Why It's Not So Bad to Be a 'Sell Out'

Don't stress about trading that dream job for a paying one.

Sept. 11, 2008 — -- Once upon a time, I earned much of my freelance income writing corporate Web pages and white papers. One company I regularly worked for sold its wares to educational institutions and government agencies. Nice agencies like the U.S. Department of Labor and, quite possibly, your county clerk's office.

One day my client asked me to take on another "government" project. Expecting to once again write marketing copy aimed at social service agencies and parks and recreation departments, I agreed.

Unfortunately, my client was hoping to make a sale to another type of government agency: the Department of Defense. And unfortunately, I didn't know this until I'd signed the contract and received the project specs.

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When it comes to making money, everyone has a line they're unwilling to cross. This was mine. As far as I was concerned, writing about how my client's widgets would help the U.S. military shoot up some oil-rich nation or other was tantamount to endorsing our country's war du jour.

But I sucked up my scruples and tackled the job anyway, without complaint. Reneging on my contract would piss off my client and cost me future work, I told myself. And if that happened, I rationalized, it might be tough to pay my mortgage.

In other words, I sold out.

I still wince today when I think about this job -- and the fact that I was too cheap to walk off it. For many workers, though, selling out isn't as cut and dried as working for a company that, say, poisons baby seals or enslaves malnourished third-world children. More often than not, the only one who gets hurt when you sell out is you.

Show Me the (Dirty) Money

If you're new to the workforce and/or hopelessly idealistic, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Sooner or later, 99.9 percent of us "sell out" to some degree or other -- even freelancers and artsy-fartsy types like me.

But it's the way you sell out that counts. Maiming fluffy animals or robbing small children in the name of lining your bank account? Very, very bad. Poring over spreadsheets day in and day out so you can keep your electricity on and eat a hot meal each night? Far less bad.

"Every day I wake up and give myself a pep talk: 'Look at all the great things, including being able to pay my bills, develop a new expertise, et cetera,'" my friend Suzanne, a journalist turned marketing writer, said of her current staff job. "I'm grateful to be here -- and I love my boss, which is 80 percent of any job -- but I so don't care about this content and all the flapping about on the part of the client.

"Whereas with news stories," Suzanne continued, "I'd happily work overtime for breaking news or a special event like the Oscars or Emmys. I'm not lying when I say I have to figuratively plunge my head into the sink of ice cubes, a la Paul Newman, every single day to 'get it up' to do this."

Of course, there are limits to how much tedium (not to mention how many early-morning cold plunges) a body can take.

"Writing this crap seriously makes me want to stab my eyes out," said another friend, Stella, a freelance humor writer who occasionally takes copywriting jobs to make ends meet. "But it pays $80 an hour, which is almost as much as my shrink makes. A shrink that I no doubt wouldn't need if I were making enough money writing stuff I enjoy."

The Parent Trap

Over the years, I've heard countless parents lament that they couldn't possibly leave a ho-hum or mercenary job because they have a family to feed. Take my friend Josh, a computer programmer who would love nothing more than to start his own software development company but says his fear of failure holds him back.

"I've always had one good reason or another to avoid following my dreams," he told me recently. "The biggest reason I ever came up with was that I have children and that I have to ensure that they are well.

"But I remember when I was a kid," he continued, "wealth didn't matter to me then. The truth is that my kids wouldn't care one bit if they had to face a little 'hardship,' as long as they had food on their plates and a place to sleep and my undying love."

Kathleen Atkins, a photographer/technical editor from Seattle, made peace with her need to clothe and nourish her little ones by chasing down her artistic dreams not between 9 and 6, but after hours.

"I did choose a more practical, lucrative career path than the one I really wanted to pursue," said Atkins, who works full time at a software company and shoots photos on the side. "My decision allowed me to feed, house and educate two children while living in relative stability while they were growing up.

"However, I never gave up the arts," she said. "I couldn't."

Instead, her compromise is to spend the early morning hours taking and processing wildlife photos, a pursuit she said makes putting on her corporate thinking cap infinitely more gratifying.

Who Says Money Is the Root of All Evil?

Despite everything I just told you, I've come to believe that selling out often gets a bad rap.

Case in point: Max Barger from Bethesda, Md., a TV reporter turned attorney who recently sent me an e-mail with the subject line "I am a sellout."

"I loved being in TV, telling the stories, hunting down bad guys, bringing justice and righting all evils," Barger said. "But frankly, my $12,000 annual income just didn't cut it. So I went to law school. I ended up as a trusts and estates lawyer only because that was the position available at my first job. Now instead of fighting injustice, I help wealthy individuals lower their tax bills. I must say, it pays much better."

But being handsomely compensated is just the half of it. Barger happens to like what he does for a living.

"I sometimes miss the scramble to meet deadlines, the instant gratification of seeing my day's work on the nightly news and the feeling that I had really made a difference in the world," he said. "However, I wouldn't change a thing. My temperament is more suited for what I do currently, and I believe that I will live longer and have fewer ulcers as a result. Satisfaction in your work is found in what you decide to be satisfied on."

So in honor of Barger -- and all the other self-professed "sellouts" reading this who are fairly content with their "not where I thought I'd wind up, but I really can't complain" jobs -- I'd like to propose we do away with the term "selling out." Maybe we should instead call it I Got Sick of Living in Mom's Basement, or Times Are Tough and I Needed the Work -- So Sue Me. (I'm open to your ideas.)

I'm not suggesting every would-be writer, artist or entrepreneur go to law school. But if you think making good money to do work you actually enjoy amounts to selling out, you need a new set of problems. We should all be so lucky.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.