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The Tyranny of Careers

The Tyranny of Careers

The Tyranny of Careers (and the Joy of Work)

by Ethan Crane

Published by Silver Robot Books

‘The great lie of careers advice was that my full-time career, in work for someone else, was going to be my life’s main source of fulfillment. Not only was this not true, but my commitment to a career was the biggest hindrance to finding that fulfillment elsewhere. The Tyranny of Careers is about how I escaped, and how you can too.’

‘In particular it really spoke to me of my peers’ experiences and issues with work at the moment – so I plan to pass it onto quite a few people when they next complain to me about how they’re not earning enough, or hate their job, or more often that it’s not really what they expected […] But it also spoke to me of people who I’ve met more recently and who are those unacknowledged successful people quietly content with their own work but who at first glance may appear, by ‘normal’ social standards, unsuccessful’
Elsie Whittington, graduate

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Excerpt from the Introduction:

‘Work hard at school, get a degree at university, find yourself a good career, and you will be happy. Your career will be your source of self-esteem and give you control of your life.’

This is the subtext of every piece of careers advice I ever heard. It is advice I believed implicitly, that I believed for years as I bounced between highly-prized careers in television, film and publishing. Careers that prevented me from wondering why the promised self-esteem was not forthcoming, burdened as I was by the stress and overwork that are common features of the work culture of almost every career.

All I wanted was to do work where I felt my brain was not being wasted. But this only happened when I began to pursue work of my own. Unpaid, uncelebrated work. But work that felt valuable to me, that felt like it might contribute something of value to the world, even if that was way off in the future.

My younger self needed don’t-chase-a-career advice. The Tyranny of Careers is this kind of book. Partly a memoir of my misplaced search for a career, and partly what I’ve learnt about work despite this: that it is possible to earn a living without a full-time career, whilst also pursuing work that is truly fulfilling.


1. No Value, No Innovation
2. Creative Jobs are Not Creative
3. Rewarding Jobs are Not Rewarding
4. No Control
5. Subsistence Work
6. Live Cheaply
7. University is Not Essential
8. The Joy of Work
9. Success

Chapter outlines & excerpts

1. No Value, No Innovation

The delusion of glamour in my first career in television • Having work is not the same as valuing work • ‘Work that I love’ is not the same as ‘work I do well’ • Fulfilling work requires valuing the process and the end result

…’work that you love’ is so much more than simply ‘work for which you have an aptitude’… A computer programmer may take pleasure in the efficiency of their code for a website, but that coding is to display the products for an online supermarket. An English student may take pleasure in the succinctness of their copy for their public relations job, but that copy is to promote the benefits of a new anti-depressant for a pharmaceutical company. A mathematician may take pleasure in their ingenious algorithm for buying investment futures in the energy sector, but they have perhaps just contributed in their own small way to further instability in the global financial markets.

Traditional careers advice does not consider the purpose of your work as important in whether or not you might love it. Or at least it fails to acknowledge that out of all the careers a graduate might follow, very few involve rewarding ends. There are some careers that produce products and services that many people personally value: filmmakers, book designers, website builders, etc, and there is a category of socially-rewarding careers. But of the vast majority of careers that remain, even though they are labelled good by society, it is difficult to see how you personally value the end result of the work: lawyers, insurance brokers, accountants, salespeople, bankers, computer programmers (this is not an exhaustive list).

I stayed in the job because it paid me a salary, and because I had no idea where self-esteem from work might come. I had less than no idea – I did not even notice that esteem was lacking. Because there was a fake self-esteem attached to this job in television, entirely due to its status: I worked for a television company rather than as a shelf stacker in a supermarket. But status for a job with no genuine value is a sickly kind of self-esteem – one that can keep you in work for all your waking hours performing tasks that mean nothing to you.

Valuable work is not something that feels like a job, but work that fascinates you, that you would do anyway, even if you were not being paid.

2. Creative Jobs are Not Creative

Most jobs in the creative industries are not creative, but administrative • The popularity of a film career makes for a terrible work culture • My ‘creative’ job causes me to apply career principles to my own writing work, with demoralising results • The poor work culture of an attractive book publishing career • A creative career requires the suppression of your own personal values • Genuine creative work begins outside the creative industries

And yet, these book designers did not seem raptuous about their jobs. They did not bounce in early each morning before they were meant to start because there were so eager to get to work – they slumped in early to ensure all their work was finished on time. They certainly did creative work, but work where any fulfillment was suffocated by the pressure of deadlines, jarred by the constant interruption of emails, phone calls and meetings, and diminished by the criticism and tinkering of editors. This was not their own work – this was work owned by other people. But most of all, the fact which most differentiated this design work from genuine creative work, was that for the vast majority of the time they were designing books which they did not value themselves. There were far more trashy novels and celebrity autobiographies for which to design covers than there were for books the designers actually wanted to read themselves.

