Editor’s Note: Guest post by Caroline McGraw.

I had dinner with Jen Gresham a few months ago. Before I’d finished my glass of wine, I had a whole new understanding of my childhood dreams.

How did this happen?  I told Jen about my childhood interest in paleontology – joking that, while I went through a ballerina phase like other girls, I’d been fascinated by dinosaur bones.

No matter that I had virtually no interest in science, or the courses I’d need to take to pursue that dream in a practical way. I worked on my own, excavating a rusting metal door in my parents’ backyard. I drew up charts, noting where I’d uncovered ‘treasure’.

I also told Jen about a TV special I’d seen as a child. It featured an older woman who spent her days beach-combing with a metal detector. She held up her favorite find: a tiny gold nugget, carved to look like a koala on a branch.

I remember her because she made me look forward to growing up … if growing up meant you got to be a treasure-hunter.

“Oh wow!” Jen exclaimed (having listened patiently). “That’s so interesting, given the connection to what you’re doing now!”

“The connection … to what I’m doing now … ?” I asked.

At present, I serve as program director for L’Arche Washington DC, a non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in community. My current role involves lots of bureaucratic paperwork, but it also helps me maintain the relationships that inspire my writing. I love learning what the people with disabilities who live in L’Arche have to teach.

“Yes! As a kid, you wanted to dig for treasure and discover new things. Now, at L’Arche and through your writing, you dig for treasure in people.”

Until Jen said it that way, I didn’t think I was living my childhood dreams … because they didn’t look like I’d imagined they would.

So many career guidebooks tell us to remember our childhood dreams as the truest indicator of what would bring us career happiness today. While there’s definitely a seed of truth there, it’s not the whole story. Instead, I’ve come to see that there is wisdom in following your childhood dreams … indirectly.

But how does this sort of ‘indirect following’ look in real life? Let’s look at two case-studies.

Parker Palmer

In his essay, “Now I Become Myself,” educator and writer Palmer details his childhood preoccupation with aviation. As a child, he fashioned detailed books about flight and he assumed this pointed to his destiny as a pilot. However, an older Parker writes:

When I found a couple of these literary artifacts … I suddenly saw the truth, and it was more obvious than I had imagined. I didn’t want to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer or anything else related to aviation. I wanted to be an author, to make books — a task I have been attempting from the third grade to this very moment.

Palmer needed time to realize the latent meaning of his childhood interest. Likewise, when you look through memorabilia, note your interests and the way you expressed them. The mode of expression can be as important as the dream itself.

Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch is best known for his “Last Lecture,” Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. As a kid, Pausch wanted to:

  • be in zero gravity
  • play in the NFL
  • author a World Book Encyclopedia article
  • meet / be Captain Kirk
  • be a Disney Imagineer

Throughout the speech, however, Pausch emphasizes his current role as a professor (one that’s not on the list.) The dreams actually align with how he conceives his role as a professor.

As a teacher, he dared students to defy limits (zero gravity), to be team players (play in the NFL). He wrote scholarly articles (encyclopedia) and used knowledge to guide others (a la Captain Kirk). Pausch imagined a better world for his children and students (Disney Imagineer), and crafted words to inspire their journeys.

Pausch’s childhood dreams contained clues to his vocation, not literal prescriptions for what to do with his life.

How does your childhood dream inform your work today?

It’s your task as an adult to tease out the significance of what you sought as a child. The career path that brings you the most delight today may not match up with what you imagined for yourself in the past. But that’s a good thing. That means you’re dreaming and working as the adult you are now, rather than the person you imagined you might be.

As J.D. Roth writes in his post, “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”

If you had told me a year ago that my vocation was to write a personal finance web site, I would have laughed … I think the key is to be open to new ideas. To be in a state of readiness. You want to be receptive to even the oddest thing that might come your way.

In being receptive to what comes your way, you may find that you do get to live your childhood dream and that its current iteration is better than you could have imagined.

It turns out that being a paleontologist or ballerina would not have made me happy–but digging for treasure in people (and writing gracefully) does. True, I always knew I wanted to write. But I didn’t know I wanted to start a blog or publish an ebook or have drinks with Jen Gresham. All of those things were surprises.

And so I raise my glass to the unexpected, and to you.

Caroline McGraw is the author of A Wish Come Clear, a blog on helping you find meaning in your most challenging relationships. Her (free) ebook, “Your Creed Of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive)” is now available at her website.