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8 Questions to Find Your Day Job

Lookin’ for work, if I can get it
If you put me on, you won’t regret it
And no one here knows more than me what debt is…
— Ike Reilly, “Good Work”

After last week’s longplaying bluster, I’ve decided to kick it into a lower gear and work on a post idea I’ve had for awhile. The content will be geared to a certain type of artistic type, so feel free to ignore this if you don’t fit the paradigm (or don’t think you ever will). The type: you graduated from college with a semi-useless degree (or two or three), you had a five- and/or ten-year plan for success, and you’re nearing (or past) the end of that timeframe with little to show for it. Maybe you have a menial retail or food-service job with the flexibility to keep your options open. Maybe you have a full-time job in the belly of the beast, hoping it will give you the respect (or, at least, the connections) to take that next step, but your job keeps you so busy, you have very little time to devote to your “real” work. This is especially for those in positions like these who are unhappy but can’t quite figure out what to do to change that.

This isn’t a post about giving up on your passion. I certainly haven’t given up on mine, and I’ve reached that age where I start to get funny looks from friends and loved ones for eschewing marriage, kids, and a two-bedroom ranch in favor of pursuing my goals.

What this is about is reshaping the daily grind into something a little less grueling, a little more fulfilling, and a lot more manageable. Because, if you haven’t faced these facts already, now’s the time: you need money in order to survive, whether you like it or not; in order to get money, you need a job (no, really—even in the benevolent Utopia Obama is creating, you still need a job to get money); most jobs, even good jobs, suck if they have nothing to do with your personal goals; and worse than that, jobs that do have to do with your personal goals tend to suck when there’s no forward momentum.

This is a huge dilemma that a lot of creative people face, especially as they get into their 30s and their ten-year plan is about to expire.

When I faced this crossroads, I asked myself a lot of difficult questions and forced myself to answer them honestly. I can’t answer the questions for you; all I can do is share my own journey, which led me to a pretty good place in life.

Question 1: Is it a dead shark or not?

Bottom line: a career, like a relationship with Annie Hall, has to move forward in order to reasonably call it a career. For instance, I began working as a jack-of-all-trades intern at a production company in Los Angeles. One of the trades that all interns are forced to endure is script coverage: reading a script and providing comments to bosses who don’t really want to read the scripts. Actually, at this company, coverage was sort of a test, and I passed it. They discovered I was a fast, insightful reader, so after a few weeks, I found myself isolated in my own little cubicle, reading scripts all day instead of dealing with phones and scheduling and everything else.

I had hoped this favorable impression would land me a full-time job by the end of the summer; it didn’t. I spent the next five years alternating between working in coffee shops and reading scripts for pay. At the end of five years, I had taken a few meetings, regularly harassed a few Big-Shot Producers who had said they would read the script(s) I pitched them, but in terms of career momentum, I had gone from reading scripts for no pay to reading scripts for a small amount of pay.

That, dear reader, was a dead shark.

What if it had gone the other way? What if my five-year plan was “sell a script,” but at the end of five years, I had instead become a development executive at a major studio, toiling all day on others’ scripts, developing a good reputation and making increasingly high-profile connections? I may not have been where I planned to be, but I would consider that a living shark. Maybe I’d still need to evaluate Question 2, and maybe you will, too… But if your career is a living shark, and you are indeed happy with it, be honest with yourself: why do you think you need to make a change? Maybe you’re unhappy, deep down, and you need to root down there and find the source. Maybe, though, you’re just being too hard on yourself. Goals can adapt based on the life that unfurls over the course of your plan.

Question 2: Am I unhappy?

So, we have a dead shark on our hands. (Or we have a live shark that won’t stop biting us in the ass.) How do you feel about that?

I was miserable reading scripts, for a lot of reasons. It reached a point where every script I read further convinced me that Hollywood only makes good movies either accidentally or through trickery. I wanted to succeed as a screenwriter for two reasons: first, I love movies; second, and perhaps most relevant to this general discussion, I spent four years in college preparing for a career doing that. Combined with a five-year plan, that’s nine years devoted to the desire to sell a screenplay.

