In 2016, we're all obsessed with what jobs are "cool". What clients are edgy, or will make us look, seem, or feel a certain way. Put us in a certain light, please - preferably one that makes others think we are successful, (and is mostly a sham). This desire to seem successful in a way that feels like the reincarnation of that cool kid clique from high school, is problematic.
Shiny clients aren't the ones that keep you afloat. The "cool" company or job of the moment isn't the one with the staying power, or the roots, or the business acumen or vision to carry forward for a long time. It's not to say that it isn't, but there is a small chance that it is the one with a certain level of success. It's the hard work, and the dedication to your job, no matter what the task, and no matter whether it's for yourself or someone else, that matters.
I hear it all the time - from people asking me for advice, or in other circles. How do I get the cool clients? How do I make sure my business is on a list or featured in the pages of a shiny magazine? Startup culture has gotten us confused about the definition of work, how we relate to it and interact with it -- and it'll get you into trouble.
When I first started FinePoint I thought I only wanted clients that were my definition of "cool" - edgy campaigns or stuff I thought would get me into certain rooms. How foolish I was. What you're not factoring in here is stability, which is the coolest thing around. Or if you're doing your own thing, some semblance or mirage of stability (or at least consistent payments from a client) is a great thing to have.
This idea, that "sexy" is what pays the bills or is what you can build your career on, has permeated startupland and its surrounding industries and media. In speaking to a friend, investor, and consultant yesterday, she said something that surprised me. She told me she no longer cared about what trip the founder went on, or how much money they raised, but rather - what have you delivered? What money have you made right now? When it comes down to it, pretty isn't what yields. Pretty isn't what determines success. It's fierce determination, planning, resources, and a whole lot of luck.
It's important to toe the line between what excites you and what keeps you going. It's not to say that you should take on work you don't care about, but sometimes it's about putting your head down to then be able to do some of the passion projects you want is worth it.
There's something bigger at play here, however, which is the idea that your work has to be "sexy". In 2016, we are all defined by what we do, which is something I struggle with. But given that it's the definition, we also use it as a social currency and something against which we judge ourselves. If our job isn't cool, are we? If our work isn't the most interesting, are we too not interesting, or unworthy in some way? It's time to define ourselves as more than our jobs, but also consider that work might not be about having a ball pit but be just that - work.
I remember counseling a woman on a career in communications. She came to me torn between whether not she want to start her own company or go to a firm, as is often the main question no matter what industry. She said to me, "I love what you're doing and you're always out there and have cool clients".
If only she knew about the behind the scenes, the constant comparing myself to others I deem more successful than I, the slog, the ups and the downs, the fear -- it isn't sexy. (Trust me.) But sometimes it's easy for it to look that way when you literally are showing yourself in the best light, slapping a filter to enhance a good moment, and never a bad one. But then she told me about the firm with whom she had an offer. Solid, good clients, great benefits, but the clients "weren't cool". I stopped her right there, and said, "sexy isn't what pays the bills". You can't have it both ways. You can have it some way each of the way some of the time but, it's just not how it goes.
It would be too easy if all the sexy or "fun" clients or jobs paid you tons of money and had never-ending budgets. It's sort of like how nerds are made fun of in high school and then run the world, everything seems to right itself - or has a reason for being so. You don't get to have extremely high paying clients that are also awesome and sexy and fun all the time. The ones that keep the lights on -- that pay your employees or bills or dental insurance that you didn't originally purchase but now have a lot of cavities so you need -- aren't in bright lights. And that's really important to understand.
Maybe sexy work means you get up every day and go to a job that you love but isn't great all the time. Maybe it's struggling to stay afloat in your own business, or handling the trials and tribulations required to build something out of nothing. "When we are using the shield of a 'cool' job we are missing the point --cool is cool while it lasts but being good at something is cool enough," says my close friend and startup veteran Lexie Kier.
We should aim to be good, not shiny. That is sexy itself.