Tampa, FL

Can Writing Online Hurt Your Career?

Sean Kernan

Six years ago, I was interviewing for a finance job at a large marketing firm here in Tampa, Florida.

It was one of those rapid-fire interviews where you spend 20 minutes with three different people. I was talking to my prospective hiring manager, aka “prospective boss”. He was a slightly overweight 40-something, with frameless glasses and an eloquent manner of talking.

Our conversation was going great. Then, near the end, he said, “So tell me about Quora?”

My face drained. I’d been blogging for a while at that point. And so of course, in that moment of inquiry, all of my raunchiest, most off-color posts had paraded through my mind, waving flags that said, “Look what you did, you fool.”

The hiring manager noticed my face and laughed, “Don’t worry! I liked what I saw.” Which was a relief. I got the job offer but didn’t go through on it — which is a story for another day.

However, that night, I got home and systematically combed through my articles, and began cleaning up my trail.

I left corporate life to become a full-time writer almost 4 years ago, and since doing so, have proselytized the virtues of writing on the side. It’s a topic many of us writers cover. We often make it sound like the perfect decision for any rational adult, and that all will be happy and make great money.

There is another side to this coin that isn’t often covered. Like any big endeavor in life, writing creates its own risks to your career and personal affairs.

Perception of divided commitment

There are a million types of bosses and some may not take kindly to seeing your lengthy posts strewn across the internet and being showered with adulation — especially if there are any lapses in performance.

They may even audit your computer history to make sure you aren’t doing research or writing at the office. I know a popular blogger who was fired from his HR job because they saw him using his writing platform during office hours.

As part of his termination, they even listed this as one of the reasons. He openly admitted to me that it was stupid on his part. He said, “I was initially just checking my stats here and there. Then it just snowballed.”

The concern of divided commitment is even reflected in many franchise agreements. If say, you open your own Firehouse Subs franchise, they will likely tell you that you can’t also operate a gym or Subway, etc.

Commitment matters. So make sure that you are writing in your off hours, and that you aren’t sending a message of being distracted to your boss.

The authenticity problem

Many of my writing students often worry about getting too personal with their content — and for the most part — they shouldn’t.

Unless you are getting huge viewership for years, coworkers rarely see your content. Authenticity is a proven path to readership and engagement. And you can generally be more honest than you might think. But there is a line.

I know of a writer who nearly lost out on his dream job because of some of the more colorful posts he made on Quora. Granted, he was applying for a job at actual Quora HQ, and his posts were on the company site, and they were highly political and divisive.

If you plan on getting aggressive with your content, consider using a pen name.

Developing your skillsets

If you are truly career-focused and want to move up, one could argue that time spent writing could be better deployed towards skills relevant to your job.

Yes, writing has some crossover with most careers. It can help with your communication, both verbal and written. It’s an exercise in analysis.

But don’t confuse a writing hobby with being as valuable to an accountant career as certifications or networking, or putting in extra time at the office to go above and beyond.

Energy management

One challenge I faced with writing was the energy drain I dealt with at my job.

My typical day was mentally taxing and I was dealing with constant change, and complexity, and had so many things to remember. By the time I got home, I was often wiped out.

If you are waking up and writing before your job, or writing during your lunch break — you could be hurting your ability to maintain focus at work. I get that once you develop a creative itch, it’s hard to turn it off.

As a writer, I can’t write for more than two hours straight — and anytime I approach two hours uninterrupted, I feel my focus starting to wane, and I need a break.

Stay aware of your body. Monitor your attention span and energy levels. Don’t compromise the check that pays your mortgage for a check that pays for lunch.

The passion problem

The beauty and risk of writing is that you may discover you love it.

It’s become a cliche in blogging to write about cheating on your job with your writing “side hustle”— but the analogy is appropriate in many cases.

Cheating is often an act of self-sabotage, a subconscious drive to tank a relationship that someone wasn’t happy in.

Yes, I had moments when I was daydreaming about writing when I should have been doing other things at the office. But for me, it was less that writing became a distraction and more that it heightened my already-present distaste for finance.

The experience of finding what modicum of success I did with writing began to hint, “You can be successful at something else. You aren’t beholden to this career.”

It wasn’t a mistake for me to write on the side. I may not have started if I didn’t feel so dissatisfied with my job. If you like your job and career, don’t let “cheating” on it ruin a good thing.

Why you should write and do so safely

I’ve been reading up on the Columbine shootings, and specifically, listening to talks by one shooter’s mother, Sue Klebold, who wrote a book about her experience.

She is often asked why she wrote the book, and why she chose to publish it.

She said, “I wrote the book because I discovered writing helped me cope with what had happened. I published it in hopes of helping people.” The profits were all donated.

Years of agonizing over the trauma of loss, and trying to understand what had happened, had brought her to writing. And as heavy as her case is — it is a great insight into the motivations of a writer.

Do it because it brings value into your life and let that value arrive in any form it chooses. Let go of preconceived notions about what writing has to be to you.

I’ve long argued that a writer comes to this keyboard because they are looking for something. You don’t know what it is — and not knowing can be part of the fun during this journey.

Just remember to think broadly about what you are doing, and how it might impact your broader life. It’s OK if you fall behind on your writing habit because greater things demand your attention.

Don’t let this beautiful hobby overtake your focus, and create unwanted attention towards you at the office.

Otherwise — best of luck and keep writing.

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