My underlying motivation for working in the film industry, at least the part of my motivation that was not about glamour, was that I imagined I would be able to do work, to be paid for work, on tasks that aligned with my personal values. I thought that because I valued books and music and films these values would play a part in the work of this career. But they did not. They had no bearing on my work at all. Your personal values are of no use in a creative industry. In fact you are required to suppress them. I was required to be enthusiastic about the making of a film which I thought was rubbish. The marketing executive in book publishing learns to declare all books they help publish as ‘fantastic’, regardless of their personal opinion. The publicity executive forces himself to ‘like’ the music of the boyband he must promote. To work for a company in this way, your values must become the company’s values. You must forget your own opinion of the company’s products, and later, you must forget that you have forgotten, or else go mad.

3. Rewarding Jobs are Not Rewarding

I consider becoming a school teacher • My peers with socially-rewarding careers appear no more fulfilled with their work than anyone else • How rewarding careers suffer from the popularity of their supposed reward… • …a work culture made worse due to personal care for the work and the people it helps • The long-term entrapment of rewarding work • ‘Rewarding’ work can be rewarding, but not as a career

If my teacher and doctor friends were fulfilled by their careers they managed to hide it well. There must have been some fulfilling moments of their jobs – the doctors must have felt satisfaction at preventing further sickness or death, and the teachers must have enjoyed the moment when they saw a child grasp a new concept – but if these moments existed, they never talked about them. If teachers talked about their work at all it was to curse the new headteacher for creating more work by changing the school structure, or to lambast the government for new education policies that extended their responsibilities or restricted how they taught even further. Or they apologised that they could not stay long because they had to be home to do marking. The doctors said nothing at all – because I rarely saw them, as they were usually absent due to the antisocial hours of their shifts.

One of the great difficulties of earning money to live – of living in general – is our human inability to recognise when we have made a bad choice, and landed ourselves in a job or situation that is detrimental to us, that is much less than we hoped. Instead we find it easier to explain away our choice, to construct reasons why this is, in fact, what we wanted. This is what I told myself all through my job on the film set – I explained away my misery by telling myself that a film had to be organised that way, that the film’s very importance as part of culture meant it was permissible, it was necessary, that people behaved in a rude and abusive manner. That I was lucky to have such a great job. And, my reasoning concluded with a flourish, I have to earn money somehow, don’t I?

…you might follow the advice to ‘find a job that you love’ and find you end up miserable in a profession that you used to admire at a distance. If you want to be a doctor or a teacher or any socially-worthwhile job, do so – just do not expect it to be your life’s fulfilment. Fulfilment is much more likely to be found outside of a career, in work you have originated yourself.

4. No Control

The illusion that a career salary offers you control of your life • How my careers controlled my time, my dignity, my ambitions and my morals • Control is what we really admire in successful people

Somehow a reversal of the promise of traditional careers advice had befallen me. My career jobs made me feel the opposite of self-esteem, of dignity – instead I felt undignified. It was not that I was treated badly, far from it – I was never whiplashed by a maniacal boss into working hard. I brought these time pressures upon myself, and everyone else did the same. At no point did I say to my boss, ‘Actually, I’m already doing as much work as I can – I don’t think I can fit that in.’ I just said, ‘When do you need it by?’. I started each job with an understanding of a certain number of hours a week, a certain workload. But when the workload increased I had no leverage with which to object. I just agreed to do the work. The only bargaining tool available to me was to threaten to leave, but I didn’t want to leave – I had a highly-prized job.

Much more demoralising were the companies’ attempts to control my satisfaction in the work – to insist that I was feeling the fulfillment from my work that was so sorely lacking. It was this aspect of all my career jobs that burned me most, that instead filled me with something like shame. Or perhaps not shame, but irritation for allowing my satisfaction to be co-opted in this way. Because I did not feel satisfied. When the television company laid on employee drinks to celebrate increased quarterly sales figures I did not feel celebratory. At the wrap party for the film I could not have cared less about the quality of the final film, only that the stressful work was now over. Instead I felt a certain stupidity for working hard at tasks about which I did not really care. And ashamed that I allowed myself to be forced to celebrate something I did not value.

