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Feb 2003 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Going Off the 9-to-5 Grid
By Brian H. Marston

"We do not do what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are — that is the fact."
—Jean Paul Sartre. Situations, II. 1939.

Don't like your job? Quit. It's that easy. "At will" employment is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. Sure, your employer can downsize you at any time, but you can leave at any time, too.

I'm speaking from experience. I left a perfectly good job at the beginning of December to follow a dream and open The Commonspace. Since then, several people have told me that they admire me for taking such a big risk, which always strikes me as very odd because the bigger risk is staying at a job where you have a 0% chance of feeling fulfilled. That's the ultimate risk: you have no chance of winning.

No matter how much you make, if you're in a job primarily for the money, it will never be enough. Eventually, you'll start to resent the stranglehold on your time. What's required to escape is a redefinition of success so that worth isn't measured by the number of dollars in your bank account but by the number of lives that you've touched.

? You owe it to yourself to start your job search by answering the all-important Big Question: "What do I want to do?" That may seem obvious, but many people never give the question much consideration before jumping into a career and grinding it out for years. It's usually not an easy question to answer, and paradoxically, the smarter you are, the harder it is to answer because you have more choices. Don't expect to get it right the first time. Personally, I've gone through six jobs since I graduated from college six and a half years ago. The Commonspace is a radical departure from my previous computer programming jobs. (It's also a radical departure from a regular paycheck, since I'm currently a full-time volunteer.)

Deciding what career path to take is an important part of carving out your identity. There's a reason why the most asked cocktail-party and first-date question is "What do you do?" At some point, you become what you do. For the most part, accountants act like accountants and salesmen act like salesmen. Don't let your job just happen to you, or you may become someone you don't want to be.

The call to do what you want to do for a living is not an inducement to hedonism. When Amanda and I got married, one of our wedding vows was "to wisely use our time, talents and resources to bless others." It's a good vow, and one that should be a part of any marriage or graduation ceremony. A life becomes meaningful through its connections to other lives. People are happiest when they feel like they're making a difference. Part of answering the Big Question is determining where you would be of the most value to society.

Once you think you know what you want to do, the time to do it is now. There's no sense in wasting more precious time by waiting for some "just right" day in the hazy future. I used to think that I'd be able to buy freedom, that if I just saved enough money, then I'd be able to quit and do what I really want to do. The problem is, the definition of "enough money" has a way of creeping upwards, and in the meantime you lose sight of the Big Question. If the thought of doing what you're doing today ten years from now is depressing, start looking for something different. You only get one shot to write the story of your life. The quick sting of fear and uncertainty involved in starting a new venture is much preferable to a lifetime of complacency and a gnawing sense that you're not doing what you were meant to do. Even if things don't end up working out, it's better to regret the things you've done than the things you haven't.

After answering the Big Question, the rest is just details. If you're truly passionate about what you're doing, you'll figure out how to make it work. Every job has hard parts and unpleasant aspects, but it's easier to get through them if you're doing something you love. If you follow your calling, you'll be happier, your spouse and friends will be happier because they won't have to listen to you complain, and the economy will be happier because you'll be working at your productive capacity instead of using your intelligence and creativity to find ways to shirk work.

St. Louis is a safe haven for people struggling to answer the Big Question. People like to kvetch about how it doesn't have this or that compared to other cities. To me, that's great news because it means St. Louis is full of opportunities waiting to be tapped. It's big enough to have an audience for your endeavor, but small enough for you to get noticed. Anything that's the slightest bit out of the ordinary is able to garner attention here.

The low cost of living in St. Louis makes it easier to take financial risks. There's a huge amount of cheap, vacant real estate in the city waiting for people with big dreams and a little money to move in and do their thing. Where else could a 29-year-old open a 2,100-square-foot community center in a first-floor storefront property in the heart of the arts and entertainment district? When I tell friends living in New York what I'm doing, they're shocked into disbelief.

St. Louis should market itself as a playground for artists and entrepreneurs, freelancers and consultants. The next great economic engine after the burst of the dot-com bubble will be driven by people doing what they actually want to do. St. Louis could be their home.

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