by Laura Rowley
Back in 2007, bored and frustrated with her day job as an office administrator, New York musician, artist and writer Summer Pierre wrote and illustrated a 'zine about her double life.
"I wanted to make something that honors the fact that most of us have two lives and that takes A LOT of energy," the California native wrote on her blog. "I also wanted to make something that could be an easy reminder that you are living your ONE life right now (not later) -- why not enjoy it as much as you can -- with a day job or not."Pierre's whimsical handbook was a hit with struggling artists as far away as Japan, New Zealand and Egypt. "The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week," was published in paperback this month by Perigree. The book offers inspiration and practical tips not only to frustrated artists, but alienated workers clinging to jobs they hate, reluctant to move on because of the tough economy.
"I think a lot of people just make their living and do everything else after work and on weekends," says Pierre, 37. "They feel a little bit dead, a little bit tired, and they think that's how you have to do it. The book is not only for artists but anyone who feels they are cramming their real life into after-work and weekends."
What Might Not Be the Answer
Pierre offers tips on setting priorities, making the office an object for creativity, getting a fresh perspective on work and shaking up your routine. But I was most intrigued by her thoughts on money and happiness.
While many people think money is the answer to their problems, "thinking about money can also be the source of our problems," Pierre writes. "We equate money as a means for pleasure, and yet we put making money in front of creating or experiencing pleasure. We think in amounts of money, but not in sanity or joy. For some of us, having lots of money might mean 'the good life' but we never ask ourselves, 'what does that good life look like specifically?'"
Pierre gives an example of a decision she made when she was unhappy in her full-time day job. "I was thinking about going to graduate school, which would have meant spending more money, when I realized what I really wanted from graduate school was more time to do art, and school somehow legitimized it," she says.
Instead of investing thousands of dollars in a graduate program, she went part-time in her day job.
"As a result I actually didn't miss the money at all, because I didn't need to buy things to make me feel better about my life," Pierre recalls. "Having four days off a week was such a luxury to me, I stopped needing things. If you start making larger choices based on your values and priorities, you stop needing other stuff to give you that inspiration -- so I needed less money."
I clearly recall that austere sense of joy, when happiness meant working as a writer, living in a charming Manhattan apartment and owning a good pair of running shoes. Then I married and had three kids. I realized that the paycheck that facilitates a pint-sized rental and $100 Nikes would not fund three college educations.
And since I value educating my kids without the indentured servitude of massive student loan debt, I began to take on projects that lacked a certain inherent joy. However, they did wonders for my 529 college savings plans contributions. It was a light bulb moment when I recognized that earning money doing less engaging work that supports your values is a different kind of joy, but a joy nonetheless.
Pierre makes this very point in her book for the parents, artists and others leading quiet work lives of desperation: Savor what the job offers, rather than ruminating on the negatives.
"Look to what is working for you: What are the things you are being provided with through this job?" she says. "Maybe it's being able to pay bills on time or have weekends to yourself. There are always little elements that are working for us." In one of her unhappy office gigs, Pierre focused on being able to walk to the ocean at lunchtime and having a boss who became an important friend and mentor.
(Incidentally, I asked Pierre if she had children, and found out she gave birth in January in a traffic jam on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; her son Gus arrived in the back of a livery cab. She recounts the harrowing tale, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Birthing Center" on her blog. Warning: This post may not be suitable for expectant mothers.)
Among Pierre's other tips to boost happiness on the job:
-- Avoid office gossip like the plague. "I love good dirt, it's really fun, it's a way to get intimacy with other people -- but it's like a drug. You get a good high but nothing changes," Pierre says. "It's draining, and often continues to breed negativity. What's underlying gossip is frustration and boredom, and it doesn't actually get you to do anything about that. It sounds Pollyanna, but (avoiding gossip) is a way of training your brain to look toward the light."
-- Think small steps. "Don't think in terms of all or nothing -- think in terms of a little bit here and there, actually getting creative work done," she says, whether it means waking up 30 minutes earlier or disconnecting the cable. "Know that you are living your priorities, and if you like watching TV every night and don't have time to do other things, there's nothing wrong with that. Just acknowledge that those are your priorities."
-- Find life conspirators. "The friends who make you feel most alive are life conspirators," she explains. "I think collaborators are really key because so often we feel isolated and the world doesn't mirror back to us who we are." The Latin etymology of conspire is "to breathe together," she points out, and conspirators help breathe life into our plans, "to usher us into the life we really want."
-- Finally, figure out what abundance looks like. "Often what we want from monetary wealth is really just a sense of abundance," Pierre writes. "But abundance is not about how much money you have, it's about how much you are enjoying your life."
For Pierre, that can be as simple as a favorite pair of jeans and a good cup of coffee. Pierre says she's rolling in dough, but feels abundant, "because I know what gives me joy and meaning and that is where my energy goes."