Thursday, 28 August 2014

What Do I Do If I Don't Have a Vocation or a Vision?

I ran across this article about managing a career as a freelance photographer and especially staying in it for a long time. I don’t know, but assume from the subject of the article, that the turnover rate for freelancers is quite high.

The advice is along the lines of “follow your artistic instincts, develop your own style that people will pay for, and make up a proper business plan, with five-year financial projections.” There’s a lot more than that, and it is worth reading.

It turns out that the author, Doug Menuez, is a superstar. Stanford University hosts a collection of his photographs, which is superstar enough. So his advice is fine if you happen to be a superstar photographer, or indeed, a superstar anything. What about the rest of us? What does an ordinary working stiff like me do?

I’m going to riff on this quote:
"There are many [photographers] who do this exact thing [try to second-guess and follow the market, rather than their own artistic taste] and end up with a middling level of success, stuck on a financial and creative plateau, slowly starting to run out of gas. After a few years they hate their their work and life in general. They are getting divorced or leaving the business or pursuing whatever diversion eases the pain. They are not living the dream. They are not challenging themselves creatively because they did not give themselves permission to be who they are as photographers in the first place. This is the road to being a burned out, bitter hack. Boring."
That’s what everyone should want to avoid, though most don’t. But how do we do it if we don’t feel a strong sense of vocation and have an inner artistic direction? Aren’t we then condemned to go along to get along and get burned out? Before I set off on this essay, I would have said, well, that’s the assumption. Now I’m not so sure.

Most of the time I have been employed to run and improve some kind of process, to gather, process and disseminate facts, and I’ve been paid for what I do, not to put in the hours. Sometimes the office was grotty, perhaps by being stuck out in some ghastly suburb, and sometimes the people were not my speed, and sometimes there was outright crookedness going on. But I rarely felt it as “hard graft”.

Am I following any kind of “passion”? Is this work satisfying to my inner soul? Am I a reputed member of some serious professional group? Am I part of a professional or industry community? Do I get my identity from what I do? This is a string of NO’s. I call it “my day job” for a reason - it’s my day job. There are people who would answer many of these questions with a YES: they have reputations, published books and papers, consultancies, and make some kind of contribution. I am, by contrast, the quintessential lurker. I do what I do to make a living, not because I have an interest in the Great Cause of Data or any other darn thing.

But nor am I a burned-out hack. I know what those men and women look like: the building I work in and the trains I commute on are full of them. How have I dodge it?

The companies I have worked for did something that was useful to their customers, charged a sensible price for it, and were reasonable places to work. I’ve never worked in a company where they have to lie to the customer and any passing regulators (Big Pharma anyone?) about the usefulness and desirability of their products. I’ve never worked anywhere there was a sense of treating the customers with contempt. (Okay, there is one exception to this, but I never bought into the mind-set, and the organisation now thinks a lot more like I do.) I’ve never had to con myself about where I worked and what I did.

My idea of “working for a living” is doing a job where a) there is a constant stream of work coming in and my productivity is being measured, and / or b) I have to use a certain formula, method or script to handle the task, and c) it is not possible to zone out and do the thing on muscle-memory. Actually a) and / or b) will do, c) turns it from “work” to “sheer hell”. You and I may have totally different reactions to a job: my idea of hell might be your idea of a terrific challenge. I have worked for a living a couple of times. Once for about eight weeks when I was credit controlling / collecting debts for a building company. That was hard grind, and the slowest-moving clock I ever watched. The other was during teacher-training. Not one moment to take as time out. Washing-up in a staff canteen over the summer holidays? Now that’s what I call a doddle. Except when I was in the deepest throes of drinking, I pretty much arrived on time and left on time. I’ve never had to clock in.

Now this is a surprise to me. It turns out that I have been working in accordance with some basic values I have, in reasonable places, and leaving on time so I can get on with whatever passed for my life at the time. This is not the vocation / vision -driven idea that Doug Menuez talks about, but it will do for those of us who don’t really have vocations and visions.

Only work at honest companies that treat you reasonably well, arrive and leave on time, have a life outside work, and work in a manner that suits you (I’ve described mine, but your preference may differ). Hmmm. I’m not sure that isn’t as tall an order as finding and following a vocation. How many companies are like that?

If everyone decided that was where and how they were going to work, a lot of companies would lose their staff pretty much overnight. Maybe this is a more subversive message than the vocation / vision one?

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