Here’s a brief rundown of some of the (very broad) possibilities for making a living (please fill me in if I’ve overlooked one – I’m sure I have):
- you work for someone else, but you love your job or feel fulfilled
- you work for someone else, it’s ok, but you can’t complain
- you work for someone else and hate it – you want a better job working for someone else
- this is going to be the last job you work for someone else – it’s time to work for yourself!
- you work for several clients (e.g., freelancing), but it feels like basically working for yourself
- you work for several clients and it’s too much – it doesn’t feel like an improvement
- you work on projects for yourself that others pay you to do (e.g., some authors, performers, researchers)
I admit this list is going to have to be somewhat of a caricature, it seems to me that only the last example comes closest to truly working on your life’s work – but even it isn’t yet necessarily the ideal! For example:
Certain professions, such as academia and the law, might often fall into this last category. Effectively, a tenured English prof *at a research university* (important caveat) made his/her career by writing and researching a small area of interest within his/her larger field of specialty. This area constitutes what they’re mostly interested in, and the career they develop largely grows out of this. In that sense, they become paid to continue to research in an area of great interest. (The professor example is a bit off, though, since formally speaking, professors are employed by universities and are also required to teach as part of this employment. So in that sense, even the professor at an R1 isn’t even working for him/herself).
But let’s assume the English prof scored a position at a magical university where teaching wasn’t required. Even in this scenario, I’d argue, they might not ideally be working for him/herself, and they certainly aren’t necessarily “doing their life’s work” or fulfilling their life purpose. (Although in some cases it’s possible they actually might be).
Even in academia, there is a “market” for certain kinds of scholarship. No matter what discipline you’re in, there are always hot topics and fashions that come and go. Should you try and build a career against the grain by research a topic that has essentially been “voted down” by most of everyone else in your profession, you’ll have a hard time. This is as true in the sciences as it is in the humanities, broadly speaking. So even if the English professor above does nothing but research, in a sense s/he is still working for someone else – the academic knowledge market which will determine which of his/her articles get published and whether a book is worthy of publishing.
Are You Just Working For the Market?
I’m sure you can think of other examples where, although for all effective purposes, a person is self-employed (as we usually mean that), but where his/her services are still in lockstep with the market (well, what other services would there be, you might ask?).
The distinction I’m suggesting here is that if one has only built a business or profession first in terms of what certain people need, or what certain groups want, etc. then the danger arises that you might still be defining your work externally.
It seems to me that our real “life’s work,” inasmuch as it exists, would be:
1. defined internally and
2. not necessarily have any pre-existing market which it would “sell” itself to.
Now, I could be wrong – perhaps this is too “idealistic” a version of one’s life work. It clearly assumes some things about marketing and what marketing consists in. On the one hand, there is the idea that any real life purpose is going to consist in providing some kind of service or help to others. But on the other hand, it needs to be something you love to do. Maybe my point is that you need to start with the second statement and the first will follow naturally.
Consider the following two rising trends: (1) the preponderance of “life coaches” and (2) growing perceived need for personal branding.
What factors would you use to select a life coach for yourself? And what factors go into determining your personal brand? Do you think either or both of these trends is just a result of market conditions today? To what extent is a personal brand tied to one’s “life work”?
This blog, for instance, is some kind of medium between what my readers need and like and topics I’m interested in for myself. I write about topics I’ve already thought about myself because they interest me, but I don’t write on all topics which interest me – only those that ostensibly fit within personal finance and the idea of leveraging your life to live the life you want. In my own research, I have a greater degree of freedom in researching ostensibly that which I’m most interested, but even there I realize how it too is ultimately driven by broader market trends in academia.
What do you think – how much is your job just a function of the market? And if you’re self-employed, did you create your own market? Or are you just serving a pre-existing market? Where does “creating demand” fit into this? – providing a service that hasn’t existed yet or that people didn’t know they wanted? Is one pathway better than the other? Can both be your “life’s work,” or is that a concept that can only have meaning for those already in the middle-class, with some time and luxury to contemplate it and put it into action?Related Posts
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