How Earning a Living Might Be Killing Your Creativity

Copyright: feedough / 123RF Stock Photo

“Never confuse the size of your paycheck with the size of your talent.” — Marlon Brando

Fresh out of college, with a sizeable debt to start paying back, you apply for a job at Company X, a real player in the field, maybe even a Fortune 500 company. You start by matching up your qualifications with the position’s explicit laundry list of demands. You smile politely during the interview, discover that you and The Interviewer both play basketball, or golf, or saxophone.. and you do a good job of making him laugh. You deliver a firm handshake and deliberate eye contact to prove that you are a winner. You’ve completed the mission — and you know that he knows you are ready and willing to make Job X your new reason for living.

You get the job, great! Ahhh, validation.

You’re winning at the Game of Life.

You feel justified for every aspect of preparation that has led up to this moment. That expensive education, the “Top Ten Tips for Nailing an Interview ” blog you memorized the night before, the tailored interview suit… all worthwhile investments. Your parents, significant other, and friends are impressed. Great job on getting the job. You’re branded with an official title, a 401(k) and some enviable benefits.

The first week is stressful but exciting as you immerse yourself in The Company Culture. Maybe you get a badge, an office, and a keycard that opens that office. Maybe there’s a little mailbox with your name on it where all your important memos live. Maybe you get invited to join the office fantasy football league.

You do your job and you do it well. You work day and night to become an “invaluable asset” to the team. You know that if you keep your nose to the grindstone, proactively solicit an idea or two here and there to show Boss Man that you’re a team player, and work above the expectations, you’ll be rewarded. Working late has become the norm and your family time is whittled down to abrupt FaceTime sessions, to-do text lists, and small spurts of QT on the weekends. You used to run home for lunch, but found you could accomplish more with a quick turkey wrap at your desk. Bills are paid on time, and your family is safe and sound with medical and dental coverage. You’re a hero of sorts, just one who’s not around too much. After a year, you technically earn the right to not come in for two weeks, but it ends up being a staycation with several office drop-ins since no one can really do what you do the way that you do it.

Fast forward 10 years and you’re sitting at the same desk, only you’ve got a touch of carpal tunnel and sometimes your lower back goes numb from long hours of sitting still. Occasionally you pull up images of Hawaii and imagine swinging in a hammock with no cubicle walls in sight and zero responsibility. You’ve had a few promotions, maybe your view is nicer and your take-home pay larger, and maybe you’ve added hummus or olive tapenade or something new to your turkey wrap by now. You’ve gained a little weight and aren’t too happy with your body, but who has time to exercise between work and family? You’ve gotten a few promotions and corresponding raises, but trading up homes and matching your lifestyle to your paycheck has created a situation where you are literally earning to stay afloat. You’ve built up a life you and your family have grown accustomed to, so quitting isn’t an option.

You’ve long abandoned your dream of writing a novel, since every ounce of creativity is devoted to Job X, following the theory that “If I work hard to make Company X more productive and profitable, I’ll share in the wealth too.” You’ve discovered the Higher Ups respond well to certain kinds of ideas, ideas that they would have thought up, and you’ve figured out a formula to impressing them. But even though you’ve proven your value and your loyalty, it’s a shaky year for spending in Industry X. Profits are down. A near-recession has made people save instead of spend, and many months of weak numbers have taken their toll. Company X hires an organizational expert to restructure the business, and it turns out that the work you do can be dissected and handed over to two of your colleagues. You’re given the news and an informal apology: “My hands are tied, sure wish we could have kept you on.”

No more paycheck. No more 401(k). No more bacon to bring home. Hero status revoked.

You failed. You’re losing at the Game of Life. You were aware that things like this happen, just not to you.

