Have you ever sat down to write something – a letter, an email, an article, a dissertation – and stared blankly at the empty screen, only to end up playing endless games of Solitaire?
No? Just me, then.
Back when I taught writing – and frankly, now when I teach writing – the problem of the blank page was always key to helping people move forward into fluency.
That blank page, it comes with a lot of expectation. When it’s blank, we can imagine the perfectly chosen words we’ll fill it with, the perfect effect it’ll have on the reader. Since nothing we write will stack up against that perfection, we freeze.
But perfectionism wasn’t the only problem. No, the other problem was the panic that came out of not knowing the subject well enough to begin to talk about it. Where do you start? What do you want to say, other than aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgh?
Both of these things are solvable. The first requires us to start somewhere other than the beginning. The second requires us to learn more and thus define our goals a little better.
As you might have guessed, though, I’m not really talking about writing here. If you’re considering leaving academia, you’re probably facing the career equivalent of the blank page.
The perfectionism of the dream job
As you all know, I’m a big fan of the idea of a calling, of finding a job and a career that aligns with your personal mission, your personality, your needs.
But sometimes the idea of alignment gets lost and the aforementioned perfectionism takes over. If we can’t find a job with the perfect company doing the perfect set of things in the perfect location for the perfect salary, well, let’s not even bother. Since this lovely world of ours is not perfect, nor made in our deal forms, finding a job that is perfect in every particular is probably asking a bit much.
Sometimes, the perfectionism takes the form of not wanting to move forward until we are absolutely, 100%, completely sure that whatever we’re stepping in to will be the perfect career for us and one we’ll find fulfillment in for the rest of our lives. Since change is a fundamental quality of the world, we can never be 100% certain, and asking for it stops us in our tracks.
Not knowing enough
The other, related, problem is not knowing enough about a job or a career to have confidence moving towards it.
The truth is that we often don’t know much about what any given job entails unless we’ve done it ourselves.
Think about it. You’ve probably got parents and siblings and partners and friends who have jobs outside of academia. If you had to sit down and explain what each of them does every day at the office – what tasks, what meetings, with whom, to accomplish what, etc. – could you do it?
Probably not. And that’s not because you’re not paying attention. It’s because most of the time, we don’t share the minutia of our workdays with people who aren’t working alongside us. (That being said, you can probably think of plenty of people who are working alongside you for whom you couldn’t explain what they do all day.)
Instead of real knowledge, we have assumptions. Projections. Expectations. And some of them might even be true. But we’re in the position of not even knowing what we don’t know, and that’s not a good space from which to move towards a new career.
These are solvable
Just like in writing, the problem of the blank page is solvable.
Instead of looking for perfection, we articulate our actual needs, preferences, and desires. We figure out what’s really, absolutely necessary for us to do good work. We figure out what fits the category of nice but not essential.
Instead of assuming what happens in a given job, we find people who are doing that job, and we ask. We get curious. We find out.
When we know what we really need, and we know what jobs really entail, it’s a lot easier to see where things slot together and where things get a little uncomfortable.
And when we know what our real options look like, we can make informed, confident choices, choices that are based on real knowledge while understanding that things – including we – change.
Helping you articulate your needs and investigate your options is exactly what we do in Choosing Your Career Consciously, a course designed to help you figure out what else you could – or would want to – do. A new round begins next week. Click here to learn more.
For a while I was spending quite a lot of time watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix. Since I basically hate football (much to the chagrin of my out-laws and my Big Ten classmates/colleagues), this was surprising even to me.
It’s a great show in a number of ways, but the thing I kept coming back to was this. There’s so much more that goes in to coaching football than I had even considered.
Watching past games. Analyzing player performance in practice. Conferring with other coaches. Negotiating for funding and schedules and what have you. Counseling and disciplining and hollering. Not to mention the actual breaking down of skills and forming coherent and effective regimens to improve players’ skills.
And plenty more that wasn’t dramatic enough to make it on to the show.
This would be why people think academics only work 6 hours a week
That annoying conversation you have with people who think academia is a dream job because, you know, it doesn’t actually involve much working? That’s because they don’t know what goes in to an academic job.
