(If you're following my #100daysofwriting project, you can call me out—this post is a day late! But mostly because I was flying from San Francisco to Boston yesterday, and had no internet once I landed in Boston! I DID do my writing yesterday. Just didn't get to post it. #alibi #excuses #offtoagoodstart)
People may be surprised to hear this, but I actually don’t believe in following your dreams.
I believe in engaging your ideas, in exploring your curiosities if they keep tugging at you, because this has made me ridiculously fulfilled. But I don’t believe in jumping ship and diving into the unknown as soon as you’re struck by inspiration.
I think this risk-taking is not for everyone, it’s not always necessary, and I also think this is a false choice.
(I also think our modern obsession with overnight success and freedom can trick people into coming up with manufactured “dreams” for themselves where there is in fact no sincere vision, only a “me too” mentality of wanting to be on the next cover of Forbes.)
This dichotomy of only two options where you’re either “doing what you love” or wilting away at some soulless desk job strikes me as not only extreme but artificial; the history of great works is filled with examples of people who cultivated their genius after the hours they put into their day jobs.
To give a famous example, Einstein worked at the patent office where he was employed for seven years even after the start of his brilliant career in physics. Excerpted from Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe:
So it was that Albert Einstein would end up spending the most creative seven years of his life—even after he had written the papers that reoriented physics—arriving at work at 8 a.m. six days a week, and examining patent applications. “I am frightfully busy,” he wrote a friend a few months later. “Every day I spend eight hours at the office and at least one hour of private lessons, and then, in addition, I do some scientific work.” Yet it would be wrong to think that poring per applications for patents was drudgery. “I enjoy my work at the office very much, because it is uncommonly diversified."
I want to challenge the discourse that decrees that doing what makes you happy has to be the same thing that pays your bills.
Elizabeth Gilbert observed in Big Magic, her new book on creativity that has become one of my all-time favorites, that her creativity has the space to freely play only when she doesn’t burden it with the enormous pressure of providing for her financially.
Even in business this has shown some truth. Adam Grant, Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, just released a book called Originals, where he examined what sets today's successful innovators apart from the unsuccessful ones. Among his findings was an unexpected one: the people who stayed in their day jobs while working on their companies nights and weekends were over 30% more successful.
Pretty counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense to me that the less pressure and urgency you face while creating something, the more you make decisions that honor the product, the vision, and the customer without making short-sighted decisions for survival that compromise the idea.
But then this begs the question: To what extent do we compromise when choosing to stay in our jobs? There’s being practical and doing work that pays the bills—but isn’t there also work that does feel legitimately soul-crushing? And how can we tell?
This question plagued me for a while. Until very recently, in fact.
But I discovered that this question answers itself once I start asking the right questions. I was asking myself whether the security and status were worth the lack of passion in my job, which is hard to answer; you’re comparing apples against oranges. It left me at a dead-end of guilt and frustration.
I should have been asking myself who I am and whether my job made sense on the path towards the fullest expression of the contributions I can make.
Once I had more clarity around who I am, what contribution I’m here to make, and where the current gaps in my character and skill set were until I got there, the question of what work felt enriching as opposed to empty and soul-crushing resolved itself. And now I can just feel what’s on the path and what’s not quite aligned; my body can feel it.
Not only that but knowing who I am and what I’m here to do has armed me with this rock-solid faith that’s there beneath everything, even when my confidence wavers on the surface. It gives me a quiet sense of self-respect that I think changes how I carry myself on the days I’m more in touch with it, and it makes it easier to stop seeking myself in other things and in people.
I still do all these things (oh boy, do I)—but just a little bit less, because I feel a little bit more powerful in some strange way.
It’s a powerful place to be, and I have this feeling it’s only just beginning. And I want everyone to know this sense of strength and confidence, which is why I’m writing about all this as it unfolds.
It has been incredibly hard and a lot of inner work to get to this point, and I’m not even “there” yet. I have some clarity, but still a lot of confusion. And I feel excited more often than I feel scared of the unknown ahead, but I still have my days of doubt. But there are some things I can now say I wholeheartedly believe in.
I believe in following your ideas. Those little sparks of inspiration we get? Everything great starts with those tiny little nudges that we stumble on, and not always with a bang. I believe in giving yourself permission to make stuff, stuff that feels good to make.
And I think sometimes we’re scared to even begin because we think we need to make some earth-shattering life changes to get there. We think we need to give it all up to pursue our thing wholeheartedly, submit our two weeks’ notice and shave our heads and go to India. Or to start a company because that’s the thing to do.
I don’t think that’s the case.
I left my job not because it wasn’t my calling, but because it didn’t fit on my path to the vision of a life where I was being of service in the best way that I was made to be. It just wasn’t aligned.
Instead, I think it’s important to do the hard work of figuring out who you are and what lights you up. Once you do that, there will be some themes that emerge around what your signature expression of service to the world can be.
For me, my themes revolve around being a messenger, a cheerleader of other businesses with heart, and what I like to call an “alchemist”—or someone who takes one thing and finds how it can be used as a vehicle towards something deeper, more sacred.
And if I really think about it, everything I’ve been doing and everything I’m exploring deeper now falls into these buckets. I only spend my time and energy on whatever helps me be better at sharing insights (blogging, podcasting, reading great nonfiction), being a supporter of other great businesses and causes (online marketing and branding, studying business, meeting entrepreneurs), and being an alchemist (studying yoga principles and finding how else they can be practiced, finding meditation “hacks," researching herbs for modern use).
So it makes sense that whatever I do now has to express these themes. And whatever job I take has to let me be an apprentice in one or more of those skills. And the growth I do has to involve becoming the kind of person who can commit fully to these things with discipline and passion.
This, luckily, is where I find myself today. I feel so grateful to have gotten to this point that I feel like I’m already living my dream life, even if it’s just the beginning.
Clarity feels like power. And it acts like fuel. And I hope that everyone takes a little more time each day to cultivate this clarity.
It will make everything a little easier, from finding ways to conquer doubt to making decisions on what job to take or leave. It’ll even make it easier to figure out what relationships and friendships are worth keeping around and investing it, versus which ones won’t serve you or make you a better person.
Knowing even vaguely how you can serve and where you want to go can feel as fulfilling as already being “there," because you can always begin taking the first steps.