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‘What kind of person do you want to be?’: careers advice from Hunter S. Thompson

November 21st, 2013 No comments

The question ‘what do you do?’, asked by a new acquaintance and understood to mean, ‘what work do you do to earn money?’, has always annoyed me. Partly, I suppose, because I have never been able to give an answer I like, such as ‘writer’ or ‘astronaut’. But more because of the implication: that paid work is therefore the defining feature of my life, that tells others what kind of person I am. (Sometimes I’ll acknowledge that new acquaintances are just making conversation, but this is usually after I am annoyed, and many hours later.)

I found an interesting explanation for the source of my irritation in a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson in 1958, to a friend who wanted advice on what to do with his life. (The letter is from the fabulous brainpickings.org newsletter, though it was originally from the equally interesting Letters of Note website.) Thompson writes:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

Which I take to mean: to answer the question ‘what do you do?’ with the simple statement of your job title, to think of yourself as mainly a teacher or a banker or a fireman is to diminish your sense of yourself.

When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

I see this in some of the book designers for whom I sometimes do freelance work. At the start of their career they were delighted to be a book designer, a highly-prized job – but after months, years, the job title means little to them but the payment of a salary. And yet this is the career that they have bound themselves to, with little option for development unless they strike out into something different – in other words, give up their career.

For Thompson the goal should be not a particular job or even a particular goal:

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

For me this is getting to the source of why satisfaction and self-esteem will never be found in a career, because paid work for an employer will always define the limits of how you can personally develop. And so Thompson’s advice is less about careers than about asking yourself what kind of person you want to be.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development).

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

(The original letter on Letters of Note seems to have disappeared from the site… but you can read more of the letter on this brainpickings.org post.)

10 Pieces of Careers Advice to My Younger Self

December 11th, 2012 4 comments

1. The majority of career jobs do not involve work or goals you intrinsically value

Traditional careers advice tells you that a full-time career is the one essential source of valuable work, and that valuable work is the source of self-esteem in life. But the majority of career jobs are work towards goals that you do not personally value. Self-esteem does come from valuable work – but only very rarely does this work begin within a career.

2. The rewards of rewarding jobs are suffocated by the stress of a full-time career

Medicine, teaching and working for a charity are all worthy professions with rewarding goals. But these rewards are so submerged beneath overwork and work politics in a full-time career as to make the rewards almost imperceptible.

3. The pleasure of creative work is not found in a ‘creative’ career

Most careers in the ‘creative industries’ are not creative, but administrative. And the positions in these industries that do require creativity do not want ideas that stem from your own personal interests – they require ideas to sell their clients’ products or find the largest audience. This is a wholly different different creativity from taking pleasure in your own creative ideas.

4. A full-time career does not give you control of your life, it takes control away

When you place high value on your career, for both your income and self-esteem, you hand your employer control of your life: control of your time, your ambitions, and your respect for yourself. For fear of losing that hard-fought-for career, you allow yourself to be treated in ways you would not put up with in your personal life.

5. Earning money is less important than your own creative work

The work you do to earn money for rent and food does not need to fulfil you, or be the source of your self-esteem. The real source of self-esteem is work you have originated yourself, not (at least at first) for money. The purpose of work for money is to support the discovery and pursuit of your own creative work, the work that you do find fulfilling.

6. Learn to live cheaply

If you avoid a career you will almost certainly, at least to begin with, need to live on less money than your careerist peers. But you need  less money to treat and entertain yourself when you can spend a significant number of hours a week taking pleasure from your own creative work.

7. Genuine self-esteem comes from pleasure in your own creative ideas

Everyone can be creative. Just because you were not labelled arty at school means nothing. Creative ideas are not limited to the traditional arts, they are found in the setting up of charity, in science, in anything. What would you do if money was no object? Creative work begins by copying your heroes. Everyone who does creative work feels like an imposter until they recognise the progress they make.

8. University or college is not essential

The valuable experiences you have at university – living with your peers, meeting interesting people, further study – can be found elsewhere where they will not leave you with enormous debts. University can be fantastic, but is only essential for a degree in order to get that career job. And if you do want to go, there is nothing that says you have to go straight from school, or after a gap of only a year. Do the minimum number of exams you need for college to leave the option open. And exams can always be retaken.

9. Define your own success

Success need not be measured by the size of your impact upon the world, by how famous you become. Success also comes from the satisfaction of personal, truly valuable goals, even if they affect only a small number of people. Many people who feel successful are invisible in society.

10. A career can wait, perhaps forever

Don’t aim for a full-time career straight from school or university. Find paid work that best supports your discovery of the work you really want to do, that you would do without expectation of money. If you do later come to have a career, let it follow from this valuable work. But it may be that you never have a career at all. This is the life of the happiest people I know.

Read the full essay: Semi-Retirement for the Under Twenties: How Can Work Make You Happy?

Steps to Escaping Your Full-Time Job

September 11th, 2012 No comments

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reader of this blog, who asked what advice I had for someone who wanted to give up their full-time career. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to think that the posts here have been some kind of encouragement for this. For semi-retirement is not just advice for teenagers starting out in the world of work – anyone can chuck in full-time work at any stage of their life.

This post is an extended version of my reply.

Before you go ahead and take the glorious step of telling your boss that you’re leaving, it’s a good idea to have put a few things in place. Here’s my suggestions:

Start investigating the creative work for which you have a passion

Do this whilst you are still in your full-time job. Assign to it as many hours as you currently have free, and be disciplined in how you work. (You will need your discipline later, for no one tells you to get on with your creative work.) This is the most important thing to do – if you have an idea of the direction of your creative work when you do hand in your notice, you stand less chance of feeling lost.