They only see the classroom time of teaching. They don’t see the prep. They don’t see the grading. They don’t see the advising.
They most certainly don’t see the research, or the writing, or the conference attendance. They don’t see the committee meetings, or the paperwork, or the myriad other things that are part and parcel of being an academic.
Oh, and that other annoying conversation you have, where someone says something like, oh, you live right down the street from Big Prestigious University, you should get a job there? And you’re trying not to laugh in their face or smack them, because if it were that easy do you think I’d still be looking and eating ramen? That’s also because they don’t know how this career works.
How many other careers don’t you understand?
When we think about what else we could do, we’re not making those judgments based on the actual facts of what that career involves. We’re usually making those judgments based on the same level of information I had (okay, probably still have) about coaching football or your annoying relative has about academic careers.
In other words, we have no idea what that job really looks like. In order to figure out what we might want to do, then, we have to figure out what those jobs really entail. What does an average day look like? What kinds of tasks would you be doing? What does it look like in different organizations? What do qualifications for that job look like?
There’s a lot to find out. But until you recognize just how much you don’t know about something, you’re apt to dismiss it based on Hollywood or assumption or rumor or your cousin’s best friends boyfriend’s sister.
It goes both ways
Just like you don’t know what a project management career looks like, or a training and development job, or a grant writing job, the people you’d want to hire you for the Next Right Thing also don’t know what you’ve actually done in academia.
They don’t know about the ways you’ve developed project management skills. Or event planning skills. Or communication skills. Or public speaking skills. Or whatever.
The harder part is this: Many academics don’t know that they have these skills either. And until you really understand what you bring to the table, it’s hard to argue that someone should give you a chance doing something new, something your research suggests you might like.
In other words, it’s in your best interests to both actually ask some questions about careers you might want to pursue, and explore your own history and experience to figure out what you bring to the table. Putting them together will give you a much better chance of landing something you’d actually like.
Want some help figuring out what careers to research and how to do it? Not sure what you bring to the table? Check out Choosing Your Career Consciously, a course designed to help you figure out what else you could – or would want to – do. The next session starts March 7, and there’s an early-bird discount through February 29.
It’s not news to say that much of academic work is invisible.
The parts that are visible – publications, classroom teaching – are often thought to be all there is, which gives rise not only to the “you only work 9 hours a week and no summers” accusations from well-meaning family members but also to the political attacks on higher ed we’re seeing in places like Texas.
All the rest of the work is invisible. Planning classes. Grading papers. Doing the research to design courses. The long hours in the library or the lab, gathering the materials that make for those publications. The long hours of writing and revising. Advising. Serving on promotion and tenure committees. Serving on governance committees. Supporting student organizations. Orienting new students and new teachers. Directing student research.
It’s this very invisibility of so much academic work that makes it so hard for academics to grok that we have a lot of skills and a lot of experience to offer.
Silence and invisibility
I’ve said this before, but so many of the skills academics have are invisible because they aren’t explicitly taught or rewarded. Because they aren’t explicitly taught or rewarded, we often don’t realize we have them.
Public speaking, for instance. Pretty much everyone you come into contact with in higher ed teaches, for obvious reasons. It’s what we do. But that means that everyone around you has experience with and various levels of skill in public speaking.
Leave academia, though, and you’ll find out soon enough that there are plenty of very smart people who can’t really present information orally. They don’t know how to organize information for listening, they don’t know how to extrapolate from notes instead of reading, and they don’t know how to make eye contact and use their voices.
If you’ve been in the classroom, you’ve had to learn that skill even if no one taught it to you.
Or how about research? Again, if you’ve been in graduate school, earning a PhD, you’ve done research. That means you know how to frame a question. You know how to search for relevant information. You know how to put information together to create the current landscape. You know how to identify what we don’t know. You know how to fill in a gap in the knowledge. You know how to present that research.
This is not something most people know how to do. However painful your dissertation was or is, you’ve got a skill there that’s not all that common.
But let’s not leave out service
Since service is always the poor country cousin to research and teaching, we tend to ignore it as something distasteful that has to get done.
