From Mark Ford, founder, Palm Beach Research Group: Most people have jobs. They go to work each morning dutifully, do their best to execute their duties, come home tired, and look forward to weekends and vacations.

They do this to make ends meet, hoping something better will come along. And better things do come now and then, along with setbacks. But the drudgery continues. Week in. Week out. 40 years pass. Life has been half miserable. But it’s time for retirement.

Retirement is getting out of job jail. No more hated work. Time now for relaxation and fun.

Just kidding!

As it turns out, retirement today is this: After giving up a fairly well-paid, full-time job, you take on several poorly paid part-time jobs (without benefits) to pay for your ever-increasing retirement expenses.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can spare yourself the misery by ditching the job early on and replacing it with a career.

What’s the difference?

You work a job to make money. You work a career to build something you value. A job is something you do to make money. A career is a life’s vocation.

With a job, you are always thinking about the time you won’t be working. With a career, you are always thinking about the career even when you aren’t working.

With a job, you are always struggling. With a career, you are always striving.

With a job, improving your skills is a requirement. With a career, it’s a pleasure.

Working a job often feels like you are “wasting your time.” Working a career is often the most rewarding part of your life.

The reason for this is a matter of focus. A job looks inward: “I do this to make me money.” A career looks outward: “I am building something that others can appreciate or use.” 

The litmus test for determining whether you have a job or a career is this question (suggested to me by Gary North many years ago): If you could afford to, would you do it for free?

Is One Better Than the Other?

What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t work for the money. You should work on having a career.

If you don’t like your work but are doing it because you have to support yourself and/or a family, start working on a Plan B. Plan B is titled: Doing Something I Care About.

There is no need to sacrifice your happiness for years working a job you hate. By finding a career, you can actually enjoy your work while you make money.

Satisfaction comes from doing something you care about. And if you can make money for 40 years doing something you care about, and creating something that has value to others—you have a career!

Measured in quotidian terms, having a career can be challenging since you are constantly focused on the work and the work sometimes does not go as well as you might want. But even when the work is frustrating, it involves you in a way that is somehow satisfying. And when the work goes well, there’s nothing like it.

On a Personal Note…

Okay, so maybe having a career is better in terms of leading a richer internal life. But how does that help? If you have a job now, can you transform it into a career?

Let’s talk about that. It may depend on what you are doing.

I have worked as a writer and editor for about 40 years. For more than half that time, writing was a job for me. I did it to make money. I worked hard at it and did it well and did make a lot of money, which was great.

But except for seeing my writing succeed in the marketplace, and cashing those big checks, I never much enjoyed the “job” of writing. In fact, I was sometimes embarrassed by the writing I was doing. At times, it felt cheesy and even manipulative.

That changed when I was 50. I changed my priorities. Making money wasn’t even on the list.

I began writing about topics I valued. Before, almost all my writing was sales copy. In many cases, I was selling things—merchandise and publications—I didn’t care about. Then I started writing about art collecting and language and literature. And I was writing movie scripts and short stories and poems.

Before, the “purpose” of the writing I had been doing was to sell products and services and thereby make a lot of money. After, the purpose of my writing was to teach readers what I had learned about making money. It was the same topic, but the intention was different. It had moved from me (inward) to them (outward).

Or to put it in rock ’n’ roll terms: In the case of writing fiction, I was “being with the one I loved.” In the case of writing about wealth, I was “loving the one I was with.”

So that, I think, is the most important factor in having a career. You have to do work that makes you happy while you are doing it. You have to do work that you would do for free. And to get that happiness from your work, you have to do work you value or find a way to value the work you do.

So that is the first and main thing. But there are others:

  • The work should be challenging. It should require the best of you—your intelligence, your intuition, your stamina, and your care. Ideally, it should require both knowledge and skill and thus give you the opportunity to learn and improve forever.

  • It should produce things or provide services that are enjoyable and/or useful to other people. This adds a social component to the experience.

  • It should be accretive. That is, the value of the goods or services you produce should increase as your career continues. (For example, I feel like the writing I’ve done on entrepreneurship, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. One day, I’d like to assemble all my writing on that subject in a course or multivolume library.)

What Do You Do If You Can’t Make a Career of Your Job?

Not everyone can make a career out of his/her job. An architect certainly could. Instead of designing commercial crap for the highest bidder, she could gradually develop her own style, one that she likes and that would serve users, and she could produce work over her lifetime that would endure for generations.

And that is true for virtually all professions that produce things, such as stone masonry and landscape design and interior decorating and so on.

But what about service professions, which don’t have products per se? Can you make a career out of them?

You can certainly do so as a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher. Think of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has made a lifelong commitment to jurisprudence. Or think of Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who discovered the polio vaccine and gave it away for free. Or consider Stanley Fish, a scholar and author who has made a life teaching law and literary criticism.

But what if you work on an assembly line or have a mail route or spend your days balancing ledgers?

In theory, I suppose you can. One of my great friends transitioned from sculptor to lighting designer and made his living that way but never considered that he had made a change. In his mind, he was still an artist and still developing his craft. He’s gone now, but there are many times when I see a lighting “effect” and think of him.

But let’s say that you can’t imagine how to make the change. And yet, you are going to keep your job because you need or want the money.

Does that mean you have to miss out on a rich life?

I don’t think so. Not at all. You can have a fully rich life by adopting an avocation.

A career, as I said in the beginning, is a lifetime vocation. An avocation is literally a side vocation, something you do outside of your job that can present you with all the benefits of a career.

You could become a poet or an artist or an art collector. You could learn to cultivate Bonsai or build fine furniture or make your own movies.

For example, Wallace Stevens, one of the great American poets of the 20th century, made his money working as the vice president of insurance company The Hartford. His life in the office was boring, but his life as a poet was immensely rich. When he won the Pulitzer Prize, people in Stevens’ office didn’t even know he wrote poetry.

He’s hardly alone in creating a divide between his job and avocation.

The sculptor Richard Serra held a job as a mover, employing the famous graphic artist Chuck Close. The composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver and plumber, and the composer Charles Ives founded an insurance agency. Authors Anthony Trollope and Charles Bukowski worked in the postal service. And Henry Frick rounded out his time as an industrialist, financier, and real estate mogul by amassing perhaps the greatest collection of European art in America.

There are hundreds of avocations available. But not everything you might want to do “on the side” can qualify as an avocation.

Although they may be activities you are happy to do without compensation, going to the movies or reading books or smoking pot don’t qualify since they do not present the other benefits you can get from a career. They don’t challenge you to learn and grow. They don’t provide a social benefit. And they have no accretive value.

Hobbies such as golfing or playing poker or tennis may qualify on two counts (something you are happy to do for free and something that you can learn and improve on), but they do not provide social value or leave a body of work that can be enjoyed by others after you are gone.

Like a career, you can determine if an activity is an avocation by asking yourself:

  • Would you do it without compensation because it is fun to do?

  • Will it be perpetually challenging?

  • Will it provide enjoyment and/or value to others?

  • Does it have accretive value?