Are you rushing through life doing what makes you happy and fulfilled?

Life in a rush. 
The Rome Termini Station. 

Lately I seem to have come across a bevy of 55-63 year old men who are having some regrets about the trajectory of their lives. They are affluent, well educated and have spent the last twenty-five to thirty-five years of their lives pursuing safe, secure and financially rewarding careers in jobs that they essentially find boring and mundane. Routine is another word that often comes up in conversation. 

They would like to have been photographers, writers or film makers. They made a different choice and now they are confronting the realization that they missed the right opportunity to jump off the train before it got up to speed and made jumping unsafe; even dangerous. 

In most cases their kids are grown and they have put away enough money to survive for the rest of their lives. But in the course of having real careers they have also come to crave not only the security of a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly job but also the money that comes attached to the deal. 

While they might take a leap into the unknown and leave work to pursue their life long passions most will chaff at the idea of not "retiring well" and will keep working until they burn out entirely or retire for health issues. Shot knees. Bad backs. High blood pressure. Exhaustion. 

I'd like to be able to make some little homily to make it all seem like a worthy and elegant trade-off but I can't and I won't. Everyone gets to make their choice. Everyone has to live with their choices. And the grass always seems greener on the other side. 

I've tried to have it both ways but that doesn't really work either. 

At some point you move in one direction or the other. For the artist it always seems too late to change gears and find a way to quickly make enough money to offset the perilous and ill paying journey of a life time of experimentation and risk taking before old age sets in with a vengeance. Poor artists. 

On the other hand the late 50's seems too late to leave the routine of a job and paycheck behind in order to embrace the uncertainty of an artistic calling that seems ever aimed at youngsters and madmen. Could you give up the Mercedes in the driveway and the charge cards for the spouse? Are you willing to be considered "eccentric" by society in general?

I have advice for you if you are younger and on the cusp of making these sorts of life altering choices. Don't believe that security trumps excitement, passion, power and purpose. If nothing else, accepting the challenge of doing your own art on your terms will give you stories to tell long after the rest of the nursing home residents have taken their medications and fallen into a fitful sleep. Waking from time to time to regret that life was short and they traded the spice for pablum. 

I know a film maker who is constantly on the edge of financial dissolution but he's making his work and plying his craft and he's still having a blast at 55. His credo? "I'll do this right up until the day I die!" What employee would say the same thing about their job?

It's not too late to save yourself. Drop the spreadsheets into the trash can on your way out the door, grab your camera (or pen or paintbrush) and live. Everything else is peppered with regret.

Why have I written this? Because I've been on the other side of the table having coffee with at least a dozen different people in my age cohort who agonize over their choices and include me in their introspective conversation. What can I offer with authenticity but my own journey?

And no, it does not matter which brand of camera you pick up....


JustinPhotoArtist said...

I read this as i celebrate a life milestone today. Reading it filled me with both excitement and trepidation, and a dose of recognition as well. Plenty to reflect on that's for sure. Thanks for posting.

James Pilcher said...

Wow, Kirk. Reading this, I could feel my breath becoming short and my shoulders slump a bit. How did you know how I'm feeling about my life, career, and future?

Robert said...

What's that old adage? "Find something you love doing and you'll never work another day in your life"?

Funny thing about these observations, Kirk, is that your overall assessment is more relevant today than it ever was before. There are no more safe jobs with a pension and gold watch at the end, regardless of whether said job sucked out your soul over the years or not. That was another era.

So might as well take the time when you're young to really explore what you love to do, because the jobs that pay tons of money are only going to be available to a very few anyway, and with a shrinking middle class, it makes little sense to get sucked into a job one hates AND get paid like a pauper for the privilege of being miserable one's entire life anyway.

Furthermore, there are no guarantees in life. We all need a modicum of income to keep a decent roof over our heads, decent food in our bellies, preferably a reasonable vehicle (and, yes, a few of the other trappings) — and hopefully, enough left over to put away for those rainy days, be they now or later — but beyond this, the rest has been proven to do little for our happiness.

We've all heard about the guy who toils his entire life in a "safe" well paid job that offers little nourishment for the soul or spirit only so that he can retire at 65 and still drive a new BMW every four years, and then gets cancer a month after he retires, or quickly deteriorates in health due to a lack of "relevance".

