Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Deciding What You Want to Be When You Grow Up

A spiral staircase

Even though I’m almost 49 years old, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Well, that’s not quite true. I do know what I want to be when I grow up. It’s just that I haven’t been able to make that a reality yet.

Think about what you wanted to do for a living when you were younger. In my case, that ran the gamut from being a helicopter pilot to a diver to an anthropologist to a fiction writer to a translator. None of those careers panned out, for a variety of reasons.

I was passionate about those options. Some more than others, admittedly. But, as Cal Newport argues in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion often isn’t enough when pursuing a career. Instead, you need to temper your passion with ability and experience. You need to approach your career with the eye of the craftsman: you get good at something you enjoy. So good, as the title of Newport’s book states, that people can’t ignore you.

One of the reasons a few of the careers that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago didn’t pan out was because my ability didn’t live up to the dream. Even though I worked at becoming better, I hit the ceiling of my abilities. A ceiling I couldn’t break through.

That said, I did learn some valuable lessons and did pick up a few skills that I could apply to what I’m truly passionate about: writing.

To be honest, I got lucky. I’ve been passionate about writing since my teens. I managed to get fairly good at it, too. My problem was that for the longest time I wasn’t sure what kind of writing I wanted to do. Even though I majored in print journalism in university, I discovered that the grind of daily journalism wasn’t for me. Luckily, there are other forms of non-fiction writing I was able to pour my energies into.

Of course, it’s easy to lose your passion for something even if you have considerable experience and ability. For just over 20 years, I was a technical writer. I was, and I say this with no ego, in the top 5% or 10% of my profession. I was passionate about technical writing. Until I wasn’t. A variety of reasons for that, but my passion for that profession fizzled.

Take my friend Kyle. I met him when we were both in the technical writing trenches. He had another passion, but eventually put that aside. He found, though, that he loved investigative and analytical work. Kyle spent a couple of years taking a number of course and, about two years ago, changed careers. He now works in the crime lab of a large police department. It’s a career he never dreamed of, but one he loves.

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream. Dreams drive us forward. Sometimes, though, dreams aren’t practical or they’re beyond our reach or they’re just not viable. Instead of trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, perhaps you should grow up and find what you want to be. That could come to you from an unexpected direction.

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