In my never-ending quest to figure out my own future, I stumbled across the work of Cal Newport, and particularly his recent book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I’ve made it known on several occasions that I hold many “follow your dreams” bloggers in low esteem, especially those that seem to have no measurable skills or life experience. This particular book caught my eye by echoing many similar sentiments. In it, Newport takes on the “follow your dreams” philosophy and turns it on its head; recommending that we stop trying to be useful by following our passion and instead seek to find our passions by being useful.
It’s an interesting concept, and one I hadn’t given much conscious thought to over the years, but it rang with a note of truth. Newport got me thinking about the idea of career capital. In other words, people that we admire for following their passions tend to launch into their passions from a position of experience and strength. They use their established skills and accomplishments as a launching pad into something new. In practical terms, it means don’t go looking for people to pay you for doing what you love, but look for people willing to pay you for what you do well. Then, use that as a foundation for launching into what you love.
At the time, I was still looking for the “right” job. In my mind, that meant working for another company or organization. I needed a new way to search for job openings that would fit me well. So, I took the idea of career capital and asked some friends and colleagues the following question:
“What skills or gifts do you see in me that could be considered rare and valuable OR could be further developed to eventually become rare and valuable?”
It was an interesting exercise, and somewhat surreal. I received lots of good feedback and some really insightful observations describing the ways in which I facilitate teams, think strategically, balance opposing views, and think outside the box. It was humbling and heartwarming to receive such things, but I had to admit to being a little frustrated. None of those answers listed any good keywords or search terms for finding a new job. I wanted things I could just plug into a formula and it would spit out a new job for me. I walked away from the exercise thinking “ These characteristics show that I would be a huge asset for any organization once I am on board, but they won’t get me through the front door.”
That was a hard truth. Why didn’t I get the information I wanted? In the end, I realized I was asking the wrong question. The question I asked was more about my personality and less about my skills. Eventually, the correct question was pounded into me by circumstance rather than insight.
Upon occasion, people will ask me to help them with their website. For several years, my answer was almost always “no, thanks.” I had been “the technology guy” or “the website guy” before and I felt like I needed to move beyond that reputation. I really wanted to be seen as something different in the minds of others.
Last Spring, I went to visit my friend Israel for one of our regular lunches. Before we left he said “I want you to talk to someone about our website.” I whined and pouted about “being out of that game,” but I did it for my friend anyway. As it turned out, the seminary needed someone who understood their identity and recruitment needs (I happen to be an alum.), translate between the techno-speak of the hosting company and end users, and manage the project moving forward. I returned to his office and said “You know what? I think you have probably found the only person uniquely qualified to understand this project. I can totally do this.” He responded “I know you can. That’s why I sent you.”
Nearly a year later, the project has gone through several major changes but remains a professional highlight for me. It has allowed me to take all of the things I enjoyed about project management and combine them with some creative design work, some organizational development consulting, and my passion for theological education. It also opened up several opportunities for additional consulting, professional writing, and some possible jobs.
That experience opened my eyes to the fact that I already have some career capital that has tangible value to others. I just need to be willing to use the gifts I already possess in order to build a foundation for doing work that I love. That’s exactly opposite of the usual question of “What would you do even if you didn’t get paid to do it?” but it makes a lot more sense.
Yes. If I won the lottery, there are many creative and passionate projects I would pursue (confession: I would also play a lot of video games). The truth is that I’m not ready for any of those pursuits right now. No one will pay me to do those things. I need to develop those skills more before marketing them for hire. If it is a new venture that I want to launch, I will need to build a financial foundation first before I set out to launch it.
In the end, finding my own path has brought me to the unavoidable question:
What will people pay me to do?
Surprisingly, that question has provided me with more opportunities than roadblocks. My wife and I have been prayerfully thankful that each month has brought in enough work to move forward another month. It’s not where we want to be, but it is progress – step by step. The last year has been challenging and a little scary at times, but it has been freeing more than anything else.
I don’t know where this path will lead, but I’m still glad to be walking it.
What does your path look like? If you need to change it, maybe you should start by asking “What will people pay me to do?”