There’s a lot of experience and skills that get obscured by that distaste.
Collaboration. Setting mutual goals. Program management and evaluation. Program design. Event planning and management. Personnel management. Long-term planning. Grant-writing. Reporting. Negotiation.
And you know what? There are even academics who actually like service work. They like the collaboration, they like the negotiation, they like the debate. They like planning and programs and people.
Recognize what you have
I’m reminded of these truths over and over when I work with people to craft their Master Resumes. They come to me telling me they don’t have any experience or skills, and then I get their filled-out forms all full of this committee and that project and wouldn’t you know it? There are a lot of skills and experiences built in there.
You, too, have a lot of skills and experiences that can serve you inside or outside of academia.
The challenge is finding them behind our assumptions and our fears and our doubts.
Uncovering our skills and experiences – not to mention our penchants and our wants – is one of the things the Choosing Your Career Consciously course does. If you’ve thought about leaving academia but aren’t sure what else you could do, or if you simply want to consider academia as one possible choice among others, consider joining our next round, which begins October 6. You can click here to find out more.
One of the things that gets in the way of our moving full-heartedly to another job or career is our own lack of imagination. We just can’t imagine what else we could do.
Part of it stems from the likelihood that we’re surrounded by other academics, who also have no idea what else they might do.
Part of it stems from patterns many families have about what kinds of work you do. (Mine is all accountants and engineers and medical professionals. And me.)
And part of it stems from primarily knowing about non-academic jobs from the point of view of the consumer.
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker
As consumers, we interact with a broad cross-section of jobs: sales people, nurses, doctors, lawyers, therapists, social workers, teachers, bus drivers, traffic officers. So when we’re thinking about what else we could do, our minds tend to turn towards these.
We never think about – because we might not even know about – all the other jobs that have nothing to do with consumers directly.
Project management. Marketing. Scrum master. Human resources. Product buyer. Business strategist. Fundraiser. Program designer. Corporate trainer. Doggie daycare owner. Backpack designer. Gear tester. Forensic accountant. Golf course manager. Hospital ethics committee. Consultant. And thousands of others you may never have even heard of.
You want to think more broadly
Most of the jobs we think of easily require more schooling – much more schooling – before we could even begin to move into them. The rest of them don’t require a degree, but also probably don’t feel like careers. (They may be great careers if you love that work, actually, but we don’t assume they can be careers.)
At this point, more schooling might sound comforting and familiar, but let’s face it. At some point, we all have to leave school. Why not now?
Most of the jobs in the for-profit and non-profit world don’t necessarily need a particular degree to get you in the door. Relevant experience, yes, but you can get that any number of ways.
That means your options are a lot broader when you’re looking outside of the narrow band of professions that need a graduate degree. And it means that, right now, just as you are, you’ve got a lot of possibilities.
Go out and find them
Talk to people. Ask what they do. Ask what happens at the company or the organization they work for. Ask what kind of jobs exist there. Ask what their friends do.
Look up companies that sound interesting. Read their websites. See if you can find a list of staff or departments. Extrapolate.
Browse the Occupational Outlook Handbook to immerse yourself in the full range of what’s out there. Notice what makes you sit up and take notice. Notice what makes you get a little bit more excited.
Doing this kind of work is crucial to finding the Next Right Step in your life and career. It’s why Jo Van Every and I teach our Choosing Your Career Consciously course.
But we also teach it because we know just how brilliant, inventive, and curious academics are. We know just how valuable those skills are outside of academia, and we know that the world needs your particular perspective and smarts.
So if you need the support of a community as you work through finding that Next Right Step, consider joining our next round, starting October 6.
The Monday Roundup hasn’t gone away, but I’m going to do it monthly rather than weekly. Catch it on October 3rd!
Mark Silver, who is both a long-time Sufi practitioner and an entrepreneur, makes the argument that instead of focusing on jobs or careers, it’s helpful to focus on what he calls your Jewel – that essence of what you bring to the world.
So long as you’re living from your Jewel, he says, there are any number of jobs or careers that you’ll find satisfying.
