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When I grow up

Valerie Young -- You may be an adult, but that doesn't mean you now know any more about what to be "when you grow up" than you did when you were a kid.

So, here are your options: You can keep plodding along doing work that pays the bills but doesn't feed the soul, hoping that inspiration will suddenly strike and--in a flash--your true calling will be revealed. Or, you can make it your business to search out and uncover your long buried passions.

If you are ready to choose the more proactive of the two approaches, here are five ways to help you discover what the Buddhists call "right livelihood." Before you begin, though, take some advice: Nothing can kill a dream faster than money angst. Try to abide by what I call the "money rule." Simply put: Thou shalt not get hung up on the earning potential of any given calling. Instead, allow yourself to be fully present in the discovery phase. There will be plenty of time to worry about money later. So let's begin.

1. Make your career fit your life, not the other way around.

When I decided to leave my corporate job, I didn't have a clue as to what I wanted to be. However, I did have a pretty clear picture of what I wanted my life to look like. I wanted to work for myself, work at home, go to bed and wake up when I wanted. If only I could have the flexibility to earn money regardless of whether I was enjoying the summer on Cape Cod or winter in Key West.

Designing my ideal life automatically eliminated many career options -- and potential missteps. It also made it considerably easier to turn my own passions into two highly flexible income streams: as a newsletter publisher and workshop leader.

The point is this: Don't confuse making a living with making a life. The career part of things is just that, a part. So, examine your own life with pen and paper. But rather than writing down the kinds of work you want, start instead by asking, "What do I want my life to look like?"

2. Put happiness first, skills second.

Skills assessment tools are great for telling you what you can do. But aptitude and even previous experiences reveal little about what you would be truly happy doing. In her book I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was, career counselor Barbara Sher says finding your passion is more than just figuring out what you're good at. As a single parent, Sher was clearly "skilled" at managing a home on a tight budget. But did she love it?

New skills can always be acquired. But, try as you might, it's a whole lot harder to learn to be happy doing work you just don't enjoy. In other words, says Sher, "You live the good life not by doing what you can do, but by doing what you want to do."

3. Look back to discover your future.

Your own childhood is a great place to search for clues to present-day passion. In fact, Sher claims, childhood offers "the first important clue to your life design, to the discovery of what you'll be happiest doing and what you'll be best at."

Make a list of all the things that attracted or fascinated you as a kid and put it down on paper. Did you love to build forts? Play dress up? Organize lemonade stands with the neighborhood kids? Draw? Shoot baskets? Play house? Trade comic books? Make up stories? For each activity, ask yourself what you liked about it and why.

4. Go on a clue hunt.

"The way to find out about your happiness," said renowned mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, "is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy -- not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy."

To begin the hunt for clues to your special calling, divide a blank sheet of paper into two columns. Title the left side of the page "Things I love to do..." You will complete the second part of this sentence and fill in the right column shortly.

Next, brainstorm a list of all the things that happily grab and hold your attention. Do you enjoy gardening? Watching NASCAR racing? Tinkering with a broken toaster? Surfing the Net? Exploring a museum? Traveling? Helping a friend work through a problem? Fly-fishing?

Shopping for great deals? Tracing your family history? Organizing a closet? Reading the newspaper? Pay close attention to these inner clues, because they will lead you to the hidden treasure.

5. Enlarge your view.

Still not sure where your interests lie? The best way to expand your thinking -- and your options -- is by stepping outside the confines of your day-to-day life and taking a more expansive view of the world. Consider signing up for a class devoted to something entirely new to you. It could be bookbinding, astronomy, woodworking, gourmet cooking, creative writing, or computer repair. Try reading publications outside your typical areas of interest or expertise. If you usually stick to news or women's magazines, pick up a copy of National Geographic, Antiques Monthly, or Down Beat. Even if you don't read a single article, the advertisements alone will open your eyes to a multitude of fascinating ways to earn a living.

6. Show Me the Money

Speaking of money, what should you do if the career of your dreams comes with no financial guarantees? The answer, says Michael Phillips in The Seven Laws of Money, is simple: Do it anyway. Why? Because Phillips believes that "money will come when you are doing the right thing." Using the forward motion of a steam engine as an analogy, he explains that, "Money is like steam; it comes from the interaction of fire (passion) and water (persistence) brought together in the right circumstance, the engine."

A good way to start your right livelihood engine is by returning to the clue hunt assignment. This time you'll complete the header "Things I love to do..." by labeling the right column "...and ways to get paid for doing it."

This is where you put on your creative thinking cap and ask yourself the tough questions: How can I make money doing what I love? What are all the ways, for example, that you could earn money by informing others (teaching, writing, consulting, radio, etc.) about your interest? How could you get paid to create a product or provide a service related to your passion? How might you earn a living working with others who share your interest?

I once read about a man who, as a young boy, loved to make sand castles. Guess what he does for a living now? He runs a company that travels the globe making elaborate sand sculptures for ocean-side special events. He's living proof that: a) the money-rule rules; and b) you may not have to grow up to work at your heart's content after all!

Valerie Young, a former cubicle-dweller, now helps others discover creative alternatives to having a job. She is the publisher of Changing Course (, a bimonthly newsletter for people who want live life on purpose, work at what they love, and follow their own road.

(c) 2001

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