As years five through nine inched along, I grew frustrated at my inability to write things Hollywood types wanted to buy. I have weird ideas, a dark sense of humor, and a strong idea to use the medium of film to express Big Ideas. Hollywood doesn’t like any of those things. Every screenplay I read reminded me of that fact. Every attempt I made to take what I learned from reading those crappy scripts—and I did learn a lot, which was a great value of the job that I wouldn’t trade for the chance to take a different path—and construct something more desirable was foiled by something I didn’t realize I had: artistic integrity.

I love watching big dumb action movies, but when I tried to write one, it quickly became a dark satire of U.S. foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa. I love watching romantic comedies, but when I tried to write one, it turned into a critique of giant media conglomerates (you know, the ones that make movies…) and the messages they try to sell the public. And let’s not even get into the time-travel screenplay that hinges on my depression-induced notion that nobody can ever be truly happy, not even if society evolved past the oppressive force of religion.

But maybe you, dear reader, are a script reader who loves the scripts you read. Maybe you’re able to write something pitched at the studio level. I have nothing against that, despite some of my comments above; I love a good, big-studio movie (emphasis on “good”). Personally, though, I couldn’t do it. When I evaluated my happiness, it occurred to me I didn’t have any. When I tried to figure out why, all roads led back to the career path.

I needed a change.

Question 3: What is my central purpose in life?

This is where I’d recommend that you stop and sit on this question for however long it takes. Depending on your level of self-awareness and motivation, it could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few years to answer this question. My acquaintance, John Drake, wrote a very good article on this topic a few years ago.

It’s not an easy thing to identify. For instance, I love music. I went very far as a classically trained singer in high school, and I was told by everyone that if I kept going in college, I could turn it into a decent career. I knew what I wanted to do was write, but I lacked confidence in my ability and I knew how difficult it would be to achieve career success. I thought, “This is something I can do and enjoy, and I can do my writing on the side, and I’ll live happily ever after.”

But I didn’t enjoy it, and I knew that immediately. The college and professional atmosphere was much different from high school. Back then, we worked our asses off, but we all got along. If there was any competition, it was healthy. In college, nobody liked each other. Competition was needlessly cutthroat (needlessly because I didn’t go to a great college, and nobody there was particularly good), everybody kissed the director’s ass (and she was nicknamed “Lisa-fer,” if that gives you any indication of her personality/temperament), and I thought, “If this is how a music program is at a mediocre school, it’s going to be a million times worse professionally.” From what I’ve gathered from friends who pursued that route, I wasn’t wrong. For me, singing was not part of my purpose; it wasn’t even really a passion. It was something I liked and was good at, but given all the other factors, it wasn’t a path to happiness.

I changed majors and schools after one semester, but some choose the wrong path and stubbornly stick with it, perhaps bringing some amount of career success but an unending amount of personal misery. More often, though, I think people simply don’t know. This post is focused primarily at creative people, though, and those people usually have a better sense of some purpose—even if it’s maybe not quite right. Because of that, I’m not going to focus much on how one identifies their purpose. It’s a potentially Sisyphean task, one that shouldn’t be a sub-thought of a sub-thought in a blog post.

Still, for those trying to understand, I’ll leave it at this: if you’ve ever done or experienced something where you’ve said, “I could do this for the rest of my life,” try to figure out how to transform that activity into a career. If you’ve never had that reaction to anything, ever, the only advice I can give is to challenge yourself to try new things, the more varied the better, until you find something. Unless it makes you vomit or shit your pants, try doing it more than once; it doesn’t always take the first time. (For instance, just for fun I took a few horseback riding lessons. What if your big passion turns out to be dressage? The first few riding lessons are boring—you may have a glimmer that you want to do more of this, but one lesson is just going to be learning to mount and control the horse. It’s not going to stir much of anything in anyone.) The tragic caveat of this advice, though, is that some people never find it. They just don’t.

