We’ve all heard the advice. Follow your dreams! Pursue your passion! Do what you love and you’ll never work again. It sounds wonderful.
And it might turn out well. Or not. How many people do you know with a degree in something that has nothing to do with their current job? Or switched majors because they discovered they didn’t like their first choice? Or even worse, have been doing a job they dislike, for years.
I have a close relative that was on a Ph.D track, but stepped off when she realized the job she was training for was primarily teaching. And she doesn’t like teaching. I was an art major in college, but training for a career in art took the fun out of it. I ended up in law enforcement, which is clearly at the other end of the career choice spectrum.
I became a cop because I didn’t know how to make a living at the thing that drove me. My first love was horses, and when I left school, I went to work for a show barn taking care of school horses. I’d worked in horses part time to help make personal ends meet and hanging out at the barn never gets old to me. Unfortunately, because it was a niche career path, it was hard to figure out how to navigate it from my particular socio-economic rung of the ladder.
Ultimately, police work beckoned because it was fun and offered financial security, health insurance and a pension. My life with horses taught me how to appear fearless, use command presence in critical moments and be very aware of the energy coming from others. All are excellent tools for policing. It worked out well, but when I retired, I was still searching and horses were still calling.
I think the current advice one hears about pursuing your “passion” is heartwarming and inspirational, but frequently less than useful and often misguided. I had a lot of ideas about things I wanted to do for my next career, but when I tried them, they didn’t engage my attention for long. Perhaps because I was doing what I thought I should be doing rather than anything I really wanted to do. I was listening to cultural/popular pressure to “be” something trendy or meaningful to the world, largely determined and baked into my brain by social media messaging.
As someone with the advantage of a pension, I’ve enjoyed a safety net to explore several options, without the pressure of going hungry. After a lot of trial and error, I actually landed in a new career that I love, serving a cause that matters to me deeply, and allows me to hang out regularly in the place that feeds my soul. This is how I did it:
- Let go of the expectations of others. Think about how you would spend your time if you weren’t concerned about being judged. Ignore all the judges, especially the one that lives inside you. Dig deep and give yourself permission to consider your wildest dreams. Operate within the boundaries of legal, moral and ethical, but otherwise, the sky is the limit.
- Do the research. You may start out wanting to do stand up, but after a couple of Improv classes, find out you really enjoy writing. Learn to ride a horse, if that’s something that’s always floated around in the back of your brain. You can still use your marketing degree in the horse industry, but find out if that’s the world you want to be around. No matter what you dream of, it’s important to discover whether you have a talent for it and whether you enjoy being immersed in it.
- Find a need and explore ways to fill it. I dislike the phrase, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” because it’s gross and who would do that, but there’s an important premise there. We live in a time of incredible access to information and innovation. There are all kinds of creative ways to find fulfilling work in our current economy.
- Execute: I thought at first, to be in horses, I would need to become a trainer or work as a groom. I have always regretted not pursuing a career with horses when I was younger and I’ve thought a lot about the reasons it was difficult. My path to realizing my wildest dream was to create a way to help my younger self, who wanted to work full time at the barn and still pay rent, as well as my older (current) self, who owns horses and needs help to care for them. The company I’ve built with my cofounder is a labor of love for us both.
The world, your friends and your family will continue to offer you ideas about how you should make your life and career choices because they love you. They may even give you great advice. But finding the dream within yourself takes courage. It requires you to risk vulnerability and consider where you would go if you weren’t worried about approval from the rest of the world. If only take the first step, you may find yourself on the path to something wonderful.