So what is this Jewel anyway?
In Silver’s definition, our Jewels are essential qualities. (For him, they’re essential qualities of the divine working through us, but we don’t need to go there in this conversation unless you want to.)
More importantly, our Jewel is something that emanates from us, that other people get from their interactions with us. It’s something central to who we are, rather than what we think or believe.
Here are a few qualities that might underlie your Jewel:
So how is this helpful again?
We tend to focus on jobs and careers because they’re obvious – we have job titles, we work for companies or institutions, we have responses when someone asks us at a party what we do.
But those jobs and careers have likely come out of something else, a felt sense of something that was meaningful to you.
One question I often ask people is what drew them to academia in the first place, because in the answer lies something very important: what this person wanted, deep down, from this experience.
Another, related, question I often ask people is how they want to change the world. (Yeah, I’m fun at parties.) Of all the injustices and problems in the world, what are the ones you can’t let go of, the ones that rub against you? (This doesn’t mean they have to be Mother Teresa-level problems.)
The meaning at the center
What you wanted to get from academia and the ways you want to change the world are both central to the ways you are your own unique person, related to but different from your family and your fellow academic travelers.
Understanding both of those will tell you something about where you might want to look next.
If you were drawn to academia because you wanted to explore the edges of our knowledge and you want desperately to cure illness, your next step is likely to be different from the person who was drawn to academia because they wanted to immerse themselves in conversation that they found interesting and who wants the world to be more beautiful.
So ask yourself these two questions to help get at the chewy center of your own life and self.
Why was I drawn to academia in the first place? And how do I want to remake the world?
As much as I believe in the power of a calling, in the idea that for each of us there is work that makes us sing, sometimes the idea of a calling can paralyze us.
How do I know this is really my calling? Maybe it’s just a passing whim. Can it possibly be important enough or meaningful enough or whatever to be a calling? I have no idea what my calling is and so I must stay here in misery until I do.
We humans, we’re so good at using our big, powerful brains to confuse the hell out of ourselves.
Sometimes we have to jump.
You probably don’t know this, but my own process of leaving academia looked something like this.
- Spend two years in a tenure-track job confused and miserable.
- Realize I want out.
- Spend two years miserable and convinced I can’t do anything else.
- Have a series of Big Ideas that go nowhere after teensy-tiny setbacks. (Oh, copyediting, I think I’m glad you and I never got together.)
- Take a deep breath and send out a couple of applications.
- Six weeks later, start a new job in a new city.
Sometimes I talk about that last bullet to make the point that you never know what will happen when you start applying, no matter what the averages or the medians or other people’s experiences are. Serendipity happens. I got crazy lucky.
But today I want to talk about a different aspect of those six weeks.
Six weeks took four years
It’s easy to look at the six weeks between when I sent in my applications and when I started a new job and think, holy hell, that was really short!
And in terms of packing up a household of two adults, two dogs, and two cats, finding new lodgings, putting a house on the market, resigning one job (and career!) and starting another, yes. Yes it was. It was so short as to be just this side of insane. (I really don’t recommend it.)
But that six weeks was a product of years of thinking. And dithering. And doubting. And wandering. And wondering. And hoping.
I brought all of that with me when I took the plunge to send in applications, and I brought all of that with me when I actually accepted that job and walked into my chair’s office to resign.
But if I hadn’t, finally, jumped, those four years would simply have been misery. They were something else because I held my breath and did something terrifying.
I learned a lot in that first job out of academia. One of the things I learned was that I don’t actually like being a fundraiser, but it was a reasonable hypothesis to start with. I jumped out of academia, and I spent three years learning all kinds of things before needing to jump again.
Only this time it was easier. I already knew I could switch fields and not die. I already knew I brought a whole host of skills and talents to the workplace. I already knew I could make it outside of the ivory tower.
But I didn’t know any of that until I jumped. And I wouldn’t have learned any of it if I hadn’t jumped.
In which I quote Finding Nemo
There’s a scene near the end of the movie Finding Nemo wherein Dory the amnesiac and Martin the panicking parent are in the mouth of a whale. They’re hanging on to some part of its tongue, and it’s telling them to let go. Martin yells to Dory, “How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?”
