you are now. If you leave, you’re really going to regret it."
But I didn’t. Not for one minute. If anything, I wish I’d done it sooner. Joseph Campbell was right: Follow your bliss.
"If you follow your bliss," he wrote, "you put yourself on a kind of track, which has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living… I think the person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, just for the money – has turned himself into a slave."
That may sound unrealistic. After all, we all have commitments and responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean change isn’t possible. It’s painful to spend your days doing something that is not best suited to your talents, especially when you know you could be doing far more than you are.
Work you enjoy is invigorating. You feel like you’re expressing yourself, making an impact.
As the British historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood said, "Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work and in that work does what he wants to do."
Too many approach the job market thinking of nothing more than money, security and benefits. I’m not saying these things aren’t important. They are. None of us would survive long without them.
But for a true sense of fulfillment, there has to be more than money and security. (Just as there has to be more to retirement than golf and television.) It’s tough to feel genuinely satisfied without expressing your abilities, even if your primary talent is raising happy, productive kids.
As George Bernard Shaw said:
> This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Some may call Shaw an idealist, a dreamer. And perhaps he was. But life is not a practice round. This is it.
You can work a job. You can pursue a career. Or you can choose a livelihood.
The choice is yours.