Featured Essay

Featured Essay

Breaking Up The Career Monopoly
By John O. Andersen

If you have a satisfying career which you love, time for avocations, and generally feel content with your life, you won't find this essay of any use. Don't waste your time on it. On the other hand, if your career is sometimes a drag or worse, and you often pine for more leisure, quiet moments, or time to dust off and revive an old hobby, then this discussion is for you.

Some time ago a friend told me that although he had attained the "good life," a career with a comfortable salary, status in the community, a home, two cars, and two weeks of vacation a year, it all felt empty to him. Something important was missing. Have you ever felt like that? I have. Frequently in the process of getting all of the things we're "supposed" to have, we overlook less urgent yet vital needs such as time and space for contemplation, and creative pursuits. Hence, our lives feel empty.

There are many reasons why this happens. A factor for some people is the "career monopoly" over their energy, and brains. Unwittingly, they surrender the bulk of their adulthood to the demands of the "career." They slavishly cater to its every whim. It tells them to be a 'teamplayer,' so they give up quirky hobbies and interests. It tells them to "dress for success," to concoct a personal mission statement, and to script each hour of their life with day planners. Enthusiastically, they shell out dollars for the books, videos, and seminars "required" to achieve those goals. It says that two weeks of vacation a year are enough for anyone and they never muster the courage to question it. It says working 60+ hours a week is a badge of honor, so they make it into a competition to see who can work the longest. The "career" has a tyrannical power over many of us: it gives us orders and we snap to attention.

As a society, we largely rank people according to their career. Depending on what we value, certain careers carry more status than others. Consequently, we often reduce multidimensional people into one-dimensional entities: "oh, he's just a janitor," or "she's a rich doctor." Though these people may have other interests and talents, we assign their social status largely in terms of their career choice and how much money they make. Is it any wonder then that adults get frustrated? And can it be a surprise that those who conform to this way of thinking often lead monotonous lives as they scramble to keep up appearances?

Granted, we all need to do some work to earn our keep. This is as it should be, but there is a huge difference between the "bread labor" required for basic needs, and the excessive hours which many a modern career demands. Passively, we allow the "career" to slither into a coil around nearly every aspect of our lives to the point of strangulation. It's no surprise that careers so frequently reduce vivacious and open-minded people to automatons with deteriorated personalities.

Some Background

A few years ago, someone told me I had a "splintered" career path. At the time I took it as an insult, but have gradually come to see it as a compliment. This awareness came from the discovery of valid alternatives to the career dominated life. I began enjoying a patchwork of freelance and part-time jobs which all totaled, provided a sufficient income, a stimulating variety of work, and much leisure time.

This life started while I was in graduate school studying German literature. We (myself, wife and eventually two children) "made a living" through a modest income from a teaching assistantship (which included a tuition waiver and monthly stipend), GI Bill benefits, and weekend work as an Air Force reservist. Altogether from those sources we were "generating" around $1400 per month--more than adequate for a student family living in subsidized housing. Especially gratifying was the fact that we did this without incurring any debt for student loans or otherwise.

After finishing graduate school, we purchased a carpet cleaning business. At that point our income came from the cleaning business, reservist weekend duty, and occasional academic tutoring.

Last year we sold our business and moved to Oregon where we purchased another cleaning business. Now our income is from carpet cleaning and part-time tutoring. We don't make piles of money, but have sufficient to meet needs and save for the future. And because we've consciously limited material needs and wants, we feel no pressure to increase our income dramatically. Having discovered the viability and joy of such a lifestyle, we've also gained the confidence to feel good about ourselves surrounded on all sides as we are by a work-and-spend culture in which status and "big bucks" seem to be essential.

Thankfully, our "countercultural lifestyle" has opened the door to contact with many other people who share similar reservations about the career monopoly and have also taken drastic steps to create more sensible lifestyles for themselves. From listening to their stories and considering our experiences, I've come up with six ideas which can help a person to break the career monopoly over their life.

1. Embrace new opportunities like a child.

Many children have limitless imagination and interests. Before they become too conditioned by the world of grownups, they try out everything without getting too self-conscious about whether they look foolish. They paint, sing, dance, write, construct, and daydream. They are simultaneously explorers, scientists, artists, mechanics, musicians, and philosophers. Then somewhere along the line we (well-meaning adults, schools, and other institutions) convey the message that in financial terms, it's better to be good at one thing than to pursue a patchwork of interests. Our economic system, indeed our level of material comfort requires a high degree of specialization.

