If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be gainfully employed in the field of your dreams, you’ve had a taste of the fulfillment that comes with doing what you love for a living.
I had the great fortune of that experience at age 21. I had just graduated college and secured a job on a year long tour of the musical comedy Cinderella.
I still remember my first few days of work. I sat in rehearsals pinching myself, not believing my dreams were coming true….
A few months later, the Fall of 2008 hit and my dream job was cut short.
By January 2009, I was back in New York City ‘pounding the pavement’ to find my next gig.
Despite the global economic upheaval and the well-known struggle of forging a career in the arts, my fresh out of college naiveté left me optimistic.
About a month later I got my first bitter taste of the profession I had come to love…
I was offered a contract to play three principal roles in three musicals for a grand total of $225 a week.
In addition to rehearsals and performances, I would be expected to contribute to other technical elements of the show – sets, costumes, etc.
Mind you, this was not a summer job in between college semesters. This was my living.
I turned down the offer.
Instead, I took a comparatively lucrative job as a singer on a cruise ship… which I absolutely hated. Two months and multiple counts of sexual harassment later, I quit.
I spent the following year working all over the map. First, at a regional theater, then on the road, touring. I was performing and I loved it. But every contract I negotiated, I felt I had to give up more and more to continue doing what I loved for a living.
Less pay. Fewer benefits. Questionable working conditions.
I was on a tour where we would get on the bus at 5am, drive until 4pm, check into the hotel, then drive to the theatre for a 5pm sound check followed by a performance…every day…for months!
Every other aspect of life started to become secondary. I was giving up everything from basic financial security to once in a lifetime celebrations with friends and family to continue ‘pursuing my passion‘.
In the year that followed, I decided I had to become a member of Actor’s Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.
I wouldn’t go to other auditions, I wouldn’t accept non-union contracts.
I saw the union as the solution to my problems – it would protect me from unpaid wages, ridiculous hours and unreasonable job expectations.
And just before Christmas, it happened. I was offered my first union contract with the opportunity to become a member.
I couldn’t pay the membership fee fast enough. Not only was I going to continue doing what I loved, but I was going to get benefits, insurance and the protection of my union.
Within a few months of becoming a full-fledged member, I got a job offer.
I was called in as a last minute replacement, so I didn’t know much about the contract other than the fact that I would be performing in a multi-million dollar musical at Madison Square Garden!
I jumped in and learned the show in two days. I was so enthralled with the production and everyone I was working with that I didn’t think twice about contracts or pay.
And then it came… $542 a week (before taxes, union dues, and agent fees). It couldn’t be right.
I had made it. I was in the union. We were playing one of the biggest theaters in New York City. This was a dream job.
I loved what I was doing so much, I wound up not even caring that my take home pay was less than $400 each week.
But my rose colored glasses started to neutralize when I began to calculate my financial reality.
In four weeks I would take home roughly $1,600. (If you know anything about New York City living, you know that $1,600/month doesn’t leave much wiggle room – especially with unemployment just around the corner).
What had I allowed myself to accept simply because I was so in love with the work?
How could the union allow it? How could my co-workers allow it? How could I allow it?
I loved that job so much, I would’ve done it again. And I know my co-workers would have too. And therein lies our weakness as people who love what they do….
We are willing to compromise everything, including the ability to meet our basic needs, to continue doing what we love for a living.
BUT If we continue to negotiate the things we need, proper and fair payment being chief among them, we can lose the freedom to pursue the lives and careers we love altogether.
The real danger in doing what you love for a living is liking your job so much that you’re willing to compromise what your time is worth to continue doing it.
When you know you’re being undervalued, or that your work is compromising your relationships, or preventing you from fulfilling your personal priorities, and you’re STILL not willing to walk away, doing what you love becomes a liability.
If we don’t want to end up in a position of continuous compromise, we need to reframe doing what we love within the context of our lives as a whole. Building lifestyles we love, not just careers we love.
Lifestyles that reflect all of our values, needs and priorities and not just a select one or two at the exclusion of all others.
I know that some might argue that being truly passionate about something means being willing to compromise all else, but I struggle to understand who that narrative benefits, other than employers who continue to offer lesser wages and fewer benefits.
It’s also a limiting narrative. If you think your only options are doing what you love for a living and being broke – or – getting a well paying job and being unfulfilled, you’re essentially giving yourself the option of struggling professional fulfillment or miserable personal stability. What a lose – lose!
If we can begin to accept that doing what we love for a living is part of our passion and not the singular definition of it, we can begin to think more creatively and holistically about how to build lifestyles that reflect all of our values and priorities, not just a select one or two.
Here are some steps to get started…
If you’ve always been motivated by passionate career pursuits, you’ve probably spent plenty of time contemplating your dream job – imagining what it would look and feel like to do what you love full-time.
Be sure to apply that same level of careful consideration to all of your lifestyle domains – relationships, family, health, home, lifestyle, feelings and finances, (in addition to career).
When you give yourself permission to define your ideal in each of your lifestyle domains, you begin to uncover what matters most to you. Namely, your guiding values and priorities.
As you get clear with your vision, you’ll be better able to align your to-dos with those priorities, giving consideration to all of your values as you move forward with next steps, rather than blindly pushing forward your career goals without consideration for your other priorities.
As you review your goals in each of your lifestyle domains, consider the ‘whys’ behind them.
For example, if my goal is to be in a Broadway show, my ‘why’ might be the high salary of a Broadway contract, or the validation of being on Broadway, or the thrill of performing in New York City, or a combination of all of the aforementioned.
When I look at those ‘whys’ though, they’re not particularly compelling. They’re largely ego driven and shaped by the expectations of others.
I find this to be true among my colleagues as well – all those acquaintances who say they’d gladly leave show business if they could just get one Broadway contract.
That’s not doing what you love for a living, that’s the avoidance of ‘failure’, and it makes for a weak, unsustainable goal.
As you reflect on your goals – career and otherwise – it’s critical to consider the ‘whys’ behind them to assess whether those goals are sustainable over the long-term.
Generally speaking, goals that work long-term are based on your values, they’re grounded in your desired feelings and they’re largely within your control.
Goals that don’t work tend to be ego-driven, outside of your control, shaped by the expectations of others and out of alignment with your core value systems.
If you find that some of your goals are weak – ego-driven, shaped by the expectations of others or out of alignment with your vision and desired feelings – either cross them off your list or think about ways you can transform them into strong goals.
This will give you an opportunity to consider new goals that better align with your ‘why’.
For example, if I want to be in a Broadway show to have more financial stability and bask in the joy of performing, there may be other vehicles better suited to those ends that also align with my core values in other lifestyle domains.
For example, in addition to greater financial stability, I may also want more personal flexibility, which a Broadway show playing nights and weekends may not offer.
In my case, starting my own business enabled the financial stability I craved while providing the flexibility I needed to pursue performing on my own terms, without compromising personal pursuits like travel or time with friends and family.
By considering all of my lifestyle priorities, I was able to uncover more sustainable and fulfilling approaches to my career.
Entertaining and exploring new approaches to career goals doesn’t mean giving up on them. Just as saying yes to non-career priorities like family, friends and flexibility doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to professional fulfillment and doing what we love.
Research shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled. So even if what you love isn’t what you do full-time, working on your passion a little bit each day, (even if it’s just for 15 minutes), can still generate feelings of fulfillment.
If we give ourselves permission to say ‘yes, and’ when considering our lifestyle priorities instead of choosing one at the expense of all others, we can begin the process of finding more fulfilling and sustainable pathways to creating lifestyles we love, and avoid the traps of dream jobs that don’t pay enough and require constant, unsustainable compromise.
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