She says, simply, “I don’t.” He lets go, and the whale shoots them out of its blowhole into Sydney Harbor – exactly where they wanted to go.
Sometimes, we need to have faith that our lives will unfold in beautiful and interesting and compelling ways, and that we can’t actually control this. Sometimes we need to actually jump into the unfamiliar possibility in order to get the next layer of understanding that gets us closer to our calling.
Sometimes the best way to find our calling is to try things.
So go ahead. Jump.
Take a leap into the unknown and trust that whatever happens next, you will be enough to deal with it and learn from and it and be that much closer to knowing what you actually do want.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find out that this new thing you doubted, it really is what you should be doing.
(And I’m really sorry if I put the Pointer Sisters in your head….)
Not sure how to jump? I’m teaching a free class on August 1 that covers common misunderstandings about academics we have to deal with, strategies for translating your skills into non-academic settings, and a 6-part system for finding a job you love. You can learn more and sign up here.
When we’re faced with the necessity of figuring out something else to do with our lives than the academic career we planned for, well, it’s easy to have a complete brain shut-down. Nothing freezes us up more than the idea that we’ve got to come up with something that will determine the rest of our lives.
I liken it to the panic a lot of PhD students feel when they have to finally sit down and choose a dissertation topic. I mean, this topic is going to help determine everything from what kinds of jobs you can apply for to what kinds of institutions you’re going to land in to what you’ll be researching for the rest of your natural born life.
Now, the I’m-choosing-for-the-rest-of-my-life fear isn’t quite accurate in the case of the dissertation, and it’s certainly not accurate in the case of figuring out the next right step.
In fact, the most important thing you can bring to the table to get to the other side of that fear is curiosity.
Start with the assumption that you’re only choosing the Next Right Thing
In order to let curiosity kick in, we have to get rid of the assumption that you’re determining the rest of your life.
I don’t mean to traumatize you when I say this, but the very fact that you’re having to contemplate figuring out what to do next suggests that the last time you thought you were choosing forever, you were wrong.
That’s not to say anything you did on the basis of that assumption was wrong – I pretty much think every step of the path is necessary, and you learned a lot of fabulous things and did a lot of cool stuff on your way to right now.
It’s just to say that, once upon a time, you probably thought you were going to be in academia forever, and you aren’t going to be. All of which suggests that anything you choose right now probably isn’t going to carry you into retirement.
And that’s okay. In fact, if you can let go of the idea that you should choose something that will carry you into retirement, you can open yourself to the possibility that there are a lot of delicious choices out there – and you don’t necessarily have to choose between them.
Where curiosity comes in
Once you can think about possibilities as the Next Right Thing, it’s time to bring your curiosity to bear.
Be curious about yourself. What have you learned about yourself through your experiences in academia? What parts of yourself have you left behind? What dreams are so precious that they’re layered under piles of denial? What are you really, truly passionate about? What do you only think you should be passionate about?
The more you can be curious about your own experience, your own passions, and your own dreams, the more you can learn what it is that really rings your bell.
Be curious about what’s out there. Just as people who aren’t in academia think we get summers off and don’t understand what a provost is, we have lots of misconceptions and holes in our knowledge about other careers out there.
One way to be curious about what’s out there is to browse job boards, not to find one to apply for but just to see the range of what’s out there. Another way to be curious about what’s out there is to ask everyone you meet what they do and what they like and dislike about it. You’ll have some surprising conversations that may lead you in directions you wouldn’t have expected.
Be curious about how the world is linked together. Do you remember that old game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? The goal was to choose any other entertainer and figure out a way to get from them to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less.
Well, that came out of a play and movie called “Six Degrees of Separation” that mused on the idea that we’re connected to every other person on the planet by six moves or less. Now, I’m not entirely sure about the six or less part, but I can get to both Pope John Paul II and Ted Bundy (the latter two different ways) in less than six moves, both of which freak me right out.
