You Don't Need a Different Job to Be More Creative

If I get one more email from someone who wants to quit his or her job to be more creative, I'm going to scream so loud my monitor's going to crack. First of all, know your audience. Do you think that I grew up dreaming of being a career-advice writer? I mean, who would do that? No one, of course. Most jobs aren't the type that anyone grows up dreaming about doing, and that includes the jobs that pay well.

Luckily, I'm not nearly as surly about this topic as I sound in that first paragraph. I believe strongly that all people are creative and that each of us can bring a sort of innate creativity to any job if we choose to. Seriously. No one controls your ability to come up with new ideas. That's up to you.

The key is to change how you think. So here's how to look at your current job, and your current life, so that you don't need to make any changes in order to let your creative self shine through:

1) You don't need to get paid to be creative.

The research is in: Creative work does make people happier. But the act of being creative isn't tied to work, or to money. Stay with me while I take a foray into Bible-based literary criticism. Isn't this why Adam and Eve ate the apple? We don't want a perfect, Garden-of-Eden life laid out for us. We want a messy life full of choices -- some terrific, plenty terrible -- that at least we can say are our own. That is the real gift God gave humans: the power to make decisions, to be creative.

If I were a crazy person -- comments below, please -- I would continue with the Bible to support this theory. But look: instead of God, here's John Mirowsky, professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin. Mirowsky found that if you're creative in your daily life, your life is more fulfilling. And he found that you do not need to get paid to do this creative work in order to gain the benefits. Creativity, he concludes, is rewarding in and of itself.

2) It's uncreative to think only certain jobs (or artists) are creative.

Look, any job is creative if you are doing a good job of it. People who are good at their job accept their task as given, learn to do it well, and then make improvements. Please don't tell me that your boss won't let you be creative. You can be kind, right? You can help someone understand their life better, right? Be the type of manager who really cares. Be the friend at work who makes a bad job good -- really, you can change someone's work life just by being his or her friend at work. And as you move up the food chain in your career, in whatever career you end up doing, you will find creative ways to make the world a better place either through systemic change, or, if not that, then through one-on-one connections, which no one controls but you.

And, warning to the comfortable and smug out there: Bad situations encourage creativity. Because really, how can you solve a problem creatively if you don't have a problem? One reason that obsessing about happiness leads to stress and anxiety is that you cannot have that shit-eating-I'm-so-happy smugness if you're making challenging choices for yourself that require creativity. So the idea that you'll be happy in a different career is specious; solving problems that you created will make you feel fulfilled.

3) If you were a real artist, you would be making art.

Reality check: The artists who make the most money are great at marketing. Actually, the artists who make any money are great at marketing. This is because being an artist is so fulfilling that most people will write/make a film/record a song for free. What separates people who make money doing those things and people who don't is who's best at marketing.

Another reality check: Artists are driven to make art with or without a paycheck. Real artists make time to create art no matter what their day job is. So stop deluding yourself that you're a fine artist stuck in a desk job. More likely, you're a desk worker stuck in the idea that you need to be an artist.

Meaning in life comes from facing the hard stuff. Confronting the disappointments of adult life with open eyes. This means that you have to admit you're not a painter/writer/jewelry maker/whatever if you're not actually painting/writing/making jewelry or doing whatever.

And if you are doing it, great. You don't need to make money at it because you have a desk job for money. Welcome to the real world, where doing what you love is actually useless career advice because people often do not get paid to do what they love -- they do it for free.

I realize that sounds cynical, and plenty of people will write to tell me that they genuinely love their jobs and find them creatively satisfying. But really, the most cynical people are the people who think they need to get paid to do what they love. Think of it this way: If you only want to do your passion -- photography, say, or music -- if you get paid for it, then you're probably not connected with it in the visceral way that we connect when we feel love and passion about what we're doing.