For better or for worse, I have always defined myself by my career.
It’s the thing that gives me a sense of purpose and self-esteem. Which makes my next statement pretty strange: I recently decided that what I thought was my career (illustration) is actually just a hobby. And through letting go of that dream, I have gained a whole lot of peace.
My obsession with having a creative career began in high school. I longed to escape my suburban existence, and thus spent way too much time dreaming of having an exciting career as a graphic designer. Sure, I didn’t really know what a graphic designer was, but it sounded glamorous and cool, and I imagined that I would live in the inner city and work in a gleaming white studio.
The idea of a career – and of success in general – gave me hope, particularly when I was feeling insecure and awkward. Which, as a teenager, was all the time. (Heck, I still feel that way all the time, but that’s another story.)
By the time I was studying graphic design at university, I had figured out what it was, and also learnt that I sucked at it – something that was reinforced in later years, when I failed to gain employment as a designer. So, my career dreams shifted: I wanted to be an illustrator. Telling stories through drawings seemed extremely romantic and, yes, cool. A few high distinctions from my drawing and illustration classes convinced me that drawing was my ‘thing’.
I had a lot of early success as an illustrator. My work was first published in a magazine when I was 19. This followed with meetings at other popular Australian magazines, some which I flubbed, and others which were vaguely successful. But when I was struck by disaster (a hand injury) and reality (no “real” job or savings), I pushed aside my dream of becoming a world-famous illustrator.
Throughout my many random jobs and occupations (sales assistant, high school art teacher and receptionist, to name a few), I always intended to go back to illustration. I had carpal tunnel release surgery to fix my hand injury. I had sketchbooks, paint, an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. So why wasn’t I going full-steam ahead with my illustration career?
Recently, I had a bit of a career identity crisis. I’ve been working as a writer, podcaster and content producer for the past few years, and at the time of my career crisis, I wasn’t working on any projects. I was completely freaking out, and couldn’t take a step in any direction.
The most obvious thing to do would be to write more articles for the wonderful websites who publish my work. But also nagging for my attention were my personal (and unpaid) projects, like my unfinished podcast and novel.
And of course, there was the pressure to Start Illustrating Again And Become A Famous Illustrator, Because You Have A Whole Degree In Friggin’ Illustrating, You Idiot. Can you imagine having that as a theme to your life for over fifteen years? After a while, the pressure to Be Something becomes debilitating.
So I did what any sensible person would do, and decided to start a whole new Instagram account, just for my drawings. At least I was doing something, rather than sitting there and stressing out.
And as I posted my drawings and wrote the captions, I realised something. I loved illustrating, but I loved it like a brother. It wasn’t the love of my life. It was fun, it was amusing, but it wasn’t my soulmate.
Illustration was my hobby. I haven’t made money as an illustrator for over a decade. There was no way that I could call it a job, or a career.
Deciding that illustration was my hobby was very freeing. It made the practice of drawing so much more relaxing and fun. Ironically, I have become more motivated to draw, since I decided that I didn’t want to be an illustrator, as there isn’t that pressure to make something meaningful – and profitable.
As a mum who works only two days per week, what I do in those two days needs to be profitable, both financially and personally. I need to make money to pay the childcare fees. And I want to do something that makes my time away from my children worthwhile.
If writing and creating content is what earns me money, then the answer is easy: that is my job and career.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and ‘Big Magic’, famously wrote that there is a difference between having a hobby, a job, a career and a vocation. She’s right. Gilbert describes a hobby as something we do for fun, and a job as what earns us money. A career is an investment of time, work and thought, and a vocation is our calling in life.
Throughout my time as an awkward high-schooler, a failed graphic designer and an angsty illustrator, I always wrote. Whether it was on blogs that no-one read, or in one of many journals, I was constantly scrawling something. Reading was a huge thing for me, too, particularly as I struggled to make friends as a child. I simply must write, and I must read. It’s my way of documenting, communicating and understanding.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that I’m a writer. I’ve been in denial about it, as it never sounded glamorous or sexy. But in reality, I earn money from it, which makes it my job. I am strategic about what I write, and who publishes my work, which means it is also my career. And if I was stuck on a desert island, the one thing I’d ask for is a pen and paper, so that I could write. I am compelled to do it.
If you’re feeling confused about your career, or feeling guilty about something that you “should” be doing, just know that it’s okay to feel that way. The stress I experienced over being an illustrator or writer eventually led to life-changing clarity.
I’m glad that I battled through it. It definitely helps to think about whether that occupation or practice you’re worried about is a hobby, job, career or vocation. And sometimes, taking a public step – like when I started an Instagram account for my drawings - can lead to an unexpected answer.
Talk it out, think it out, and post about it. The answers may come to you sooner than you expect.
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Carla Gee is a Sydney writer, illustrator and podcaster. Find her on Instagram and Facebook. In case you missed it, her hobby is drawing illustrations and comics, which you can see on her other Instagram account, @art.bycarlagee.
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