An increasing percentage of North Americans under age 50 today will never be able to retire anyway, at least not fully. But if you enjoy what you do, and are passionate about it to some degree, you might not want to retire anyway, and that makes it a good thing.

A person is blessed who can find something they love to do and simultaneously get paid reasonably well to do it. That's the Holy Grail. Hard to find … but worth the search. And that search begins inside, I suspect.

Thomas Rink said...

I am a "weekend warrior" when it comes to photography. Even though I am full-time employed (software development), I can still find a couple of hours each week to go out and take pictures (flexible working hours and an understanding family). For me, this couple of hours is perfect - if I were able to take more pictures, this would leave me with less time to think about what I was doing and get inspiration by reading. Additionally, I don't have to pay attention to paying clients or the "art market" - if I feel good to take pictures of ponds with rubbish floating on them, I just do so. I use my camera as a window to the world, not to earn an income or status.

Another thought: My father-in-law was six when he and his family had to flee from the soviet army (from then-Germany-now-Poland). After that, he had to work on a farm. When he was 14, he was sent away from his family (several 100 km) to be trained as a coal miner. He worked as a truck driver until retirement, and was the only driver out of three at his company to actually reach retirement (the other two died before - heart attacks etc.). When I think about this, I marvel at just how good my life actually is.

Best, Thomas

Thomas Rink said...

Sorry, Kirk, for spamming the comments. Just an afterthought to this insightful post of yours: Do you think that these people who a quarreling with their lives after having pursued a successfull (?) career - do you think that they would be content with a (possibly "unsuccessful") life as an artist? Or are they so competitive (as a character trait), that they are not able to experience satisfaction or contentment at all? Always more, more, more ...

Strive to be content! Make the best with what you have, do not quarrel, don't strive for a different live, a better camera, international recognition or whatever, and the gods will smile on you. As they say here, "woanders is auch Schei├če" ("it's crappy elsewhere, too").

Best, Thomas

Rory OT said...

I jumped at 39. Left behind 15 years of job security and became self employed in photography. Five years later I'm not sure if I'm ever going to 'make it', but what I am sure of is I left behind a job that I disliked and would have been very unhappy in if I had stayed there securely until retirement..

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Maybe I can offer a bit, Kirk:

I used to be a musician when I was younger. Have been to the studios (EMI Electrola was the first) at age 19, playing bass guitar. To do that, I gave up on taking normal jobs, but I could barely survive.

When I was around 25, my then girlfriend left me with the words that I'll never be able to support a family, and she was right. So a decision had to be made: did I want to go on with my artistic life more or less alone, or did I want to do something else, have a regular income and a life like more or less everyone else?

After thinking a bit about what I *could* actually do, I decided for the latter. Everything I remembered I could do well - besides making music - was to learn, so I started with that. And on the way, I found something which *did* interest me enough to keep going in that direction (computers and information technology).

I got 50 last week, so I'm a year younger than you. And now I'm married the second time. And when I look around me, I have a beautiful wife and daughter (plus two sons from the first marriage), and that all wouldn't have happened had I kept my way as a half-starving musician.

Our daughter is on a high school which concentrates on music (her choice), and I support her as good as I can. One of my sons is programming computer games, and he's better at it than I was at his age. I (re-)discovered photography as a hobby, and one of my birthday presents was a book about jazz harmonics, and the theory of improvising.

I'm happy. Still have to work between 3 or 6 years (my choice) until I officially retire, but that's part of life as well, so I don't really think that this is time wasted. If I look around, I see lots of people circling around themselves, while I'm more like an observant, trying to support everyone as good as I can, and taking pictures on my way.

Lots can be learned from other people, but I think that for me, the way I've chosen was the right one. No regrets.

Hope that helps anyone,

Anonymous said...

Good article but there is the possibility that those people (I will assume they were all men)would have regrets no matter what career they chose. I think there are a couple of lessons. One is to make the most of what you are doing, focus on the good aspects. Second, look forward and not back on a life you regret. Learn your lessons and move on. As you point out they can pick up a camera now and indulge their artistic side.

Frank Grygier said...

