Commentary: Being a 'sell-out' was the best decision I made for my career
The idea of ‘selling out’ carries a bad reputation, implying we’ve gone against our values for money. But where did we get such an extreme idea, and how can it harm our idea of career?
SINGAPORE: In a commonly retold fable about psychological struggle, a grandfather uses a metaphor of two wolves fighting within him to explain the concept of inner conflicts to his grandson.
When his grandson asks which wolf wins, the grandfather says whichever he chooses to feed is the one that wins.
Many idealists in a pragmatic society, including myself, live with two wolves.
The first is a dreamer driven by a desire to make a difference in society. It prides itself on picking an unconventional path, often regarded as the prerequisite for pursuing one’s passion. It usually believes working mainly for money is “selling out”, where mere utterance of the term evokes pure contempt.
The second embraces practicality. It considers climbing the corporate ladder with bullish ambition a symbol of success. Few things are as important as money, or the lifestyle it can buy.
If we’re lucky, both wolves learn to get along. But most of us end up having enough food to feed only one. The other goes perpetually hungry, but like a Neopet, never truly dies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many losing their jobs. Some friends in the creative line struggle to accept jobs in a field that appear completely opposite to what they envisaged themselves doing, while others fear the steep learning curve from jumping into a different industry, so they don’t even try.
I suspect underpinning both is the belief that certain “cool” jobs are intrinsically better than conventional, corporate, nine-to-six deskbound jobs.
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But take it from me, better one wolf alive than both wolves dead.
THE INTERNAL STRUGGLE
Fresh out of university, I only fed my first wolf: I was set on being a writer, and thus landed a job at a magazine.
I bought into the notion that pursuing one’s dreams should involve crazy amounts of hustle and hard work, so I didn’t mind pulling late nights and weekends in the office with my colleagues. But while my peers who’d joined banks, multinational corporations and even the civil service were raking in a healthy starting salary for fresh graduates, mine left much to be desired.
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After a few months, the second wolf reared its ugly head. I brushed it aside. I told myself at least I was chasing my passion. I was better than everyone who sold out after university. I was doing what I loved.
Every time the second wolf cried out in hunger, the first wolf would taunt me: How dare I call myself a writer if I could quit my dream for a better-paying office job that easily? Didn’t I scoff at people who held these roles because I thought they were such “typical Singaporeans”?
It took me a year to get off my high horse. Money really does matter. Not having a solid foundation of savings was terrifying.
CHANGING COURSE AND PERSPECTIVES
Once I made the call, I sold out without looking back.
As an executive in the corporate communications department of a polytechnic, I’d gone from penning fashion, beauty and travel stories for a women’s lifestyle magazine to writing annual reports and prospectuses.
This job of a public servant was unsexy, tedious, bureaucratic work — and I didn’t expect to thoroughly enjoy all of it.
But I made more, and tasted the freedom of not having to worry about whether going out for dinner with friends and blowing S$30 on a single meal meant I had to pack my own meals the following week.
Like me, co-founder at The Woke Salaryman, Goh Wei Choon, took up an unsexy job to pay off his university loans of about S$25,000.
In a recent slew of Instagram Stories, he revealed that he took a job at a medical technology company doing in-house design and production commanding a salary of S$6,000, up from about S$4,000 previously. The person who hired him said, “The job is not very sexy, but we’ll pay you above market rate.”
What struck me, however, was a similar sentiment he shared towards his job. He wrote: “The work was actually cool. I worked from nine-to-six and came home to work on The Woke Salaryman until 2am every day.”
“I was super afraid of (taking that job),” Wei Choon told me when I reached out to learn more.
“I thought my animation friends would judge me, but they didn’t. They were happy for me. It was me judging myself.”
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When we were left with little choice, Wei Choon and I chose to feed the second wolf that prized practicality. There was nothing wrong with the decision, but after a lifetime of wearing our stubborn idealism like a badge of honour, we became our own worst critics when we seemingly ditched it for a more mundane reality.
Part of this self-judgement also came from tying a core part of our identity to having a certain job in a certain industry. Though I liked the office job, it felt at first as if I’d betrayed everything I believed about myself: My creative, rebellious, authority-averse spirit.
But my second wolf, in all its pragmatism, reminded me that reality mattered more than an arbitrary set of beliefs loosely strung together based on what I assumed was the writer’s creed. My youthful idealism was quickly beginning to look like naivety.
I was really preventing myself from expanding my definition of what career fulfilment could look like — and from being happy.
EXPANDING MY OPTIONS
I’d learnt that this narrative of selling out was grounded in extremes. It takes a narrow-minded, black-and-white view of career, implying you can’t backtrack or change your mind once you make a certain decision.
This, unfortunately, is also what makes the concept attractive to people who believe in going all in, no matter what they do.
I entered the public service not expecting to return to journalism, mainly because I’d thought relentlessly pursuing a single field of work was the only way to make a career.
But according to research by scholars at the University of Southern California who studied career patterns, linear careers, where you steadily ascend one ladder, is not the only way to build an occupation.
In an article for The Atlantic, American social scientist Arthur C Brooks noted that there are three more career models according to their research.
“Steady-state careers involve staying at one job and growing in expertise. Transitory careers are ones in which people jump from job to job or even field to field, looking for new challenges,” he wrote.
“And spiral careers are more like a series of mini careers — people spend many years developing in a profession, then shift fields seeking not just for novelty, but for work that builds on the skills of their previous mini careers.” Deciding which to pick depends on your personality, your tastes and your goals, added Brooks.
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My stint in the public service introduced me to the spacious grey area between passion and practicality, showing me they’re not mutually exclusive — and it turned out to be the most fundamental building block in my career as a journalist.
LESSONS FROM A NON-LINEAR CAREER
In reality, the ability not to sell out isn’t about purity. It’s about privilege — a concept that people who can afford to pursue their dreams at all costs uphold to make others feel bad about their more practical, cookie-cutter decisions.
I also stopped associating “cool” jobs with being morally superior. No job is inherently more meaningful than another; every job’s meaning is what you make of it.
On the practical front, managing big projects as a public servant despite my lack of expertise quickly gave me project management skills, which have since helped me handle multiple stories spanning varied topics at once.
Getting out of my insular media bubble also built empathy. I understood better the constraints of public servants and everyone else in communications when I returned to journalism and needed to work with them, having once been in their shoes.
Four years after, I’m more certain than ever that being a public servant made me a better journalist. It took selling out for me to afford enough food for both wolves.
And when I chose to feed both, the one that won was me.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist with CNA Insider.