The Space Between Careers and Hobbies
These days I’ve been thinking a lot about things we should have words for but don’t. Like: that thing when you’re reading a book on the subway and you see someone else in the same car reading the same book and you think about trying to make eye contact but don’t. Or the affectation in online writing, tweets and text messages mostly, where you end a question without using a question mark. And, lately, how we need a word for the kind of project that’s less than a career, but more than a hobby.
We tend to fall into binary thinking when considering the ways we spend our time. If you get paid to do something, if it takes up a lot—maybe even the majority—of your waking hours, and if you identify with it at least a little bit, it’s a career. And if you don’t get paid to do something, it’s automatically relegated to the second-tier status of hobby—a word that’s at best unserious and at worst actively pejorative. It derives, after all, from the still-occasionally-used hobbyhorse—a small, fake horse that can’t actively go anywhere.
Some hobbies really are small, fake jobs that will never actually go anywhere—my freestyle rapping, for example. But many of the projects we take on outside of work are much more than hobbies. And we could use a new way of describing them.
Over the past few generations, there’s been a sea change in the way we think about work. In a recent Pew poll, Americans ranked “having a career they enjoy” as, by far, the top component of a fulfilling life, well above being in a romantic relationship, getting rich, or having kids. Parents similarly ranked “having jobs or careers they enjoy” as their top priority for their children, tied only with their achieving financial independence.
The word enjoyment is likely understating the case for what most of us really want. These days, we typically look for—or even expect—more: we seek to find meaning and fulfillment in our jobs, to make them a core part of who we are. Writing in the Atlantic a few years ago, the writer and cultural critic Derek Thompson coined the term “workism” to describe this phenomenon: “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic productivity, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life purpose.”
Criticism of so-called workism is everywhere these days, though as with many such trends, it’s hard to tell how much of it is reflective of real people’s genuine rethink in priorities, or just being driven by a small group of publications in an online echo chamber who have recognized that these kinds of pieces consistently get clicks (see also: quiet quitting). These critics’ core argument is that putting so much of ourselves into our jobs makes us, on balance, less happy. They’ll often point to the decline of other once-common sources of meaning in our lives, like civic associations and organized religion, as having left our jobs in the unenviable position of trying to support a weight they just weren’t built to hold.
Workism is a term pretty much exclusively used by its critics, so you won’t find anyone explicitly identifying as pro-workism, but there is another side to this debate, albeit one with fewer trendy articles about it. That side will usually make two arguments. The first is that, where there is a problem here, it isn’t with the theoretical concept of seeking meaning in your work, but with the fact that many who unsuccessfully do are stuck in David Graeber-style “bullshit jobs” that they know, deep down, are meaningless.
Such people are usually in office jobs, which fits with the way that anxiety about workism is primarily a white-collar phenomenon: those lower down on the class scale tend to have more hands-on jobs that, while perhaps less pleasant in many ways, at least have a clearly visible impact. If you’re a plumber or a home health aide, it’s easy to see how the world would be worse if your job disappeared. (The stereotype of the proud, usually unionized factory worker exists for a reason.)
This second argument echoes Winston Churchill’s quote about democracy: that work is the worst place in your life to look for meaning, except for all the others. After all, neither the idle rich nor the perennially unemployed seem to be particularly satisfied with their lives. And when utopian thinkers paint visions of our post-work, universal basic income-powered future, they usually don’t imagine a world where people are just chilling all the time. Instead, these visions tend to center around our being freed from the drudgery of employment to spend our time on other projects, like creating art or investing in our communities—projects that, from a certain angle, look a lot like work.
Perhaps that’s why the anti-workists are far better at identifying problems than suggesting solutions. Their proposals tend to be either for political changes like more paid leave and universal childcare—good ideas, sure, but not really suited to solving a crisis of meaning—or anodyne suggestions like spending more time with your friends.
I’m all for spending more time with your friends, of course. But what these proposals ignore—and what the most dedicated workists, even if they wouldn’t describe themselves as such, understand—is that, for many people, work construed broadly is a highly effective vessel for meaning and life satisfaction. It’s just that the work you find the most meaningful may not always overlap fully with the work you can get paid to do.
The obvious synthesis, therefore, is not to abandon the idea of finding your life’s meaning in work, but rather to expand your definition of work to include projects you take on outside of your job—projects that might not be your career, but that you treat with a seriousness and commitment that make them far more than mere hobbies.
Second-wave feminists have properly criticized the idea that only real work is that which is done outside the house for money—a principle that can apply far beyond the sphere of domestic labor for which it was originally conceived. Obviously, you need to get paid for something. But beyond that, what makes work count is the effort you put into it and the value it provides for others.
Of course, if you can, you should also find meaning in your job. The philosophical crises tend to arise not when you look to your job for meaning, but when you look to your job for an unrealistic amount of meaning. I sometimes think about having a constellation of work-like projects as a way to create a diversified portfolio of meaning (to which one can also, of course, add family, friends, and yes, even hobbies, in the appropriate doses).
Where the artist of yesteryear had a meaningless day job to support their meaningful creative work, today’s multi-hyphenate has a job and one or more side projects, all of which add meaning to their life. Freed from the impossible burden of having to provide all of their meaning (or at least, all of their work-related meaning), each piece of the portfolio can provide the right amount of meaning at the right time.
This philosophy works especially well now that the internet has enabled a massive shift in what can constitute a career. If, in the past, we moved from lifetime work monogamy (working at the same company for your whole career) to serial work monogamy (working at many different companies over the course of your career), we may be on the cusp of a third shift to something best described as work polyamory (a term I much prefer to the somewhat-disparaging “gig work”): doing many different kinds of work, sometimes simultaneously, for many different employers—or for no employer at all.
As with actual polyamory, sometimes you’ll have a primary work partner, as in the case of the tech worker, employed full-time, who invests in and advises startups on the side. Other times you may take a more solo poly approach, as in the case of the freelance designer or the artist with a day job.
Not all of the work that you do as a work polyamorist will be work you get paid to do, and that’s okay. It might even be advisable. The linguist Gretchen McCulloch has written about the rise of “weird internet careers,” which she defines as the careers of “people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams—the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents.” Historically, weird internet careers have mostly arisen unintentionally—usually by someone who pursued a side project without realizing that it could become something more—but, as awareness has spread that this is a possible path, more and more people are attempting to start them purposefully.
Paul Graham has written about how the best startup ideas often start out looking like toys, because you can’t always predict how an idea will evolve, or how the world will evolve around it—and because when you start something with no expectations, it’s easier to pursue it with the kind of light lightness and joie de vivre that’s conducive to building great things. (There’s an analogy to be made here about how putting too much pressure on a budding relationship can kill it, but I’ll save that one for another time.)
Ironically, the most important reason we need a new word for the space between careers and hobbies is because some of the things in that space might end up becoming careers anyway. In the future, more and more of the best careers will have started out looking like they weren’t careers at all.