The glamorous public face of my career was that I worked for television station X – the underlying, unspoken reality was that I helped advertisers sell more stuff, that I helped advertisers exploit gullible people. It is the same for a great many careers: the ultimate aim is to exploit gullible people. If you work in sales, or marketing, or public relations, your exploitation of the gullible is obvious. But even if your work does not exploit in such a direct manner, the main purpose of the work of a great many careers is to support this exploitation in the background. If you are a web designer who creates animations for a children’s games website, you are part of a process designed to coerce parents to pay for premium features. If you are a copyright lawyer who protects the brand name of your supermarket’s washing powder, you are part of a process that coerces the public to buy more of your product than a competitor’s, regardless of whether or not it is a better product. […] Perhaps you think this is an exaggeration of the nature of work, a socialist, rose-tinted view of how the world ought to work. That exploitation of the gullible is ‘only business’, that this is the way that modern trade takes place, that it is the compromise that we make in order to earn a living, that it does not really matter. But it matters to you if you want to find fulfillment and self-esteem from your work.

5. Subsistence Work

Subsistence work: the work you do to pay the bills • Paid work need not be fulfilling if you take that from your own work • I still thought of paid work as the most important aspect of my life • How the importance of my paid work was downgraded by chance • My new criteria for ‘good’ paid work

Even though I had found a curious hollowness in each of my career jobs, I still had not shaken the idea of the primary importance of paid work. I needed money to live, so I told myself, so the best use of my time is to earn money in work that matches my abilities and values as closely as possible. Even after some time in each job, by when I could not have cared less about the work that I did, I still imagined it to be the most important part of my life. Wasn’t that what everyone thought? It is certainly what everyone says, by news reports, by graduates who cannot find a career, by parents worried that their children cannot find a job… What I slowly realised was that this problem was solved when I began to attach much less importance to how I earned money.

The principle criteria of subsistence work is that it does not need to be fulfilling. It does not need to be work that you love. It is preferable if it is fulfilling, but has a much more important, overriding criteria: the best subsistence work is simply that which allows you the most time and freedom for your own work… In other words: the conditions under which paid work is performed – the work culture – are more important than the content of the work.

The work you do for money does not have to be boring – it can be interesting, just so long as it is also good subsistence work by the criteria above. Many of the jobs discussed earlier – doctors, teachers, nurses, charity workers – are possible subsistence jobs, in that they can be worked part-time or freelance. You may very well find reward from these jobs – but do not expect them to be your life’s main source of meaning and reward, which does not come from paid work.

6. Live Cheaply

The most objectionable piece of advice to my younger self • How self-esteem from your own work replaces the need to spend money • The expense of a career • Avoiding the social stigma of cheap living • Cheap living requires cheap friends

If your subsistence work is less than full-time, then you must live on less than full-time wages. Already I can picture my younger self howl with derision at the idea. ‘I’ve been living on next to no money for ages,’ he complains. ‘If I have a full-time career and the salary that goes with it I can do my own thing: leave home, have nights out without watching my money all the time – be independent for the first time. I don’t care if I don’t find my career fulfilling right now. I want to enjoy myself.

But what I did not discover until much later, what was not obvious to me, was that if you investigate your own work, if you dedicate time to discovering the pleasure it can bring, this pleasure and self-esteem more than compensates for an inability to purchase more stuff.

Every career job made demands on my income that I was unable to avoid. I spent a chunk of my salary on travel to work, a larger proportion on more expensive accommodation within easy commuting distance of central London. I had to buy food for lunch each day in order not to waste precious time in the morning making it for myself. But much more financially crippling was my changed attitude to the money left over: now I viewed the gadgets, the alcohol, the holidays I could buy as simply what I deserved for working so hard.

Living cheaply has a long history of shame. The idea that less money means lower status is deeply entrenched in our psyches. It is associated with a sixties hippy philosophy, with being anti-modern, anti-technology. For me it is none of these things. The only problem with cheap living is how you feel about cheap living, and once you stop associating it with low status it is no problem at all. Living cheaply is now not even an onerous project, because I no longer associate it with low status: if I find a cheaper way to do something, I am pleased because it means I can work less for money. And once you view the cheap option with glee rather than annoyance or shame, these choices are much easier.