Just as you’re about to upload your resume to eight different job search sites, you reread the bulleted summary of your life once more. You think to yourself, It’s amazing how all those hours, all that time away from my family, can be summed up on a single sheet of paper. You realize that all of the career wins, the glowing resume, the official-sounding job titles listed on the beautifully formatted Word document have very little to do with who you are, or rather, who you want to be. Your kids seem healthy and happy, but you have the devastating realization that you don’t really know them all that much. You have the epiphany that if you were to be hit by a bus on the way to your next interview, well, your resume wouldn’t have anything on it that you’d want read at your funeral. All the things you’ve never done do somersaults in your head — I shouldn’t have sold that guitar, I should have taken that road trip to Yosemite, I wish I would’ve carved out time to tour the vineyards in Italy.

This is an obvious broad generalization of the job-consuming-life scenario to illustrate a point, but it’s founded in truth. During my time spent in full-time office jobs, I can remember distinct conversations with colleagues where we would discuss what we’d rather be doing. Talking about our “drothers” was a stress reliever, an outlet for the innovative, passionate voice of the soul that was made smaller with each day of structured work exchanged for a paycheck.

I actually enjoyed most of my agency jobs and got very lucky with flexible hours, talented colleagues I could learn from, and decent pay. However, if I devoted my entire life to any one of these companies, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the writing and travel opportunities that have enriched my life thus far. I used to watch surf videos on my downtime and Googled “Hawaii beaches” in between job tasks. At one of my first jobs, my boss told the staff of 30 we could all paint our offices on the company’s dime, anything we wanted within reason. I spent 10 hours one weekend painting blue clouds and trees on my cubicle walls — but the rest of the office remained eggshell white. Turns out no one wanted to spend any more minutes than necessary at a place that already ate up 8-10 hours of their day. Understandable.

I’m not saying all employers are evil and everyone should work for themselves. There are dynamic companies who are reinventing the paradigm and catering to employees’ quality of life. Your job may even offer you abundant chances to explore your creative mind. If you are fulfilled, challenged, and happy working for an employer, then more power to you. I’m saying your time is precious, and you should choose where you spend it carefully and acknowledge that you have the natural right to own every minute. No full-time job I’ve ever met allows me enough “me” time to follow my passions or enough “love” time to share with my loved ones. So I invented my own. Freelance writing is my dream and my work rolled into one, and it lets me do me.

My first question is, are you genuinely interested in what you do every day? Todd Kashdan, Author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, presents the statistic that most people spend less than 20% of their day engaged in meaningful activity or meaningful work. He suggests that lack of interest is the cause of the death of creativity, effort, and performance, and suggests coming up with “interest-enhancing strategies to intentionally find and sculpt wonder, intrigue, and play out of every day events.” Or you could just quit that job and take a leap of faith by putting effort into your passions. Like dream-champion Paulo Coelho said in The Alchemist, “If you’re brave, say ‘good bye’. Life with reward you with a new ‘hello’.”

You’re valuable beyond measure, and so is your time. The wealth of knowledge, skill, experience, creativity, perspective, and potential for generosity and connection that lies underneath the particular arrangement of cells known as “you” is vast and unquantifiable. So why do so many of us put ourselves in a box by signing our lives away to an employer, and forsaking those dreams that ignite our passion… even go so far as to actually measure our worth only within the field of our chosen career? Sure, working hard has its merits, especially when it’s a noble act of sacrifice to provide for a family. But at some point you have to take stock of your time and really weigh the benefits against the risks. Consider the fact that maybe if you took some risks to make your life richer, to work on your dreams, that the people you love might be inspired by your boldness and better off because of it? If you were to shuffle off this mortal coil in exactly one week, would you feel you have sufficiently lived enough to be ready to go? How would you spend that week? My guess is it wouldn’t be behind a desk earning a “living.”

Author/entrepreneur James Altucher said it best in his blog 10 Reasons Why You Have to Quit Your Job This Year: “Only free time, imagination, creativity, and an ability to disappear will help you deliver value that nobody ever delivered before in the history of mankind.”