What that means for your curiosity is that, within six degrees of separation from you right now is the person who can answer any question you have about any career path you can think of. Becoming a motorcycle technician. Running programs for the Department of the Interior. Being the executive director of a non-profit that serves transgendered youth. Raising money for the whales. Guiding climbers in state parks.
If you’re honestly curious about a particular field, the people you know will say things like, “You know, I have no idea, but my cousin runs a legal non-profit in DC and I bet he’d know the answer.” And boom – you have the person who can give you answers.
Curiosity gets you past what you know
The reason curiosity is so important is that it is what takes you beyond the boundaries of what you’re currently familiar with. Curiosity is what helps you ask the questions to learn new things, about yourself and the world. Curiosity is what takes you from “I have no idea” through “huh, I’d love to know X” to “hey, X is really awesome!”
So if you’re stuck in fear, inertia, or doubt when what you need is to think about what the Next Right Thing is and how to get there, ask yourself one simple question. “What am I curious about right now?” The answer will get you moving, and the answer will give you a path.
A few months ago, I was sitting in a breakout group of all the managers at my dayjob. We were talking about how to motivate people and how to keep people challenged, when one of my colleagues said something so wrong-headed I almost couldn’t contain myself.
“By definition, work isn’t fun,” he said. “That’s why we have to pay people to do it. If it were fun, people would do it for free.”
This is a common assumption or belief about work, but I don’t believe it for a second.
Where that goes wrong
If that sentiment were true, jobs that were more fun would be paid less, and jobs that were less fun would be paid more.
Last time I checked, jobs like cleaning bathrooms, digging rocks, or picking fruit in the hot sun are paid pretty miserably. Subsistence wages, if that.
While we’ve all got our list of jobs that would be incredibly fun, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that everything on your list probably gets paid more than janitorial wages.
And while there are exceptions to this very general rule (lots of creative jobs, like dance, pay extraordinarily poorly in the traditional venues), it’s instructive nonetheless.
What really happens
When we do work for a person or for an organization, we get paid because we are creating value. We are accomplishing something, making something possible that wouldn’t be possible without our labor.
A teacher gets paid (okay, usually not well) for designing a class and supporting students in learning the material. Without that teacher, those people do not learn.
An accountant gets paid to make sure all the money that goes into or out of any unit (an organization, a family) is accounted for so that the people in that unit can make informed choices about how they earn and spend money.
A choreographer gets paid to design new and illuminating dance routines to please the senses and the intellect. Without that work, our world would be poorer.
All of the work we do adds value to the world, either by enabling someone to do something they couldn’t have done otherwise, or by actually bringing new things into the world. This is a good thing.
And we dedicate a significant chunk of our time to creating that value because that enables us to do things like eat and pay rent and pursue the things we want – which creates value in our lives.
These are not opposed
Our whole culture is organized around this idea that we’ll spend 30-40 years working our tails off, often miserably, in order to retire early and enjoy our golden years. It’s like retirement is the carrot held out instead of the stick of debtor’s prison, and we wouldn’t work if we didn’t have one or the other pushing us forward.
And let’s be honest: There are plenty of people who are miserable in their jobs, because they’re doing work they don’t like, for people who aren’t very nice. But that’s not “the way things should be.” That’s a tragedy.
In fact, retirement, far from being the golden experience you see in the brochures, is often hugely stressful to people, because they got meaning and joy from their work and aren’t sure what to do with themselves now.
When we’re doing work we love and we’re good at, we’re creating value for ourselves, and we’re creating value for the world. At the same time. Right now.
Yes, there are tradeoffs
It’s true that we will sometimes be willing to take a lower salary in return for a job we really love. But that lower salary will likely still be above the line of what you need to support yourself and your family.
And it’s true that we could all use more time off than we usually get, which leads us to dreaming of job-free lives. But for most of us, lolling around the beach in a hammock would get old soon enough.
In other words, we don’t get paid because work is odious. We get paid because we are providing something of value to someone else.
So why does this matter?
It matters because, so long as work is defined as “no fun,” it’s hard to take seriously what we really, passionately want to do – because we assume it can’t make any money.
It matters because such an assumption makes us hesitate to charge money for our skills and talents, because they’re too fun to be worth much.
