Did the 9 to 5 Just Kill Our Creativity?

How to reignite your reason to do work that matters

If you grew up in the 1980s there were dozens of anti-drug advertisements on TV. One I’ll never forget. The public service announcement is called “Circles.” There’s a man standing in an empty square room and he speaks to the camera.

I do coke… so I can work longer… so I can earn more… so I can do more coke… so I can work longer.

The funny part about the PSA is you can substitute dozens of legal motivators for the word ‘coke’ and you’d get the same result. I think about this commercial a lot. It’s never left my mind, even after 30 years — and for all the wrong reasons.

This isn’t an anti-work story. I want to make that clear. But this is an anti-job story.

The difference between your job and your work is your job is what you do and your work is who you are.

This is a pro-calling story. I believe we should all work where we matter most. It’s easy to take a job for the money, but eventually we get mis-matched between what we do and what we’re meant to do.

If we want to find our work that matters most, we must dedicate a portion of our day to our true calling, even if that calling is not part of our day job.

When you think about day jobs they’re not much different than the ‘Circles’ PSA.

  • We wake up early, with just enough time to spruce ourselves presentable, splash coffee down our gullets, and get the kids to school before we make the journey to the office.
  • We hang our coat on the same hook, dump our keys in the same drawer, check email at the same time, and wave hello to the few work friends you wish to keep on your side.
  • We attend meetings, push paper, press buttons, look busy, and attend more meetings.
  • We plan, strategize, and Kaizen our way to a new, better, same-as-it-was-last-year strategic whatever.
  • A wild day might be a trip to the cafeteria for an extra bagel.
  • Doesn’t matter if it’s Tuesday or next year.
  • We do it so we can earn money… so we can buy more crap… so we can come back tomorrow… so we can earn more money…

We repeat the process. Like the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, where the guy wakes up to the same day every morning — reliving it repeatedly. If we’re lucky our boss wants us to be connected all the time, so you can get a string of Sunday afternoon emails, hot and ready for you to work on Monday morning.

This is our 9 to 5.

It’s more like an all-the-time to anytime. As the strategists and consultants optimize us closer to replaceable cogs, all our creativity must go out the door with it. We sit so much — too much. They say sitting will kill us. So, the safety team decides to buy us all standing desks. Now we can work later and die standing instead of sitting.

This environment is poisonous for creatives.

We need motion and emotion. We need an environment where we can leave our mark.

We used to get a pension once we sat through enough meetings or turned enough screws. Now we get downsized. It’s no surprise people graduate with such entitlement for more.

Somewhere along the line, we, as creatives, got lost.

The Golden Handcuffs came along and made quitting too painful. They paid us just enough to prevent us from escaping… so we can work longer. Nihilistic? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I like to think of it as awakening.

What’s the alternative?

Sure, you can stick it to ‘the man’ and quit, but then what. Most entrepreneurial ventures don’t make it. Of the ones that make it through their first year, 95% of those won’t hit their fifth. It might feel great the first day you walked out, but if you’re not prepared to feed yourself, you’ll end up taking random jobs you hate… so you can make more money…

It’s a dangerous circle and we’ve got to be careful where we step.

There are plenty of companies that offer creative freedom, but you’re still part of the corporate culture. You’re just a different kind of cog. Maybe we go the James Altucher route and choose ourselves and join the gig economy. If we take the freelance route we’ll work ourselves seven days a week for the privilege of not having to work five days a week.

At the end of the day we need money coming in to support ourselves and our family. We want three things in return, so we don’t feel like the guy in the cocaine video. When we get these three things the job turns more into the work:

  • We want complexity from our work.
  • We want autonomy from our work.
  • We want a relationship between effort and reward.

If one of those pieces is missing we feel unfulfilled.

How do we keep the creativity and the comfort simultaneously?

I don’t believe we can.

The stoic, Marcus Aurelius, tells us the right work is something that keeps us from eating or bathing — that we work so feverishly we can’t imagine doing anything else — that we’d rather DIE than lose the opportunity to do our work.

When you catch yourself staying up way too late, missing dinner, or skipping out in friends — you know you’re doing something related to your calling (provided you’re not doing a bunch of cocaine). This is a big barometer you’re on the right path.

Nothing in that statement has anything to do with comfort.

I believe the comforts work themselves into the equation, but they aren’t the reason we chase our calling. We chase our calling to practice our calling. We carve our own purpose. When we’re trapped in the wheels of a 9 to 5 it’s easy to feel like we’re accomplishing something. All those meetings have go to amount to something, right?

If you step back, you’ll see what’s behind the curtain. And the wizard may not match the work you were meant to do.

My suggestion

Instead of going out on your own the first day you quit your job I believe it’s best to develop your cumulative effort — to practice your craft in small, daily doses.

When you do your work as a cumulative effort instead of an all-or-nothing approach, you’ll grow your calling over time. You’ll tweak your craft, gaining mastery as you keep your 9 to 5.

The day you’re ready to leave the warm comforts of your 9 to 5, your cumulative effort will be so big leaving will be EASY. The spell will be broken and you won’t be the person in the empty room, walking in circles, working the hamster wheel.

No one will do this for us.

It’s not like the 9 to 5 Fairy will come down from the sky, tap you on the shoulder with her wand, and tell you it’s time to go. Your calling is different than the calling of your employer. Your job is to work as much as you can for as little as you’ll work for without quitting. It’s not your employer’s job to help you solve this issue.

Use your spare time. Stay up later. Get up earlier.

Practice your work a little every day. Get better. Fall down. Try again. When you’re ready we’ll be waiting for you. We need your creative work. We don’t want your creativity to die. Keep the job for now. Build up the pile and quit when you no longer have room to do anything else.

August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.

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