THE BLOG
11/12/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Since When Is Work a Moral Imperative?

Merriam-Webster defines work as "the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihood." 

In other words, it's what we do to make money.

But another entry defines work as "something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort: artistic production."

If you ask me, many of us (Americans in particular, New Yorkers most of all) have confused work-for-money with work-for-life.

I recently made the switch from full-time office work to freelancing. To some extent, the transition has blurred the lines between work and life; work and pleasure; work and a sense of higher purpose.

Since When Is Work a Moral Imperative?
How many little kids are told that they can be anything they want? When it doesn't work out, we still try to sell it to ourselves and others. I've heard too many investment bankers try to convince people they're not in it for the money; they are passionate about economics.

After all, if you spend 60 hours a week doing something, it had better be worthwhile.

Perhaps it's time we disassociate what we do for a living with what we do. Unless you're saving babies on a regular basis and that really is what makes your existence worthwhile, we ought to stop elevating work to an unnaturally high, almost ethical, pedestal.

I know a software developer who feels passionately about dance, but doesn't feel the need to do it for a living. For many people, the "let's make it work" conversation probably looks something like this: Is there any way you could make money dancing? Would you be happy doing something else in the arts, related to dance, that doesn't actually entail you dancing for a living? Maybe you could, I dunno, wait tables at a place where a lot of dancers go, so you can be around them?

Forget that.

Instead of scraping by in the dance world, he's in an unrelated profession that pays great. Recently, he quit his stressful, corporate job to freelance. He makes a great hourly rate, but chooses not to work as much. He still makes a comfortable salary, and now he has time to practice on his free time and have a life. 

But even the idea of "free time" is a fallacy because it implies the leftovers from your work time. He says, "Admittedly, I'm lucky to be in a profession where this is possible. Work is a component of my life. It's not the number one thing, after which everything else is leftover. I try to make it so it's just one aspect of what I do."

He might not be passionate to his core about software development, but does he need to be? Strictly speaking, he has the ability to work longer hours, to make more money, to be more of a corporate "team player." Does it make him a bad person that he simply chooses not to?

My Two Realizations
I didn't leave my 50-something-hours-a-week editorial job because of corporate fatigue, or because I'm not passionate about the company's mission or editorial work. (Though I am excited about the opportunity to take a couple yoga classes during the day.) I'm incredibly glad I can remain affiliated with the publication as editor at large, and truly love the work I do for them.

I embarked on the freelance lifestyle because I craved the ability to arrange the building blocks of my schedule however I want. I also wanted more time to write fiction.

Although I could try to scrape by as a writer of short stories or pray my breakout novel will lead me to the big bucks, I came to two realizations:

1. It's okay to separate livelihood and passion, even when you thoroughly enjoy your livelihood.

2. It's better not to force your passion to be your livelihood. To be blunt, following your heart might not pay the bills. Beyond that, struggling to monetize what you love has the potential to quash your passion entirely.

I've heard it said that many novelists' first books are their best because they toil away for years. Then, after the first book succeeds, they quit their day jobs and writing morphs from a passion into a livelihood. Now, they have to worry about commercial viability and cranking out Novel Number Two much faster than Blockbuster Number One.

In my case, if I enjoy my livelihood well enough, why stress out my passion? That said, I'm excited at the opportunity to make my ideal lifestyle a reality, and intimidated at the knowledge that now it's all up to me.

Another perk of managing my own time? Maybe I'll make it to yoga more often.

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