Do you have a ‘Job’, or do you have a ‘Career’?

Have you reached “TGIM” — Thank God It’s Monday — status yet? If you have a job, probably not… you’re probably looking forward to Friday, and less excited about Monday. But if you have a career, work could be the most rewarding part of your life. This week, Mark Ford explains why he thinks they’re different and walks us through how he transitioned from a job, to a career. According to him, it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you currently do – anyone can say goodbye to those Monday blues.

Most people have jobs. They go to work each morning dutifully, do their best to execute their duties, come home tired, and look forward to weekends and vacations.

They do this to make ends meet, hoping something better will come along. And better things do come now and then, along with setbacks. But the drudgery continues. Week in. Week out. 40 years pass. Life has been half miserable. But it’s time for retirement.

Retirement is getting out of job jail. No more hated work. It’s now time for relaxation and fun.

Just kidding!

As it turns out, retirement today is this: After giving up a fairly well paid full-time job, you take on several poorly paid part-time jobs (without benefits) to pay for your ever-increasing retirement expenses.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can spare yourself the misery by ditching the job early on and replacing it with a career.

What’s the difference?

You work a job to make money. You work a career to build something you value. A job is something you do to make money. A career is a life’s vocation.

With a job, you are always thinking about the time you won’t be working. With a career, you are always thinking about it even when you aren’t working.

The reason for this is a matter of focus. A job looks inward: “I do this to make me money.” A career looks outward: “I am building something that others can appreciate or use.”

The litmus test for determining whether you have a job or a career is this question (suggested to me by Gary North many years ago): If you could afford to, would you do it for free?

Is one better than the other?

What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t work for money. You should work on having a career.

If you don’t like your work but are doing it because you have to support yourself and/or a family, start working on a Plan B. Plan B is titled: Doing Something I Care About.

Satisfaction comes from doing something you care about. And if you can make money for 40 years doing something you care about and creating something that has value to others – you have a career!

Measured in quotidian terms, having a career can be challenging since you are constantly focused on the work, and the work sometimes does not go as well as you might want. But even when the work is frustrating, it involves you in a way that is somehow satisfying. And when the work goes well, there’s nothing like it.

On a personal note…

Okay, so maybe having a career is better in terms of leading a richer internal life. But how does that help? If you have a job now, can you transform it into a career?

Well, it may depend on what you are doing.

I have worked as a writer and editor for about 40 years. For more than half that time, writing was a job for me. I did it to make money. I worked hard at it, did it well and did make a lot of money, which was great.

But I never really enjoyed the “job”. In fact, I was sometimes embarrassed by the writing I was doing. At times it felt cheesy and even manipulative.

That changed when I was 50. I changed my priorities. Making money wasn’t even on the list.

I began writing about topics I valued, like art collecting, language and literature. I was also writing movie scripts, short stories and poems.

Before, the “purpose” of the writing I had been doing was to sell products and services and thereby make a lot of money. After, the purpose of my writing was to teach readers what I had learned about making money. It was the same topic, but the intention was different. It had moved from me (inward) to them (outward).

So that is the first and main thing. But there are requirements for your work to be a career:

The work should be challenging. It should require the best of you – your intelligence, your intuition, your stamina, and your care. Ideally, it should require both knowledge and skill and thus give you the opportunity to learn and improve forever.

It should produce things or provide services that are enjoyable and/or useful to other people. This adds a social component to the experience.

It should be accretive. That is, the value of the goods or services you produce should increase as your career continues. (For example, I feel like the writing I’ve done on entrepreneurship, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. One day I’d like to assemble all my writing on that subject in a course or multivolume library.)

What do you do if you can’t make a career of your job?

Not everyone can make a career out of his or her job. An architect certainly could. Instead of designing commercial crap for the highest bidder, she could gradually develop her own style, one that she likes and that would serve users, and she could produce work over her lifetime that would endure for generations.

But what if you work on an assembly line or have a mail route or spend your days balancing ledgers?

In theory, I suppose you can. One of my great friends transitioned from sculptor to lighting designer and made his living that way, but never considered that he had made a change. In his mind, he was still an artist and still developing his craft. He’s gone now, but there are many times when I see a lighting “effect” and think of him.

But let’s say that you can’t imagine how to make the change. And yet you are going to keep your job because you need or want the money.

Does that mean you have to miss out on a rich life?

I don’t think so. You can have a rich life by adopting an avocation.

A career, as I said in the beginning, is a lifetime vocation. An avocation is literally a side vocation, something you do outside of your job that can present you with all the benefits of a career.

For example, Wallace Stevens, one of the great American poets of the 20th century, made his money working as the vice president of insurance company The Hartford. His life in the office was boring but his life as a poet was immensely rich. When he won the Pulitzer Prize, people in Stevens’s office didn’t even know he wrote poetry.

You don’t need to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to have an avocation. There are hundreds of them available. You could become a poet, an artist or an art collector. You could learn to cultivate Bonsai, build fine furniture or make your own movies. But not everything you might want to do “on the side” can qualify as an avocation.

Although they may be activities you are happy to do without compensation, going to the movies, reading books or smoking pot don’t qualify, since they do not present the other benefits you can get from a career. They don’t challenge you to learn and grow. They don’t provide a social benefit. And they have no accretive value.

Hobbies such as golfing, playing poker or tennis may qualify on two counts (something you are happy to do for free and something that you can learn and improve on), but they do not provide social value or leave a body of work that can be enjoyed by others after you are gone.

Like a career, you can determine if an activity is an avocation by asking yourself:

  1. Would you do it without compensation because it is fun to do?
  2. Will it be perpetually challenging?
  3. Will it provide enjoyment and/or value to others?
  4. Does it have accretive value?