Dreams are important. To state this is to simultaneously “master the obvious” and state a truth that eludes a lot of us.
I recently faced the passing of a close relative. One result of the personal crisis has been several searching conversations with close friends and family. One conversation yielded the insight that there are two things you really don’t want to be thinking when lying under the (literal or metaphorical) bus that just hit you. The first is “gee, I really wish that I had done x”. This is the focus of this post. I’ll write on the second one (“gee, I really wish that I had taken care of X”) at a later date.
A body of emerging research strongly suggests that those of us privileged enough to be worried about career navel gazing are not deeply satisfied by money past a certain level of income. Being happy is largely a function of the personal relationships you have, community engagement, family connections etc. Similarly, within the constraints of your career, research suggests that higher levels of personal autonomy and sense of control equate to higher satisfaction and better help.
Being unhappy is, well…unpleasant. It would seem like a thing to avoid if possible. That being said, we are all bound up in external definitions of success and other considerations that compete with “following our hearts.”
Here’s my challenge to you; define success for yourself. Go through the exercise of writing down what a successful life looks like. It is important to be honest with yourself. Putting something in print in front of your face (or whatever method works best for you) requires you to actually articulate ideas coherently. My next challenge is to find a trusted friend or mentor and share these ideas with them to get feedback. (This begins to delve into an entire area on building and activating a network, a topic for much discussion at a later date). Do not have this be someone tied to your immediate job etc. Use your judgment to find a good friend who knows you fairly well, but can be dispassionate about the topic (ie: not someone whom your decision directly affects). I find the mere act of having this discussion helps clarify thinking and may lead to some conclusions. Some things sound crazy out loud while others get you more excited. The conversation sparks other ideas etc. It will also help identify issues with your hopes and dreams.
Here’s the next challenge, if you really think something is interesting and what you’d like to do then pursue it. Regrets are terrible things and can ruin you. “Gee, I really wish I’d done…” is a terrible thing to be carrying for years. A personal example for me was going to history graduate school. I’ve always had an interest in teaching and in history. Seems like a PhD would be a good idea. So I enrolled in a doctorate program after undergrad. What did I learn? I don’t want to be a history professor.
Thought going in: teach, mentor, debate, active exchange of ideas. Reality (for me): waayyyy too much time alone in the stacks doing research, very difficult job market, low pay, no reward for teaching etc. For me, this was a tremendously liberating experience. I KNOW I wouldn’t have been happy on that path and so I changed course and have been very happy (and better compensated) in my career choices since then. People ask me if I would have done it differently to get a few more years work experience earlier, gotten into a different MBA program etc. My answer is “Are you kidding me?” I had a great time, learned a lot and moved on. I had a great experience. I definitely do not sit around angst ridden over some idealized (and ultimately fictional) life as a history professor.
Don’t expect “perfection”
I am not a believer in self-help industry guidance with lots of exclamation points about getting “EVERYTHING!!!” and being “THE BEST!!!” etc. A friend of mine points out that by definition “it’s an average world.” My point here is not to say settle for mediocrity. Rather, it’s to encourage you to define your own set of success criteria and measure yourself. Don’t get caught up in who’s o the covers of magazines living a fabulous life.
You WILL ultimately be happier w/ something you love. You may not, however, get “everything you want”. Only a precious few get to be happy at work, have healthy family lives and be wealthy. If you do, good for you. For most of us there are choices about priorities to be made. Not making these choices will definitely lead to less than satisfying outcomes. Things to balance include family, friends, faith, work, health, interest etc. The list goes on.
My encouragement to you: Think about your goals holistically, not artificially separating work and personal. Having done that, be brave and explore your interests actively. Sitting on the couch dreaming won’t get you anywhere. Commit to a plan and put some effort into it. If you get yourself that far you will better understand the implications of your dreams across all your life goals. Then you can really understand what you want.
Some call it experience, others wisdom. Either way, it mostly comes from doing. (Aside – A friend often comments that “the devil is smarter for his age than from being the devil.”)
Take away: Spend the time to know what you REALLY want and take action.