Can we ever really ‘enjoy’ our jobs?

June 2, 2010 in On Writing, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I approach the halfway mark of my writing course.  I have been really enjoying everything as a student, reading and writing, learning from those who are in the same boat and from those who have already succeeded to varying degrees.  But when it comes time to do this for a living, will I be able to enjoy it as much?

The answer I’ve always had in my mind has been a resounding “YES”, or else I would not have gone down this path in the first place.  But like everyone else when they think about a career change or just a change of scenery, I do have my doubts.  We always expect the grass to be greener on the other side, but is it, really?  Is it actually, genuinely “good”, or just, relatively speaking, “better”?

There is hardly a single person I have spoken to in recent months that is not either: (a) complaining about their job; (b) looking for a new job; (c) looking for a new career; (d) looking to go overseas; (e) about to start a new job; or (f) thinking about resigning from their current job.

Here are some case studies featuring some friends of mine:

(Click on ‘more…’ to continue)

Case Study 1: From Bigger to Smaller

I have this friend from university who worked in the same law firm as me but left because she couldn’t take the hours and stress.  She was working 80-100 hour weeks in mergers & acquisitions for a workaholic boss (and this was as a newlywed), and her husband (who worked in tax) didn’t have nearly as horrible hours.  Work had taken over her life and her health (and just about everything else), and enough was enough.  Frighteningly, this is a common occurrence at law firms, and thankfully more and more people are getting out while they can rather than sticking it out to the bitter end.

Anyway, so she quit and went down the road to a much smaller, mid-tier firm, doing basically the same thing but on a much smaller scale.  One of her conditions when she moved over was that her hours had to be controlled and reasonable.

I saw her again not long ago and asked her how she was doing.  She said it was definitely “better” than what she used to do.  The people were more normal and less panicky about everything.  Her hours were “decent”, working from 8am to 7pm on most days, though occasionally there’s nothing you can do when stuff just needs to be done and she finds herself stuck till midnight, but certainly no more “all-nighters”.  So she sacrificed a bit of money for a better lifestyle.  Not exactly a terrific one, but one she could accept and manage.

As for the work itself, I can tell you that the majority of the time, it’s not “enjoyable”.  Long meetings and thousands of pages of readings and lots and lots of repetitive, monotonous work.  It’s just that most of the time you have so much of it to do you don’t have time to get bored.  But a job is a job, right?

Case Study 2: Going Overseas

I have lots of friends who have taken the plunge to work overseas.  A few years ago, before the GFC at least, going to London, New York, Hong Kong or Dubai was the thing to do.  It’s a change of scenery and usually it’s much much more lucrative.  And being in a new environment can be very exciting.

Of those that haven’t lost their jobs and come back, the story is often very similar: great money, great experience, fantastic travel opportunities, lots of fun (outside of work).  But the work and the working environment itself?  Not so much.

The consensus is that in London, they love to ride the “hardworking Aussies” because they’re eager to prove themselves and because they know, deep down inside, that the pain is probably only temporary.  In New York, it’s all type A personalities and stress overload, and people don’t like to socialise in the office (or at least be seen doing so).  In Hong Kong, there’s lots of gossiping and backstabbing.  And in Dubai, the work is the same, but you end up always in the office because there’s nothing to do outside of it.

So it seems going overseas is all about enjoying everything else but the work.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, except you can’t really do it forever, right?

Case Study 3: Going In-House

Apart from going overseas, the most popular alternative for lawyers is probably going in-house, that is, working as the internal legal counsel of a company as opposed to working in a firm of lawyers.  The money is usually a lot better (unless you are a partner), and the hours, on the whole, are apparently paradisaical in comparison.

I have a close friend I used to work with, an extremely capable lawyer (one of the best I’ve ever met) had enough of the law firm hours and the crazy partners and decided to move in-house to work as in-house counsel for an investment bank.  The work, he told me, was so much easier because you just had to flick things on to the law firms, let them take all night to finish it off, and then just review it in the morning.  And for the most part, the hours were like 8am-5pm, which gave him plenty of time for his young family.

But a year or so later, he jumped ship to another investment bank.  And the year after that, he jumped again.  All banks of varying sizes, but his role was largely the same.  He told me that each place he went, things were initially good, but there’s so much bureaucracy and he felt tied down by all the hoops he had to jump through just to get the simplest of things done.  The lack of peripheral support and incompetence of colleagues was also a constant issue.

Now, after years of traversing the in-house landscape, this friend has come full circle and wants to head back into a commercial law firm with the goal of becoming partner.  The thing with these in-house roles, he told me, was that they are largely dead-end jobs with little variety, and your salary, while initially high, peaks very quickly and there’s nowhere else to go.  And the bureaucracy drove him crazy.  For someone as brilliant as him, and someone who obviously has ambitions to be something greater, these roles just weren’t doing it for him anymore.  Is this a matter of thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side?  Or was this just a personal journey he needed to go through to see what he really wanted all along was right in front of him?

Case Study 4: New Career

What I am about to do (or at least intend to do) is to venture into a completely different career path.  I believe this is what I want to do and I believe it will make me happy.

I’m sure I’m not the first one that has had this belief.  A lot of people I know have transitioned beautifully into new careers that they love and wouldn’t change for the world.  My sister, for example, quit as a corporate manager to become a teacher.  Like any job, there are hard times and difficulties, but she loves what she’s doing and she’s getting paid like you wouldn’t believe.

There are, however, a lot of others who find out after changing careers that things aren’t as rosy as they first imagined.  It could be a range of different things, from the money to the hours to the people to the work itself.  What initially seemed like an exciting new challenge quickly fizzled out into just another disappointing job.  Some suck it up and keep at it, hoping that one day things will change.  Others move on to a new profession again, while some end up going back to their first occupation.

