“What do you do?”
Ever since I’ve started doing this Japan freelance thing, this question has become a minefield.
There are two answers I give. 1) “I’m a harpist, who does some other stuff on too.” This answer gets some searching looks and questions to determine whether I’m a ‘legitimate musician’ by that person’s standards. Sometimes I pass the legit test (I have a music degree, I earn money with the harp), sometimes I fail (I don’t play in an orchestra, I have other jobs).
So I don’t like giving that answer because I don’t like facing this scrutiny in the first five minutes I meet a new person. But the other answer is… sort of insufferable.
“There are several things I do to make money and the proportion of my income they makes varies from month to month. These include playing the harp, music teaching, English teaching, modelling, English checking, writing and leading ‘English through Musical Theatre’ workshops. (Ok, the last one happened a grand total of twice but it was really fun, I want to do it more!)”
You see the problem? I’m not arrogant enough to think that a stranger wants to hear that much detail about my life.
People like to pigeon hole, I get it. Pigeon holing saves a lot of time. And there are people for whom things are very simple; they have a ‘profession’ such as doctor, lawyer, vet, teacher, and they go to work and then they go home. Good for them. But haven’t you noticed that, in our late capitalist dystopia, the boundaries are becoming blurred? Certain jobs are ceasing to exist, new ways of making money pop up, what was once secure and now predictable has become uncertain and random. What even is ‘work’ anyway?
Sometimes it seems there is almost an inverse correlation in how difficult a job is and how much I earn. One of the times I worked the hardest in my life was a year doing an internship in classical music PR and the pay was below minimum wage. Sometimes I feel guilty calling that position a ‘job’ because the pay was so low. But of course it was! I had responsibilities, I achieved things, I performed a service. I was a damn sight more productive than in many of the ‘real jobs’ I’ve had. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve played harp at wedding receptions for £50+ an hour and I feel like a sack of potatoes could do the job as long as we put it in a nice dress and sat it behind the harp. No one is listening, everyone is drunk and talking super loud. Sometimes I’m sure that I could just play scales and no one would care. I don’t of course, because I try to be professional, but chances are I would get away with it.
And it’s not just me. I have friends with well paid, respectable jobs who have admitted to me that on a normal 8.5 hour day they do about 3 hours of actual work. I’ve done temping in offices too and I’ve got so bored on occasion that I learned basic coding and a lot about the autonomous constituent country of Greenland. A friend started a translation job in Japan and spent a month being paid for absolutely nothing because his managers didn’t know what to do with him. The office had some manga hanging around of franchises they had translated for so he ended up being paid decent money for spending 3 weeks reading manga, which was encouraged by his employers because they felt bad for not giving him any work.
My point is that we all know that the links between productivity, skill and how much you earn is kind of bullshit. And yet, and yet if we can’t put our finger on someone’s ‘profession’ it makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, if we can’t name a defined profession for ourselves, we get uncomfortable too. But I’m done with that.
I’m not much of a leftist but I studied some leftist thinkers at university and their thought is really useful to me in how I conduct my life. Why should the thing that earns us the most income be defined as our ‘profession?’ Ok, I’ll admit, I’m not earning the majority of my money from performing harp at the moment, but practicing, performing and networking still take up more of my time and passion than anything else so why not call myself a harpist? Capitalism tells me that I should want to make all of my money from my playing, and if I don’t I’m not a ‘real’ musician. Maybe that would be nice, and I haven’t turned down a paid gig yet but to be honest I’m not completely sure I would even want to be a 100% full time harpist. I’m a curious person with a broad skill set who enjoys variety in their life and my various income revenues allow me to life flexibly and comfortably. But still, sometimes I feel like society wants to make me feel like if I can’t pigeon hole myself as a 100% professional harpist, I’m a failure.
As much as the gig economy probably isn’t the best thing, I think while it’s here I might as well make it my bitch. At least for now. I’m not pretending that there may come a time when I want simplicity, security and simple tax returns. But for now, I’m loving life.
If you’re say, an oil painter, who’s never earned a quid for your art in your life, but you think lots about oil painting, you spend lots of time oil painting, and oil painting is what you love to do, then feel free do answer the “What do you do?” question with, “Oil painting” instead of your so-called “day job.” Whatever you want. And if you’re a lawyer and lawyering is your jam, and that is how you make your money, great! Call yourself a lawyer. Call yourself anything. Do what you want, I don’t care.
I actually think the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ can be very harmful, especially for the creatives amongst us. I know so many people who loved playing their instruments when they were in secondary school when it was ‘just play.’ Usually high quality play, but still ‘just for fun.’ Then they go to music college to become ‘professionals’ and suddenly it’s serious business. It’s now work not play so they’re feeling the heaviness and they lose all the joy they used to get from their art. And ironically enough, often their playing gets worse because performance anxiety, muscle tension, exhaustion and conservatoire bitching isn’t the best recipe for a great stage presence.
I’ve done some of my best playing and songwriting when I’ve been light and playful about it. Same goes for a my other work actually, especially my teaching. Children are playful by nature so when I get it into my head that ‘I am going to be THE BEST music teacher and deliver a HIGH QUALITY LESSON because these parents are PAYING A LOT for it,’ it usually doesn’t go down that well. But if I take the pressure of myself, stop worrying if I deserve what I’m getting paid and just get really enthused about my lesson plan and the kids then I can deliver like no one’s business.
The work and play distinction is also harmful because it gets the idea into our heads that work = something we should try hard at, and play = anything outside of work; we don’t need to put in any effort because it’s ‘free time.’ No! Have you seen children playing? Have you seen how seriously they take it? Take play seriously! If you enjoy something give it your time, your attention and your passion even if you’re not getting paid. Show up on time for your band rehearsal. Learn a language, even if that means you need to get up early to practice kanji for 15 minutes every morning. Go to football practice even if you’re tired. Throw fantastic themed parties even if it’s ‘effort’ to clean up your house and make a costume. Do whatever is your jam. And you will make things of value, form friendships and create an identity outside of your ‘work.’
People who don’t take play seriously are often in danger of becoming the most boring, passive consumers. Of course, sometimes you’re working long ass hours and you really don’t have any time. And if your job is fulfilling you, all of you, great! But to be honest, most of my most successful friends (and this time, I mean ‘conventionally successful,’ not a ‘are you fulfilled’ definition by a dirty hippy like me), are the ones who take play most seriously. The doctor who who plays the oboe. The boy-wonder academic who still has time to paint. The executive who cooks amazing food from scratch every night. Maybe life’s winners aren’t the ones who are martyring themselves, working so hard, but those who are curious and take life lightly.
In the words of Mother Teresa,
“Life is a game. Play it.”