As my 65th birthday looms in the not to distant future I look back on the forks in the road of my life. The paths I took and the others that looked dark and scary or maybe the roads I chose just appeared less bumpy. I have enjoyed most of what I have done in my working life but the regret of paths not taken hovers over me. I worked in film and television production in my early years and when we decided to move to Texas I came upon the fork in the road that probably set things in motion for a good deal of my working life. I chose to work in the oil patch rather than continue to work in television. The choice seemed simple at the time. I was offered four times the money to be a sales guy.I have enjoyed the challenges and rewards of working in business but now I daydream of that road not taken. More seasoned now with most of what I can accomplished in my current job behind me I may have come full circle. What is that ahead? A familiar fork.

David Lobato said...

My wife is a musician. Many of them choose near poverty in order to make music full time. And serious musicians I meet are happy with that. She encouraged me to pursue my large format photography before waiting for "after retirement".

HBernstein said...

I've never worked at any major job that wasn't part of something deeper and more personal. I've tried blending the creative and self-fulfilling side of work with the need to earn money. I can't imagine living any other way. Yet I definately have some regrets and now, considerable financial insecurity.

Every career is a package of fulfillment, frustration, and time passing. It really isn't simple nor possible without being very selfish for most of us in our fifties to turn our lives topsy-turvy to pursue a creative dream.

TMJ said...

Of course you can be in that age bracket (55-63), as I am, and enjoy your first choice of career, as I do. It even incorporates photography and I vividly remember taking pictures in the operating theatre (OR in the states) for my boss who was writing the Colour Atlas of Orthognathic Surgery: Surgery of Facial Skeletal Deformity. State of the art theatre equipment, but the camera was Derek's own, an Exakta with macro/bellows and twin flash, with pretty slow speed transparency film. Nowadays you wouldn't be allowed anywhere near theatres with that set-up. Incidentally the images came out well.

Dave Jenkins said...

To all those who may be considering a career change, may I give a few cautionary words: As many have said, "Don't quit your day job!"

If you are far enough long in life and in your career that you could retire today and continue to live at the level you prefer with no additional income, then fine. Go for it. But don't count on making any money for a while, and maybe never. And don't count on spending much time doing photography. You will spend 90 percent of your time doing marketing and peripheral tasks such as post-processing. If you do not do the marketing you will make very little money.

When you read about Kirk filling his days with interesting and profitable assignments, remember two things: 1, he is a master marketer; and 2, he has been doing this for a long time and has built up an extensive list of good clients.

I went for it as a self-employed photographer and writer 38 years ago after working for other people in the photography and advertising field for several years. Before that, I was a teacher. You may judge for yourself my proficiency as a photographer by visiting my web sites at www.davidbjenkins.com and www.silvermaplepress.com.

So, how has it been? Truly, a mixed bag. My own self-evaluation is that artistically, my career has been a moderate success. Financially, not so much. I've been able to go to many interesting places and do many interesting things because of my photography and writing. But I have been neither a good nor a diligent marketer, and if my wife had not loved me enough to work all these years so that I could pursue my dream, we would not have much. So you really could say that I have had my career on my wife's back.

My wife is now retired from her career as a Nurse Practitioner, and thanks to her diligence, we have enough to live in reasonable comfort.

Myself, I'm 78 now and still working, though not so much. Most of the people who gave me work over the years have retired or moved on to other things, and the younger art directors have a bit of trouble identifying with me.

On the other hand, I just signed a contract with a major publisher to do a guide to the backroads and byways of my state, and I'm looking forward to getting on with that as the weather improves. I have another finished book (self-assigned) that I'm seeking a publisher for. One of my conscious goals going into photography was to have a career no one could make me retire from. So that part, at least, has been successful. But my very best advice to you is still this:

Don't quit your day job.

Peter Wright said...

Kirk, you have to be rich and successful to consider yourself a failure, like those friends of yours. Many first-world kids go through art college, acting school etc, only to discover late on that they are not after all, artists or actors, and have to look for some other way to pay the bills.

My father had to leave school at 11 and get a job, then from 18 to 24 he fought in WW2 (he was British, so 6 years) sometimes in hand to hand combat – yes he had lots of stories to tell. But his idea of the height of success was; a good education, a job in an office, a regular pay check, and a pension at the end of it all. So I got a BSc, MSc, and a PhD (I laugh at Big Bang Theory, not because I knew people like that, but because I was people like that! But I changed along the way (a wife and three daughters will do that to you!) and so nine years back, I left work at 58 to take a degree in Theology of all things – and also spend more time on my photography. I now think of myself as a theologian/artist, grandfather etc. Success is what you decide it is.