I have a good friend that started off as an accountant in a big firm but hated what he was doing.  He then quit that and became a real estate agent, which made him happy for a while, but the sporadic nature of the market frustrated him.  So he went and started his own business.  That went along nicely for a little while, then he decided to go into screenwriting and crack TV and film market.  After finding out that it was harder than he envisioned, he went back to his business with renewed vigour and new initiatives.  A lot of people snigger at my friend’s fickleness, but he’s the most driven and happy person I know right now.  Nothing like watching a man strive for his goal against all odds that gets me feeling inspired.

Case Study 5: The Family Business

I know a few people who have grown up with entrepreneurial parents and thus have a “family business” they are expected to run when they grow up.  I used to wonder whether that’s a good or bad thing.  After all, all the ground work has been laid; you don’t really have to “work your way up”; and you get to be the boss and get people to do things for you.  Provided the business is stable, the money will roll in and you just have to sit back and relax.  Sounds good, right?

Well, not really.  I think gone are the days when it’s considered kind of poetic to follow your father’s footsteps.

I have a friend who recently returned from overseas to take over his father’s prosperous business.  It wasn’t something he wanted to do — he was having a terrific time in the UK, living by himself and working hard in the commercial world, trying to make a name for himself — but he’s a good son and none of his siblings were willing to make the sacrifice.  Now he tells me he’s bored out of his mind running the business.  Sure, it’s not as demanding as the corporate world, but it’s disheartening to see a man with ambition not being able to go after what he wants in life.

Case Study 6: “Dream” Jobs

We’ve all read it somewhere — people who seem to have “dream” jobs that make everyone else insanely jealous.  Getting paid well to do what you love.  No, not even that.  Simply being paid at all to do what you love is good enough for me.

But are dream jobs really that perfect?  I used to think so but now I wonder.

I was talking to a journalist a couple of days ago about travel writing.  It seems like a dream job to me, getting to travel all around the world and chronicling those experiences.  It’ll be like writing my Travel Diary but getting paid to do it!  But according to him, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.  He’s dabbled in a bit of it himself and said it wasn’t what he expected it to be.  The main problem is that you don’t get to actually enjoy the travelling.  Wherever you go, you’re always thinking about what to write, how to write it; what angles to put in, what and how to pitch the piece to your editor.  In short, it’s very different to taking a holiday and keeping a travel diary.

During the same conversation the topic moved on to food writing.  This was another dream job in my opinion (and certainly my wife agrees).  Getting paid to go eat at expensive, fine dining restaurants all the time?  How great is that?

Well, according to the same journalist (and another woman whose husband is a food photographer), the job is not as tasty one would think.  I suppose the problem is similar to travel writing in that you can’t really enjoy the food because you can’t write anything while you’re at the table but you still have to remember everything about it.  Fine dining is usually a special experience because it doesn’t happen very often — but if you’re doing it all the time, it loses its gloss very quickly.  Moreover, there is the problem of attending restaurants where the food is just not very good (or could be disgustingly unhealthy), but you still have to eat it.  The journalist told me a story of a friend in Hong Kong who had to eat a dish that resembled a used condom called “Sex on the Beach”.  How charming.  And, the food photographer’s wife added, it becomes a bit of a chore when you have to go out so many nights a month to restaurants you don’t want to go to.

But perhaps my biggest shock came from a very close friend of mine who quit his job as a writer.  For years, his job was my dream job.  Sure it didn’t pay very well, but all he had to do every day was write about — wait for it — movies and CDs and books.  He’d go to advanced movie screenings, get early copies of CDs and books, and all he’d have to do is sample them and write a review or article.  That’s pretty much what I do for this blog, except he gets paid for it!

So you can imagine my disbelief when he quit this job to go after his other passion in life — religion.  He told me that the job was just “okay”.  I thought he must have been kidding, but he told me that while these things look like fun to an outsider, when it becomes your job, it suddenly loses all its appeal.  For some strange reason, when you are forced to do it, you just don’t want to anymore.  And besides, there was the constant demand of editors and the pressure to change your writing to suit the desires of others, not to mention the pressure when publication time rolled around.

There’s a part of me that still thinks this friend is crazy.  If you can’t enjoy watching movies, listening to CDs and reading books for a living, how can there be any hope for the rest of us?

Case Study 7: True Love

I only know two people that genuinely love what they do.  You can sense it in their eyes and from the way they talk and walk.

The first one I mentioned earlier in Case Study 4 — the friend who keeps changing careers but is very happy.  I wonder if it has anything to do with being a business owner and being your own boss.  When the outcome matters, and I mean really matters, you’re likely to put more effort into it.  And if you are passionate about something, you’ll put all your heart and soul into it.  That’s what I think this friend is doing and why he is loving life.

The second one is, gasp, a lawyer.  A good friend since high school, we started work at roughly the same time.  Initially he wasn’t happy in his firm, a lower top-tier establishment known to be a bit of a dick place.  However, he enjoyed the work (god knows why) and he was BFFs with his boss (ditto).  When his boss decided to bail and jump to a smaller mid-tier firm, my friend naturally followed.  And hasn’t looked back.  I don’t know if it’s his personality but he truly likes what he does.  His hours are very good (staying past 6:30 is considered “late”, and he only works till midnight like once or twice a year), he knows what he’s doing and he’s good at it.  The boss is great, the people are good and the culture suits him.  There’s no reason for him to consider going elsewhere.

So, yeah, I dunno.  I’m hoping that a job can be enjoyed.  I just need to find the right one.