Day Job Basics #1: What is a Day Job?

day job (dā job), n

  1. a job that you do to earn money so that you can do something else that you prefer but that does not pay you much money (Cambridge online)
  2. a person’s regular job and main source of income, typically as contrasted with a more enjoyable occupation or hobby (Google)


Around the time I was finishing college, a lot of my friends started talking about getting Real Jobs after graduation, but the odd thing about these conversations was that no one ever came right out and said what exactly a Real Job was.  I imagine that if someone had forced them into a corner at knifepoint, though, they would have said something like this:

“A Real Job is, you know, a job that’s going to, like, provide stability and give you enough to live on, and is, like, what you really want to do, you know?”

The like’s are no exaggeration—while everyone seemed to know what a Real Job was and what it would do for them, they were hard-pressed to say what made Real Jobs different from other kinds of jobs (though this guy explains it much better).

What confused me even back then is that talking about having a Real Job implies that jobs that don’t meet these vague definitions are Fake Jobs, and the jobs I’d worked until then felt anything but fake.  I’d hauled debris on construction sites, stocked shelves in a grocery store, stuffed envelopes for mass mailings, scrubbed down classrooms at a kindergarten while listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports album over and over on cassette, and given tours at my college.  I’d worked at computers, had bosses, worn dress shoes and ties, had to clock in on time, and most importantly, I’d gotten paid for the work I’d done.  Nothing about those things felt fake at all.

I spent a lot of time in my 20s, though, working jobs that other people seemed to agree were Real Jobs (the full story’s on my About Me page).  These jobs usually involved working at computers and wearing ties, but more importantly, they still involved having bosses, clocking in on time, and getting paid for the work I’d done, same as the jobs I’d had before.  The difference was that the Real Jobs I was working felt like they were supposed to be leading somewhere—and more importantly, I could talk to other people like they really were leading somewhere.

Somewhere along the way I realized that this vague somewhere wasn’t the somewhere I really wanted to be.  In fact, a lot of the time it seemed to be the opposite of where I wanted to be, which was working on my writing.  (It did feel good to have some spending cash, though.)

Day Jobs are different.  Day Jobs are jobs that aren’t at all related to what you really want to do.  They’re so unrelated to what you want to do that you’re not even going to pretend they’re related.  They’re also not going to lead to more fulfilling jobs “if you just wait it out a few years,” and you’re not holding any delusions about their doing so.  Instead, a Day Job fills other basic needs, allowing you to live a functional adult existence without having to *shudder* live with your parents.

The biggest thing a Day Job can provide for a creative person (or for anyone) should be obvious (Hint: it involves dollar signs), but some Day Jobs offer other perks too: health insurance, contacts who can help you reach your creative goals, or time to work on your own projects while on the clock.  I even worked one job that let me take home free food every week, which had a big impact on my grocery bill.

Other Day Job benefits can be harder to pin down: a routine to keep you going every week, the self-confidence that comes from getting a paycheck, a quick answer to the dreaded “What do you do?” question, social time to ward off isolation, space to help your unconscious mind solve creative problems, or chances to sharpen relevant skills.  Not every Day Job offers all these perks, but the best ones offer more than one.

One thing’s clear, though—the whole point of a Day Job is to stabilize your life so you can pursue your creative work, whether it’s writing novels (like me), directing, making music, or designing novelty tote bags—work that either doesn’t pay right away or only pays a small amount right away, and that you need time to develop before you can make it pay enough to make an actual living off of.

You might have a Day Job already and not even know it, or you might be considering what kind of Day Job is best to help you keep the lights on.  For a lot of people, though, finding the mindset required to approach a Day Job is the biggest challenge, and I’ll go into that next.

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