Michael Reed said...


some of your friends might be perpetual greener on the other side of the fence people. they just don't realized how good they have it.

I went through a crisis at 30. I'm 56 now. Do I have regrets. Of course. Most people our age probably have some.

What I realized at 30 is I'm not an artist. I probably would not do well as a self employed individual. I came to the conclusion that I was best doing what I had been doing. Is it boring sometimes. Yes. do I hate it sometimes. Yes. Can it be good. Yes. Work has its ups and downs.

What is more important is work provides the means to support my family. to spend time with them on weekends. to provide my kid with opportunities. the income brings peace of mind. the job provides for a life outside of work with family and that is where I find the meaning of life.

do I have regrets that I didn't change occupations. No

Robert Roaldi said...

Well, maybe.

Could be that a lot of people might not have much to say, artistically speaking. Someone has to be a plumber or electrician or work in a camera assembly factory. Maybe some need a lifetime of experience to find out that they have something to say and find a way to say it. One would have to be extremely lucky indeed to realize at age 20 what you want to do in life to make yourself happy AND find a way to generate an income from it. When successful people tell others that they have to find their passion in life, I can't help but roll my eyes a little bit. It's maybe true enough that people ought to do that to be happy, but it's a big step to think that it will work for everyone.

Lots of jobs are soul-crushing, of that there is no doubt. I worked at several, but when you're in a place like that, it's important not to give your all to it, save some energy for yourself. What's the point of giving your all to make someone else rich. They won't thank you for it, they'll lay you off. I read a terrific quote from some silicone valley CEO about a decade ago. He said, "Commitment starts at 100 hours per week." You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand why he would want all his employees to think that.

This seems very much like a first-world problem to me. When my father immigrated to Canada post-WW2, as a machinist, the idea that his job would be the be-all and end-all of his life would have struck him as insane. I agree with him. There's your life, and there's your job. Some lucky few manage to merge the two, the vast majority compromise.

Dwight Parker said...

I have never considered myself an artist. I am a geek and enjoy my career of computer and end-user support. I have always been intrigued by human invention,any machine, be it computer, camera, or car and I have striven to take it apart, understand what makes it tick, and put it back together from when I was a young boy.... I stumbled into my career, but that's another boring story I won't waste your time with but I really can't think of anything I would enjoy more.... I don't make a lot of money, but am fortunate enough to work a job that will provide retirement pay which along with social security, will keep me from starving...oh yeah, back to my first sentence. I do like taking photos (and admire the technology of cameras) and I like reading about people like you even though I could never be you.....

Anonymous said...

As one of the friends Kirk mentions mine is not of regrets. I've pursued with passion the field I chose at 18 and after almost 40 years feel it is time to look at something new. At some point almost all will loose their voice. Very few can do what they do till the day they die. Kirk has been through about 4 career changes to get where he is and if anyone can stay the course till death he just might be the one.
The other aspect is that life sometimes gives you responsibilities that require you to pursue money over complete happiness. Starving artist has never been part of my vocabulary. I find it interesting that many feel we are cubicle workers in search of art instead of successful artist interested in a new voice or a different art .
The last time I read an article about careers it said the current generations might change fields a dozen times. If I include my start in food service, the college years of driving a truck then 4 different approaches to my current field then I have about 6 more to go.

Anonymous said...

Nice entry. Here's my case for traditional employment.

My government work as a contracts manager is secure with good pay and benefits. Even though it's not my "passion" it's somewhat interesting work. Government employment gives me plenty of time off, too. I get all of the holidays and a few floating holidays each year. Lots of sick time. Lots of vacation time. All of this adds up to a really flexible schedule allowing me plenty of time for family and other pursuits. Additionally, when I leave the office, that's it. My work does not follow me. I never give it a second thought. No work calls or E-mail on my time.

My "passion" (or so I think) is gardening, and I get to do it every day after work and on my 3 day weekends. In about 5 years from now, when I'm 55, I will retire from 28 years of government work. I can't complain too much because my house will be paid off by then, and because my family does not live a life of extravagance, we have no debt outside the few remaining years of mortgage. I will likely rent my home for a pretty penny and buy a small hobby farm. I'll never make Martha Stewart money, but I'll be doing what I love and loving it.