7. University is Not Essential

How I benefitted from university – in everything except the attainment of a degree • The rising costs of university make it less valuable • The non-academic benefits of university are available elsewhere • What if your own work requires a degree? • Postponing university, perhaps forever • The depressing graduate career path

The benefits that I did derive from university were byproducts of the actual education. Because I had to leave home in order to attend, and because there were thousands of other people my own age who also lived there, I learned many useful skills: how to negotiate living in a household of peers rather than family members, how to cook for myself, how to ration money so I had some left at the end of a term. There were the lessons of how to set limits on socialising and not sleeping when there was no parental brake. I learnt the joys of intense friendships centred around shared living – the joy of gangs – and the difficulties of relationships within tight-knit groups. I even had the time (when my degree work did not get in the way) and the resources of the university library to read and write as I liked, and to make discoveries about the pleasure of writing for myself.

The main goal is to avoid the depressing life of so many graduates: who leave university with a degree but no knowledge of the work that truly interests them; who spend their first months, perhaps years, miserably toiling in part-time subsistence work, and desperately spend all their spare time applying for that golden career job; who, when to their joy they finally land their longed-for career job realise, more months or years down the line, the stress and lack of fulfilment that this career provides; and who then wonder, now burdened with their career lifestyle, how they might return to the part-time subsistence work that they had upon graduation.

8. The Joy of Work

Why is there joy in work of your own, but not in a traditional career? • The joy of work is not obvious • ‘What would I do if money was no object?’ • Discipline and process are more important than talent • Creativity is not limited to ‘the arts’ • Find your gang

When you are wondering about the nature of the creative work that is for you, the question you are really trying to answer is: what would you do with yourself if money was no object? Because if it is not the work that you currently want to do, then what is your reason for doing that work? Why have a burning desire to write stories that you take no pleasure in, if the reason is to be able to make a living from writing full-time that you will still take no pleasure in? You could be doing something much more lucrative.

What I tried not to do, and what I ought to have done more, was copying and stealing from my heroes. Any first-time creative work begins with imitation. I tried not to do this of course – because I did not want to be accused of copying… after a while I realised that what I was trying to copy was not the actual work of my heroes, but the way in which they made me delight in their work. You try to rearrange elements in your chosen field – for writing: descripton, plot, character – in a way that produces a similar delightful effect, but which uses your own content.

Everyone suffers from Imposter Syndrome. Including all those people who are now famous for the works they created. Countless biographies of creative people contain a line to the tune of, ‘I was not really sure what I was doing until X wanted to publish/booked me for/exhibited Y’. Everyone feels like an imposter until that time when a stranger, unprompted, praises your work and perhaps even offers money for it. Even then the famous only seem to feel a little less of an imposter.

Another obstacle to people creating their own work is the idea that creativity is limited to ‘the arts’. Although I write here about the creative work of writing, that is only because that is what I like to do. To separate out certain subjects and call them ‘the arts’ is misleading, and reinforces the idea that creativity is only found in writing, film, music, painting, etc. There is creativity in everything: in science, in sport, in starting your own business, even in more abstract areas such as the vague sense of ‘organising people’. For me, ‘art’ means ‘any activity in which you feel the pleasure of creative work ’, and ‘artist’, ‘someone who values their own creative work’, who values it more than the work they do for money.

9. Success

When success was all about publication I felt unsuccessful • Creating regular time for your own work is success in itself • Sustainable creativity • The invisibility of this kind of success

One of the main reasons I found it hard to find pleasure in writing was that I was not even looking for it in the actual process of creating something. I bored myself in my vain attempts to be successful, in wondering how to get influential people to read my work, in the hours spent researching short story competitions, in altering style and word count in order to give them more of a chance. None of this work to be successful was successful. Instead it took me away from the times when I did feel pleasure, in actually putting words on paper, in trying to recreate the delight that I feel at reading other writers.

There are many more people who plug away at their own creative work, perhaps making some money but not a living from it, supporting themselves with other subsistence work, and who live a life that they consider successful. They are just not visible, because their notion of success is not the same as society’s notion of success. I knew of no one who lived like this when growing up – it took me until my thirties to even be aware of their existence.

Take semi-retirement from the world of full-time traditional careers. Do so before you even start. You are not slacking off, you are not ‘joining the ranks of the unemployed’. You are only unemployed, or underemployed, if you have no creative work with which to fill your spare time. When you are immersed in a project of your own which gives you pleasure, you always have the knowledge that there is work to which you are keen to return. You don’t get Sunday evening blues before Monday work, because even if you have to do subsistence work the next day, it won’t be that long before you can get back to the projects that really thrill you.

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