Reduce your current expenses

You will soon be living on part-time wages and you need to understand how you are going to do this. If you have a partner or children you will need to discuss with them why you will have less money in the future. (I have explained to my children on a number of occasions that the flipside of not having as much money spent on them as their friends is that I get to spend more time with them. They don’t understand the argument. But they do like me spending more time with them.)

Reducing your expenses is easier than it looks. And when you have creative work that brings you pleasure you find you have less need of stuff that costs money. Creative work gives you a different feeling of status from the one that you take from stuff, but a feeling of status all the same. People admire the choice to control your own time, to live in a way that they view as insecure. (So long as you are working on your projects and not just watching daytime TV.)

Investigate how you will work part-time

It may be possible to work part-time hours at your current job, hours that give you the time you need for your creative work. But if your employer will not allow this, see if you can use the skills you have picked up in your job to work freelance. It may be that you do just a small amount of freelance work to begin with, that you need to supplement with other part-time subsistence work.

If freelance work is not possible, look for other part-time work. Remember it does not have to fulfil you or give your life meaning. It is subsistence work to support your creative work.

Find other semi-retirees for support

You need to associate with like-minded people, either who are interested in the same creative work or who simply understand your reasons for doing what you are doing. I rented a desk space in an artists studio, and these people have become my main inspiration and support. Associating with other semi-retirees who have an interest in living cheaply has the added side-effect of helping you spend less money.

If you have made steps towards these – go tell your boss that you’re leaving…

The Purpose of Your Creativity is Not Making Money for Your Employer

July 10th, 2012 No comments

I love Ken Robinson. His TED talk and RSA animated talk were a big influence on many of the posts on this blog. He constantly reiterates how society does not value creativity enough, and it’s great that someone in such a prominent position says these things.

But I disagree with the reasons he gives for why creativity is important. He suggests it is important because creativity is what is needed in the modern workplace. His argument is that labour used to be part of a mechanised process, which needed workers to be specialised and controlled by bosses from above, but the modern workplace requires individuals who can think for themselves, who can work autonomously, and so creativity is needed to dream up new ideas for the companies for whom they work.

To dream up new products and services for your employer is not the reason to value creativity. It is certainly a better way to earn money than to have your every move dictated by a boss in a Victorian factory. But this is still using your creative ideas to sell mobile phones, or create websites to sell insurance, or design animated characters to entice children to spend money on your employer’s website. Are ends such as these really how you want to use your creativity?

The number of jobs where you are fulfilling goals about which you are personally enthusiastic is tiny. And if creative work does not originate from yourself, from your personal interests and passions, then a large part of the pleasure of fulfilling them is taken away. You do not end up with a finished piece of writing or artwork or other piece of work that started as your fleeting idea jotted in a notebook. It is not something in which you can feel truly proud, even though your company will try to make you feel artificially proud, so that you will do it again. And even if you have a job say, designing the covers of books, a job many people would love to do, the pleasure of creation is greatly diminished by the stress of deadlines, the criticism of editors and authors, the constant interruption of meetings and emails. It is very far from the pleasure of creating something of your own.

To be fair to Ken Robinson, I’m sure his idea of using creativity in the tiny minority of jobs where you have great freedom to follow your passion: scientific research, for example. But very few people get to do this, and we should not delude young people with the idea that it is likely to happen to them in their paid work. Having a creative part of your life is too important to be left to chance in a career. Find subsistence work that allows you time for your important creative work – your lifelong work in a craft that truly interests you.

Living Cheaply is Easier Than You Think

June 26th, 2012 1 comment

Whenever I talk to people about Semi Retirement for the Under Twenties, the idea of living on part-time wages is the objection that is most often raised. That’s not realistic, you say. Who can live on part-time wages when rents are so high, when houses are unaffordable to buy, when there are cuts and austerity measures with which to contend?

My answer is that you cannot live on part-time wages if you expect to have all the material trappings that people with a full-time career salary think of as essential to living. But your desire for these trappings lessens when you work part-time, and when you have time to do creative, meaningful work. These trappings are only what are required in order to do and survive a full-time career. It is part of your creative life to work out how to live cheaper.

You do not need somewhere of your own to live in order to collapse in silence at the end of a hard day’s work. Save money by house sharing. Better still house share with people who also value creativity, and who also want to live cheaply. You do not need a smart phone, a cheap mobile will do. You do not need the most up-to-date laptop, an older version will be fine. The latest model is only a careerist status symbol. Your creative work will give you your status.

Get rid of your car – live somewhere where a car is unnecessary. You do not need new clothes. There are plenty of great clothes given away to charity shops by people with careers. You do not need to eat out in restaurants. Cook for yourself and invite friends round. If you do need an expensive piece of equipment for your creative work, share it with other people. There are always cheaper alternatives, and having spare time helps you to find them.

If your response to these suggestions is, I don’t want to dress from charity shops, and I’d like a smart phone, this is said with the mindset of the full-time careerist. It is the mindset imposed upon us by the government, by advertising, and by careerists. The parent who says, ‘I worked hard all my life, why do you think you’re any different?’ cannot bear the idea that perhaps they wasted their life with all that work. Ignore the politician who calls you workshy, because you are working at important creative work, you are just not being paid for it. (Besides, your creative work may benefit society in ways that a career selling insurance never will.)

Remember that the main benefit you are gaining in not having these material trappings is not having to work full-time. Control of your time is a wonderful thing denied to many people. When a boss controls the time when you work and reprimands you for being late it is demeaning.

Living cheaply is a creative activity in itself – the semi-retiree is always looking out for new opportunities to live more cheaply. If you are not presently good at managing money you must learn to be. Frivolity with money is not ‘cool’ – it condemns you to the need to earn more of it. And living cheaply is not being a skinflint, as careerists will suggest. It is just one part of finding the time for the creative work that will make your life rich and fulfilling.