Sometimes, a person’s central purpose gets overcomplicated. From a young age, I knew I wanted to write, and I had been writing. I landed on screenwriting during my senior year of high school, because I saw a handful of movies that transformed my opinion of them as a medium I really enjoyed as entertainment…to one I admired for its ability to create art and deliver messages. What I loved about movies was that they blended all the art forms I loved—photography, music, acting, writing—but the thing that drove all those other elements was the writing. Not the dialogue, necessarily, but the writing: story, structure, character, visual imagery.

I should also mention, of course, the money. I was never in denial about that. If you want to be a writer, and you like movies and TV, Hollywood is where you hypothetically go for money.

But when I really dug deep and evaluated my central purpose, I knew it wasn’t writing screenplays; it was just writing. I liked aspects of the screenwriting challenge—communicating my personal vision of the story without “directing on the page” or alienating actors, confining it to a coherent 100 pages, using images to tell the story instead of relying on dialogue—but at the end of the day, the movie gods are the director and producer. If I wanted to be a god, I needed to branch out, but here’s the thing: I find film sets boring as shit. I just wanted to sell scripts off and never think about them again. I wasn’t trying to worm my way into directing jobs by starting out as a writer.

Once I realized how simple my purpose was, it made everything else easier. Of course, I had a couple of advantages, as writing is both a portable and solitary pursuit. If I wanted to be an actor, for instance, I would need to live in one of a handful of places, go on auditions, get to know people in that community, and on and on and on. The point, though, is that knowing your purpose helps you to set purposeful goals—small and large—and design your “day job” around the achievement of those goals.

Question 4: What is it about my central purpose that makes me so passionate?

The goal of finding the right job is to take what you like about your purpose—the qualities that drive the passion, so to speak—and find the job that allows you to work those parts of your brain. So what is it? If you’re an actor, maybe the thing that appeals to you is unleashing floodgates of empathy to get into the skin of a character. That might be a skill you could translate to a call center (not that I’d condemn anyone to working in a call center, but hear me out…), because in most cases you need to quickly understand a customer’s problem based solely on voice and words. Somebody with strong empathy, and a desire to work that muscle, would excel there.

This can be as daunting a question as #3, because for many, the wheat needs to be separated from the chaff. For instance, a heady psychological stew has become very apparent to me, in terms of how I landed on the path I did. In childhood, I escaped from a difficult home life through imagination, mostly by way of books and TV. When I got old enough, I started writing my own stories, escaping into worlds I created. But that would fall under the “chaff” category, because it doesn’t get at the heart of why I’m still driven to write—what I like about this particular act of creation, and what I’m trying to accomplish with it.

I’ve always considered myself a craftsman more than an artist. I love structure—from the small beats within scenes to the overarching story of an absurdly long epic novel—and using it to control what appears to be chaos. I love creating characters specific enough to understand, but general enough to surprise me. I love research and learning new things. I love finding ways of expressing big ideas through small details (such as symbolic duct tape).

This is all specific to me, though. I know writers who will just start with whatever is in their mind and let it go wherever they want. Some writers aren’t interested in structure at all. Some have pages and pages of character backstory instead of a rough idea. Most writers I know hate research more than just about anything else. The point is, a central purpose is going to be a fairly general passionate desire; it’s the specifics of what drives that desire that will help you here.

Question 5: Do the things I enjoy about the pursuit of my goals translate into practical job skills?

Piggybacking off the previous question, when does something you like to do become a useful job skill? If I were to say I love writing because it allows me to construct a rich fantasy world, that would not be a useful skill in a non-creative job market. Bare minimum, I’d have to dig deeper and see this for what it is: a desire to control chaos. That is a marketable skill.

