Career Angst: What you and Michelangelo may have in common
Have you ever thought that some people are so lucky in their careers?
They know exactly what they want to do, they have an amazing gift for it, and they will always have job security because the unique way they do what they do will always be in demand. These people love what they do, and seem to sail through their careers with accolades, awards, and abundant salaries, free of worry or care.
Those people are sooo lucky, but what about the rest of us?
I admit: even I fall prey to occasional bouts of career angst. Although I find my work deeply satisfying, there are days when it feels so challenging, and I find myself comparing myself to others who seem to glide effortlessly through their careers.
But I just read a biographical novel of Michelangelo and guess what dawned on me: even Michelangelo had career angst. Michelangelo! Sculptor of the David! Painter of the Sistine Chapel! Yes, he struggled with his career – throughout his entire working life.
The title of the book is The Agony and the Ecstasy*, which I thought was a reference to Christianity, as many of Michelangelo’s works are religious in nature. Instead, it describes the complex relationship Michelangelo had with his work. I always assumed that for Michelangelo, it was all “ecstasy.” In fact, there was great “agony”, too.
You might think: How difficult could it be to be Michelangelo? Read on! And as you do, think about which similar struggles you may have faced in your own career – 500 years later. Which of these have you experienced?
- Tough boss
Michelangelo’s boss was the Pope. (And then another and another.) During the Renaissance, the popes held not only religious power, but also political and military. Italy was frequently at war, and the papacy was known for nepotism and corruption. Each time a new pope took power, he dictated the type of art he wanted produced and who would produce it. Frequently this involved creating the pope’s tomb. Though Michelangelo was known to be more forthright than many of his contemporaries, there were many times he was forced to work on projects that went against his artistic desires, and kept him away from other commissions, absorbing his time and severely limiting his earnings.
- Difficult Working Conditions
Michelangelo sculpted and painted year round. Italian winters were harsh, and in the 1500’s, there was no electricity, no furnaces, and no electric lights. He frequently worked with a cap on his head that held a burning candle, and he chiseled stone with metal tools when the temperature hovered around freezing. Also, imagine spending four years on your back painting the Sistine Chapel.
- Not having the necessary supplies
Like all artists of his day, Michelangelo had to produce his own supplies. If he needed paint, there was no art store where he could pick up some tubes of oils. He had to grind minerals and combine them with tree gum. Sculpture was even more challenging. Because he often couldn’t afford marble, he wasn’t able to sculpt nearly as much as he wanted. At times the marble was paid for, but he had to go to the quarry to retrieve it. Imagine finding the perfect slab of stone, that weighs tons, and having to transport it to your studio – without a truck or crane. He created transport systems, though it often took hours to move a stone a few feet.
- Lack of autonomy
Michelangelo only got paid if he got a commission, and the projects he was hired to do were frequently not interests of his; he often had to choose between his artistic ideals and financial compensation.
- No financial security
Furthermore, he was frequently in debt because he only got paid his commission after a project was completed, and he usually had to purchase the materials on his own upfront. Sometimes he was not paid what had been originally promised. When he did get paid, he sent his earnings to his father, as was the custom.
- Fierce competition
Michelangelo was often consumed with jealousy. Other artists were frequently given attention and commissions that he wanted. Imagine if your competition was Leonardo da Vinci!
- Public criticism of his work
Michelangelo was not universally admired because his ideas were not always accepted. We see him today as a genius. However, genius implies creating new ideas and methods. These were not always accepted in his day.
Despite these hardships, Michelangelo found ecstasy in his work. He was most passionate about sculpture: from conceiving the emotions he wanted to portray, to the process of “releasing” the figures from stone, and then taking in the accolades for his work. He lived to be 88 years old, and was sculpting right up to his death.
So what can you take away from these examples?
- Take solace in knowing that EVERYONE has career angst.
After reading of Michelangelo’s challenges, I found it comforting to be reminded of what I know deep down but sometimes forget: everyone has career challenges.
- Set more realistic expectations of what career fulfillment means, because there’s NO SUCH THING as a PERFECT CAREER.
I encourage my clients to explore their interests, move in those directions, and not feel they are making a “wrong” choice if there are aspects to these choices that concern them. Negatives are inevitable. What’s important is to weigh those concerns in light of the benefits that a career choice offers. Career fulfillment comes from identifying what is important to you, finding ways to express it, and having your efforts be recognized.
- Know that from challenge comes ingenuity.
When clients articulate the challenges they have in their work, it often opens a door to finding new solutions. In any job, some struggle is to be expected, but from that struggle comes growth, mastery, even masterpieces!