Be Less Ambitious

by Joshua Michtom

Emily Layden’s excellent exploration of when a person can call herself a writer (or a painter, or a musician), given that many writers must also call themselves waiters, teachers, or lawyers, raises an interesting question about job satisfaction and how we measure success. I do write, make art, and make music, and have been paid actual US currency for each of those endeavors within the last year. But if someone asks me if I am a writer or a musician or an artist, I shrug and say, “I’m a lawyer.” That’s easy because it’s true, and eminently defensible: I make a lot more money from being a lawyer than from making block prints or leading a band or writing here. But defining myself as a lawyer has an added benefit: it lowers expectations for my creative output. When people who know me as a lawyer see me with my band, or stumble upon my modest contribution to the internet’s literary corpus, they say, “Wow! I had no idea you did that! You’re really good.” It’s easy to be the best criminal defense lawyer ever to lead a brass band, and I like it that way.

That works for me because in both my day job and my creative pursuits, I enjoy doing well but I’m essentially unambitious. I want to win cases and represent my clients well (and I do!), but I have no desire to become a supervisor or to one day be the director of my agency. And while I was delighted to sell a print for $200 a couple months ago, and to get paid $250 for a gig a month before that, I’m mostly content to make art that makes my kids smile and play music that makes people dance (and moves them to buy me drinks afterward — that’s essential).

Is there a financial formula to be distilled from all this? I recognize that I’m mostly lucky to have found, after some bouncing around, a job where I could make a decent wage and still draw some clear boundaries between work and life.

I’m also blessed with low expectations: because my parents lacked money and stability, I always accepted without much consideration that whatever my artistic inclinations might be, I had to find a steady, reliable job and keep it. Starting from that baseline, my worldview never really included the idea of becoming a full-time musician, writer, or artist. So now that I get to do those things part time, I feel like I’ve hit the lotto.

But is “have low expectations” a workable mantra for the next generation of financial advice? Probably not. My girlfriend was telling me about a friend of hers who, from her perspective, had an arrangement nearly as perfect as mine: he was a schoolteacher with a schedule — afternoons and summers free — that let him devote a lot of energy to playing music. His band was doing well, gigging and recording regularly. But unlike me, his expectations were high: he wanted to be playing to bigger crowds, getting signed to a big label, and maybe most of all, immersed in a world full of other people similarly inclined, not coordinating practices around everyone’s day job. So he quit teaching and moved to Brooklyn (of course!), where he waits tables, shares a tiny, pricy apartment, and plays music all the time. Probably, that is right for him, for now, anyway.

What do you think, dear readers? Putting aside the oft-talked-about structural problems that have so many of us in financial straits, do we do ourselves a disservice in how we define success? Is it even possible to change our expectations of ourselves and our lives?

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo by the author.