There are two paths facing those of you making career choices today -- you can seek out a living, or eek out a living. Did I mean eke? Nah. That's a term best used to describe the plight of farmers in Rayalseema. Or ragpickers in Mumbai. The condition I am referring to is one more familiar to folks fortunate enough to have 'the best jobs' and 'the best education.' It's the 'Eeks! Not another day in that office' feeling in the pit of your well-fed stomach.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for every Indian -- all one billion of us -- achieving a decent standard of living. There is no romance in poverty but conversely: Is there any in large bank balances built up on jobs which don't engage or excite us? In the current scheme of things -- the generally accepted answer seems to be a resounding 'yes.'
A few are fortunate enough to recognise early they are stuck in the wrong stream of study, but even as they seek to a shift, the decision criteria remains the same. Like this confused fella who wrote in to me recently: 'i am a student of engg 4th yr.. i don't want to continue with it, i want my future to be in fields like advertising, tourism, photography. Which one will be best..in terms of job and money both.. and how should i get started...'
It's a start -- identifying what you don't want to pursue in life. Which in this case happens to be engineering -- and hence options like software jobs or an MS abroad. Narrowing down your 'interests' to advertising, tourism and photography is also a good thing. But thinking in terms of what is 'best' is again falling into the same old trap.
In advertising, for instance, you can make money both on the management side, and the creative side. But the management types make it a lot sooner. Client servicing, account planning and media buying are the kinds of jobs that fall in this category.
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And there's a neat, set route for entry-level hires in this category: join MICA or do an MBA. Advertising -- as an industry -- has its glamour and you may well enjoy your job. But if you were seeking to join advertising because you think you are creative -- you're once again on the wrong bus.
The creative side is a whole different ballgame. There is no course or college which can guarantee you that first, important break. Your talent -- and persistence -- must speak for itself. Yes there is the concept of a 'Copy Test' where you might for example be asked to 'sell hell'. But at the end of the day, your brand of 'out of the box' thinking must catch the fancy of some CD (creative director). And each CD may have his or her own ideas on what constitutes raw talent. Rejection is part of the deal but 'we'll call you when there is an opening' isn't really a brush off. They will call, if they liked you.
It's a shocking fact of life that creative trainees are paid peanuts. And that, I think, scares off many wannabes. Parents find it hard to digest their honhaar bachcha getting a 1,000 rupee stipend in an age where any idiot can command a 10,000 rupee salary at a BPO. My point is don't see it as a 'job' but an enrolment into the 'University of Creative Life.' All that can be taught in fields like copywriting, photography, filmmaking, journalism, television production is essentially learnt only on the job. Each year of experience you rack up exponentially increases your market value. So does working with the right people, and most importantly your actual work -- or portfolio.
So a reasonably talented copywriter can, in about three years time, command a salary of Rs 200,000 to Rs 250,000. That's a 2,000% jump! A really talented person would rise to creative director and in the longer run would earn virtually the same as his counterpart in management. Is there any point, then, in deciding which stream to join, based on the salary potential?
Even the fact that an MBA earns more at starting level is, in fact, illusory. Today, a student typically invests Rs 300,000 to Rs 400,000 in a two-year MBA course to secure a placement worth about Rs 200,000 to Rs 250,000 (typical starting salary in an ad agency). In contrast, the copywriter has spent no money on training, and in fact been paid by the company (after three to six months of probation trainee salaries rise to more respectable levels). So, given that you do have the aptitude and the passion to be a creative person, choosing to do otherwise is an irrational decision, motivated by the fear of 'what if.' What if I am actually not good enough...
And yes, that could happen. You might discover that your passion for words does not include passion for selling, so maybe you are better off in journalism. Or, book editing. Given a passion, it's still a question of finding the 'right fit.'Even the right environment. As a 2001 IIM-C grad observed in response to my earlier piece 'If you ain't a cat, don't worry': 'Some things we talk at the corporate level like differentiation, USP etc make equal sense in managing our careers or "talent" as well. More often than not we find what we are good at only after many failures and many small successes at the different things we nibble with.'
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Creative jobs have many pluses. If you do manage to build a USP, you can command both your price -- and your pace of work. An experienced photographer, for example, may work just 10 days in a month and earn a lakh or rupees. An MBA puts in gruelling 12 hour days, 6 days a week for the same. No, the point isn't that everyone should rush to take up photography! As Karan Shergill was advised in Lakshya: 'Jo bhi karo acchha karo... Bhale hi tum ek 'ghaas-kaatne waale bano, par ek achche ghaas-kaatne wale bano.' That analogy may be taking things too far, but it gets at the crux of the matter.
Now you can argue -- and I concede -- that some careers are inherently more lucrative. CEOs and investment bankers do earn ridiculously large sums of money. But do you and me need that much? Not by a long shot. Unless we want to fuel the 'status goods' economy where brands basically offer psychological benefits, not functional ones.
You can earn what I call a 'more than decent' living through any career you choose at which you excel. Why, then sell your soul and eek it out? Go forth, seek out a living!