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What is Work? Balancing Creativity and Cash

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James P. Othmer is an ex full-time-ad guy turned full-time author.

Or maybe he's an ad guy turned author between full-time jobs?

No one can say. Least of all, James Othmer.

But it sort of doesn't matter. Because however the future plays out, Othmer has found his personal happiness in the here-and-now, writing for - and about - work.

After writing two work-related novels, Othmer has written a work of non-fiction that examines the What's, Hows and Why's of advertising.

He doesn't have an axe to grind, just a magnifying glass wielded with affection. And he's a whiz with a fact and a pencil. All of which makes Adland (Doubleday, September 15) a really fun read, in a Mad Men meets Monty-Pythonesque way.

"Would you make cigarette ads?" he writes in the book's opening pages. "Would you make cigarette ads if they had huge "YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THESE!" warnings plastered across the bottom? Would you do antismoking ads paid for by big tobacco?"

In a less postmodern decade, Adland might have functioned on one level, as an informative and education insider's tale of a volatile industry.

But today, when so many industries have adopted advertising's "here today, screwed tomorrow" playbook, Othmer's story has dual appeal - as a portrait of a changing industry and a template for readers torn between a drive for professional success and a pull toward human happiness.

This makes Adland and James Othmer a great resource for anyone whose professional life makes them want to sing the from theme song from Alfie:

James and I spoke during his working summer vacation. He offered these tips for anyone trying to find their true career, and balance creative passions with paychecks:

Discover What You Want to Be When You Grow Up:

In the old days, tomorrow was something that happened after today. In the new work model, we can make choices about what we'll be doing tomorrow. A great way to know if you're on the right track is to ask:


Do I want to do what my boss is doing?

If the answer is yes, congratulations! Keep going.

If the answer is no, Othmer advises going "off on a ramble" while you keep your day job.

Test-drive an activity that you've always dreamed of doing. Like being a pastry chef (take a course) or leading outdoor tours (enroll in a few).

Ramble with the full passion you'd bring to that kind of career. The emotional shift in focus may allow you to earn your living in one way while finding fulfillment in another - or it may lead you to a new career entirely.

Don't Measure Your Creative Success in Dollars

After Othmer wrote his first novel, his agent was so sure it would sell - and sell big - that she took him to a lavish sushi lunch to celebrate the bidding auction she was sure would follow. High on sushi and praise, Othmer awaited the auction - and the riches that would prove he was a literary success.

There was just one problem: no one bid on his book.

Othmer got a short, sharp lesson from that experience: "Don't go to the lunch."

The only part of the creative process that he can control was the creative, he decided. And so he set out to write a book he truly loved, assuming it would be never published.

Once again, he was proved half-right. The book he wrote delighted him. And it ended up getting published, too.

He continues to write this way, and loves it.

"I have a great agent and a great publisher who believes in me."

And most important: he believes in what he's doing.

"I get great satisfaction from writing," he says.

Become your own Futurist.

A friend of Othmer's called him to say she was sure she was going to be let go from her job.

But that didn't mean her career was over, he insisted.

The key to finding a new career you love with the skills you have? Imagine you're looking five years into the future. What big business trends can you imagine? How might your "old" skills fit into these new models? Now work backwards and seek out the companies who need that "new" you.

Fire Yourself (Mentally)

Imagine you've been let go. What is the first thing you're going to do? Othmer asks.

Who will you call?

What will you search for first in your address book?

These people, actions and first ideas can offer you great clues to next career steps that your normal mind may be ignoring.

Another way to bridge the gap between creative satisfaction and income is humor.

Recently, Othmer told me, he was audited by the IRS. Uncle Sam refused to believe he could travel as much as he did to research his books and make so little money from them.

There was no way a person would work full-time to for so long for little return, the audit implied. And that stung.

"It's kind of insulting the way writing and creativity is looked at," Othmer admitted.

But James Othmer had the facts on his side. He went into his attic and pulled out five novel drafts and three folders of almost-yes letters, sorry-but-no letters and maybe-sort of letters and brought them downtown.

At which point even the IRS had to admit. Othmer was working his brains out. He might not be earning the big bucks for his work as he had before. But he was working in a job that made him professionally and personally happy. And no one, not even the IRS, could tax that.

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