Career

Can You Be Happy When Your Work Isn’t Your Passion?

‘Follow your passion’ has become a modern-day career mantra; the formula for attaining a certain type of soul-nourishing success. But a culture obsessed with turning love into lucrative career is the same one suffering through constant job swapping and professional discontent. We talk with three creative, satisfied professionals to see if there’s something to be said of going steady.

There was an interesting article published on Wait But Why a few years ago suggesting that rising anxiety rates among Generation Y and Millennials was a result of unrealistic career expectations. Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy is a brutally snarky piece, but it highlights a little-discussed reality: the pressure to follow your dreams can be crippling if your dreams never come true.

This article is not meant to dissuade you from chasing a career that is driven by passion. The benefits of working a job you love are obvious, and discussed often. Passion can keep you motivated; it can make work seem like play; and it can give your life a deeper sense of meaning. But careers driven by passion are often less than practical, and it’s OK to not want to go down that road.

Creative careers can be very competitive and entrepreneurship involves a lot of financial risk – the thing you are most passionate about may not be worth much in commercial terms and the grind of trying to make a living can dull even the brightest ambition.

For some people, especially younger people, the risks of pursuing passion are worth the potential rewards, and that’s absolutely fine. You’ve got to be true to yourself.

But there is another way to be happy and it involves getting a steady job. And if you think that means you can’t follow your passion, think again.

It’s all about balance

Peet Vermeulen works in IT security by day and by night stages warehouse parties and music events as part of the LLBC collective. An exercise junkie, he has been known to run marathons and ride his bike up and down mountains, to elevations the equivalent of Mount Everest. For Peet, working a steady job makes you a well-rounded human being.

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At first, Peet struggled with petty tyrants in the workplace and colleagues who pronounced the word ‘specific’ as ‘pacific’, but with time he realised that every day he went to work he was learning something new. “My role is predominantly politics, psychology and sociology,” he says. “I work with really hard stakeholders and am constantly challenged to deal with difficult, stubborn, sometimes very egotistical people… it’s a way to grow, understand human behaviour and it also helps me with my interests in ways I didn’t originally think it could.”

Like most professionals on a secure income, Peet uses the money from his day job to fund his extra-curricular activities. He values his financial independence, but the real value he sees in steady work is the inspiration he gets from moving through different worlds. “I often get great ideas from work, which, on the face of it, have nothing to do with my passions. If you stay in the bubble of your passion then you may not get this cross-pollination effect,” he says.

The trick is to live a well-rounded life. “Having a full time job can be challenging when trying to fit other things in. However, as the saying goes: if you want to do it you’ll make time for it. In my mind, I have a job but I’m defined by what makes me happy. I ask people what fills their week or what makes them happy on a daily basis, rather than the trite ‘so, what do you do?’ Life is not about work, but play and learning. And if you can marry them in whatever way works for you, do it.”

The reality is that money helps

Having a steady income can help you to achieve your goals outside of work – it’s easier to get dreams off the ground when you’ve got a little seed money.

Rose Callaghan works a day job as a social media strategist for a major media agency, but moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Her new show, Rose Before Hoes, is at the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “I like being busy all the time and my extra-curricular hobbies don’t take up enough time to fill up my days so I would go crazy if I didn’t do both,” she says.

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Image: Rose Callaghan Facebook. Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen.

But the real benefit of her day job is that it funds her comedy career. “A lot of my friends who do stand-up don’t have much money! It would be really hard to perform in festivals or go away to do comedy if I didn’t have a stable income.”

There are incidental benefits to her social media career – the creativity, the writing experience, the ability to craft ideas and material and get instant feedback – but Rose most appreciates the quality of life she gets to lead as a full-time employee. Having a substantial regular pay cheque means she can afford nice dinners, overseas holidays and sassy new outfits now and then – all out of reach for a struggling comedian with nothing else on the go.

Like a lot of creative professionals, Rose is hedging her bets. When it comes to following your dreams or building a secure future, it doesn’t have to be a choice. “Do both!” Rose says. “Maybe if you get successful enough at your passion, you can earn enough money for it to be your main job.”

Recognise when your passions are actually hobbies

Tim Clarke is a writer who has run the gamut of a freelance career in the past, struggling with the feast-or-famine nature of self-employment. As he got older, he wanted something more stable; currently he works as a proofreader at an advertising agency. “With a regular salary I can support my family, plan ahead and also engage in my interests without worrying about where the next pay cheque is coming from,” he explains.

Sitting at a desk every day can be a drag and the work is sometimes monotonous, but it’s a job that Tim can leave behind at the end of the day. It demands very little of him, which means he has energy to focus for his out-of-work passions – Tim plays in a band called Summon the Birds and co-manages an independent music label based in Perth, Hidden Shoal Recordings.

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“When I first got involved (in Hidden Shoal) I did have hopes that maybe I’d be able to draw an income from it, but it’s really just self-sustaining. Most of the label’s income is from licensing now that people pay to stream music rather than buying CDs or paying for downloads,” Tim explains. Instead of trying to make money from music, he’s content to let music be the focus of his leisure hours.

For Tim, there is a lot of integrity in treating your passion as a part-time hobby. “Trust your gut instinct. If you’re honestly driven to pursue your passion to see if you can make a living off it, go for it. But don’t let it kill your passion in the process. There’s no shame in playing in a kick-ass band as a hobby. Better that than compromise what the band is about in order to try and derive an income from it.”

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want. For some people, creativity flourishes with a little security. Full time work will consume a lot of your attention, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a slave – the opposite is often true.

There’s a lot of things you can learn in the workplace, and there is extraordinary freedom in financial security. Sometimes the best dreams are the ones that are strictly personal. So freelance if you want to, build a little business for yourself, but know that there are many upsides to having a steady job.


Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. She stashes a lot of her writing here.