Unfortunately, in the process of specializing, it's very easy to let that pursuit consume most of our time and energy. This is particularly true when we yield to cultural pressure to link specialization with a career, "the good life," and social status. A child would resist all of that baggage and just see the career as one of many activities in life rather than the main activity. A child also finds it easier to pick up and discard interests without the fear of looking stupid. Adults too often make a virtue of sticking with one thing regardless of whether it bores them to death. Yet, if they chose to, they could be as open to learning and mastering new skills as children are. Infact, adults who do this are often among the happiest.

Children don't get hung up on the idea that they need a degree or certification in something before they can try it. They just trust their instincts and go out and do it. Adults who successfully break the career monopoly take a similar approach. When they permit themselves the luxury of many interests, they can escape boredom and monotony and enjoy a lifetime of learning and mastery.

2. Cut and control your overhead.

If I've learned anything as the owner of a small business, it is that the more you cut your overhead, the less money you have to earn to meet your needs. And a profitable business which is intentionally kept simple, makes it possible for the owner to have a life.

The same applies to careers. If you can reduce your expenses, i.e. scrutinize housing, transportation, entertainment and other choices, you'll be less dependent on a high stress career with long working hours. Your lower earning requirements can reduce the need to work for money, and thus help you "beef up" your leisure time account. While everyone else is hoping to become a monetary millionaire, why not be unique and become a "temporal millionaire," (see Robert Levine, A Geography of Time) a person who enjoys lavish time flexibility free from pressure to earn a lot of money.

People who eliminate debt, and happily live on a budget, have the option of throwing off the career yoke. Getting to the point where you enjoy such a lifestyle, however, can take many years of cultural deprogramming. Some people begin this journey by first rediscovering hobbies and former interests. When motivated by a passion for something other than making money, they find it easier to give up high consumption habits, thus reducing their need to work long hours, thus freeing up more time for that special interest.

3. Be an individual, not a resume.

Sadly, for some people their decisions in life are largely controlled by how they think those decisions will look on a resume. They must go to the "right" school, make the "right" connections, get the "right" job, drive the "right" car, live at the "right" address, etc. Heaven forbid that they would make any choices which would mar their perfect resume. Their career progression must be a logical sequence without interruptions or unexplainable detours.

It makes me wonder just how much individuality is left in a person who devotes his or her life to building a resume. What about quitting your job and taking a six month trip to Asia as a way to get in touch with yourself? How would that look on your resume? I know, "career suicide," right?

When we know what we truly enjoy, and what brings meaning to our lives, it's much easier to escape from "will-it-look-good-on-my-resume" prison. We can also objectively consider how certain career choices may impoverish us, i.e. strain important relationships, rob us of leisure time, or monopolize our brain.

Recently I came in contact with a 39 year-old man who is happily on-the-loose, never having served time in "resume prison." When I met him , he was in the last week of a 10 year career creating mathematical models of leases for big ticket items such as aircraft and locomotives. He enjoyed the intellectual challenge, but eventually felt this corporate finance niche was demanding too much of his energy and brain power. His immediate plan is to start a part-time math tutoring service. He also occasionally writes personal finance articles for little or no compensation. Financially, he can afford this freedom because of frugal living and consistent saving over the years. Some time ago, he determined that for him, time wealth was far more important than material wealth. Though he stayed in his leasing career even after achieving financial independence, he was free to discard it (without fear of how it would look on his resume) when the time and energy costs outweighed the benefits.

Such freedom is available to everyone whether married or single, young or old. The essence of the idea is that you CAN make choices which eliminate the "need" to exchange your individuality for a resume image. You CAN be free to explore interests and try out new things without having to worry about "confessing your sins" in a future job interview.

4. Create your own definition of career success.

Don't let others bully you into thinking that career progression necessarily means climbing a ladder. Some very highly capable people spend their working life making lateral moves. They select their jobs more in terms of the intrinsic nature of the work rather than as a stepping stone to something else. This approach may strike some as lacking ambition, but many of those who choose it have probably already figured out that ambition can be a dead-end street.

By choosing careers and companies which match their interests and inclinations, people with marketable skills can build a satisfying career, and successfully avoid pressure to move into management. They can snub the enshrined wisdom that "cream rises to the top," or that the "best" employees will naturally seek management positions. Just because you can become a manager doesn't necessarily mean that you have to. There may be perfectly legitimate reasons why a person would want to avoid such moves, i.e. that person wants to have a life, or that person has an extreme distaste for playing politics or making small talk.

When interviewing for a job, a good friend of mine is unabashedly frank in his choice to not climb the ladder. He tells the interviewers that his contribution to the organization is technical expertise and that he isn't interested in a job which will lead to management. If the organization forces its people to move up or out, he simply refuses to take the job. His "career progression" has more to do with interesting assignments, and leisure pursuits than it does with seizing management power.

