Why Your Ideal Career Is Hiding From You

by Jan 18, 2011Career Design82 comments

In college, it seemed normal to be lost.

I had a handle on the obvious: financial security, a little adventure, and eventually a stable, happy home life.  But my career?  That was anyone’s guess.

Apparently it was also anyone’s choice. I went with the flow, took the jobs that were offered, even attended graduate school. I made the best of it and was successful by all the usual standards.

I told people I worked so I could fund my vacations. After a while, it felt like it.

By the time I decided my life needed an overhaul, I was a wise 37.  I had financial security, the annual adventure, and a wonderfully stable home life.  But something was missing.

All those years of work experience and trying out different jobs hadn’t helped.  I still had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up.” It was a complete blank.

So I spent six intense months taking personality tests, working through exercises in the book The Pathfinder, and talking to anyone who would listen.  I finally figured it out.

It was a relief … and also a huge surprise.

It turns out the biggest mystery was that my ideal career had been staring me in the face all along, I just couldn’t see it. And to understand why we’re going to have look in an unusual place.

The octopus and the ideal career

A couple of weeks ago I attended a scientific conference on natural materials.  There were all sorts of cool talks on everything from glowing sea worms to radiation resistant bacteria and how to make artificial spider silk.  But when researcher Roger Hanlon showed this video about his encounter with an octopus, I nearly got out of my chair.

I finally understood why I’d had such a difficult time piecing together what I wanted to do with my life.  And it’s probably the same reason you are too.

Did you catch it?

When we think about defense mechanisms in the octopus, most of us probably think about its ink.  The problem with ink is that by the time the animal is using it, it’s already been discovered.  It’s far safer never to be seen at all.

Turns out your deepest dreams and desires feel the same way.

One of the scientists at the meeting (now about to retire) confided he’d always wanted to be a photographer.  His father had begged him to show some sense.  How many of us could tell the same story?

We pushed those fantasies down until they didn’t dare come back up.  We ignored them and called them mean names like “impractical” or “stupid.”  Our teachers and parents rolled their eyes, or stared at us like we’d just divulged a cancer diagnosis.

After all, everyone knows you can’t make a living performing magic tricks, drawing cartoons, or galavanting around the world like some modern day Jonathan Livingstone.

Name nearly any interest, and I can probably find someone making a decent (or better than decent) living at it.  What we really fear is that while a select few have the right skills or luck to make those dreams happen, we don’t.

Yep, our dreams got the message loud and clear.  The only way to survive is to hide.

How to find the unfindable

Fortunately, there are ways to coax them out of hiding.  Taking a cue from our octopus example, here are five ways to get started.

Be patient

It took years of neglect to get to this point.  Don’t be surprised if it takes more than a single feedback session or lunch time conversation with friends to draw them back out again.  Meditation, exercise, and showering are all good strategies for finding the unexpected.  And hey, there’s no harm in doing all three frequently!

Know what you’re looking for

Tim Ferriss argues that a big part of our problem is that we’re asking the wrong question.  It’s not “What do I want to do?” but “What makes me excited?”  Hang around some kids (preferably your own if you have some) and watch what makes their eyes light up.  Catch yourself being happy, then try to engineer work situations that recreate that feeling.

Get up close

You’ll never appreciate the beauty and complexity of an octopus until you get really close.  Same thing with your dreams.  Get specific. Do you want to work inside or outside?  Do you want to travel frequently or only on vacation with the family?  Ask questions until the shape and texture of what you really want becomes clear.

Don’t be threatening

Sounds obvious, but hey, you don’t have a very good track record.  Put away those old fashioned notions of how you might actually earn money from your dreams.  They don’t need the pressure.  Stop thinking about whether your mother will be proud of you for leaving your law practice to be a stage hand.  Let your dreams tell their story without making any demands.  Show some respect.

Listen and observe

You don’t have time for this.  You feel silly.  You’re sure there’s nothing inside that you haven’t seen or heard before.  But how long have we shared the earth with the octopus without understanding how it blends so beautifully into its environment?  Believe, for just a moment, that you are one of the most fascinating creatures on earth. What’s your natural habitat? What skills and talents come so naturally you take them for granted? If someone could only hire one person for a job, which one would make them pick you?

What we know

Play is a behavior found only in the most intelligent of species.

So quit listening to those who claim work can’t be joyful.  Decide right now you’ll stop looking at the ocean through the glass of the tank you’ve created for yourself.

Because you’re smarter than that.  Aren’t you?