Controlling chaos, as I mentioned, is an aspect of structuring a story that I really enjoy. How does that translate to a useful job skill? It makes me think I’d like a job where organizational skills are paramount. Ultimately, the area of work I sought was administrative assistant. This, I thought, would allow me to put organizational skills to work: structuring the workday for myself and the people I support by managing their calendars, prioritizing my own work based on their needs. I’m not going to pretend this is all exciting to me, or that it’s comparable to writing, but that’s not the point. Exciting or not, it allows me to exercise the same part of my brain that I use in structuring stories. That’s useful.

When I was looking for a job, I listed the things I like about writing in one column, and listed the job skill translations in a second column. I wish I had saved this list as an example, but a simplified version would have looked a little like this:

Writing Skill Job Skill
Story Structure Organizational Skills
Creating Characters People Skills
Appreciation of the Unexpected
Learning New Things
Gathering Information
Understanding the Business
Big Ideas Through Small Details Attention to Detail
Writing Ability Communication Skills

It might look simple, and maybe for some of you it will be, but there are times when translating vague qualities like these to concrete job skills can be very difficult: first in identifying the quality, and then in translating it. Not all of these qualities translate to job skills, for one thing. For some, the connection might have more to do with your belief that it will activate certain useful parts of your brain. For instance, “Big Ideas Through Small Details” translating to “Attention to Detail” is sort of tenuous. And yet, the fact that the writing skill—and the fact that I like it—causes me to naturally focus on details others miss means I actually do have a useful skill that can be retrained to apply to many different jobs.

Question 6: What do I want from a job—and what does a job want from me?

You have your list of job skills, but that’s only half the battle. If I took the list of five personal skills above, that could apply to many different jobs. Granted, when I landed on “administrative assistant,” I had a list of about 20… But even with 20 or more, you could look at your list and ask, “Yeah, but how do I pick a job based on this?” It’s time to look at additional factors.

Here’s what I did. I took the skills I had listed and put them at the top of a new list, listing them as much as possible in priority of skills I’d most desire utilizing to least. In the hierarchy, all of these would still qualify as the “major skills.” Below that in the hierarchy: the minor skills. That’s pretty much every other job-related skill you’ve acquired throughout your illustrious career—and again, be honest with yourself. There’s time to embellish your résumé later; this is just for you. Try to list these, too, in order of priority: things you sorta liked, all the way down to things you never want to do again.

Then, go beyond the skills and think about what you want out of the job. Someone creative looking for a day job will likely have similar conditions to mine: decent pay, low stress, totally unrelated to my creative field, regular hours (that’s not to say a standard 9-5 schedule, but a relatively consistent schedule with a guaranteed number of hours), and no work gets taken home with you. Maybe you’re more flexible on some of these, willing to trade longer hours for higher pay. The key here, for most creative people, is finding a way to balance work, life, and external career aspirations. If you take on extra hours, will you still have time to do your other work? How annoyed will your significant other be by this? As I said earlier, I can’t answer these questions for you. You need to know what you can handle; this will help you determine the best job for you.

I typed in the five skills mentioned above and pulled a few recent job listings from Indeed. One is an “Assistant to Vocations & Communications Directors” for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Will that one work for me? Gee, let’s think. Probably not, considering one of the chief requirements is “Practicing Catholic with working knowledge of Church related terminology.” The next job? “Video Production and Streaming Manager.” Okay, maybe this one will cook—after all, I do have experience in video production. Except this job is a management position requiring a minimum of three years’ experience “working in a broadcast environment.” Don’t have that, but maybe I could fake it—except, wait, what the hell is a Tricaster system? Okay, looked that up, didn’t know that’s what it was called, and I’ve never used one before. Also, live production and streaming for a broadcast station? Sounds a little high stress for my needs. Last one: “Assistant Professor or Instructor, Advertising, Loyola School of Communication.” That seems problematic, since my grades weren’t good enough to get into Loyola in the first place, the “instructor” version of the position requires a Master’s I don’t have and “significant” professional experience in advertising I also don’t have, and they prefer candidates with a “record of teaching and working with students.” So that’s out.

