When I was little, I created a song to remember all the things I wanted to be when I grew up, “An artist, a writer, a golf cart driver -- physically fit to do the v-sit.”
I remember my mom asking me how I'd make time for it all. (I vaguely remember also wanting to be a “sew-er”). I broke down my day, telling her I'd be an artist in the morning, a writer in the afternoon, and a golf cart driver on the weekends. When she told me that none of these jobs made very much money, I said I'd be a doctor during snack time. But more on that later.
Fast forward to 31, and in addition to my work with professional women, I'm giving talks to college and grad students about career decision-making. I see students struggling with a profound pressure to find “their thing.”
My mom definitely found her thing. She’s had the same job since college, student teaching at the school she's been at for 40+ years. She talks about having tremendous professional satisfaction, enjoying agency to try new things in her classroom, and valuing her ability to make an impact. And let me tell you, students and their parents love her. I once had a parent tear up at a cocktail party because she was so moved to learn I was “Ms. P.’s daughter.”
Alternatively, my lovely new friend Kate Gremillion describes sitting in her cubicle two weeks into her first job out of college thinking, “This is my coffin, I am going to die here. I’m going to work forever, and this is it.”
Clearly there’s a lot in between my mom’s experience and Kate’s (who incidentally did not die at her first job, instead starting her own rockin business). Increasingly my clients are seeing that the model our parents had just isn’t available anymore. Even if we wanted to stay in the same job for decades, most roles aren’t like that.
I work with women who want to change careers, create their own businesses, decide not to work, or any combination in between, and all of that’s groovy to me. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is to consistently cultivate intention in our careers, which can also mean recognizing that our career isn’t where we want to focus our energy right now (or ever).
I was recently asked to return to my beloved grad school alma mater, the University of Michigan, for an alumni in residence program. During my lunchtime “career conversation”, in which I was asked to share my professional path, I talked about how much an alum had influenced my career in one of these lunchtime discussions back when I was a student.
She worked for then Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino (may he rest in peace). I remember loving the enthusiasm she had for her work, her commitment to civil service, and her recognition of the impact she could have on her community. I followed suit with an internship in Mayor Menino’s office that summer and a job in New Orleans City Hall after graduation, followed by running a political campaign.
After my talk, a student told me how my session was one of the best he had been to. I was feeling pretty good about influencing a student the way an alum had influenced me. The conversation went something like this.
Student: I got a lot out of your talk.
Me: That’s great! What was most helpful about it?
Student: I think part of what was different about your session was that you talked about failure.
Me: Wait, what? When did I talk about failure?
Sometimes I get “in the zone” when I’m giving a talk, and I don’t remember exactly what I’ve said. But I feel 100% confident I didn’t use the word failure once. To me, I presented the story arc of my career thus far as I experienced it: I did this, then this, then that. I liked this but not that. I cracked three teeth from stress-induced teeth clenching while running that political campaign. (I took this as a pretty clear indicator that 10-16 hour days weren’t part of my calling.)
I don’t know that the teeth cracking thing -- or losing the campaign for that matter -- was a failure, though I wouldn’t exactly put it in the win column. I do look at that time as a fantastic and vital catalyst for me to launch my consulting practice. It gave me the confidence I needed in myself, my work ethic, and my relationships. The way I was telling the story, or at least intending to, was showing my authentic experience bopping around in my career, picking up things I liked and putting down what I didn’t, ultimately leading me to where I am now.
Especially when we’re in presenter mode, I think there’s pressure -- that I obviously didn’t pick up on -- to put a bow on things and present our own career as a clear path. I’ve always described it as a circuitous route.* I love using Elizabeth Gilbert’s framing about the creative process, calling it a scavenger hunt. In Career Land, that looks like noticing that you’re interested in something and exploring it, which may lead to your next hobby, job, or in my case, business model.
In our own minds, though, I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to make “the right choice” in our careers. I see clients and friends alike struggle with short and long-term professional choices, striving to find their one magical “dream job”.
Have all my dreams come true?
Artist: I'm decidedly not an artist. I’m friends with some awesome ones. Does that count? I had a blast acting and singing in college, and I now enjoy the occasional figure drawing class. Turns out, it's way harder to draw naked ladies than I thought. I keep telling myself it’s good brain exercise to really struggle with something I don't do every day and find challenging.
Writer: Look at me -- I’m writing right now! These days, I’ve been enjoying writing more than I have since 3rd grade when I made up my song. To make it fun again, it took giving up on trying to be perfect or sound like an “expert” (or how I imagined an expert sounded -- dull). I recognized that I’m not a unicorn who’s trying to compete with the million other blog posts going out today. After I gave myself that permission, to just write to you guys, it became joyful. Thanks for reading my stuff and making it even more joyful by sharing your thoughts and continuing the conversation. (Please comment below!)
Golf Cart Driver: In my first job out of college at the foundation that supports the Dallas Zoo, I got to drive a 6-seat zebra print golf cart to take major donors behind the scenes to see elephants and giraffes. (Snakes were my favorite, but after a particularly horrified response to “why does the snake have a bump in its belly?”, I mostly stuck to large mammals.) Regardless, super sweet ride.
Physically Fit to Do the V-Sit: I haven't had to take the Presidential Fitness Test in P.E. in a few decades, but my yoga practice is pretty dope, thanks in large part to my beloved instructor, Mikhayla. So this particular goal has evolved. Instead of the v-sit, my 2016 goal is to get closer to achieving full scorpion pose (the pic in the logo is me!)
While I may not be an artist or a golf cart driver, I am getting paid to write. I also remain pretty bendy and could give my 8 year old self some fierce v-sit competition. When I was 8, I didn’t even know this job existed. In fact, it didn’t exist until I made it up when I was 29.
Sometimes I get so giddy about the job I get to do that my face hurts from smiling. Other times, I don't want to wake up at 4:30am with my Business Baby. Or, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, sometimes I wish I could do anything but this damn profession where one needs one’s brain all the time.
Most of the time, though, I’m pretty darn jazzed about what I’m doing. I feel powerfully fortunate to have created a business that aligns my top 5 qualities on Strengths Finder** (or what I’m good at) with how I like to spend my time, what people will pay me for, and how I want to make an impact.
What my grad student friend called “failure” just feels like a healthy dose of trial and error and open curiosity about what's next. I’m having a blast on the scavenger hunt.
* I should clarify, if a client is looking for a new gig, I encourage her to present the job as “the next logical step” in her career and help her articulate her “fit” for the role.
** If you’re curious, my top 5 are: Positivity, Input (craving to know more), Communication, Woo (Winning Others Over), and Empathy. For those that know me, that shit is spot on, right?
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes