Why A Winding-Road Career Is The Most Creative Of Them All
There's a case to be made for the (long) journey one often has to take before a career and passion finally merge.
If you had to define a “creative” role you’d probably start with the classics. Artist, photographer, dancer, musician, writer, etc. Maybe you think of the typical “starving artist” trope of someone working multiple side gigs in restaurants or retail to make ends meet. Maybe they have rich parents footing the bill. These are all the stereotypical ideas that pop into your head when you think of someone working in creative industries. But what about non-traditional creative pursuits?
Growing up all I wanted to do was write. One of my earliest memories of using the computer was writing a neighborhood newsletter on my parent’s Windows 98 desktop. By high school, in typical cliche aspiring writer fashion, I had seen every episode of Sex and the City a dozen times and had amassed a stack of Vogues and Vanity Fairs the height of my ceiling. These were the days when Carrie Bradshaw was still aspirational and nearly every female RomCom antagonist wrote at a fashion magazine while living in a loft apartment.
The economy crashed the same year we watched Big leave Carrie at the altar. In the years that followed, I watched my dreams die alongside journalism. Sure, the gigs were out there, but the money certainly wasn’t. When I was 24, I graduated with a postgraduate degree in public relations struggling to nail down an illegally unpaid internship. When my younger sister was 24, she had already wrapped up her welding apprenticeship and was practically fighting off lucrative (unionized!) job offers.
Another example is Steph Brown. A photography major when she started college before switching to business she’s a union Red Seal 309A Electrician in Toronto.“ I didn’t finish either program. Growing up, I didn’t do well in school because it wasn’t something that piqued my interest. I had a hard time focusing and completing schoolwork. I knew that I needed something that occupied my brain and my hands at the same time and gave me a sense of accomplishment to see a finished project.”
I never viewed trades, particularly the ones with hammers and blowtorches, as a creative or glamorous industry. These jobs inspire a mental image of gruff dudes with beards swinging hammers with one hand while slamming back Budweisers with the other. While both Steph and my sister have confirmed that, and while these stereotypes are still sometimes true, there’s a lot more to these roles than wielding tools.
The dedication and pride put into these roles are far more inspiring than anything I’ve experienced in my own personal “creative” job. “I like to take a little bit of extra time and add my own flair to my installs,” Steph says. “If I’m working on tying in all the main feeders for a house into the electrical panel, I’ll organize them in a way that they are neat and tidy and visually appealing while still adhering to the code. There is always a way to make something look beautiful in my trade.“
As someone who works in a traditional “creative” role, I don’t often feel like my creative interests are piqued at all. Maybe it’s my ADHD talking, but there’s something about sitting and writing social media copy at a desk all day that just doesn’t feel as satisfying as completing the perfect welding seam. My parent’s house is filled with my sister’s welding sculptures, which served both as a creative outlet and a way to perfect her skills. As a part-time professor at her college, she gets to assign these types of “art” projects to her students.
Make no mistake, these jobs come with their challenges with long hours of physical labour. There is still a deep culture of sexism in these traditionally masculine roles. “Employers and co-workers don’t like to admit it, but subconsciously there is always the worry of ‘will she be able to do what everyone else does’,” Steph says. While on the flip side, she’s getting to pave the way for these opportunities for other women. “I want to change the ideology that you must be a big tough guy to be good at the work, or that you’ve got to have super thick skin to be able to show up and “hang with the boys” every day. You don’t!”
Stories like my sister’s and Steph’s changed my view on pursuing creative passions in non-traditional ways. Not to mention breaking down traditional gender roles while doing it. While these roles have creative aspects, perhaps the most important aspect is the financial freedom they provide. Anyone who has worked a number of minimum-wage side gigs to support your creative pursuits knows how draining it is just to keep your head above water. Meanwhile, tradespeople are getting the bag. It doesn’t hurt that, unlike many creative industries, these jobs aren’t going to be taken over by AI anytime soon.
Steph says it’s a bit of a Catch-22. “When I’m busy with work, I have more money, but less time for my passions. When the work slows down, I’m not worried about money, and can take the time off to pursue my other hobbies and interests.”
When I think of myself in my early 20s, the stress of not knowing how I was going to make rent or where my next meal was coming from was one of the biggest detriments to my creative goals. The stream of odd jobs I took to pay the bills while barely getting by stifled the desire to write at all. It felt like a constant race that I couldn’t get ahead of. It wasn’t until I was pushing 30 and finally making a livable income that I felt secure enough to take up my passions again.
People like Steph and my sister make me realize that by taking a non-traditional path, it really is possible to have it all. A career you’re passionate about that sparks your interests (electrical pun intended), opportunities to pursue your other interests, and the financial freedom to do it.
For Steph those interests include everything collecting Pokémon cards, spending time with her dogs, and learning Japanese.
Taking this career-changing leap at 26 was the best thing I ever did for myself," she says. "And although it challenged me, frustrated me, and pushed my buttons so many times over the years, I am so proud of myself for sticking it out.”