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Do What You Love and Starve?

By Marty Nemko

If you are a star—very bright, talented, motivated, and personable and you have a passion, even if it’s in a competitive field, sure, go for it.

This article is for everyone else.

Based on the 2,700 clients I’ve worked with over the past two decades, the hundreds of callers to my career-centric radio show, and my countless other conversations with people about their careers, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve been sold a bill of goods when we’re told to “Follow your passion, “ or “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Fact is, if you do what you love, you’ll probably starve.

Yes, some people do what they love and the money follows. But millions of people have followed their passion and still haven’t earned enough to even pay back their student loans, let alone make even a bare middle-class living doing what they love.

The problem is that too many people crave the same few careers, for example, the arts, environmental, and non-profit work. Employers in these fields get dozens if not hundreds of applications for each job. So, you have to be a star or extremely well connected to get the job.

In other cases, salaries tend to be low or non-existent. Do what you love and volunteer work may well follow.

The irony is that the small percentage of people who do make a living in “do-what-you-love,” “follow-your-passion” careers, are, on average, no happier than people in less sexy jobs. Here’s why. Plenty of “cool careers” sound better than they turn out to be. Actors, for example, spend very little time acting. They spend most of their time trying out, sitting around waiting for their turn at rehearsals or on movie shoots, etc.

More important, not only do salaries in “cool” careers tend to be low, employers in those fields know they can get away with treating their employees shabbily because zillions of other capable people are panting for the opportunity to work 60 hours a week for $27,521 (with no benefits) rarely getting praise in exchange for the good feeling of knowing they’re playing an infinitesimal role in saving the spotted owl or whatever, even though they may never get closer to an owl than to a pile of accounts receivable statements.

Other people’s passion is status. So, for example, they endure years of boring law school and accumulate boatloads of student debt for the privilege of slaving under a 2,000-billable-hour quota for the law firm of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, with a futon in their office so they can sneak in a few zzzs in the middle of the all-nighters they pull to boost the chances of another lawyer’s corporate client giving money to their corporate client.

Other status seekers prostitute themselves to climb the corporate ladder. They work 60+-hour workweeks and kiss up to their bosses, smilingly willing to uproot themselves and their families for a few years in whatever God-forsaken place the Company wants to dump them. They endure two years of impractical arcana and take on a house-full of debt in graduate school so they can put those three letters, M,B,A, on their resume. And for what? So they may finally get a title of director or vice president, and after their 12-hour cover-their-butt workday, be one of the many execs who collapse on their sofa, get blitzed, and stare at their oversized living room in their oversized neighborhood wondering, “Is that all there is?”

In contrast, if your job is mundane, for example, marketing manager for the Western Widget Company, the employer knows there aren’t hundreds of competent people champing at the bit for your job. So, to keep you, the employer is more likely to offer decent working conditions, reasonable work hours, kind treatment, opportunities for learning, and pay you well. Those are the things that—much more than being in a “cool” career-- lead to career contentment.

You say you want status? Unless you’re a true star (brilliant, driven, great personality, or have great connections), give it up. Status is often the enemy of success. You’re more likely to find career contentment in a not-high-status career. In my mind, someone who’s an honorable assistant manager for the Western Widget Co. is more worthy of respect than many lawyers, investment bankers, and business development VPs I know. If someone thinks less of you because you’re job isn’t high-status, they don’t deserve to be your friend.

Advice I’d Give My Child

If you’re entrepreneurial, I recommend starting your own business. Yes, I know, only 20 percent of new businesses are still in business after five years, but you can beat the odds. Just remember is this one rule: Don't innovate. Replicate. Copy a successful simple business.

Innovations are too risky: Your product might not work, may not be popular with the public, or a competitor could beat you to market. Why be a guinea pig? Unless you have deep pockets or are truly brilliant, the risks are too great. Many people have ended up in poverty because of their innovations. Even Tivo, a wonderful new product lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the first few years. Last I checked, you don’t have oodles of money to lose. Leave the innovations to corporations or the independently wealthy.

Where to find a business to copy? Drive around to find a simple business at which customers are lined up out the door. For example, see a successful burrito shop or espresso cart? Open a similar one in a similar neighborhood. Your chances of success will be a helluva lot higher than 20%. You will find happiness in providing an in-demand product at a fair price. Confine your urge to innovate to your hobbies.

Another approach to finding a good business is to pick a grungy one, for example, automatic transmission repair or mobile home park maintenance. Few top-notch people go into such businesses, so if you do it competently, you’ll probably make good maybe great money. And you’ll feel better about your work, having people coming to you and thanking you, and owning your own business rather than slaving away for some boss ever fearing your job will be downsized or shipped to India.

You say you don’t have the knowledge to run such a business? No problem. For example, I don’t know a thing about transmissions, but if I wanted to open a transmission shop, I’d find the best transmission mechanic, pay him well and hire a consultant who is the owner of a successful transmission shop located far enough from my store that he wouldn’t fear my competition. The two of them would teach me how to set up my business. Then, I’d spend my time building relationships with car repair shop owners so I’d get their referral business.

If starting a business from scratch seems too scary, consider a franchise. According to Robert Bond, author of Bond’s Franchise Guide, some of the best include Jani-King commercial cleaning and Aussie Pet Mobile, a grooming service. When you find a franchise that sounds appealing, be sure to speak with at least 10 of the franchise’s franchisees at random before signing on the dotted line.

If you’re not entrepreneurial and want to be well employed, go far from the madding crowd. Here are some areas where the job market is not hypercompetitive: Court reporting, car finance & insurance, accounting, insurance, sales of little known commercial products, health care administration, fundraising, financial services, anything serving Latinos (entertainment, schools, hospitals, criminal justice system), anti-terrorism, and biotech regulatory affairs.

Remember that, in the end, the key to career contentment is a job that:

--isn't too hard or too easy

-- has a boss who's kind and helpful

-- involves an ethical product or service

--requires a reasonable commute

-- pay reasonable well and offers benefits

-- doesn't require 70 hour work weeks

-- offers opportunities to learn and grow.

You're more likely to find these things and, in turn, career contentment by pursuing an unpopular career than the millions pursuing a "cool" one.

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