Beyond the day job
I was at an executive company offsite a couple of weeks ago when I got the text from my sister that my 81-year old father was in the hospital with double pneumonia. My mother was in Japan, having just landed in Tokyo that same day, so my sister was flying out to Texas to be with my dad in the hospital.
I spoke with my dad, who was in good spirits in spite of his state, being annoyed about not being able to ride his bicycle more than anything. He was delighted that I Facetimed him but concerned that he was taking my time away from work. I assured him that it was a break in the offsite and that it was fine. “I tell people all the time where you work and your title,” he said. He told me he was proud of me and I said thanks and get well.
I wrote about doing something beyond your day job in my book, The Art of Creative Rebellion, and how it is additive to your ability to bring value to your job. I caution my design team from associating too heavily with their title or company brand — yes, it’s important to have pride in your company and your role but it’s also important to be a fully realized human being, with friends, family and passionate interests that allow you to fill your creative battery.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about this issue. She has a secret creative outlet as a stand-up comedian. I told her how impressed I was that she pursued her passion on her own time and I encouraged her to keep at it.
After the meeting she emailed me the following:
Having a creative pursuit outside your day job, even though I know it enables me to do my job better and really, be a more sane person, I oftentimes feel that I need to hide that side of me from my colleagues, and especially management. Because instead of being perceived as something that helps our work, creative pursuits are perceived as just distractions. An opposite example is exercising and working out. In the modern-day work environment, it has been well accepted that when employees spend time exercising and staying healthy, they perform better at work, and it’s viewed as a worthy investment by the employers. It is being reflected by the corporate benefits they provide. When is the last time you have corporate-sponsored creative writing / film making / training? This is why it’s important we have champions who recognize the importance of creativity and actively providing support. When I was able to sit down with you and hear your authentic support and fearless advocacy for my standup comedy, it meant so much to me. It was the first time I heard from any leaders that made me feel not only safe but actually ENCOURAGED to talk about my passions outside work and be true to who I am.
It is hard to start a brand new creative pursuit when you already have a life and career going on. After all these years of proving myself, finally I’ve established my credit and reputation, but now I’m starting over at the bottom of the pyramid, and it is absolutely a humbling experience. It is like finally, you can afford 5-star hotels when you travel in your 40s, and now you have to crash on people’s couches again. On top of that, it’s time away from your family and friends, a new identity they don’t seem to quite understand. Does it help to mention that most creative pursuits don’t pay well, especially when you are new? I can’t remember how many nights the devil on my shoulder just whispered in my ears, Why do you have to torture yourself? This is not worth it… You are not good enough…. when I heard you say, “it’s a lonely pursuit, but you are not alone”, it really hit me. Every time a fellow comic encourages me, an audience member tells me how much they enjoyed my comedy, or even a friend simply recognizes this is hard, it means the world and always pumps me up again.
One of the most important ways to retain talent is to provide them with the opportunities to keep learning and to encourage their personal and creative development as a person — not just as an employee. Ultimately this fosters loyalty to the company and differentiates it from the competition with something more than compensation. It’s culture.
What stood out to me in the email above was the notion that companies invest in physical well-being (gym memberships and even mindfulness meditation practice) but often look at creative pursuits as distractions. If, on their own time, an employee is creatively engaged in ceramics, yoga, drawing, recording music, stand-up comedy, painting or writing books, it means that they can bring more to the office environment, not less. There’s something very old-fashioned and repressive about the notion that if you aren’t working on work then you shouldn’t be creating — oddly enough, going to dinner parties, drinking, eating out, watching TV or going to the movies are more socially acceptable uses of your non-work time.
Also mentioned in the email is the point I made that creativity and being a true iconoclast or innovator is a lonely road at first. If you can get through the desert, where you are isolated because of your different thinking, then you find that the pendulum swings in your direction. It’s human nature to want to repress what it can’t understand and it’s up to the creative rebel to center themselves, take a breath and keep moving forward.
Charles Bukowski held a job at the post office during the day and wrote in a run-down Hollywood apartment at night, creating burning poems as cigarette smoke wreathed his furrowed brow, hammering away on an Underwood typewriter littered with cigarette ash and surrounded by sentinels of empty beer bottles. Albert Einstein worked as a patent examiner during the day as he created the General Theory of Relativity. T.S. Eliot, the poet of The Waste Land was a banker at Lloyds Bank. Patti Smith worked in a Manhattan bookstore while working on her poetry when she gave her now-legendary first public reading at St. Marks Church with guitar accompaniment from Lenny Kaye.
Over the weekend, after a heavy dose of antibiotics and the aspirating of a lung, my father recovered and is back home, itching to get back on his bicycle. His delight in the simple pleasures of riding a bike and his proximity to the inevitable inspire me to make sure I am focused on what truly matters. I’m glad that my father is proud of me and the job I do. He, like many executives, doesn’t really understand the other things I do (art and writing) but that’s okay. He is supportive. And that’s all you can ask from your day job — for it to be supportive of you as a total person. Your overall health, includes not only mental and physical well-being but perhaps most importantly, your creative well-being.
“The continued rise of the machine in the workplace with technologies like robotics, automation and AI will transform the role that humans play at work. Creativity, innovation and complex problem-solving will emerge as critical skills in our digital future.”
– Emmet B. Keefe III, Founder, Insight IGNITE at Insight Partners
I am fortunate enough to currently work in a company that supports a person’s needs holistically: mental, physical and even creatively. I would hope that over time, other large companies take heed and encourage their employees to pursue their creative passions on their own time. It can only help, both the person and ultimately the business, when an employee feels supported.
What I’ve just re-read:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I hadn’t read this masterpiece novella since high school but when my teenage daughter read it recently, she gave her copy to me and recommended I check it out again, as she loved it. I did and was astounded at how well it held up. Such a glimpse into an age of social stratification and the emptiness of chasing status. Also such a brilliantly modern novel — Fitzgerald’s use of an unreliable first person narrator (Nick) and the moments of dream-like ambiguity. Worth re-reading or reading for the first time.
What I’m watching:
Watchmen — forget the terrible 2009 adaptation of the seminal graphic novel and check out this reimagining by Damon Lindelof. I was dubious at first but was blown away by the pilot. I just hope the rest of the season can deliver on the promise of the first episode.
Living with Yourself — Paul Rudd is dynamic in this dramedy about, well, having to deal with your clone. Fighting with your own clone seems to be trending ala Will Smith in Gemini Man, which felt a bit like Looper but the latter got much better reviews.
Fleabag — Phoebe Waller-Bridge is brilliant in this comedy-drama; she acts and writes in this series. Worth checking out but definitely don’t watch with the kids in the room.
Burden — amazing documentary on the artist, Chris Burden, famous for his performance “sculpture” called “Shoot,” which involved getting shot by a friend while being film in 1971. But he was much more than a sensationalist artist — he pushed the boundaries of what defined the concept of art, sculpture and performance.
What I’m listening to:
Self Portrait — new EP by Sasha Sloan.
All Mirrors — Angel Olsen
Sign up for news and events. You can unsubscribe at any time.
© John S. Couch 2019