5. If it gets boring, bail out.

If you travel lightly through your career life, you can retain the option of quitting when you get bored, or your interest in the job takes a nose-dive. You might need to scratch an itch for five years or so in a field you thought you wanted to do as a child. Once that curiosity is satisfied, you may go on to something else. There is nothing wrong with the peripatetic career. Five years in one field is enough for a sharp person to learn the ropes and achieve something of significance. Achieving and then quitting is a great way to avoid getting too serious about any one career.

Many will have a difficult time accepting this idea because of cultural biases that career inconsistency is bad and quitters are losers. Our society favors the specialist who single-mindedly devotes a lifetime to a career, rather than the generalist who tries out and mostly succeeds at many things. Anyone with a "splintered" or not easily explained career history, is often branded a loser. Yet, I continue to meet people who are intriguing precisely because they have a long history of quitting.

For instance, I recently met a professional storyteller. His career history was quite unusual. Immediately after college, he took a job for a few years as a journalist for a small town newspaper. That job helped him learn the craft of writing, and the ability to produce good work under extreme time pressure. After he had mastered it, however, he said that the job became rather monotonous.

So when he heard of a job opening in South America, he quit the small town newspaper and became a foreign correspondent. That was a great experience for awhile, but soon he discovered that although he loved writing and living overseas, his heart was not in journalism. He much preferred writing fiction and poems, though he knew the chances of making a living in those fields were slim to none. Nevertheless, he mustered the courage to quit his second job.

To support himself financially while he was pursuing his new writing interests, he became a carpenter. Over a period of years, his fiction writing evolved into a passion for storytelling. Fortunately, he discovered that many people in his community valued good storytelling and were willing to pay for it. Soon he was performing for civic groups, clubs, schools and others. Eventually, so many people sought his services that he was able to "quit" his carpentry work and devote full-time to storytelling.

It just goes to show that being a good quitter can be the pathway to career fulfillment. And, for some people, not knowing what they want to be when they grow up can be a great blessing. Frequently those types are among the most interesting people you could ever meet.

6. Consider going solo.

A few people, for one reason or another, never seem to make it in the job market. They may be talented but just not able to fit in. Some of those find their niches in freelance work. The freelance enjoys liberation from the whims of the job market, and in many cases, can take up or drop income activities with the greatest of ease.

Having your own business, however, can be as confining as a demanding career unless you make a few decisions at the outset. For instance, if you're in competition with siblings or peers to see who can earn the highest salary, you won't enjoy the same freedom as the person who sees the business as simply a way to cover expenses and create leisure time for other interests beyond money-making. The big bucks are there for the taking, if that is what you want, but I've yet to figure out a way to play the "big shot" role without having to deal with increased headaches, customer complaints, employee problems, insurance claims, etc. Some people thrive on all of that, and all power to them. If, however, your definition of success is the quieter, understated variety, "going for the gold' may not be what you really want. You may be very content with a solo business.

One of the more intriguing people I've met in the past year is a man who went from being a fireman to a freelance sculptor. Originally, he became a fireman in order to have a steady income and give him enough leisure time for sculpting. Gradually he developed his sculpting ability to the point where he started a small business on the side. Night after night at the fire station while the others were "glued to the tube," he would go off into another room to sculpt. Eventually, his boss criticized him for using company time for an outside business (double dipping) and this ultimately led to his dismissal. By that time, however, he had developed a solid customer base, and was capable of supporting himself on the earnings. Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Today he and his wife run a profitable sculpting business out of their home.

I love the concept of solo businesses or even better 'toy businesses.' They give all of the freedom of self-employment with the added flexibility to stop and start as you please. Realistically, with a bit of financial prudence, such businesses could provide enough income during busy times to allow you to close down in slow times and enjoy other things like extended travel. By controlling the growth of such businesses, you can prevent them from taking on a life of their own, thus leaving you free to come and go as you please.

The beauty with such arrangements is that no one thing takes up too much time. When such activities are approached on a freelance basis, avoiding on-going commitments, they can be more of a healthy diversion than anything else. I've found that when I'm forced to put most of my time into just one activity, it often becomes boring and loses its appeal.

Freelancing can be an excellent way to combat the career monopoly, though it isn't for everyone and often requires years of trial and error to get it right.

Summary

The key to all of this is finding what works for you in bringing the "making a living" portion of your life in balance with everything else. If you don't take the initiative in this matter, society will. Ultimately, the better you succeed in breaking up the career monopoly, the more time and energy you'll have for everything else you may want to do with your life.

Copyright 1998, John O. Andersen. All communication should be sent to: editor at unconventionalideas dot com