When I was a kid, I had a lot of answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
In first grade, I wanted to work at Vons. (My mom would buy me Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at the register, and I wanted to be where the chocolate was.) I idolized Hilary Duff as an elementary schooler, so naturally I saw myself as an ordinary girl-turned-pop star à la The Lizzie McGuire Movie. I also went through a hair stylist phase, a classical violinist phase, and a teacher phase.
As children, we’re allowed to have a new answer each day. We’re encouraged to think outside of the box, to aim for the far-fetched. As we approach adulthood, however, we’re expected to choose one path and stick to it. Our dream should translate into a job — a string of jobs that create a cohesive career. What do you want to be? The answer is an identity, a life.
Another thing happens, too. We learn that there’s a “right” answer to the question. Adults no longer smile at an answer like “writer” when you’re a high school senior. When I proceeded to study English in college, even my peers would sneer, “What are you going to do with that degree?”
We’ve been conditioned by concerned parents and guidance counsellors to equate the value of our dreams (and really, our value) with the amount of money we can earn from them. If you dream of being a doctor or an engineer — good for you! You’re smart and driven. If you dare to dream of making art for a living — good luck, you’ll need it. That’s foolish and impractical. Even Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the wildly successful Eat Pray Love, admits, “creative fields make for crap careers.”
It’s difficult to follow your dreams when people tell you not to, again and again.
So I didn’t follow my dreams — at least, not right away.
At 25, I’ve achieved what many would call “success.” I graduated with honours from a top university. Shortly after, I landed a job at a Fortune 500 company with one of the most well-known brands in the world, championing web applications that supported crucial business functions. I’d gone corporate, a far cry from the bohemian writer’s life I’d envisioned as a kid.
As a bookish English student, the merit of my studies required constant justification. Once I got a tech job, no one seemed to question my pursuits. Plus, the company name spoke for itself. It was a nice change.
That’s not to say it was an easy transition. When I entered my first product management role, I felt like a fraud. A typical case of imposter syndrome. I didn’t study computer science or business. I didn’t know how to code. How did I convince them to hire me?
When I walked into the meet and greet arranged by my boss with a senior technology executive at my company, I felt the weight of my imposter syndrome in my gut. I felt it in the way my voice shook as I described the work I’d been doing. I felt it in the heaviness of my tongue as I attempted to use industry jargon. I felt it in the nervous laugh that escaped my mouth the moment I said I’d studied English in college.
But I walked out of that meeting with a different kind of imposter syndrome. He — What did you want to be when you were ten years old? — I couldn’t shake the feeling that by pursuing this job, I had turned my back on my dreams.
Then, a global pandemic left me jobless.
In April , I discovered that I, along with thousands of employees across my company, would be furloughed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though furloughed, I likely wouldn’t have a job waiting for me at the other end of the tunnel. Just like that, I became a stat, one of the millions without work, faced with the question: What’s next?
With no calendar to keep up with, quarantined in my apartment, I had time to reconnect with writing. (Ever since I’d rebranded myself as a technology professional in my early twenties, I’d barely written anything.) I created a Medium account, to give my new writing a home. I didn’t expect to have any readers, and that didn’t matter. Writing filled me with excitement, the kind of giddiness that makes you jump out of bed in the morning. I should’ve been an anxious mess — I’d just lost my source of income — but there I was, writing the hours away.
To my surprise, the second article I posted caught the eye of Medium curators, and they named it an Editor’s Pick. An aha moment sprouted from this achievement: I didn’t need a publisher or an agent to be a writer. I didn’t need to be employed by a magazine or a newspaper to be a writer. Equipped with an idea and internet connection, I reached thousands of readers.
Even if I didn’t have any readers, I could call myself a writer.
For so long, my mental image of The Writer looked like the best-selling author who could afford to forego a 9 to 5 — the image I’d dreamed of as a kid. All or nothing. Ten-year-old me didn’t realize that even the most famous writers had day jobs that had nothing to do with writing. Anton Chekhov was a doctor. Harper Lee worked as an airline ticketing agent. Haruki Murakami ran a jazz and coffee bar. Octavia Butler found gigs as a dishwasher, telemarketer, and potato chip inspector.
Some dreams, I realized, may require revisions.
I can start fresh. What does that look like?
This is the part where you probably expect me to declare that I’m leaving corporate America to be a freelance writer. Well, that’s not where this is going. (Not yet, anyway.)
I’m at a point in my life, right now, where I must decide…what’s next? What’s my next career move? What do I do with my passion for writing? What do I do with my other interests, like tech?
I’m writing this for myself, as a reminder: This is not a binary choice between following my dreams and settling for a passionless life. That’s the trap we fall into after ongoing exposure to questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What’s your dream job?”
Questions like these pressure us to sum up our life’s work in a word. Questions like these imply that you’re allowed one and only one passion, and that this one passion should be the organizing principle of your entire career. They discount the reality that many dreams don’t look like a typical 9 to 5. Not all dreams can pay the bills, either. Nor should we have to monetize all our dreams.
We’re allowed to change our minds, too. My dream may look different tomorrow or five years from now, and that’s okay.
That’s why I prefer the question, “What excites you right now?”
It is okay if we don’t feel a burning passion for everything that we do in our lives and careers. If we’re following the things that spark our interest — if we follow curiosity wherever it leads us, even if the road is winding and nonlinear and inconsistent — we’re on the right track. Curiosity can push us to try new things that we had never dreamed possible, and it can lead us to discover new passions, too. (We don’t solidify all our passions by age ten!)
I’m keeping the idea of a 9-to-5 technology job on the table. That doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on my dreams. You see, I’m also placing a career in writing back on the table. The two don’t oppose each other; they coexist. My curiosity pulls me in more than one direction, and I don’t have to pick one.
It’s time to rewrite the expectations I place on myself and my career. Before I can decide my next step, I must create my own definition of career success. These are my guiding principles:
- Passion doesn’t have to be a full-time job. I don’t have to impose the weight of my entire livelihood on my passions. Instead, my job can support and enable my passions. Let’s not discredit the value of side hustles and hobbies.
- My career does not have to conform to a singular theme or industry. I can have multiple interests, multiple income streams — one after the other or all at once.
- Let curiosity lead the way. If my day job diverts from my greatest passions, that doesn’t make my career dispassionate. As long as I seize opportunities that inspire growth, joy, and discovery, my work will have meaning.
What’s next? Frankly, I don’t know. But I do know that this, writing articles for readers like you, excites me.
That considered, I know I’m on the right track.
All images credits are to the author. This article was first published on Medium here, and edited for brevity.
JoAnna Schindler is a product manager by day and a blogger by night. She writes about life, creativity, and culture on Medium @joannamschindler and at jomiyoko.blog.
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