Paid to Play


Rachel Hills

paid to play

paid to play

Anna Achia didn't set out to be a successful public servant. She spent her youth performing - first in bands, then in comedy, then as a dancer - but, like many creative types, started taking on less-than-creative work in order to pay the bills. But as she rose up the ranks and took on more responsibility, Achia's day job began to squeeze out the work she cared about. Then, one morning in 2003, following a Prince concert, she snapped.

"I'd been at a party with Prince!" she says. "I woke up excited but then I knew that I was going to have to sit through another boring meeting. Not for the first time, I wondered what the hell I was doing there. I was depressed and feeling frustrated but I didn't know what I wanted to do or how to get out."

Achia didn't leave her job there and then but she knew that something had to change. She decided to start teaching 1960s-style go-go dancing in her spare time. "I had taken up go-go dancing at home as a way to get fit. It hit me that if I found it fun, maybe other people would enjoy it and benefit from it, too."

She was right. The classes started off small but they quickly grew. It wasn't long before she had to cut down her hours at her day job to accommodate the classes and now, seven years later, she runs Anna's Go-Go Academy full-time, teaching classes in Melbourne and playing gigs six days a week.

Achia's business might be a bit quirky but her decision to leave behind office life to pursue her passion is increasingly common - and no longer just among the disillusioned middle-aged or the young and trust-funded. Achia, now 34, is one of a growing number of people who are taking their professional lives into their own hands, and redefining how we think about work in the process.

"People by default think of 'work' as a job - with a boss, an office and an easily defined set of responsibilities," says John Williams, author of Screw Work, Let's Play: How to Do What You Love and Get Paid for It. This way of working, he says, was a product of the Industrial Revolution. But technologies such as the internet and mobile phones have redefined that completely.

On the one hand, technology has made it possible for more people to choose when and where they work instead of being tied to a set of hours and a single location. On the other hand, it has also made white-collar workers vulnerable in the same way that blue-collar workers once were. "If what you do is easily defined or replicable then it's likely to be either (a) automated or (b) outsourced to somebody cheaper," says Williams.

These changes have coincided with a shift in the way we think about work: quite simply, we're beginning to believe that it can be a pleasure and not just a chore. "I think there has been a shift from the old work paradigms - where you would get a job, be grateful for it and stay in it until you retire - to a quest for fulfilment in our working lives," says Achia. "And I think that's a good thing."

"People are now questioning what they have always believed to be true," says Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity. "That the stockmarket is always going to be up, that the best thing you can do is buy a home, that the best security you can have is to work for the same company for a long time. Now there's more freedom to question that and to look for your security elsewhere."

Like Anna Achia, Jeremy Neumann, 27, had a "light bulb" moment when his former workplace started supplying drinks to staff on Saturday nights so that they could "socialise" at the office.

"[The organisation] pressured employees to 'volunteer' their overtime, creating a living-to-work mentality," he says. "I could not believe that they then started encouraging employees to come in to work socially on the weekends, as if we didn't spend enough time there."

Now managing his own gourmet soup company, Soupaman, Neumann still works long hours, but he feels happier and more relaxed knowing he has control. He also finds work more fulfilling - which is no surprise, says Brigid Delaney, author of The Restless Life.

"[One of the things that] can be frustrating with traditional corporate jobs is that you might have this really interesting skill set but the job will only allow you to use about 30 per cent of your abilities," says Delaney. "A lot of people feel like their skills are going to waste, and that's bad for everyone - for the employer and for the worker.

"The beauty of creating your own job is that you can use that extra 70 per cent of yourself that you might not be able to use in a more mainstream traditional office."

The incredible success of internet young guns such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has given entrepreneurship a glossy new allure. "The interesting thing now is that people are starting [their own businesses] from the word go," says Delaney. "They're not escaping anything - that's just how they do things. For anyone who is under 30, it is just assumed that you have got to create your own life and own career. There is an absolute self-reliance and resilience."

Some will dismiss this self-actualising approach to work as unrealistic, the whim of a flighty financial and cultural elite. Indeed, Delaney acknowledges that "reality kicks in really quickly" - particularly where money is concerned. But this new attitude is also providing opportunities for people who might have found it difficult to thrive in traditional workplaces.

Take Tiara Shafiq, 25, who makes her living on a range of creative projects: burlesque, stage management and hosting for the ABC's Australia Network. She loves the variety, but explains that one reason she juggles so many jobs is the difficulty she has experienced finding full-time employment while she waits for her permanent residency application to be processed. "On a bridging visa, I can work anywhere for any amount of time, but so many companies are reluctant to hire me because they don't know what a bridging visa even is," she says.

Jade Craven, 23, launched her career as a professional "connecter", bringing together people, products and ideas, partly in response to her severe social anxiety. Working online meant she "could build a business around my limitations, rather than making myself sick by pushing through them.

"With my social anxiety, I didn't think I had any chance of a successful career," Craven says. "Online, I have more power and respect than I could ever have [in a traditional workplace]."

One thing we often forget in this age of celebrity worship is that different people are passionate about different things. Not everyone wants to be a pop star, a footballer or a novelist. For some, getting "paid to play" means helping other people get fit.

For others, it means setting up their own online boutique. For others still, it means starting their own administration business. And for many, it means reconfiguring the balance between work done to pay the bills and work done for more fulfilling purposes.

Serena Star Leonard, 31, has been self-employed since 2006, and has spent the past year working towards developing a "passive income" in the style of the Tim Ferriss best seller, The 4-Hour Workweek. She has blogged about her journey along the way, and will publish a book on the subject - How to Retire in 12 Months - early next year.

Star Leonard's version of "retirement" doesn't mean ceasing to work or to create value, however. It just means redefining what "value" looks like. She explains that she started working for herself because she "wanted to do good in the world", but that the projects doing the most good didn't pay her bills. She hopes that by developing a low-maintenance income, she will be able to spend more time working on creative and social-justice projects.

Which is what being paid to play is all about, says Screw Work's John Williams - not shirking responsibility in favour of a perpetual holiday.

"The cocktails-on-the-beach model is the worker's view of play," Williams says. "When you're a player, it's not about opting out. It's about being fully engaged in the world."

From Sunday Life



Related Coverage

Girl power your money

Women need to take control of their finances to ensure they are provided for in future years.

Dress Code

Leopard print or Prada suit? Dressing for work has never been more fraught.

The Apprentice

As Aussie actor Jessica Marais has discovered, having a wise adviser in your corner is career gold.

Tipping the Balance

Statistics show that men largely still rule the professional roost.

The erotic economy

The idea that sex and beauty should be traded just like any other commodity is gaining capital.

Having it all

The lot of the working wife and mum is not an easy one, on screen or off, writes Rachel Hills.