“Find a career you love, and then figure out a way to get paid for it” is terrible advice. Ok, now wipe the coffee off your monitor, because I’m sure you spat it out in disbelief as you read that.
I am a recovering career fun seeker. For the first decade of my career I made most of my career decisions with “fun” in mind, and it lead to virtually no salary growth, plenty of stress, and interests that had the life sucked from them because they felt like work.
Turning Fun into a Career Often Sucks the Life out of the Fun
The “fun career” thing got off to a great start for me, but eventually lead to trouble. I interned for two professional sports teams in college (hockey and football), spent two years doing missionary work, and got to spend lots of time on creative endeavors at work on things like photography, writing and video.
I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me “wow, you get to do that AND get paid for it.” It was always bittersweet to hear that, because I felt it all looked a lot more glamorous than the reality. I had to work insanely hard, fend off stiff competition, and cope with low pay.
Here are the three problems I found with trying to have a “fun” career.
"Fun" industries, like sports marketing, are ultra-competitive, which usually means lots of people vying for your job, resulting in comparatively low wages.
Because of the glut of talent in ultra-competitive industries, these companies rarely invest in their employees or try to determine career pathing.
“Trying to have fun and get paid for it” is a great way to ruin a perfectly good hobby or interest.
Talk to anyone who works as a tour guide, or for a pro-sports team, or in the music industry. Once something becomes your job, it tends to suck a lot of the enjoyment out of it. I wouldn't go as far as to say this is a universal experience, but it’s very, very common.
For instance, when I spent four months in the press box watching NHL games, I was actually relieved when I got to spend a Saturday doing something else. Now, whenever I get to watch a live game, it’s a thrill, because it's not my job anymore.
Instead, Become So Good They Can’t Ignore You
I wish everyone knew about Cal Newport, the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” His advice is to not pursue a career because you think will be “fun” or because you are “passionate” about it. Instead, he says to develop a rare and valuable skill, and then leverage that skill into the life you want through the accumulation of career capital.
The title of the book is from a quote is attributed to Steve Martin, who doggedly mastered his craft over a decade to become a truly great comedian.
Newport outlines the abuse Martin took at comedy night clubs has he methodically tested his material and refined it over the years.
Martin was eventually able to build enough career capital and parlay his hard work and mastery into a meaningful and interesting life.
According to Newport, here’s why focusing on career capital, instead of "fun" or "passion" matters:
Career satisfaction does not correspond to industry or job type in any meaningful way. Gas station attendants are as likely to be happy as professional athletes.
Career satisfaction does correlate to autonomy and mastery of a profession. For instance, people with rare and valuable skills can take an afternoon off to go snowboarding. People without those skills, cannot.
Here’s How My Life Has Changed
Instead of pursuing a career in sports, writing, or video, I’m learning to be a Civil Estimator. It’s a skill that’s in very short supply, and in a few years I’ll have an excellent reserve of career capital, which could be parlayed into financial gain, more autonomy or more free time.
In the meantime, I’m keeping “fun” stuff as strictly fun. I’m enjoying writing again (like this post), and I’ve joined a Fantasy Football League where I co-manage a team with my best friend. It’s refreshing to have a firewall between work and fun again.