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September 21, 2018

So Many Jobs, So Few Lives

By Vega Subramaniam

I have many more lives left to go. As in, “in one of my next lives, I’m going to be…” a lexicographer, librarian, astronomer, world literature professor, ancient Greek historian, craft store owner, violinist.

There are a lot of us out there, too. We’re the ones who could never figure out what to major in, and perhaps seemed to flit from job to job, and were always on the hunt, wavering between being positive that the right thing was out there if we just knew how to look and frozen with fear that the instant we chose one path, all the other diamond-strewn paths would be closed to us forever and life would be a monotonous stream of tedium and regret.

So we search and scratch our heads. We’re occasionally, no, often envious of those who were called to a line of work seemingly from the womb. How did they know? What gives them that single-minded determination? Why don’t I have that? Am I defective? I know I’m destined for greatness (LOL…no, but really), but in what? And why haven’t I figured it out yet?

Friends: I’m here to tell you that it’s the rare person who’s known from the womb that they were going to be a marine biologist, or basketball player, or architect. Perhaps they’re to be envied; I don’t know—as has already been mentioned, I am not one of them.

I can tell you, though, that those of us with multitudes of professional interests also have it going on, and let’s not minimize that.

During a trip to India with my family in the late 1980s, we took a tour of temple cities in Tamil Nadu. When we stopped at roadside inns for meals, we sat obediently on the floor while the innkeeper served us the meal he (always “he”) had on hand for the day. No menu, no selections, just grateful acceptance of whatever was ladled onto our banana leaves.

Contrast that with your menu at almost any restaurant in the U.S. today (12 items on the starters list alone? For a local pizza place? I mean…).

Those meals we had no say in were delicious. And salivating over a menu with 12 starters is also captivating. Apples and oranges, is what I’m saying.

There’s no magic or mystery to finding your thing. It’s a process.

It involves taking an inventory: of times you’re in the flow; activities you love doing; genres you’re drawn to at the bookstore; what rabbit holes you’re most likely to go down on the internet. Also take an inventory of your ideal work conditions (indoor/outdoor? Lots of travel or nah? Private office/desk job?); the kinds of people you want to spend a lot of your waking hours with; your financial goals; generally, the things about work that will affect your overall peace of mind.

It involves trying things on. If you’re thinking it would be nice to make a living as a writer, it’s pretty crucial that you…write. Same with woodworking, podcasting, farming, and so on. There are many ways to experiment with potential professional paths, even if you only have a few minutes to spare. And if you can’t think of one, ask me. I’m always down to brainstorm with you about possibilities.

It involves talking to people doing interesting things and finding out how they got there, what they do on a daily basis, and what they love about it. Informational interviews can be super enlightening.

It involves figuring out what it’ll take to change careers and asking yourself if you are really willing to go there. What are the educational, training, or certification requirements? How much will that cost and how long will it take? Where on the career ladder would you likely be if you made the transition? Would you go down, up, or stay even in terms of how much money you’d make? Is the profession likely to grow or decline over time? It was much easier for me to stop longing to be an editor when I realized it was completely incompatible with the lifestyle I wanted for myself. (Although, don’t tell anyone, but I still indulge in the occasional fantasy about working at the Post.)

It involves paying attention to your gut. Mala’s and my life went through major upheaval in 2013, leading to us leaving our employers and starting our business. In that process, I very randomly toyed with the idea of learning to code and developing iPhone apps. It was basically a get-rich-quick scheme, and it sat in my head for awhile. But honestly, I knew that work would make me miserable. Who was I kidding? It was the shiny possibility of lots of money, but money actually motivates no one.

It involves patience. The path to finding your thing is not necessarily linear, and it certainly isn’t clear – if it was, you’d be doing it by now. It may feel winding and erratic, but in hindsight, it will make sense. As you do all of the above—take your inventory, try things on, talk to people, do the background research, listen to your gut—also, step back; and allow the path to emerge in your rear-view mirror.

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Some handy resources for your journey:

P.S. Here’s your chance to take that inventory! If you’d like to explore this further in a structured, story-based workshop, I’d love to see you at my upcoming Dependable Strengths Articulation Process workshop on October 27-28, 2018. Learn more about how you can zero in on your unique talents and register for the workshop here.

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