Moonlighters Anonymous

Moonlighting—also known as working a second job, having a “side hustle”—is a pretty standard theme […]

Ethan Richardson / 2.6.19

Moonlighting—also known as working a second job, having a “side hustle”—is a pretty standard theme these days. Thanks to Pinterest and Instagram, everyone’s got a home renovation project, a knack for macramé, and a small business opportunity. But in truth it’s been around forever. Loads of famous people “made it” by moonlighting. The American poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive in New York City, and wrote his poems on his way to work. Lin-Manuel Miranda was a substitute teacher, so they say.

It works the other way around, too, when already-famous people just add more clout to their CV. Thomas Jefferson had 43 hobbies. There are a number of pro athletes who have tried new sports in the offseason (or cupcake shops). Robert Capon wrote cookbooks. More recently there’s James Franco, who got serious about grad school, jumping into four programs in four years. “The new critique you’re gonna start hearing about James Franco,” he told the press, “is, ‘He’s spreading himself too thin.'” Apparently singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten is soon to be singer-songwriter-actress-psychotherapist Sharon Van Etten.

Just like those above, I am moonlighting my way to stardom. I am currently holding down two jobs and one grad school courseload. There’s a home I’m renovating and around eleven half-dead creative projects that I hope will one day hit paydirt. Like anyone else who has secret side hustles, they will be secret right up until they make me famous. Then I’ll say it was my passion all along.

Most people tend to keep their moonlighting gigs on the hush-hush for obvious reasons. First of all, most passion projects are not landing anyone anywhere other than where they already are. There are at least 800,000 people in America who have a half-baked manuscript tucked away in their laptop, a Hamilton dream waiting in the wings. But there’s also the problem of human fatigue: who on earth can fight the inertia of 5:30 PM? It’s hard enough getting to Kroger, not to mention constructing sestets, installing baseboards, or getting the paintbrushes back out.

Even if it always remains a secret, though, the seductive mythology of any moonlit project is this: That, after a day of doing what I have to do, here’s the bit of work I get to do.

Thomas Maloney just wrote an essay about moonlighting in Aeon. He has been a moonlighter now for years. Since fourteen, he wanted to be a writer, but things happened, as they do. Maloney went to college, stumbled into a hedge fund job, got married, had kids, and the other life—the life he still guesses might have been his calling—faded to the backdrop.

The day before I started work at the hedge fund, I wrote a letter to my future self, sealed in an envelope to be opened exactly two years later. Two years was the most I could give to this lucrative but rather baffling endeavour. In two frugal years I might save enough to write a novel – the novel – gloriously undistracted by pecuniary concerns. But two years might also be long enough for money to corrupt me, and make me forget who I was. Hence, the letter.

I opened it on the appointed date. Its short, plaintive text asserted that I might one day be a good writer – if only I had the courage to try; reminded me of those still-inarticulate truths; and advised me to live sincerely. I read it earnestly enough. Then I did some sums, and told myself: ‘Two more years. There are bills and rent to pay, but two more years should be enough.’

I meant to write myself a second letter, to pass this sacred charge onward into the future, but I never got around to it. Why? Did mammon indeed get its claws into me at that point? Did my creative soul bite the dust? Actually, I was too busy writing the plans for my first novel. The bifurcation of my working life – the compromise – had begun.

Maloney goes on to describe the bifurcated existence of the moonlighter: the lethargy and fog of the nine-to-five, and the inspired but no-less-addled work of passion that takes up your evenings, your weekends, and your vacation time. Maloney is frank that the bifurcated life is not for everyone, and he admits that his family bears the brunt of his dream chase. He has published two novels as a bifurcated worker, but he has also come to realize that “having it all” is about as elusive as the Man Booker prize he yearned for.

