Rethinking Plan B
A recent New York Times article opens with the story of Rona Economou, a young woman with a career saga that follows a familiar arc.
Rona was a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm and worried that her job wasn’t her calling. After being laid off during the recession she realized that this was her “one chance” to follow her dreams. Inspired, she opened a Greek food stall in the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market. She wanted to “indulge her passion, lead a healthier life, and downshift professionally.”
Almost every career blog and book on the planet would applaud Rona’s courageous decision.
She’s no longer so sure.
As the Times reports, Rona now works harder than she ever had as a lawyer. Six days a week she’s up at 5:30 am doing strenuous labor: “she hoists 20-pounds bag of flour, gets burned and occasionally slices open a finger.” Her one day off a week is dedicated to the administrative side of the business.
She makes much less money and has much less flexibility in her schedule. Something as simple as catching a cold can be a disaster: “I can’t afford to shut the shop down.”
Rona discovered that her dream job was not as dreamy as she had fantasized — and she’s not alone in recognizing this cold dose of reality. The Times article tells story after story of young people with similar experiences:
- Mary Lee Herrington quit her $250,000-a-year law job to become a wedding planner. She exhausted herself working 17-hour days. When she crunched the numbers, she was making less than $2 an hour.
- Charan Sachar ditched his software engineering job to sell teapots on Etsy. He was surprised to find that instead of leisurely days spent at the kiln, up to 70% of his time is now dedicated to administrative tasks.”He’s not only his own boss,” the Times notes, “he is his own accountant, sales director, marketing manager and shipping clerk.”
- Jennifer Phelan left a marketing job to become a private pilates instructor. She found the 14-hour days to be physically exhausting. She has since returned to her old job.
- And so on.
A Better Approach
After reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of a college friend who not that long ago was in situation similar to Rona Economou. He was a lawyer at a big firm in a big city, and he also felt that his life lacked a certain spark.
But instead of leaving the law to start from scratch, he leveraged his value as a highly-trained lawyer to take control of his career.
He moved to Colorado with his finacee, where they bought a house and a puppy. He makes less but this is balanced by lower living expenses. He finds the work challenging and feels recognized for his abilities: two crucial traits in loving what you do. Of equal importance, the pace of work is more reasonable than at his old office, giving him more time to spend at home, visiting family (who live nearby), and indulging his love of outdoor sports (a required activity in Colorado).
My friend is as happy as I think anyone can reasonably expect to become in their working life. He’s more happy than Rona, Mary Lee, Charan, Jennifer, or the countless others who hold out for the fantasy of a dream job — something instantaneously bliss-producing — waiting out there to be discovered and solve all their problems.
The Career Craftsman
The subjects profiled in the Times article represent the standard thinking on career happiness: only following your passion will make you happy, everything else is a capitulation.
My lawyer friend, by contrast, represents the Career Craftsman approach: get good at something rare and valuable, then leverage these skills to gain the career traits you care about.
The Career Craftsman approach is less sexy than the standard thinking on career happiness, but it recognizes the economic reality of satisfaction. Great jobs are rare and valuable, which means you have to offer value in return.
Put bluntly: No one cares whether your radical career transformation is your “passion” — if you’re not bringing a hard won skill to the table, you’re not likely to come away with a great work situation.
To summarize, I agree that you shouldn’t tolerate being unhappy with what you do. The best way to combat this unhappiness, however, is not to drop everything and start from scratch, but instead to become good at something valuable, then take this value out for a spin.
You might be surprised how far it takes you.
(Photo by bradbridgewater)