I was an actor for 2 months. OK—this is an overstatement. Allow me to rephrase: for 2 months, I wanted to be an actor. So, I went to an audition and was cast in a play. But, when I learned that the play involved me smooching with a teenager, I bolted. I was in my early 20s, and this age gap left me uncomfortable—even if this was, supposedly, acting.
A lot of dead-ends
If I had been honest with myself, I would have admitted that I wasn’t interested in acting. Nor was I that interested in becoming a musician, script-writer, or tycoon. Even so, I made half-assed attempts at these pursuits.
Some might call such moves a lack of focus. I prefer the word stupidity. Either way, my career didn’t follow a straight path. Instead, I meandered—even careened at times. If I held a romantic outlook, I’d say these asides led me to places I needed to go, to arrive at the place I have. I’m more of a pragmatist, though, and recognize that most of these tangents were dead ends.
If I could go back, I’d do many of the same things I once did—but with more focus. I would have sought out meaningful work, instead of concerning myself with material needs. I wouldn’t have switched from one pursuit to the next, so quickly. I would have taken more time to learn my craft—which, in turn, would have saved me many lost hours.
With time, these missteps became smaller, but no less costly. I tried to grow our studio, when we should have stayed small. I pursued design awards, when I should have concentrated on the work. I made misguided sales calls, when I should have better serviced the clients we already had.
The question is “why?”
In retrospect, these problems, and their respective solutions, are easy to identify. Or, as the aphorism goes, “hindsight is 20/20.” Nevertheless, after years of not knowing where to go, I finally chose a direction. The problem, then, was that I didn’t know how to get there. Worse yet, I didn’t know why.
The scenario I describe isn’t uncommon. Many stumble into some career path and pursue it doggedly—only to learn that the work fails to satiate his/her appetites. As such, they pivot. I know a librarian who yearns to be a woodworker, so he can make things with his hands. I know a lawyer who has rededicated his life to promoting health, and preserving the wilderness. And I know a former ad guy who is now a minister working with those who seek answers.
Those of my generation, grew up with the hope of having a fruitful career. Most prized were those areas with prestige attached (e.g., doctor, lawyer, accountant). I tend to think this mindset harkens back to The Depression. Those who experienced that time wanted stability for their children and grandchildren. This security held greater importance than asking vague questions about what one was “supposed to do.”
This motivation, albeit well intentioned, didn’t always benefit those who followed their elders’ recommendations. The world changed. Once stable vocations are no longer so. Conversely, frivolous seeming pursuits (e.g., creative careers) became mainstream. Meanwhile, we learned that a prestigious career, devoid of meaning, is a prison with bars stronger than any cage.
Finding your unique path
When I talk to those struggling with their careers, I often witness a pattern like mine. These individuals switch from one path to the next because none of these pursuits immediately fill the hole they have in their lives.
They also tend to fixate on the small stuff. They contemplate which equipment to buy, or how to price their offering, because they don’t understand how they offer value. They don’t know their value because they’re not properly committed to their work. They remain vague in their actions (i.e., they “leave their doors open”) because they aren’t clear why they’ve chosen the work they have.
In actuality, the set of questions one must ask in choosing a path isn’t complex or elusive. It’s as simple as: 1) What do I want to do? 2) Why do I want to do it? 3) How will I make this happen? Many start with the third question, failing to ask the first two.
The one notion that held me back more than any other, was that of being a sort of island. I thought myself a self-contained unit, and believed that I needed to come up with all the answers—on my own. This mindset isn’t just wrong—it’s a self-actuated brake pedal. When you hold it, this perspective slows you down, and in turn limits the rest of us, too.
I’ve come to think of myself as a link in a chain. I don’t need to carry so much weight, because those around me take part of that load. There are links before me, and ones that follow. Each of these is important, and contributes to the collective effort. None of these links acts alone.
Truth is, we need you to find your best life, because once you do, your work will benefit others. And, we need you to gain skill in what you do, because through this work, you’ll be able to do more. As every one of us gets a little closer to achieving our potential, we speed up our collective development.
This might sound a little grandiose. So, let’s put this into practical terms. Let’s say you’re considering a creative career, and someone leads you to design. Along this path, a handful of designers give you tips and ideas on how to improve your practice. In time, you become a good designer. Through your work, you help a batch of small companies grow, hire more staff, and make better products. As these organizations prosper, they contribute to the wellbeing of their owners, workers, and communities.
I can keep pushing this scenario forward; but, I’m sure you see where I’m going without me needing to spell it out. Everyone has something to contribute—and purposeful pursuits are gratifying. Unfortunately, we often to miss such opportunities because we fail to see our paths for what they are.
Just 10 minutes
It’s improbable that you are destined to do only one thing. That said, you likely show an aptitude for certain work more than other sorts. Similarly, you’ll probably find greater satisfaction in work that you find pleasure in doing. Knowing what work this is might seem challenging. It needn’t be.
In my work at smashLAB, I help a lot of companies sort out where they should go, or what they should do next. In every one of these engagements, I’ve experienced the same thing. The people in these organizations already have the answers. But, they’re stuck in a sort of fog that obscures their ability see these answers for what they are. These people don’t need me to invent a solution; they simply lack an objective viewpoint. In a short while, I can help them make sense of their options.
This is where Officehours comes in.
Odds are, someone out there has been in the exact same spot you’re currently in. What might surprise you, is how willing such individuals are to lend a hand. Fact is, we like to help one another, and no one wants you to make the same mistakes they did.
So, skim the advisors list (it’s small, but will grow), and find someone with relevant expertise. Then, request a session. If this advisor accepts, you get 10 minutes to ask questions and get answers. (Yes—it’s free.)
You might not always like the feedback you receive. That’s OK. It’s only 10 minutes. If it’s unproductive, you haven’t lost anything. But, if you find the right answers, you could gain everything. And, in time, you can pay the favor forward—by becoming an advisor and helping others overcome obstacles.