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Art that exists outside the jurisdiction of capitalism is harder to make, but it’s also harder to ruin. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Art that exists outside the jurisdiction of capitalism is harder to make, but it’s also harder to ruin. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyApril 25, 2024

Help Me Hera: Do I even want the public sector job I might be about to lose?

Art that exists outside the jurisdiction of capitalism is harder to make, but it’s also harder to ruin. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Art that exists outside the jurisdiction of capitalism is harder to make, but it’s also harder to ruin. (Image: Tina Tiller)

I’m on the wrong side of 40, I never pursued creative work and now my job is killing my soul. Help!

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Dear Hera,

May I start with the least original conversation opener you’re likely to hear around the motu at the moment, particularly in Wellington: I’m a public servant, and I’m worried about my job.

There’s a second part that is perhaps less common, though let’s admit it, still pretty common: I’m not even sure that I want this job. Or this career. At all.

Backtrack a little. I’m on the other side of 40. Back when I was at university, I remember doing a paper in a Comms class about the different types of consumer. As part of this class, we were looking at different personality profiles of consumers. One of the profiles said something like, “This is the type of person that feels that life has passed them by. They feel like they’ve missed out, and they feel dissatisfied.” And I thought, at the tender age of 19: oh that will be me. I predicted that. Or created it. Because here I am, on the other side of 40, and that’s how I feel.

I didn’t commit to pursuing any one of the number of creative pursuits I wanted to back then  because, quite simply, I was convinced I wasn’t good enough. Creative people seemed so cool. I certainly wasn’t cool. Of course, now I’m old enough to know that most creative people are massive dorks and the ones who seem cool are just successful enough to afford good branding. That’s a different letter.

So I followed a vague, directionless path, carving out a career where my natural skills would allow me to do so. Like many frustrated creatives, that’s been in communications. It’s the fate of those office-bound creatives we all know. Susan from Account that’s actually great at karaoke and such a shame she never pursued singing. Steve from Procurement who’s really funny and talks wistfully about the one stand-up routine he did when he was 17. 

Now I have a mortgage. For quite a nice house. And quite a nice life, really, all things considered. But goddamn does the work that enables me to have those things kill my soul, little bit little, or lately, lotly by lotly. And then, get this, they’re threatening to take it away. 

So, uh, what’s my question. I’m not sure. In some ways, it might be ironic to email a successful creative such as yourself for advice on how to manage life as an unsuccessful creative. 

Actually, jesus, this might be the reason for this: recently you answered a question from a youthful type about going to Paris to be a mime. And I wanted to scream: go go go. It might be the worst financial decision you ever make, but it will be so much better than healthy financial decisions and not miming in Paris

Perhaps this is the role of those of us on the other side of 40 who made the wrong decision: not to fix their own lives but to appear in ghoulish fashion before younger travellers and moan, “There but for the grace of God go thee.”


A Frustrated Creative

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Frustrated,

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books called The Mystery of Chimney Rock or You are a Shark? Every time you decided to turn to page 134 and explore the ruined underwater metropolis, there was a 98% probability you would meet a horrible and untimely end. In order to transform yourself back into a human, you had to be prepared to die, over and over again. 

These days, life feels a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, only instead of breaking an ancient Aztec curse, the adventure is finding a way to pay the rent, or if you’re lucky, the mortgage. Sometimes it feels like the only winning solution is to become the CEO of a major airline, and even then it’s a pyrrhic victory because you’ve wasted your precious life becoming an insufferable business hick. 

I’m sorry your job is at risk. These are precarious times. But the idea that you got where you are by not choosing more wisely is just internalised propaganda. There are no perfect decisions to be made, and even if there were, the idea that everyone can achieve “success” is a comforting but insidious lie. Society will always need people to deliver mail, fix powerlines, educate children, bake bread. Basing your personal worth on how secure and well-remunerated your job is does a disservice to everyone who keeps the world turning, and gives undue credit to the business psychopaths who, as far as I can tell, have never done a single useful thing in their lives.

I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I’d studied something less insane. But there are downsides to almost every course of action. If you learn a trade, your health might suffer. If you work in technology, that technology dates. If you get a prestigious email job, you’re constantly at risk of redundancy. If you run a property management company, you’ll live a comfortable life, but spend the rest of eternity REPENTING in HELL. You’ll notice I haven’t listed “becoming a creative” as a viable career option, because it only counts as a career if you get paid for it. 

It’s nice to be thought of as a successful artist. People still read my poetry and send me emails about it, which I love. And occasionally I get an unexpected windfall, like being invited to a festival or getting a residency somewhere. But writing isn’t my job. It’s a hobby that got out of control. And for all the young and aspiring creatives reading this, I think we need a little financial transparency.

I cannot stress enough how unlucrative writing is. If I tallied up every hour I had ever spent writing and divided that by how much money I’d made, the result would make being a Victorian chimney sweep look like a rich and rewarding career. 

I don’t say this to complain. I have been luckier than many other writers. And writing poetry has led to many strange and wonderful opportunities, like writing this advice column. But while this is an excellent part-time job, it’s still a job and bears no relation to the work I’d prefer to be doing, which is inventing an ancient race of dragons with too many consonants in their names. 

Thankfully, turning a profit isn’t the point of making art. Staving off existential dread is the point of making art. My point is, even if you had decided to pursue a creative life, you would always have needed the office job to support yourself. If this is a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, all roads lead to Communications Adviser. This wonderful letter from a New York music professor says it better than I ever could. 

Most creative people I know are in your exact position. They work in payroll administration and play the saxophone on the weekend. Their jobs are currently at risk. Being creative hasn’t protected them and neither has their expertise in data analysis or knowing how to correctly format websites for mobile. Everyone I know is living with some kind of income precarity. 

I’m not even saying we should pay creative people more, because elevating the incomes of one group at the expense of others makes losers of us all. The real solution, in my opinion, is to pay everyone a universal basic income and invest in public services, like transport, health, education, libraries and the environment. If people spent less time worrying about how to pay rent or surviving the forthcoming climate apocalypse, not only would we all have more time to lavish on our hobbies, we’d be culturally richer for it. There are lots of ways of making the world a better and more interesting place, and only a tiny fraction of them involve writing bestselling fantasy novels. 

The problem with making art for free is that people with inherited wealth tend to dominate the industry, which is boring. The good thing about making art for free is that nobody can fire you from your hobby. Art that exists outside the jurisdiction of capitalism is harder to make, but it’s also harder to ruin. When the financial stakes are so low, it doesn’t matter if you fail. There’s a kind of backwards freedom in that. 

I have no useful advice on how not to be made redundant. But I can promise you that it’s never too late to make something beautiful. Sure, the best time to learn the clarinet or write an epic science fiction novel was twenty years ago. But the second best time is right now. In writing terms, forty is nothing. Many of my favourite writers didn’t start publishing until they were well into their fifties and sixties. You might feel like you’re lagging, but in the end, all that matters is the work. However you manage to get there is up to you. 

The enemy isn’t your past self. The enemy isn’t even the king of the merpeople who transformed you into a shark. The enemy is a system that rewards people for accruing capital at the expense of all else and then discards them on a whim. You didn’t make the wrong decision. There was no right decision to make. You write this letter as if your life were a cautionary tale, to frighten children. But I’m going to say it again. It’s never too late to make something beautiful. So dust off those cobwebs and climb out of your coffin. You’re not dead and buried yet!

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