When you should work for the money alone and shirk on your job

One of the most frequent pieces of career advice is to do something for immaterialistic reasons. Sometimes people say to “follow your passion”. This is BS and in this post I explain, why.

First of all, any piece of advice is beneficial for some people and deadly for others. If

  • you are like doing some activity, for which there is demand you can easily capture,
  • you can greatly increase your skill level within 5 years, and
  • there are reputable sources (books, courses, people), which you can access,

then you, indeed, should find a good-enough starting job. It won’t pad much at the start, but because you like that thing, it will be easy for you to systematically get better. After five or so years you may the be good enough for a well-paying job.

For example, if it’s software development you want to do for the rest of your life, not focusing on remuneration is good advice.

But what, if the thing you want to do has no established demand? Or there is demand, but you have no idea where those people are. Like, there certainly are people who want to read better prose, but it’s hard to find those of them who like your particular style. It’s much harder than going to a job interview.

Let’s say you want to write fiction, play music, or design rockets. In none of these cases does the above advice apply because

  • the demand for the products (fiction, music, rocket designs) is hard to detect (you cannot simply go to an employer and sell your services),
  • it takes much longer than 5 years to become so good at music, writing, or rocket science that someone would buy your product,
  • there are no proven ways to become a good writer or musician, and
  • the nurturing environment for rocket scientists is not available for most of us (unless you are living in the right place).

What should you do in these cases?

Get a job that satisfies two criteria:

  1. It pays enough.
  2. You don’t have to work too much (max. 40 hours per week).

Once you get the job, focus on 2 things:

  1. Keep the job during the first 40 hours of the week.
  2. Work on your big dream (writing, music, or rockets) during the other 40 hours.

The job must generate enough money for you not to worry about whether or not there will be food on the table. If you can’t find a job that pays enough, reduce your material requirements: no travel, ramen noodles instead of eating out etc.

It also must leave you enough time and energy for your real career. Jobs that require you to work for more than 40 hours are not suitable. When an employer brags about ping-pong tables, video games, and masseuses, it’s also a red flag. All those perks are there for a purpose — to keep you in the office as long as possible. That contradicts your goals (to have enough money to survive and enough time to gradually implement your dream).

If there are other activities that consume a lot of your time (like a relationship without kids), ask yourself: What’s more important to you — to keep this relationship or to implement your dream?

Unpredictable schedules can reduce your productivity. Therefore you should look for jobs where the schedule is stable so that you can establish a working routine that does not change frequently.

Example from my life

There was a time where I had the following daily routine. On business days (Monday through Friday) I got up at 04:30, finished my morning rituals (showering, shaving, brushing the teeth, meditation) at 05:30. I travelled to the office from 05:30 through 06:30 (in order to avoid crowds in the subway and save my emotional energy). From 06:30 through 09:00 I worked on my stuff. At 09:00 I started to work for my employer and did so until approx. 13:00. Then I had a 1-hour lunch break, which I also used to work on my novel. At about 18:00 my working day was over. I travelled home and was there at, at most, 20:00. This left me another 3 hours of working time. Hence, on a normal business day I could work for 6 hours per business day (2 in the morning, 1 in the lunch break, 3 in the evening = 2 + 1 + 3 = 6).

In order to avoid nasty side-effects of sleep deprivation, I got up much later (at 07:00 or even 08:00) on weekends. Still, even with that schedule I managed to work on my stuff for 10 hours each weekend day.

As a result, the total time you can spend on your writing (music, rocket science) amounts to 50 hours per week (6 hours per business day x 5 business days + 10 hours per weekend day x 2 weekend days = 30 + 20 = 50). That’s a theoretical limit. You can achieve it, if you are very disciplined.

If, like me, you are not, 40 hours per week (in addition to the day job) is absolutely doable. That’s as if you had two full-time jobs — the day job (shadow career) and the real one (writing, music, rocket science).

I certainly did not advance in my day job, but I made enough money to meet ends meet. My performance wasn’t the best, but it was good enough for the employer not to fire me.

Classics did it as well!

Classics seemed to employed the same strategy: Goethe worked as a civil servant during his first years. Franz Grillparzer did this his entire life.

As far as I know, Chris Fox worked as a software developer before he became a full-time writer. James Patterson (according to a podcast by Steven Pressfield) worked as an advertising executive and worked on his novels during the first two hours of a business day. We will never know, how many of those he wrote, until his skill became good enough.

Steven Pressfield himself wrote that he had multiple careers. At one time he worked as a taxi driver and wrote in his spare time.