Day Job Basics #2: What Makes a Day Job Different From a Real Job?

Sometimes Day Jobs look a lot different than Real Jobs, like when people work as waiters (or, increasingly, as Uber drivers) in Hollywood while they audition for acting roles.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell whether you’re working a Day Job or a Real Job, especially if you’re not sure what your goals are.

This is a tough question, so let’s talk about washing dishes instead.

I haven’t had regular access to a dishwasher since 2012.  I also cook a lot and own a limited stock of plates and silverware, which means I have to wash those plates and silverware daily or risk not having a spatula in the morning when I want to fry some eggs.  Washing dishes isn’t fun, but it’s not painstakingly arduous either—I’ve gotten used to it, and like to listen to music while doing it (usually the first three songs of an album I’ve selected for this purpose, though after seeing the movie Magnolia my regular dishwashing song became Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” for about a year).

Washing dishes isn’t a big part of my day, or a particularly memorable one—if someone asked me “What’d you do today?” I wouldn’t say, “Washed my dishes,” because that would imply that I hadn’t done anything more worthwhile.  Likewise, I don’t think at all about dishwashing after it’s done—I move on to other things until the sink fills up again.

But most importantly, if I’d just met someone and wanted to give that person an accurate impression of who I was and what my goals were, you can be damned sure I wouldn’t tell them I wash my dishes once a day while listening to “Goodbye Stranger” on repeat, because then I’d sound pretty pathetic.

In case it’s not clear by now, Day Jobs are a lot like washing dishes: they’re not the most important things we have going on, but they have to get done.  This is because WE ALL NEED MONEY TO LIVE and most of us can’t make that money through our creative endeavors—yet.

I don’t want to make dishwashing something I have to think a lot about, or certainly something that causes me stress, since my stress level affects how much time and energy I’m able to commit to other things throughout the day.  In the same vein, the best Day Jobs don’t require the kind of effort that makes it difficult to do your creative work.

Day Jobs also don’t define your identity—they’re just a thing you need to do to live.  If someone asked me what I did for a living, I might tell them what my Day Job was, but only if it was clear that they were specifically interested in how I made my money, not in what my passion was.

“But that dishwashing metaphor doesn’t make sense!” some of you must be saying.  “A job takes up way more of your time than washing dishes, and we organize our whole lives around the paid work we do!”

First off, don’t get caught up in the time stuff: Just because Day Jobs take up a bigger part of your week doesn’t mean your attitude about them has to be different than washing dishes.  Also, you don’t have to organize your whole life around a job, whether it’s a Day Job or another kind of job—if anything, the ideal Day Job is one that suits your needs, your schedule, and your creative goals.  If you work best in the morning, then find a Day Job that starts in the afternoon.  If you really want to live in Seattle, then find a Day Job in Seattle.  Likewise, if you’ve budgeted out that you need $X,000 a month to get by, your Day Job (or a combination of Day Jobs and other paid work) should probably pay at least $X,000 a month (I’ll talk more about this in Part 4).

A person’s Ideal Job is different—these jobs bring tremendous personal fulfillment at the end of the day or the end of a career when we look back on what we’ve accomplished.  We work hard (and probably don’t mind working overtime) at these jobs not because we have to, but because we want to—because it feels natural and because we’re able to muster genuine motivation to do so.  For a lot of creative people, their Ideal Job would be getting paid to make the art they want to.

The Real Jobs I talked about in Part 1 motivate people to work hard too, though the reasons people work hard at them vary.  Some people want to contribute to a positive work environment, but we’re also all stirred by motivations to make more money, earn a promotion, or move on to the new and better life that comes with these things.  All of us want to be happy and live better lives—the difference lies in whether we’re trying to find this happiness through the thing we do to earn our rent money, or through the creative work we’re pursuing as a passion (that could one day earn us our rent money).

Only you can judge whether you have a Real Job or a Day Job, since they’re definitely not labeled that way on online job boards.  Whether or not you have a Day Job depends on the attitude you bring to it: do you go into work eager to fulfill some new goal, project, or challenge every day, or do you go in with a list of things that need to get done so you can move on to something else that really matters?  That’s the difference between driving an Uber on the Day Job end, and, I don’t know, being a Supreme Court Justice or something on the Ideal Job end, since you know the Supreme Court Justices all felt pretty sweet after they made the ruling in the Hustler vs. Falwell case.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 (!) in 1988 that Hustler magazine was legally allowed to run this parody ad insinuating that Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. It protects the artists' right to satire and is one of my favorite cases of all time.

In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 (!) that Hustler magazine was legally allowed to run this parody ad insinuating that Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. It protects the artists’ right to satire and is one of my favorite cases of all time.

So if having a Day Job is all about your attitude and isn’t as important as your creative work, what’s the best way to act when you’re at your Day Job?  I’ll tackle this monumental question in Part 3.