Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

Two full weeks here in Barcelona and I’m finally settling down to the primary task I’ve set for myself during our time in Spain: rejiggering my worklife, and rethinking entirely what I want out of my career as a writer.Yes. So. What do I want? It’s such a huge, bloated, amorphous, nebulous, terrifying, wonderful, impossible, fascinating and inevitable question, isn’t it?

So grand, and yet so essential, to put one’s wants – not one’s needs – at the center of things, to shout them out to the huge, busy, noisy universe and confidently, cosmically await a reply. Just who do you think you are, asking for all that happy, being that you are so very tiny, and in case you didn’t notice, this is the Milky Way, not the Hilton, thank you very much; you knew that long before your birth and you chose this galaxy anyway and just what do you expect the gods to do about any of your carbon-based woes?

Flag-swept days, author unknown - Erin J. Bernard

Flag-swept days, author unknown – Erin J. Bernard


As always, I’ve begun by looking to the past for a few answers. A few weeks back, I was looking through a diary I kept when I was 19. Amidst my semi-literate ramblings on the difficulty of college and the meaning and confounding trajectory of everything in particular, was this sentence: “Life is so hard. I just want to travel and have fun.”

Fifteen years out, I thought it might be useful to revisit my post-adolescent wish, and to reconsider its value to middle-aged me.

Do I “just want to travel”? Yes, and no.

Yes. I am in some senses a lifer when it comes to traveling. The world is so big and strange and wonderful, and I find deep and immeasurable satisfaction in learning new languages and exploring new cultures. It brings me fully to life and helps me self-actualize in lasting and essential ways. It reminds me to walk through the world with more patience and compassion, both for myself and for others. It keeps me humble and awed and connected to others when I would sometimes rather disconnect entirely and secret myself away forever.

Also, no. Perhaps it is the “just” I take exception with. Travel is no longer my Reason for Being. It was for most of my 20s the primary act that gave meaning and direction to my life. Now, I need more. I crave stability in addition to the freedom to wander. I crave financial security and a family and a home to call my own. Ratty, bed-bug infested hostel bunks and the sketchy foreign boyfriends that come with them have lost their luster. I want a nest! A place to keep my books and my precious treasures. A landing pad more intentional and private than my grandmother’s spare bedroom or a best friend’s couch. And so I have been making changes these past years. Now, I am thinking about how I might make even more.

Do Good Job - Erin J. Bernard

Do Good Job – Erin J. Bernard

Do I still place high value on my ability to “have fun”?

At first blush, this sentence feels to me, really small and silly. Of what possible global or long-term personal import could having fun be? I’m a real, live grown-up, now, with real, live serious goals and needs and even, finally, an individual retirement account and a personal articles insurance policy. I am a partner to E, and he and I want kids soon. We want to pay off the mortgage on the house and get the yard to a point where it’s looking at least not completely overgrown and tatty. All of this is immensely satisfying, but how much actual “fun” does any of it abide?

That’s a slippery question, easy to overponder and even easier to overanswer. If as a 33-year-old, I declare that I “just want to have fun,” what will my peers and family and partner think? Likely, I’ll be classified as immature, lazy, lacking in drive, under-accomplished. All of these are judgments that I fear deeply from others because, on some level, I level them mercilessly upon myself. I’ve always been restless, prone to wandering and wondering, and I know it has tarnished the opinion some people have of me. (I’m thinking of my deceased grandfather right now . . . But for posterity, let me quickly and heartily add that he and I came to respect each other deeply before he died two years ago, despite our differences.) And that, in turn, made me question myself. It didn’t make me change myself, but it definitely led to a lot of punk-rock-style angst and uncertainty when it came to the choices I made.

I fear the label of “flake” so deeply, in fact, that in some ways I’d sooner paint myself into a dry, stifling corner work-wise than admit that the biggest complaint I have with my current existence as a freelancer is that it’s not fun enough of the time, which is really only another way of saying that it makes me unhappy in ways I’m not sure I’m ready to or capable of abiding for the long-term. Even if I should.

Some of what I do to earn my living is very, very fun.

Some of what I do is definitely, definitely not.

A person far wiser than me once advised that I should learn, early on in my career, to abide a “crap factor.” That is to say, every line of work is undergirded by a layer of bullshit of varying thickness and width, and the sooner a person accepts this, the sooner he or she is likely to find a measure of comfort and satisfaction in his or her chosen profession.

I suppose it’s true, but does that mean I have to like it? If I choose not to like it, am I just making my own life miserable? And why does it always seem that these kinds of steaming platitudes are served up in such infuriatingly non-specified portions?

Like, should I aim for a crap factor of 1-4? Or 1-10? Or, get real kid, it’s 1-1 and you better learn to like it, because the cosmos is getting really sick of your bitching? What is an acceptable percentage of misery when it comes to the plodding and inevitable business of singing for one’s supper? When should you just buck up and cop a better attitude and when is enough enough?

Hazard! - Erin J. Bernard

Hazard! – Erin J. Bernard

Another person I met a few years back who was also rather wise told me, “Work is work . . . No, not even that. Work is!”

Too true. And as I begin this journey of rethinking and retooling every single thing I am doing as a humanoid writer, these questions feel like worthy polestars:

• What do I want?

• How much travel? How much fun?

• What’s an acceptable crap factor, in real, hard numbers?

• And what does it mean to acknowledge the deep and undeniable “Is-ness” of one’s work?

I’m beginning, slowly, to sort out the answers. Insights are emerging from unexpected places, and I hope that some of what I unravel is of use to other creative people struggling to move through the world in meaningful and satisfying ways.

I’ll share the most promising nuggets.

Stay tuned.


2 thoughts on “Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

  1. Joseph Bernard, Ph.D (@explorelife) says:

    I support moving towards fun 100%. At this point in my life I think what matters most is moving towards more joy. Joy (fun) is a by-product of being present to whatever you are doing. Writing is a joyous expression that only can happen when you are present to what you are writing. All creative expression has joy because it only can happen in the now. Travel, family, nest, flake etc all have joy in them if I am present to them. The world needs more joy then more seriousness. Joy and fun to you.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Yes, I love the connection you are making between joy and mindfulness … I think when these two things coalesce in our daily lives we invite more “peak human experiences.” Or perhaps they happen all the time but we are simply incapable of acknowledging them when we are on edge, tired, disengaged. I hate the concept of “working to live” almost as much as “living to work!” We spend far too enormous a chunk of our waking hours working for it to merely be a means to something better. As the Beatles once so sagely opined, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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