It matters because it makes thinking about work and careers depressing, instead of exciting.
It matters because it helps us settle for less than we’re worth, doing work that is less than we’re capable of.
I’m reading random back issues of the New Yorker, and I happened to come across a profile of Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away last week. One of the things he said stuck in my mind.
“All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”
He’s commenting on the ways that we sometimes show up as bit players in other people’s dreams, but it got me thinking.
Even as we show up in other people’s dreams, it’s important that the dreams we’re living out are our own.
Other people’s dreams
Sometimes our dreams for ourselves get taken over by other people. I see this sometimes in the people I talk to who are struggling with academia.
Maybe academia started out as your own dream, but somewhere along the way it got taken over by someone else’s dream – your advisor, whose dream for you is an R1, when your dream for yourself was a regional teaching university; your institution, whose dream for you is the tenure-track when yours was just graduate school.
Living out someone else’s dream can lead to focusing on something you don’t much care about, delaying family decisions you desperately want because someone won’t approve, making choices based on someone else’s values instead of your own.
Whose dream are you living right now?
Live your own life
What is your dream for yourself? When you imagine your perfect life, what does it look like?
When you imagine that perfect life, do you experience yourself yearning for it? If not, figure out whose dream it is, then imagine your perfect life again. What does it look like now?
We’ll never be satisfied by living someone else’s dreams. That’s not to say we never compromise or work in partnership with others, especially our partners, because of course we do. But that’s about a larger dream we’re all in, not giving over ours for someone else’s.
All the dreams you show up in are not your own. But make sure the ones you’re aiming for are yours.
Not sure what your dreams are? Join me and Jo VanEvery in a six-week class designed to help you figure out what your possibilities are. Click here to find out more.
The other day at the library, I picked up a book called The Right Words at the Right Time. It’s small essay after small essay by famous people about the words that changed their lives. I found most of them unmoving (sometimes you have to be the person in question for the words to land right), but then I came across Diane Sawyer’s piece.
She’s describing a time when she was young and aimless, and her father asked her three questions: “What is it you love? Where is the most adventurous place you could do it? And are you certain it will serve other people?”
They’re a pretty good framework for thinking about your calling.
What is it you love?
We’ve talked about this one a lot, but it really is central. Doing what you love gives you energy, it doesn’t take it. Doing what you love gives you the impetus to work and grow and learn, because it isn’t a chore.
The biggest misconception I see with “do what you love” is the tendency to associate “what you love” with a job instead of with activities. We love talking to people. We love solving problems. We love organizing things. We love helping people who have been through shit come out the other side. We love teaching. We may love a job that incorporates all the right elements, but while the job may not be transferrable, the elements always are.
Where is the most adventurous place you could do it?
We have a tendency to think small. It’s easier to think about careers in the usual way.
But what if you could join the activities and skills that light you up with a context that blows you away? What feels adventurous to you?
For some people, adventure is about travel. They’ll teach English in a foreign country, sign on to an NGO, or hightail it to Thailand because you can live there for cheap while telecommuting to a company that pays a standard US salary.
But for some people, adventure is going to be rethinking their family arrangement to have each adult work half-time so both people get to spend lots of time with the toddler. For some people, adventure is going to be picking up and moving to the place you always wanted to live, because now you can.
One of the advantages of the mostly-crappy experience of coming to a crossroads is that everything is up for grabs. If you’re going to move anyway, why not move exactly where you’d like to? If you’re going to change careers anyway, why not explore the thing you’ve always secretly wanted to?
Are you certain it will serve other people?
It’s easy to reduce “serve other people” to Doctors Without Borders or the Peace Corps or teaching. But it’s so much more than that.
The person who writes young adult novels that help teens get a grip on their lives? Serving other people.
The person who designs beautiful furniture that doesn’t cost a first-born? Serving other people.
The person who designs surreal puppet shows that expand people’s minds? Serving other people.
The real question is, how is this serving other people? It’s about articulating to yourself how this betters the world, because connection work you love with the world gives it just a little more gravity.
So how would you answer these three questions?