Do What You Love
Photo by Kristina Button
The memory comes to me as a snapshot. I’m twenty-four years old and I’m standing outside my office where I have the fancy pants title of “Assistant Dean of Students/Director of Career Planning and Placement.”
Since it’s pre-internet, I’m posting job opportunities on the career board with a stapler. The jobs aren’t great: housekeeping, babysitting, dishwashing. The usual.
Then there’s the one for “Leadership Coordinator,” which makes me roll my eyes. When students excitedly ask me about it, I tell them the truth. The job is selling overpriced knives. This may sound a cut above being a dishwasher at a greasy spoon, but dishwashing will ultimately be more lucrative and aunts and uncles won’t feel conned into buying three hundred dollars worth of utensils.
“Dishwashing will be more fun,” I tell them. “Trust me.”
A student interrupts my posting efforts, which is what students are supposed to do. She looks over my shoulder at the menial jobs and sheepishly tells me she’s thinking of changing her major. She loves English, she says. Maybe she’d like to teach. Or write. She doesn’t want to be a nurse after all. She says the science is killing her, and she doesn’t like the sight of blood. She wants to “help people,” but …
I do my job: I listen. I encourage. I ask questions. She’s tells me she’s afraid that other careers might not be as stable as nursing, and she’s right. Her parents are excited about her career path that will include a decent salary and benefits. But I see the desperation in her eyes and repeat the words I’ve said to many students over the previous years.
With all seriousness, I tell her this: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
I mean this. With every ounce of my being, I believe it. Oh sure, I tell her, a teacher may not make as much as, say, a doctor. A novelist may or may not make as much as a nurse. But those who do what they truly love—those who do it with passion and conviction—will be rewarded. I’m as sure of it as I am the fact that the guy who sells knives will quit that stupid job after four miserable months.
The student walks away hopeful. I turn back to the job postings board, confident I’ve done my job well.
Fast forward twenty years. My title and responsibilities have both changed, although my current titles, “author” and “adjunct professor,” both still sound fancy pants. For the past six years, I’ve pursued a dream. I’m doing what I love. The money, however, has yet to follow.
I’m trying to believe what I told my students all those years ago, but it’s not easy.
There are days I feel that maybe I’m focusing my efforts in all the wrong places. Well meaning friends are quick to offer advice. They say, “You need to blog … attend conferences … sell yourself!” Fellow sojourners encourage me to update my LinkedIn profile. Acquisition editors, who love my writing, want to talk numbers: how many blog subscribers, how many Twitter followers, how many Facebook friends, how many copies of The Waiting Place have sold? It feels as though the quality of my writing isn’t as important as my online presence. And although I fight it, my enthusiasm deflates like a leaky balloon.
But I keep at it, driven by the pleasure I’ve experienced from having written something that makes a difference in someone’s life. I write, I speak, I teach. Once in a while, I network online, even though doing so makes me feel like that guy who sells knives. I try to remain faithful to whatever doors have opened for me while I tentatively knock on new ones. I try not to take it personally when doors are slammed in my face.
I work hard at what I do, but I make less than I did at my first, post-college “real” job. (A job, by the way, that I loathed.) If my family were dependent on my salary as a writer/teacher/speaker, we’d easily qualify for food stamps.
When I say this to friends, they tell me I shouldn’t worry about that—that I shouldn’t be in it for the money anyway. Writers, like ministers (hey, I know one of those!), are somehow considered “less than” if they believe they should be paid for their time. Doctors, nurses—heck, even baristas—expect to be paid, but it’s somehow ignoble for a writer to admit she needs to make money too.
I no longer quote the optimistic saying, “If you do what you love the money will follow.” But I do believe it’s important that we all do what we love. As we pursue whatever that is, it simply may be necessary to find another avenue to provide the goofy paycheck.
Thing is, I don’t regret this path I’m on. Oh, I wish I started writing a long, long time ago so that I could have somehow established myself as a writer before the internet created a gazillion hoops through which writers must jump. Perhaps I could have been an Anna Quindlen or a Richard Russo or an Anne Lamott who never needed an updated LinkedIn profile to spark someone’s interest. I could have started writing fresh out of college, but I just didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say.
Today, I’m writing at Panera Bread. The couple in the booth next to me is talking about the virtues of organic chicken purchased from the Farmers’ Market. Another couple, clearly work associates, is trying to bore one another to death. He’s talking about his wife’s educational pursuits; she admits she has eczema, pulling her prescription cream from her Vera Bradley as proof. They’ve spent the last two hours talking about nothing, trying to figure out if they’re on a work break or a forbidden date.
At the counter, an overly-enthusiastic cook announces, “I HAVE A STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE!” in the same way that a carnie might announce, “WE HAVE A WINNER HERE!”
And I am doing what I love. The money has yet to follow, but it’s a good place to be.