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Roman Krznaric has been a journalist, college professor, gardener, carpenter, tennis coach, and community worker.
It may seem like a scattered CV, but Krznaric seems more than happy, especially with his current role as founder of The School of Life, a cultural enterprise that teaches classes on such subjects as “How to Be Confident” and “How to Make Love Last.”
His only regret? That he hung onto certain jobs too long when he didn’t enjoy them.
His latest book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, not surprisingly, advocates taking a bold and varied approach to picking out the right job.
We convinced Krznaric to take a break from finishing up his next book to talk to us about how everyday people like you can find truly meaningful careers. Hint: It’s not the way you might think.
In your opinion, what is wrong with the way most people view their ideal careers?
A lot of people think that we each have a single vocation that’s just waiting out there for us to discover. If only we could have an epiphany. But the reality is that most people don’t have those epiphanies. We don’t find our vocations; we grow them through experiments.
Vincent van Gogh wasn’t always a painter. He started out as an art dealer, then he was an elementary school teacher and an evangelical teacher in the Belgian coal mines before he came across drawing and painting. But he did a lot of experimenting before he got there.
So, the path to the perfect career isn’t as straight as we’ve been led to believe?
The biggest mistake people tend to make when thinking about finding a new career is following the “plan and implement” model of change. You spend a lot of time researching different industries. You draw up lists of personal strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. You match your profile to particular professions, and then you start sending out applications. But you haven’t done any experiential learning—you haven’t stepped into the real world by doing things like job shadowing, interning, or volunteering. What we really need to do is act first and reflect later.
Should everyone aim to have a diverse career like yours?
For some people, there is one thing. They decide that they want to be a veterinarian when they’re six—and that’s all they want to do. But an increasing proportion of people are feeling that plowing a relatively narrow furrow isn’t nurturing the many sides of who they are. For those people, it’s worth thinking about trying to achieve wide instead of high—that is, do several jobs at the same time.
If you go back to the Renaissance, the great ideal of work was not to be a specialist but to be a generalist—a wide achiever like Leonardo da Vinci, who in any one week could be painting a portrait of an artistic patron, designing a mechanical device, and doing anatomy experiments on the weekend. Today, we call that a portfolio worker.
How does this type of career fit into today’s work environment?
Some people might think that being a portfolio worker is a bit too risky. But how many full-time jobs are that secure? Anyone could be downsized or outsourced. In fact, if you’re doing several jobs at one time, you’re spreading the risk over several industries and professions, which I think is a smart move in an uncertain job climate. Almost every single person I’ve interviewed who decided to leave a job and freelance now does several things at the same time or works independently. And almost none of them ever want to go back—despite all the insecurities.
What are the key traits of a successful wide achiever?
It’s someone who puts as their first priority not the attainment of money or status, but trying to find meaning in work. A wide achiever doesn’t want to get to the end of their life and say, “Why did I work this job for 40 years, when it didn’t make me happy?”
Wide achievers are also willing to take risks. Of course, humans are naturally risk-averse. When we’re thinking of change, we tend to exaggerate everything that could possibly go wrong, and talk up all the problems and negatives, rather than the positives. Wide achievers recognize that it’s a trait—and then move beyond it. If you ask successful wide achievers how they managed it, they’ll say, “Well, I just tried it.”
Wide achievers also have to be organized. If you’re juggling three jobs at the same time, you can’t be the kind of person who is all over the place with your schedule—especially if you’ve got family and children. You need discipline. Wide achievers are very good at prioritizing work time.
Is it really worth it to throw away years in a career just to dabble in other fields?
Economists talk about sunk costs. If you’ve invested 10 years into studying for a law degree, and you have these massive debts, you’ve got huge sunk costs. You may not want to leave that career, even if you’re unhappy, because you think, “I’ve put so much into this, it would be crazy to leave.”
You’re regretting what you’ve invested. But there is another kind of regret: getting to the end of your life and saying, “Was I happy as a hedge fund manager or a lawyer for 45 years?” That’s a broader and deeper kind of regret.
And it’s worth noting that one of the biggest things that stops people from changing is their peers, because peer groups shape our worldview. If you’re a lawyer and you decide to become a school teacher, your attorney friends will say, “You’re crazy.” So one of the prime things to do to make the shift to a wide achiever is to shift your peer group—to have different conversations with people who are living different lives.
So one of the best ways to switch careers is to meet new people and make new friends?
Absolutely. All the job research says that people don’t find new careers by filling out forms—it’s by talking to people through contacts.
The other thing people need to do is "branching projects." There’s a myth that if you want to shift careers, you have to dramatically hand in your resume on Monday morning and then walk out into the abyss of the unknown. You don’t need to do that. You can hold on to your main job, and start doing branching projects on the weekends. So you may have a day job as an accountant, and then you gradually start doing freelance design or teaching yoga on Thursday nights. Through a series of small steps, you build up the courage to take that big step.
What’s your best advice for taking the first step?
I recommend that people begin by creating a personal job advertisement. Sit down for 10 minutes and write an advertisement of who you are and what you care about in life—your passions, your talents, your values, maybe a minimum salary. Don’t jot down any particular career you want to do or your professional background. Then email it to 10 people from 10 different walks of life—and ask them to suggest two or three jobs that might suit you. It gives you surprising alternatives that you probably hadn’t thought of before.
How do you decide where to go from there?
Either through branching projects or by having career conversations. Don’t look in books to find out what it’s like to be a photojournalist. Go find a photojournalist.
One of the extraordinary things I discovered when you teach a course on how to find fulfilling work is that there are people who are unhappy in their PR or marketing jobs. But there are also surgeons and TV producers in the room who are equally miserable! It shows that we have crazy expectations about what careers are like—and that’s exactly why we need to talk to people, and find a friend of a friend who knows somebody who’s done it. That is going to save you years of angst.
Ultimately, we have to recognize that the search for the right career is part of a larger quest for the good life. Our culture has been telling us that the best way to do that is to accumulate material possessions and have consumer pleasures. But what we’ve discovered is that, as income goes up and consumer spending goes up, life satisfaction does not go up. That’s why more and more people want to trade off from money to meaning in their lives and their careers.
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