You Are More Important Than the Work

I came across an amazing interview with Frank Chimero on The Great Discontent a few days ago. It was full of amazing snippets, but there is one section near the middle that struck me more than any of the others:

“I decided that I would rather be a happy barista than a sad designer. I had saved a little money and I took the next three months off to draw. Every single day I drew something and put it on the Internet. That’s when I started The States Project and did a lot of other stuff, which turned into an illustration career.

The choice to do the unreasonable—to live off of savings and try to get happy—was a risk. I figured it wasn’t worth finding a job designing for someone else if I was still going to hate it. That time away re-acclimated me to enjoying what I wanted to do for a living. I look back now and that was a big lesson. When everything goes to shit, listen to your heart and try to make yourself right; if you can do that, then everything else will hopefully fall into place.

Not everyone feels the same as me about the ‘happy barista vs. sad designer’ thing, but to be willing to say, I am more important than the work,’  opens up your choices. You can drop the mic and walk away to take care of yourself. You are more than your job. You can do other things and still be you. That isn’t insightful to normal people, but for me it was, because design is all I’ve ever done. And maybe it will be for other design folks, since we assign so much identity to the job. That whole “design is a way of life” thing makes me uncomfortable.”

Frank Chimero, taken from The Great Discontent. Emphasis mine.

“I am more important than the work.” That idea is huge. And I struggle with that a bit. I have all these expectations for myself, mostly that I have to become a “success”, and do it soon. But really, I am so much more than that.

I can do other things. I can pursue my other interests. I don’t have to make a ton of money from my endeavors, or any money at all. I don’t have to be self-employed. I don’t have to focus everything on building websites. I don’t have to have a clear path in front of me all the time. I have freedom to explore. I have freedom to experiment. I have freedom to take my time.

The bottom line is that that thing you’re pursuing, living, breathing, dying to make, it’s not all that you are. If you are super into it and want to give it everything, then that’s awesome. Please, absolutely go for it. I can’t wait to see what you make.

But if you aren’t sure what you’re thing is yet, don’t rush to figure it out. Yes, show up and put the time in. But don’t commit your entire being to one single pursuit. You are more than that. Life is more than that. Live now. Enjoy where you’re at and what you’re doing.

My “day job” at the moment is making sandwiches at the Pickle Barrel, and honestly, I don’t love it. I don’t hate it either. It has nothing to do with the things that I really care about, but it pays the bills, I’ve got some great coworkers, and some great bosses. Some days are shitty, but most aren’t, so I’m content there for now. And because I’ve got no pressure on myself to make a bunch of money doing other things, most of the time I feel free, at peace, and a whole lot more creative.

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in five years, but I’m slowly figuring it out. I’m not rushing that, because I am more than the work I do. And because I want to make sure it’s something I love, not something I blindly jumped into. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do as well. I’m not amazing at design by any means. There is still major blind spots in my programming abilities. And I still have a hell of a lot to learn about business.

And that’s okay. I can put energy into all of that, every day, because I’m not rushing. There’s no pressure.

So guys, I challenge you. Slow down, just a bit. Take some time to evaluate what you’re doing and how that relates to who you are. Take some time to keep learning. Take some time to explore your other interests.

Most of all, don’t worry about making money. Not yet. Focus on creating things purely because you love to. If you can make some money without feeling like your selling your soul, go for it. Cover your costs. Do what is necessary to keep going. But please, don’t make that the reason you’re making things.

Do work that matters to you, that you find interesting, and keep any pressure as far away as possible. The money will come eventually. But that doesn’t matter to you right now. Because you are more than that.