There’s a phenomenon that happens in the beginning of biopics, a moment when, as a child, the soon-to-be famous protagonist hits a ball out of the local ballpark, sings a note she should not be able to sing, or launches an elaborately built rocket using too-sophisticated-for-her-age quantum physics.
You see this in real life too, in live interviews and in magazine profiles: successful person X explaining that she “always knew” she would do successful thing Y, that it was what she loved forever, that it shone in her face one day like a magic destiny sunbeam.
When success happens like this, it’s beautiful and life-affirming, which is why we enjoy these stories as much as we do. The idea of a predetermined path gives us a sense of safety and security in a world that often feels random and senseless, a world in which us weirdos often feel lost.
But much as “meant to be” love stories about “the one” fill us with unrealistic expectations about what marriage and finding a partner are supposed to look like, finding your career path doesn’t always happen this way, and imagining that it will or should can leave you feeling anxious or paralyzed, wanting to crawl into a ball and hide under the bed. It can make you feel like you shouldn’t even try.
But I want you to try. I want you to get out from under the bed of fear and start living, so let’s cut to the chase: it’s highly unlikely that a career-path lightning bolt will hit you one day and give you road-to-success superpowers.
Sometimes your career identity unfolds over years, the path twisting and turning as you learn more about both yourself and the working world. Sometimes, after decades doing something else, your brain cracks open, and you know you do not want to be a dental assistant anymore and instead need to become the world’s greatest cartoonist. And sometimes finding what you should do with your life starts simply with having the courage to try something else.
None of this will be easy. All of it will require sacrifices that may at first feel unintuitive and even crazy. Especially if where you want to land is far from where you currently are. Especially if you are about to enter the business of reinvention.
Ultimately, the process for finding the vocation I wanted and would excel at wasn’t soft or calm. It wasn’t worksheets or matching my personality type against a series of careers to see what lined up. Those things never turned up “writer” or “editor”; instead they made me seem like a sociopath. And finding my “calling” wasn’t even about being pragmatic and making lists of what I was good at and what interested me, what sounded compelling or fun.
How I found the color of my particular parachute was by force, by taking a hard and honest look at my sadness and insecurity, what made me the most pissed off and envious, the things that I wanted to be so badly that I seethed.
Follow your bad feelings and let them lead you to the BIG DREAM of what it is you want to do now. Because behind your anger and jealousy is passion, and even further behind it is fear, and these very strong feelings are what you’re going to need to be persistent and unrelenting and succeed at and love what you do.
Is there a person in your life who makes you secretly feel TREMENDOUSLY jealous? Is there a job that makes you ANGRY?
Now listen with more intention, because probably what you’re actually hearing is: I wish that were me. And instead of wasting all this time being jealous, sad, or pissed, you should channel that energy into transforming your life.
Roll around in the world, examine what you like and what you don’t, study what comes naturally to you and what doesn’t. Follow your bad feelings to their origin. Lift up the rock of your envy of that girl who makes textiles/writes graphic novels/builds buildings/takes pictures. Expose yourself. Get to a place where you are vulnerable and open.
In this journey of exploration, there may come a moment when what you want to do will slap you in the face, when doing this thing and imagining yourself doing this thing will feel so special as to almost be illicit, and when thinking about getting paid just for doing this thing will nearly kill you with happiness.
When someone else is doing what you want to do, you will blaze with jealousy. It will burn and burn and burn inside you.
Actually doing what you want to do will make you feel so afraid your body will shake, and you will want to throw up. Whether your career dream is special or broad, creative or medical or political or technical, gaining access to this dream will feel exhilarating.
This is how you know you’ve found it.
This article is adapted from Weird In A World That’s Not: A Career Guide For Misfits, F*ckups, And Failures by Jennifer Romolini. It is reprinted with permission from HarperBusiness, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
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