In the pursuit of an artistic career that I love but isn’t always paired with steady lucrative work, I’ve held approximately 30 “survival” jobs since 2009. Survival jobs meaning that I’m able to work relatively full-time, but it’s not the traditional career-track job that other people find themselves on. I’ve been a receptionist, a non-profit event planner, an auctioneer, a science camp teacher, a babysitter, a gift-card writer, a cupcake saleslady, and a personal assistant. I once even spent three days covering a large studio in post-it notes for $11 an hour. And this isn’t counting any of the jobs actually connected to my art.
After six years, I recognize/understand the types of jobs in which I thrive, as well as the types of jobs I could never set foot in again without having an existential crisis. Finding this delicate combination took years of job hunting, painful trial and error, and about a thousand soul-searching journal entries. After many first (and last) days on the job, here is my takeaway of the 10 essentials that any survival job should consist of. Keep in mind, this is gathered from my experience pursuing an art form that requires some level of flexibility, and here are the tips that have worked well for me
1. Don’t think of whatever job you’re currently in as just a “survival” job.
The nature of the phrase itself infers that you are just scraping by, emotionally and financially. The issue with this mentality is that your work becomes a burden, a necessary evil, and soon enough you resent the position. For forty hours a week, you are disconnected from the present; each moment becomes a means to a paycheck. It is the hardest, though perhaps most important challenge and very important to remember.
2. It taps into your creative strengths.
In the old days, I would lie through my teeth about theatre in job interviews. I was told to never say the word “actor”, unless I wanted the manager to run screaming from the room. Unfortunately, we are known for traveling often without notice, which understandably makes for a lousy full-time office employee. However, by excluding this section of my personality, I was not only coming across as false, but also prohibiting them from utilizing my strengths. Freelancing is not easy. We create our own brand, build genuine business relationships and networks, and are excellent at juggling several tasks under pressure. These are all rare and invaluable.
3. Your manager celebrates your creative strengths.
Other than the work itself fulfilling even your smallest creative needs (be it ordering a fancy lunch or rainbow-color-coding a room of dusty old files), it is key to work with someone who is equally excited about your creative assets. It means they respect you wholly as a person, but it also gives you a sense of ownership and purpose each day. You are being trusted with the task because you are needed, and this will get you out of bed in the morning.
4. It engages you without draining you.
There are many ways to get burned out, it it’s essential to have a job that feels engaging. I’ve become artistically exhausted by simple, yet mind-numbing data entry jobs, and by 60-hour-work-weeks planning a gala for a thousand guests. Finding this balance at a job is not easy. But it will allow you to engage in your job during the day, and still have the drive to create when you get home. Knowing that you have dynamic tasks is very important. On the other hand, you will eventually have to “leave work at work” in order to return to the reason you took the job in the first place – your art.
5. You have mutual flexibility.
For years, the only advice I received about a survival job was, “It has to be flexible — get a food service job so you can leave whenever you want.” Well, I didn’t find this to be true. First of all, I was a terrible waitress. I gravitate toward jobs that are not typically seen as flexible. I found that if you respect your manager’s time, they will respect yours. A sense of long-term trust is what you want to build up. If every job you work is seen as your priority, it will make it much easier to ask for a morning off when you get that big audition that you can’t say no to.
6. The company takes work seriously, but doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
One of the best things about working at my job in education is that no one has the time to pretend they’re working harder than anyone else. I’ve found that when people naturally support one another and let their work speak for itself, you never feel like the “temp”, or the lowly bottom-of-the-office food chain. A good team comes from having respect for all the moving parts, genuine dedication to the mission, and the freedom to be your silly self at the same time.
7. It’s in line with your personal ethics.
After a nasty, four-week stint at an unethical hedge fund last year, I vowed to never work for something like that ever again. I thought I could pretend that the company wasn’t supporting everything I fought against, politically and socially, but I couldn’t. It began to eat away at me. That being said, not all large corporate offices practice unethical behavior, it is up to you to determine if the company supports what’s in line with your lifestyle or not. While it may be a temporary gig, you are still supporting their message if you are working for them.
8. It’s in line with your financial goals.
It’s very difficult to turn down work when rent checks are on the horizon. When you are filled with emotion about a short-term fix, try not to make any long-term commitments that may hold you back. Last year, I was faced with throwing away my ethics for the fast track to a debt-free life, or working for a slightly longer amount of time in an organization I believed in. In this case, I chose listening to my ethics over making more money. But, if the offer for ethical work is so low that you will never be able to save for an emergency fund, save for long-term goals, or pay off any debt, then you are only buying time. It is, again, a balance to be struck that you have to figure out for yourself.
9. It recharges your personality.
Two years into temping, I’ve learned that working around kids made me a better adult. Their energy reminded me to stay focused and positive. Teaching did not, however, work into the balance I needed to keep acting. Food service did not line up with me being an introvert. Planning massive events was terrible for my anxiety. So as I learned more about myself, I also learned where I could spend each day working and remain mentally and physically healthy. I now work in an office planning small education-based events, and I am surrounded by kids nine months out of the year. It utilizes my strengths and works in tandem with my personality.
10. It offers the choice to leave.
This may sound contradictory to everything I just said but yet, at the end of the day, the job is a path to freelance freedom. When your freelance ducks are all in a line, you’ve set aside that emergency fund, and you just can’t look at another copy machine, it’s important that your manager celebrates your release back into the world to pursue your other interests. You don’t want to work for an employer who feels as though you are indebted to them. You want to know that they have your best interests at heart, and will support you if you decide to move on.
All in all, it may sound as if I think this it’s easy to find this combination, but I sincerely understand (from experience) that finding the right working situation doesn’t come overnight. But chasing it will allow you to hone in on your needs at your next interview or job search. Jobs like this do exist, and discovering our own personal balances in order to make the puzzle fit together is well worth the wait.
Ginny is an actor and writer from Montclair, New Jersey, and runs her blog Maybe There Will Be Cupcakes.