How My 9–5 As An English Teacher In Japan Fuels My Passion To Create

I’M A SUBSTITUTE teacher in a funky little town outside of Osaka, Japan called Shukugawa. It’s drizzly and grey and I think to myself:

How do I see today as more than it appears?

Perceive it as a poet.

When I walk into my school, one which I’ve never been to, there’s a customer at the check-in table. He smiles and asks about me.

I tell him I’m from Los Angeles. He says he recently took a couple of tour groups around Osaka and Kyoto that came from LA; he’s grinning like he’s enjoying himself. His joy makes me happy.

On my break I look up at the rain which spreads across the light green roof, drop by drop. The cityscape looks rather Parisian soaked in rainfall.

The sky is deep and inky and the train goes by on the tracks below me as I stand on a spiral staircase, considering if I should hit this tonkatsu restaurant for dinner.

There’s little time for deliberation. I go for it.

I sit by the large wall-to-wall window in the second story shop. Across the alleyway the tarnished emerald roof fills with water. The train rolls intermittently through the haze.

The tonkatsu shop (fried pork cutlet) resembles a 1940s diner: there’s a bubbling coffeemaker on the counter, white plates, a subdued Art déco decor and the constant, low and melodious sizzle of oil.

The chatter from the other table of girls (seems like a high school reunion) is quiet and cheerful. There’s jazz playing harmoniously with the rain.

The man in the kitchen slaps a big slab of meat on the counter. It’s just him cooking. I notice how he smiles sweetly from between the serving racks; he moves with a prowess like he’s been doing this his entire life.

His wife serves the tables, me and two others, as kind as could be.

I recently heard something on one of my favorite podcasts, Modern Wisdom, which couldn’t be more apt for this moment.

On the episode the host Chris Williamson fields questions from the audience. He’s asked a question from a writer. That always gets me going.

The writer asks for advice on how to pursue a writing career without the financial security to pursue creativity full time.

“You’ll have to do a hard thing,” says Chris, “which is working a job while pursuing your passion. Try that for two years and see what happens.”

I’ve worked a variety of jobs throughout my budding career as a writer. During the first few years post college, I didn’t know writing would eventually be my primary vocation.

It was what I did on the side. But I loved it, and I couldn’t stop wondering:

What if?

When I went all in on this lifestyle of creativity, my brother in this mission, Greg Benedikt, and I started The Dare to Dream Podcast. That was it, we wouldn’t work a 9–5 again!

“There’s no dishonor in having a job,” writes renowned author Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. “What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.”

The move — nothing more than trusting my love for creating — felt drastic, exciting; it was the life of creativity or the 9–5. But things are seldom so black and white.

It can seem like with pursuing a creative path or taking steps towards what you truly wish to do, you have to be all in or nothing. I’ve realized that this is the wrong game to play. I’m in this for the long haul; I’m playing the infinite game.

“The infinite game is the game we play to play, not to win,” writes educator and writer Seth Godin in The Practice.

“The infinite game has no winners or losers, no time clock or scoreboard. It is simply a chance to trust ourselves enough to participate.”

That means my creative pursuits must be sustainable, gradually burning brighter over a lifetime rather than burning brilliantly and quickly and then poof — you’re spent like a shooting star.

Teaching English in Japan is a real, full time, hilarious and awesome and challenging and frustrating job.

Yet I knew at least that it was a step in the right direction, for it would allow me to live in a foreign country, make money, and have one hell of an adventure.

Now my job is not only a means of financial security while I pursue my dreams. It’s the fuel for my creativity, for I wouldn’t be in a Japanese town I’ve never been at dusk, watching the rain settle on a steely sea of rooftops without giving it a shot.

The woman serves me with a warm smile. I’m sipping green tea and reading Ready Player One, thinking how wonderfully strange it is being in a restaurant like this.

The food is served. It’s delicious; a chicken fillet, rich miso soup, salad, a bowl of white rice.

I write these words initially on a blank page in my book on the table. It feels as if I’m existing in a poem, for the shop is poetry in motion, the sounds and words and movements pouring as a continuous stream.

I like to write in books. I think it makes the eternal soul of the author happy, perhaps hundreds of years posthumously.

I’m writing this story on a blank page on my break as it rains in a town I don’t know; in a shop by the station on the outskirts of Osaka on the other side of the world from everything I know.

I love this life I’m pursuing, imperfections and all.

If circumstances were perfect for us to follow our dreams, wouldn’t everybody do it? Maybe. Probably not. It’s scary, man. Believing we’re worthy of our desires.

“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Gilbert.

“They do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.”

Put your passion, your dream, to the test. What other choice is there? To never try?

Doing what we truly love as our career is an illusory idea, a damn challenge to actually attain because first, we have to find out what we love.

Most of us never do because we simply stop trying. We settle. It takes work just to discover who we are and where our interests lay. The wonder in all of this is the difficulty, the tension.

The point, however, isn’t attaining our dream life. I hope you and I both do, yet we’re incredibly lucky and part of a very few if that happens.

Aren’t we lucky, though, just to have the chance? The desire? 

The reward that’s attainable to us all is the adventure of pursuing the answers to the questions in our hearts: What might make me come alive?

What might make me happy?

I’m seeking these answers just as much as anybody; trust me, I’m far from having this conundrum figured out.

But I’m on the journey, and from here I can without a doubt tell you taking that first step, trusting yourself, will give you more than sitting back safely and wondering ever could.

I know I love to create, to write, to make things and tell stories. And while I journey towards making that my full-time career, I’ll have to work jobs that perhaps I’m not itching to get to everyday. That’s okay.

Work is work. I’m learning. I’m garnering experiences.

Without requiring a job to live, perhaps I’d still be traveling in Japan; but I wouldn’t be living here as an English teacher, an experience that’s impacted me more profoundly than I could possibly relay.

If I could make a living embracing creativity for all hours of the day, of course I’d do it. That’s the goal.

But if I had all the time in the world there would be no pressure to create; I’m following the tradition of innumerable writers, creatives, doers who fought, pursued, did what they loved when the situation was far from perfect.

“I worked from four in the morning until eight, week after week, while putting in a full nine-to-five day at Macmillan,” writes legendary author James Michener in The World Is My Home.

“I was glad to hear that most serious writers do their first three novels at either four in the morning or eleven at night while holding down a full-time job. I was proved to be in that tradition.”

Writing lights me up inside. But it’s because I get to share what living means to me. Living is experience, and having an interesting experience, a story worth telling, is paramount in all of this.

If you long to pursue creativity but need a day job, find one that challenges you, that aligns with your interests and fosters your growth as a human being.

Find one where you learn, where you get out there and live.

Never settle. It’s easy to say, but there’s so much opportunity out there, and there is something that’s right for you.

If you want to live a creative life, do it. Just don’t think a 9–5 is beneath you. In fact, it might be just what your life needs to blossom.

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