What we do, how it defines us & the importance of things on the side
Life throws other people our way and, more often than not, any mildly social being will find themselves in a situation where they will have to introduce themselves to a stranger. True decorum calls for polite questions and careful curiosity. ‘What do you do?’ tends to be one of the first things strangers will ask each other. Though bizarre when interpreted literally, it is also an easy, mindless question to ask a new acquaintance, because it will almost always guarantee an answer. Hopefully that answer will be interesting enough to lead to a conversation, and that conversation may lead to many more.
What do you do? And does it have to be just one thing?
Decisions that define us
Anyone with the good fortune to have studied at a higher level will know the perils of how important choices made at such a tender age can steer one’s life down certain paths, and away from others.
University degrees can be either highly vocational or broad enough to provide a range of transferable skills. Yet, whether we should choose to follow the path dictated by our education is something that may not become entirely clear until further down the line. After all, as Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” And, ironically, it also happens to be during the peak of one’s youth that dreams are at their most tangible, and almost anything appears to be possible. Sometimes these dreams are closely intertwined with one’s studies, sometimes they’re not. Other times the dreams come later.
Questions like ‘What do you do’ are very natural conversation starters, and represent an even more natural human tendency to ask the easy questions, the questions that will help you place a person in your brain map. What one chooses to study and what job one chooses, or is chosen, to do, subconsciously becomes a categorisation tool through which people form opinions of each other. It is only natural to make assumptions about a stranger, based on what they do for work. After all, they decided to dedicate a respectable proportion of their adult life to it. What someone actually does at work, though a question we should ask more often, tends to get overlooked.
The importance of day jobs
Tragically, very rarely do we understand the idiosyncrasies of someone else’s office; its culture, its people, its day-to-day activities. We wake up every day to go to work, we share our anxieties, our annoyances and achievements with the people closest to us, but we never sit down to describe our daily activities to each other because, for many, they are probably just average or, even worse, uninteresting. In a world full of unicorn tales, it becomes almost impossible to view or present our daily routine as something extraordinary.
Perhaps one of the most difficult obstacles that one has to overcome through the journey of being human, is accepting that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being ‘ordinary’, however one chooses to define it. The modern world condemns the concept, using it in the form of an insult, whereas in fact there are many benefits to having a ‘conventional’ office job, instead of being the CEO of the next big thing, an early joiner at a thriving startup, or an esteemed employee at one of the Fortune 500. And even these more elevated career paths are still jobs, that make up someone’s day-to-day. The beauty of a day job is that it can provide a different perspective and way of thinking with the additional bonus, once the working day is over, of thinking space to ideate and leisure time to execute.
The French philosopher René Descartes founded the concept of dualism, famously splitting mind and matter. Like mind and matter, our free time and our occupation, our calling and our vocation, could live off a symbiotic relationship, needing each other to fully fulfil their roles.
Consider all the brilliant artists, writers and poets, who had a thing on the side. No one remembers T.S. Eliot for being a clerk. Few people know that Fernando Pessoa was a simple tax man. Could it be that those ‘ordinary’ day jobs are exactly what fuelled their incredible opus? And could it be that their ‘thing on the side’ provided them with the external satisfaction they needed to be content in their roles?
The examples of this are countless. Mark Rothko used to be a part-time teacher at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. By educating children, he discovered the power of using simple visual language to communicate. And, armed with this new information, a fresh look at his paintings hints at his unlikely source of inspiration. Jeff Koons held a successful career in finance, selling mutual funds and stocks as a commodities broker while also working on his art. Having this steady job, he said, meant that he could “make exactly what art I wanted to make — and I would always know that I didn’t need the art market.” A man who knew how to work the markets became one of the art world’s biggest commodities.
Then there are the people who didn’t let their education dictate their careers. Michael Crichton, the prolific writer of Jurassic Park whose books sold over 200 million copies, trained as a doctor. Celebrated literary critic William Empson first attended Cambridge University as a Mathematics student. And if you look around you, or within you, there are plenty more examples to take inspiration from.
The impact of having a thing on the side
In his TED talk about ways to unleash your natural creativity, Tim Harford says that to be good at something, you have to become good at something else. What he calls ‘slow-motion’ multitasking becomes a new-age term to simply describe working on more than one thing at once, the potential for all people to be polymaths.
[…] learning to do one thing well can often help you do something else. Any athlete can tell you about the benefits of cross-training. It’s possible to cross-train your mind, too. A few years ago, researchers took 18 randomly chosen medical students and they enrolled them in a course at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they learned to criticize and analyze works of visual art. And at the end of the course, these students were compared with a control group of their fellow medical students. And the ones who had taken the art course had become substantially better at performing tasks such as diagnosing diseases of the eye by analyzing photographs. They’d become better eye doctors. So if we want to become better at what we do, maybe we should spend some time doing something else, even if the two fields appear to be as completely distinct as ophthalmology and the history of art.
Though this may not be anything new or groundbreaking as a concept, in our time-poor age the biggest challenge lies in finding time to turn our ideas and passions into something tangible. The likes of Koons, Rothko and Eliot showed the way, splitting themselves in two, sometimes excelling in one path, sometimes in another, sometimes in both. Perhaps we don’t have to choose, after all. Perhaps we should all try to apply this theory of separation. Separating our daily activities in our minds, from what we call ‘work’ to our creative output. And what we often tend to forget is that one of the biggest blessings of work, is that it can act as a shield. A way to take away the pressure of generating financial returns from our ‘thing on the side’, leaving ideas to roam freely, without the strains of capitalism.
And in turn, our thing on the side can exploit other sides of one’s personality, potential and passions. Making one’s work, and life, more fulfilling.
This is why, exactly 100 days ago, I launched Brain Food. Brain Food was an idea that came to me at a time in my life when I was feeling partly overwhelmed and partly bored. In a world where information is abundant and time is finite, my mind felt saturated with things I did not need to hold on to, yet there they were, in every single feed, every single screen I looked at, even inside the comfort of my personal email inbox. So, Brain Food was born. Aiming to send people a short email every day, acting as a self-contained source of inspiration, some food for thought they can consume in under five minutes.
You can sign up to Brain Food here, or just follow my Medium posts, where I will be regularly featuring Brain Food highlights and general food for thought, including longer reads for those rare moments of prolonged idleness.