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Odds are your career will be an epic road trip

When I was nine years old, I dressed as the comic strip character Brenda Starr Reporter for Halloween. Brenda Starr was everything I wanted to be: glamorous, independent, adored by handsome men, and a newspaper reporter. By walking around my neighborhood wearing false eyelashes and dragging a stuffed alligator toy while begging for candy, I was dressing for the job I wanted. In the years following, I served as a reporter or editor for school papers, worked weekends and summers at The Kansas City Star, and finally graduated with my journalism degree.

When I started my career, it had almost everything people want for their work lives. It wasn’t particularly high paying, but it was meaningful—reporters were guardians of the Truth. It also had status—reporters were sexy in their lackluster grooming, with access to everyone from the White House to the Big House. And it had endless opportunity for growth and travel, new environments and challenges. But nothing turned out the way I thought it would. Instead, I have had to reinvent myself over and over, repeatedly having to find my passion in whatever new place I landed. For me, this was an accidental journey that wound up in a good place. But today it seems like the model for nearly every career.

The world of work is evolving faster and faster. Researchers estimate that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist today—and many jobs that currently exist will disappear by 2030. While some people advocate for a skills-based education system, we have little idea what skills will be essential in ten years. One author suggests that colleges would best serve students by giving them a fundamental understanding of the world and teaching them how to learn, rather than channeling them into a particular career, likely to change over the course of their working lives.

The fallacy of following your passion

There’s also the question of finding work you love that permits you to make a livable wage as industries change and evolve. The cultural zeitgeist promises: “Find your passion; do what you love and the money will follow.” But a lot of people discover, with anxiety, that they can’t identify their passion. As Abraham Maslow said, “It is not normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

That’s because we tend to think of passion in terms of a singular job or industry instead of figuring out what lights a spark within us and thinking through all the different ways that passion might be applied and developed.

The “follow your passion” mantra implies that “once an interest resonates, pursuing it will be easy,” according to Stanford scholars. But the research revealed that “when people encounter inevitable challenges, that mindset makes it more likely people will surrender their newfound interest.” The idea that passions are “found fully formed,” rather than developed over time, is dangerous and limiting because it sets us up to believe we have only a few passions, and so we may neglect other areas of interest that could potentially also be developed.

That's because we tend to think of passion in terms of a singular job or industry instead of figuring out what lights a spark within us.

Following plans B-Z

I always thought I knew what I wanted, but the the job I was offered out of college was not what I had in mind. The Kansas City Star had an opening as a business reporter and, because this was before the current entrepreneurial boom, my view of business was: people in suits making money doing boring things. I wanted to become a foreign correspondent and travel the world, not to write about people making widgets and joining country clubs.

But I also wanted to move out of my parents’ house, so I took the job.

I quickly discovered that, for the most part, business isn’t boring. Business is people creating their own opportunities to impact the world in a great way. Not every businessman is is saving lives, or curing cancer, or running into burning buildings, but their impact is still valuable big and small ways. Businesses are where a lot of people try to live out their dreams, make a difference while making a living, exercise their skills and talents. Business is about people becoming who they are or want to be. So while I never would have chosen to be a business reporter, I ended up loving it. And, as it turned out, it helped me easily parlay into other things, later.

Then the internet changed everything and the career I’d been working toward changed dramatically. Suddenly, people could get their news online for free. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions plummeted, publications that had been printing the news for 100 years folded, and reporters and editors were laid off in droves. By then I had become a freelancer, with the understanding there would be plenty of markets to buy my work. Those markets dried up like a Texas watering hole in July. Up till then, my career was on a clear track heading to a fixed horizon. Now that track was replaced by an impromptu road trip, complete with breakdowns, detours, and serendipitous sunsets. The skills I had were researching, writing, and storytelling, three things I was still passionate about. But I would have to find new ways to use them to make money.

I wrote for dozens of publications on everything: banking, entrepreneurship, art, rehabilitating dairy cows, building houses out of trash, and motherhood. It was a constant hustle of pitching publications, milking my friendships with people in journalism, and looking for job openings. I got part-time gigs as a college newspaper moderator; writer for a federal program for underserved communities; and as a community liaison for an EPA Superfund project to supplement my writing income. I moved twice—from Kansas City to Taos, New Mexico, and then to Austin, Texas—where I was hired as a content marketing writer under a woman who helped me evolve from journalist to marketing consultant.

