Unfortunately, many of us have been there: You’re stuck in a job you don't love, your dreams of a new, gloriously successful career buried beneath piles of paperwork. And especially if you don’t exactly know what that career is, the future can look pretty bleak from inside those cubicle walls.
But, dear readers, just because you have to pay the bills doesn't mean you can't be the next Spike Lee on the weekends. (For the record, Spike’s first feature film was so low budget he could only afford to spend two weeks shooting it.) Grab your persistence, some gumption, and a dash of business savvy—we’re going to make lemonade.
Or, in other words, figure out your passion and follow it, all from the comfort of your day job.
The Butterfly Effect—Sort Of
Brace yourself. The moment you announce that you’re ready to make a career change, everyone will give you the same advice: Find your passion. Yikes. But think about butterflies. No, seriously. While a monarch flapping its wings in South America may not affect your job search, butterflies actually have a lot in common with our passions. In both cases, doesn’t it seem that the more you chase them, the harder they are to catch?
While it is fun to run around the yard with a large net (at least for a little while), everyone knows that butterflies often come to us on their own—but only when we’ve moved on to, say, watering the plants. Same with your passions. Once you start taking small steps in the direction of your career goals, they’ll probably find you naturally.
Know What You Need
You’re probably familiar with the 1969 hit, "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Maybe, like me, your parents sang it to you as a child. Though I prickle with resentment every time I hear the song, I have found that its lyrics have some value during a career change.
Looking beyond your 9-to-5 in search of your dream job can be daunting. Before you lose yourself trying to get everything you want, ask yourself the more important question: What do you need? By identifying your career must-haves, you form a set of realistic goals and give yourself direction. Once you start looking for career paths that fulfill your needs, you'll probably end up getting a lot of what you want—at least some of the time.
Make it Happen
I am generally not one for hard and fast rules, but I think it’s fair to say that if you want to make progress in your career, you must do something. But this can be challenging, especially when the options abound. I got the following trick from a career advisor.
Grab a marker and divide a piece of paper into three columns: Career Needs, Ideal Professions, and Tasks. Fill in the first two columns, leaving the third blank (we will get to that in a minute). Compare columns one and two. Cross out any professions that are in blatant defiance of your career needs (for example, if you absolutely need a regular paycheck, “actor” probably won’t fit the bill). You’ll narrow down your choices by looking at them realistically.
Column three is for tracking the things you need to do to achieve your goals—taking classes, getting internships or part-time jobs, for example. Think small, manageable steps. When I wanted to study film, I enrolled in a continuing education class in video production. Then I took screenwriting. It worked because classes were held at night. And I know you’ve heard this before (and who wants to work for free at the age of 30?) but internships are a great way to gain experience, bolster your resume, and network in your field. If nothing else, you will learn pretty quickly what you don’t like.
Put the list in a place where you can see it every day (like the fridge). You’ll stay inspired, and ticking off your tasks will give you a sense of forward motion.
Keep Your Day Job. And Use It.
Ok, so you took a film class and you're a natural. Chances are, once you find what you love to do, you will be tempted to drop everything else to do it—including your current job.
But hold your horses. Don’t forget that you are in a lucky position: You are employed! This means you have a regular paycheck (camera equipment is pricey), health insurance, and the luxury of being able to wait and make an educated leap into a career you love.
In the meantime, use your current job to your advantage. Think about parlaying your newfound skills into something you can do for your company. If you like to write, offer to draft letters and emails or update the company website. You’ll impress your boss with your initiative, and you’ll get to spend at least part of your day doing something you love (not to mention, start building a portfolio and accumulating “experience” for when you do make that leap).
Assuming you work regular hours, it should be easy to structure your time outside of work. I know a freelance producer who fills her time between jobs by volunteering on low-budget films to hone her skills. Not only does she get to choose projects she believes in, but the experience will serve her either in her next paid gig or further down the line when she opens her own production company. Whether it’s a class, a side job, or an internship, find something you’re passionate about and commit. It will give you a routine and something to look forward to every week.
Jumping into a new career is not something that should be rushed, so don’t forget to ride the wave. Keep your day job as you gain expertise and grow into your field. Do this until you are ready to make the leap. Trust me; you’ll know when it’s time. You’ll probably be watering the plants and the opportunity will land right on your shoulder.
Words of Wisdom
An English professor and fairy tale specialist at a university in Boston (see? Anything is possible!) told me this: “Once you find what you are good at and love, do it. Repackage it and sell it to as many places as you can. Do it for free, do it for little pay, just keep doing it and getting exposure.”
So, whether it’s pink or yellow, powdered or fresh, it’s all lemonade. Make it—and then get out there and sell it!
Photo of lemonade courtesy of Shutterstock.
Leah is a world-traveling, chocolate-eating runner who loves to write! Monday-Friday you'll find her solving tough administrative problems at Harlem United Community Aids Center, and on the weekends she spends her time running, cycling, and scoping out the best Mexican restaurants in the city.More from this Author