“What do you do for a living?”
It’s such a simple question. Why do I find it so hard to answer?
Ever since 2011, when I sold the software company I co-founded, I’ve been trying to redefine who I am and what I do for a living. At times, I’ve been both tempted and repulsed by the idea of returning to the tech sector — of building a new venture based on old skills. Both my temptation and repulsion are based on familiarity — on leveraging skills and experience honed over decades of work in the software industry.
Fortunately and unfortunately, my opportunities within my “first career” have all but disappeared. I have allowed my technical skills to lapse, and my network of contacts has moved on without me. I celebrate the continued successes of people I once worked with as they post their accomplishments on Facebook, but I have little interest in walking beside them on a path I abandoned years ago. Thinking about hectic business trips, client-driven deadlines and competitive landscapes makes my head spin.
So what do I do for a living? Well, I cook and clean. I walk around my small town “gathering” groceries. I volunteer and provide advice when asked for it. I pay bills, do my taxes and take out the garbage. I help my homeschooled/unschooled kids follow their passions and navigate their paths to adulthood. I play as much as possible — music, games, travel … anything that gets my heart pumping or my creativity flowing. I take on the occasional contract — designing other peoples’ books or dipping into my past to solve business problems. And I write novels. I have one book under my belt and another nearing completion, three books under development, and an abundance of new stories percolating in my brain.
Like most writers, I want to write more and “work” less. And like most parents, I want to spend more time with my kids. Yet I fill my days with tasks and meetings, take on projects that don’t interest me, and spend time and brainpower trying to figure out how to earn a living without “working for the man.”
A few weeks ago, after attending publishing conferences in Toronto and Portland, I sat down with my wife, Sheila, to plan the next chapter of my career. Fuelled by a newfound passion for book production and fresh knowledge about the publishing industry, I was ready to build our small independent publishing company into a literary powerhouse. I was ready to blend new skills with old experience to put my own unique stamp on the publishing industry. I was ready to run another start-up!
Then Sheila asked me a question, or a series of questions — I can’t recall the exact words that led me to look deep inside and ask myself what I really want to do with the next few years of my life. A few feelings and thoughts rose to the surface:
- I want to be a more engaged parent.
- I want to write books.
- I want to be an active member of my community.
- I want to explore the world.
As hard as I tried to shape those thoughts into something that resembled “building a new publishing company,” I couldn’t. Just like I couldn’t bring myself to commit to a number of other entrepreneurial ventures that I looked at over the past six years.
Every time I think about what it really takes — the commitment of time, money, energy — to get a new venture off the ground, I remember my earlier years. I remember the long hours and the inability to shut off challenges and opportunities that rode with me everywhere, always. I remember the stress of tight deadlines and even tighter cashflow. And I remember standing in front of our local arena, fumbling to answer my cell phone while juggling six skates and two young children, only to learn that an accounting error meant ten people would not be able to cash their paycheques — unless I dedicated the balance of my day to solving the crisis du jour.
After my discussion with Sheila a few weeks ago, I began to rethink my deadlines and commitments, wants and needs. I analyzed bank statements and budgets. I thought about the reality of raising a third “child” — a new venture — while trying to guide two human offspring through the most intense years of life. I thought deeply about the question, “What do you do for a living?” — a question I’ve asked and answered countless times, but never fully explored; a question that, consciously or unconsciously, aims to define us. And I realized that “what I do for a living” is an attribute, not a category. It is a part of me, not the other way around.
It’s going to take me a while to reframe my self-perception and truly embrace a new set of priorities that revolve around family, community, and my passion for writing. This blog post, my first in over six months, is a small step toward answering the question “What do you do for a living?” with an answer that feels right.
For starters, I’m going to try a new answer to this age-old question: “I am a father, a husband, and a writer.”
There. I said it. Now I just need to believe it … embrace it … be it.