After that, I wrote as much for businesses and organizations as about them. It was not an easy transition. My identity had been wrapped up in being a journalist. Fortunately my content mentor encouraged me that I didn’t have to write the hard sell, which I would have hated, but just to tell my clients’ stories. That I could do, and my journalism experience helped. Around the same time, I also met a woman who was starting a tech news site and needed writers. I knew practically nothing about tech but that didn’t stop me from becoming a tech reporter. This opened a million more doors, including netting me press passes for SXSW and trips to Norway and Thailand. And along the way, I met a couple of visionary CEOs who needed help writing and editing their books.

Now that track was replaced by an impromptu road trip, complete with breakdowns, detours, and serendipitous sunsets.

In every transition, I got to bring some of my developed skills along, but I also had to learn a bunch of new ones. Fortunately, I love doing that. That was the fun part. The bad part was the times all my clients dried up and I worried about paying rent, or when the electricity was turned off and I felt like an irresponsible loser. Really though, nobody ever wrote about an epic road trip where everything went perfectly. It’s about being willing to roll with the changes, be open to learning from new experiences, and develop as a person. These days, those are the skills most people are going to need.

How to pack for your epic road trip

Here are a few other things I learned along the way.

1. Don’t be afraid to go off-route: You may be advised to “pick a niche” and employers may looking for the master of a particular niche. But niches can disappear overnight, despite it being your failsafe. You will encounter roads that are closed and bridges that are washed out, so be prepared to improvise. Even if you stay in one company your whole life—which you probably won’t—technology, competition, and social shifts will change what the customer wants and what the employer needs. Always be ready to learn, to switch roles or take on a new skill. Then, if your employer doesn’t need the thing you were great at, maybe because the business model changes, they’ll know they can easily transition you and keep an awesome employee.

You will encounter roads that are closed and bridges that are washed out, so be prepared to improvise.

2. Understand the reality of finding your passion: People may mistake passion for a fixed thing. I prefer the way Joseph Campbell, the famous author, teacher, and philosopher explained it:, “Follow your bliss”—but don’t expect that it will always be a blissful journey. those who follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey encounter roadblocks, meet strangers, and overcome challenges.

Your bliss isn’t pulled over beside the curb, waiting for you to buckle up so it can lead you on a nice, straight, well-lit road with no tolls and minimal traffic. Bliss is something you have to seek out, and you never know where you might find it. You may get glimpses of it as it darts from the shadows and leads you down a dark alleyway. It might show up beside a country road and take off up a rocky incline with no path. Or it’s on the other side of a river that seems impassable. As you follow it, you find that you’re on a track that you couldn’t perceive before, leading you to your most authentic, fulfilled self.

I have found my bliss in writing all kinds of stuff I would have thought was boring, except that my client was really excited about it and I wanted to help them tell the story they didn’t have the skills to tell.

3. Meaning is everywhere: Everybody wants a meaningful job. But meaning isn’t in the job. It’s in you. For example, most people assume working in a contact center is no fun and a dead end. But I’ve interviewed several contact center employees who found it a rich, interesting training ground to learn new skills, create great customer experiences, build empathy, develop creative problem-solving and an inner center of peace in the midst of what can be a contentious day.

I have found my bliss in writing all kinds of stuff I would have thought was boring, except that my client was really excited about it and I wanted to help them tell the story they didn’t have the skills to tell.

One “dead end” job I worked was writing obituaries. This wasn’t writing poetry about the person but basically filling out a form: name, age, location of death, location of birth, memberships, funeral arrangements, survivors. This job helped me get my reporter job. But more importantly, it was one of those reference points in my life I return to again and again and ask myself: When my life story is written, what do I want it to say? This steers my choices.

4. Do a great job: None of it counts unless you pour yourself into your work and learn how to do a great job at whatever you’re doing. If you’re half-assed about it, you’ll be bored and you’ll build nothing anyone wants. How you arrive is part of the story you’re writing for yourself.

The main thing is, pay attention to your heart and be curious enough to walk through the doors that open for you. You may find yourself in a place you would have sworn you would hate…and discover that you love it. You may also arrive at a planned, or hoped for, pit stop and discover it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Road trips are funny that way and the best careers might just be the most unexpected.