…Moonlighting is undoubtedly an uncomfortable business. By dividing finite time and energy between two endeavours, bifurcators inevitably feel they aren’t doing either as well as they could. Day-job colleagues might sense that you’re not all there; family, who were supposed to be a decisive part of the equation, find themselves outside it; and the moonlit passion is itself cramped by distraction and fatigue. You don’t get two careers for the price of one; you get half and half. That uncomfortable feeling of two half-failures is the essence of compromise.

There are several angles you could pull from this story, the first being the immense privilege involved in such a fashionable pursuit. Maloney might call moonlighting an uncomfortable business, but there’s a ton of not-at-all-famous moonlighters who don’t consider their additional gig a moonlighting gig at all—it’s their second job, the night shift. And as much as they’d love the time to follow a dream, dreams are dreams. Maloney admits that this would be a different story if he wasn’t comfortable financially and that, on the whole, work opportunities are “an experiment with all the variables confounded.”

You could also take the angle that all of this bifurcating is just one massive self-justification project, the tale of a man so hungry for accolades that he opens up new mines from which he can extract them. This is definitely my gut reaction to the FOMO Francos and Van Ettens of the world, anyone who encroaches on entirely new disciplines to monopolize more praise. To some degree, it is the story for everyone. Who isn’t trying, to some degree, to garner more credit for the lives they’ve chosen?

The dynamic Maloney sees at work, though, is the inevitability of compromise, the mandatory cost for anyone trying to manage both the responsibilities of life and the desires of the heart. For Maloney, a full-time writing career carries too much risk for his family, so he keeps his day-job. He has had to compromise. But even in splitting his time, there is no such thing as having it all. Even a part-time dreamer has “that uncomfortable feeling of two half-failures.”

I think this is the mandatory cost of anyone living a life period. You don’t have to have an Etsy store or a podcast to feel yourself spread thin over multiple passion projects. Everyone is an anonymous moonlighter in this way. In my last two semesters in grad school, there has been a very palpable cost to the other areas of my life I’d love to explore. Even when I’ve tried to “carve out time” to do those things—I would love to read more fiction and even write some—there’s a recognition that doing so takes time, like full-time-job time, and I have to come to the admission that I am biting off more than I can possibly chew. Maybe you know the feeling: that while you may crave a life of balanced endeavors, with sturdy boundaries holding all your identities proportionally, the truth is that balance is made possible by necessary subtraction. Every day, your endeavors in one arena of life drain the energy store that could have been used elsewhere.

Compromise is inevitable, and each miniscule surrender is a subtle brush with the ultimate compromise: death. Despite our leanings toward a pure pursuit of anything, there’s always a fly in the ointment. Maybe your stepbrother calls with news from Toledo. Maybe another side hustle, called “parenting,” takes you out of the game completely. This is as true with a simple, single career choice as it is with an entire life of “balance.” When it comes down to it, your unmuddled understandings of life—the kind of person you want to be, the guiding philosophy of your life, the vibe you want your house to give off—must, if you are living a life, be muddled by forces greater than you. If anyone’s life is free of these corrupting variables, I’d love to know their secret. But at the same time, I wouldn’t. Sometimes the life ordained for you is so much better than the life you ordained for yourself.

Which is where I find beneficence in the notion of compromise, not just in “work” but anywhere I try too hard to jam too much into a very small life. While I may fight like everyone else to hold unwaveringly to my pursuits, compromise is the subtlest invitation to yield to God. By doing the anathemic work of “settling,” you hand over the life you want to receive to the life you’ve been given.

This is only comforting news with a God whose final compromise is not final, with a God who can bring life into what’s dead. It reminds me of Peter, ambitious dolt that he was, who had plenty of idealistic notions for the kingdom he saw Jesus building, only to find himself back at the fishing boat after the crucifixion, back to his old job after the side hustle of all side hustles didn’t pan out. Relegated to the givens, Jesus returns to him, reinstates him in love, and gives him a new moonlighting gig. There is a caveat, though. “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted,” Jesus says. “But when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” In the light of the resurrection, I imagine this not feeling like a compromise at all.