“Mark Twain once told a story about a man who scoured the planet looking for the greatest general who ever lived. When the man was informed that the person he sought had already died and gone to heaven, he made a trip to the Pearly Gates to look for him. Saint Peter pointed at a regular-looking Joe. “That isn’t the greatest of all generals,” protested the man. “I knew that person when he lived on Earth, and he was only a cobbler.” “I know that,” said Saint Peter, “but if he had been a general, he would have been the greatest of them all.”
― Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
The idea that you are the only one of you in all of time – past, present and future – can be daunting to think about. Your unique combination of skills and passions give you a recipe to accomplish something that nobody else can. What would the world look like if you didn’t share those gifts fully with us? The movie It’s a Wonderful Life gives us a great example in which we see with great clarity what life would be like without George Bailey in it. In the absence of this kind of supernatural experience, it can be easy for us to write it off as no big deal, and continue burying our head in work to pay the bills. But what are the true costs of such a choice? While we can’t know perfectly, we can look to some examples. What if there had been no Einstein, Steve Jobs, or Beethoven? Of course the world would have carried on and survived, but it would never know the greatness it would be missing. The great news is that you don’t have to be famous or make it into textbooks to make a substantial imprint on the world — the impact you can have within your own inner circle of friends and family can be immense.
In my opinion, the best part (by far) of living the life you were put on this earth to live is that it inspires others to do the same. Conversely, when we limit ourselves from living our best lives, we encourage others around us to do the same by example. We teach those we mentor, our families, our children, our direct reports, our friends, our family, and our colleagues that it’s ok to live status quo. We normalize and elevate ideas like just being grateful for what you have (while being miserable), and we share jokes about the dreaded Mondays or how much we drink to forget the work week on a Friday afternoon. What kind of way to live is this? You weren’t born to pay the bills and die!
I want to be clear that there are some seasons of life in which we have to work in uncomfortable situations as a stepping stone. There is nothing wrong with this. However, there is a big difference between taking a not-so-perfect job while you build your plan to go after your dream job, with a clear goal and exit strategy, versus resigning yourself to do work you hate because “that’s life.” Stepping stones and seasons don’t last forever, and they are definitely not the plan – they are a means to accomplish the plan.
Even if you know and embrace all of the above, you might resonate with most common reason the people I help cite for not going after their dream job: fear. If you’re stuck trying to convince yourself to act, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions (pro tip: try journaling or talking them out with a loved one):
- What is it costing you to stay where you are? What is it costing those around you?
- What do you stand to lose if you don’t embark or continue on the journey to find your career purpose?
- Which is worse: living to pay the bills, or taking some risks to find fulfillment? Why?
- If, heaven forbid, you were in a fatal accident tomorrow, would you feel you had done all you could in life? What else would you need to accomplish to feel this way?
- What will happen to others – family, friends, your future clients – if don’t go after your dream career? What will the world miss out on?
- Imagine you are sitting at a nursing home in your last years of life. What regrets do you have?
We all have fears to overcome in order to get to our dream job, and my hope is that these questions will help you see how the costs of not going after it are worse than the risks it takes to get there. The world has everything to gain from you being your fullest, most authentic self, and everything to lose if you don’t. What story will you write for your life?