For many folks, pursuing an ideal career means “following your passion.” At least that’s what I thought.
Growing up, I was obsessed with rock music (and I still am). As a small kid in the 1970s hearing Led Zeppelin, Queen, and David Bowie on the radio, I was hooked. Naturally, by the time I was a teenager in the 1980s I wanted to chart a similar course.
My high school rock band, “The Steps.”
Everything was looking up.
In 1989 my band was invited to perform at a relatively new, obscure music festival in Austin, Texas. It was the third year of the now-famous South by Southwest (SXSW). A year later, I transferred from LSU to the University of Texas in Austin to pursue music. I was elated and optimistic.
Two years later I was depressed and anxious.
I had just graduated from college and was staring down the barrel of my entire future. Every career that I imagined seemed soul-crushing. Even when I imagined succeeding in music, the relentless travel, sleazy club owners, and overall lifestyle were completely unappealing. So, for four years after college, I stagnated.
Turns out that “follow your passion” – one of those clichés we hear all the time – is really bad advice.
Passion binds and blinds – binding us to a narrow understanding of our interests while also blinding us to new possibilities. Mike Rowe, host of the popular TV show Dirty Jobs, points out – rightly – that you’ll miss out on any number of experiences and opportunities if you follow your passion. That’s why he has a different nugget of wisdom: “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.”
Passion is fuel for pursuing an ideal career. But it is not the steering wheel.
In my last article I defined an “ideal career” as one that: (1) gives you a deep sense of meaning and purpose, (2) provides a comfortable income, and (3) can be pursued in balance with other key elements of a happy life – strong relationships and good health.
Think of your career path as just that: a path. The path for a conventional career is well worn and illuminated by common knowledge. In contrast, the path for your ideal career is unfamiliar and obscured by darkness. Discovering and pursuing a path toward your ideal career requires intention and courage, and a hefty amount of humility (a topic I’ll tackle in a future post).
But one thing pursuing your ideal career does not require is: a plan.
Why? Because you can’t chart a course for navigating a path unknown. Planning limits how we approach a challenge and fails to account for how much we don’t know.
Instead, what we need is a simple, flexible tool for discovering and navigating the possibilities – what I refer to as a discovery process.
A discovery process allows us to learn and adapt, bringing light to a range of ideal career paths. It’s pretty straightforward:
- Establish a general direction of interest – this is your North Star
- Step forward, making sure each step is in the direction of your North Star
- Have faith that, with each step you take, the next step on your path will emerge and your North Star will become even clearer
My career-advice mantra is: You have to be impractical about what you can achieve, but deeply practical about how you achieve it. Your North Star is the direction in which the “what you can achieve” exists.
However, your North Star is not picture perfect. It often starts with an imperfect, fuzzy recognition of your interests. Envisioning it requires being deeply honest with yourself about your current likes and dislikes while simultaneously being open to new possibilities.
It starts with identifying a general direction. At a minimum, that means recognizing what you don’t want to do – a process of elimination.
It also means experimenting with directions of potential interest. To do that, you have to start having a lot more experiences, such as internships, volunteering, side jobs, meeting new people. Dip your toes into as many new pools of interest as possible.
Your North Star is not a destination.
It is a compass for maintaining the direction you want to explore.
As I’ll discuss in my next post, once you have your North Star (however vague it might be at first), you can begin taking steps, intelligently, towards an ideal career.
During my aimlessness for four years after college I got one thing right: I didn’t settle for a career that I didn’t want. I recognized, deep down, that I wanted to make a living and have a life doing something I really cared about.
So, in 1996, in what felt like an act of desperation at the time, I moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. without a plan and without a job. I crashed in my uncle’s basement for a couple months and started to explore new possibilities. I stopped following my passion and started honing my North Star.
Often I’m asked, “But what about music?” Not every passion has to be a career. I’ve enjoyed pursuing music as a hobby much more than as a career.
Fortunately, there are many possibilities for one’s ideal career. There isn’t just one path for you. Even the actual North Star is not a single point in the heavens – it’s three.