Long story short: finding a suitable job won’t be the easiest task in the world, but narrowing down and prioritizing the skills will help you to identify the most suitable type of job… It just might take awhile. And then, once you’ve narrowed down the job, you need to start applying for those positions and land one of the jobs. And then hope the working environment isn’t a nightmare.

How do you know which job is the right job? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart: you’ll know it when you see it.

Question 7: Now I’ve found a compatible job that allows me the time to pursue my passion. What else is there to life?

Finally, you’ve figured out the job for you and landed it. You toil through the day, and just like Jennifer Beals, at night you take your passion and make it happen. I guess everything’s worked out. *dust hands* Nope, nothing else to worry about. You have the job, you have the time for your creative endeavors. All you have to do is start putting your work out there and trying to find opportunities for success.

…except, wait. You work at your job, and then you work at your passion, and that’s it?

For most people, no. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life; if all you’re interested in is single-minded devotion to your passion, then go for it! Most people—not all—want a more well-rounded life. They’re willing to take a night off from painting to go to a close friend’s birthday party, spend a Saturday at a museum, dine at a fine restaurant. A key part of creativity, in any field, is life experience. Such experience only comes by actually experiencing life.

This becomes a factor in the job search. Experiencing life often costs money. This leaves you with more questions to ask yourself, and another hierarchical list. What do you really want from life? Your job and pursuits of passion must be components on this list. Many people, consciously or unconsciously, place more value on living life than on pursuing their passions—and that’s great. That’s why it’s necessary to really think about what you want out of life. As Junior Parker once saying, “Love ain’t nothin’ but a business goin’ on it.” At the risk of reducing the entire concept of romance, marriage, and family down to tenets of capitalism, a fact remains: these pursuits cost time and money.

Pretty much everything in life costs time and money. That’s why you need a halfway decent job in the first place. The hitch is: the more your wants cost, the more of a factor they become in finding the right job (one that pays well enough and leaves enough time to pursue passion, hobbies, and/or relationships). This needs to be factored in realistically. What enriches your life? Is it fine dining with your spouse once a week at $500 a plate? You’re going to need more than what someone like me makes.

The cost of simply living life needs to be realistically factored into the job search equation. Even if you like your day job and love pursuing your passion, most people find little fulfillment in life if they lack the time and money to do anything else. At the same time, you’re an adult. Sometimes, you just need to give up certain things that cost more time or money than what you get out of them. The reason for yet another hierarchical list is to discover, within yourself, what makes the cut. You might even find, as many people do, that your creative passion is overshadowed by a life passion—marriage and kids, skydiving, napping—and sideline their creative pursuits as enjoyable, relaxing hobbies.

This entire process can be a journey of discovery, helping you understand yourself better. A well-rounded life can really help people take their passion and make it happen. You’re not going to meet your Michael Nouri, or even your Sunny Johnson, if you don’t get out and live. But it’s a lot harder to do that without time or money.

Question 8: What if I answered all the questions honestly, made the changes necessary to improve my happiness and ability to achieve my goals, but I’m still unhappy and/or still unable to achieve said goals?

What am I, a genie?

I don’t have any answers. What I have is advice. It helped me, and I think it can help most people. I won’t pretend it’s foolproof, though. I’m happier and more goal-oriented than I’ve ever been—but I won’t pretend my life is perfect. Some days, my job is a huge pain in the ass. Some days, I don’t write. Some days, I realize I won’t achieve a goal I set—even if I postpone it.

I was already in the process of rebuilding a life I’d exploded when I put all this together and set a new, better course. What I didn’t realize, before I started this journey of discovery, is that the only person with the power to improve my life is me. You have the same power within you. I’m sharing some hard-won advice that helped me. It won’t work overnight, and some people will have a much more challenging road than I did. Some people might need to rebuild from the ground up. Some will have wants that cost much more money and time than my relatively miserly hobbies.

This won’t save your life, but it might help make things a little better.

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