Finding the Passion
When I decided on my major, I saw my path diverging into two possible routes: Psychology or Film and Media Studies. I was doing well in my Psychology classes – I’d started out of an interest in Forensic Psychology from all the crime shows I watched in my spare time, and a belief that I’d immediately be able to tell when people were lying if I took enough classes. But the path towards actually doing anything with a Psychology degree seemed to involve a lot of grad school.
The decision pretty much made itself after that.
Film was my passion though. I loved the way a good movie trailer could hook me in under two minutes, and how, if they got the cuts just right, I’d feel goosebumps prickling down my neck. I wanted to make someone else feel like that, and when I got a chance to make a trailer myself – through a video editing elective in high school – I realized the feeling was even better when I was the one hooking others. On my first project – a trailer for a show called Generator Rex – I got so many people asking me about the show that Cartoon Network really should have paid me for it.
It was amazing. It was like having someone ask for the name of the song when you’re in charge of the aux. And I already loved writing stories, and pretty much analyzed movies in my spare time, so it was the perfect choice. I even expanded on my dream – I wasn’t just going to make trailers. I was going to be an executive producer and have my own show. That thought gave me the same goosebumps as the movie trailers.
I had no idea that I’d reject the job once I got it.
Rejecting the Dream
The red flags were everywhere but I didn’t notice them at first. I was excited about working at a small, local network because I’d actually have an impact – I would matter.
And I did. I got plenty of responsibility very fast, started managing my own team, and left the office every day to the sound of my programs playing on the lobby flat screen. I got absorbed in my work, got experience in all aspects of a show from start to finish, and even got to enjoy a few perks along the way (hello free DragonCons and behind the scenes museum access).
And I kept waiting for the chill to hit. The goosebumps that would roll down my spine and let me know that I’d made the right choice. It didn’t have to be every day … just once. Once was enough.
It never came. The nights got longer, the workload piled higher, and still it never came.
But the red flags did.
I noticed the first one when I started applying to bigger networks. I couldn’t understand why I kept getting rejected – I’d work on my resume and update my LinkedIn obsessively, thinking about different ways I could word the same two years of experience, different ways I could appeal to “Whom it May Concern” in my cover letter. After months of radio silence, I finally attended a meetup for filmmakers in Atlanta.
The difference was staggering.
Here were people that brainstormed plots on the morning commute. That mingled in media meetups after work. That scripted on the weekends and carried their cameras with them on the off-chance they might find the perfect location for their project of the week. That fought to get behind the lens and fought just as hard to stay there.
I was nothing like them. Not in work ethic – I had that in spades. But while I was keeping my head to the grindstone and following the path I’d decided on in that high school editing class, I’d missed the biggest red flag of them all.
I didn’t want to be like them.
I didn’t want to experiment with aperture and ISO, I didn’t want to research grants and film festivals, and I didn’t want to organize casting calls. I liked making up ideas but I didn’t like the legwork to get better.
Once I realized that, I realized that I had never really shown that drive to do video passion projects. As much as I enjoyed a well-edited video, I didn’t make them myself unless it was part of a class assignment. I don’t know if it was because I was riding on cruise control or if I was just being willfully stubborn, but I was pretty much stagnant in a craft that demanded change and improvement. I needed more than just goosebumps to make it in this field. And I hadn’t realized it until just now.
Developing the Passion
Thinking back, I remember a lot of people like me – people who had a “passion” but only worked on it when class demanded it of them. A lot is going on in college so you can’t really blame them, but I sure wanted to blame somebody when I turned in my resignation letter. I’d just spent 4 years preparing for this job and it felt like I had thrown it all away.
I’d been in the over 90% of college students that expect to graduate and find a career that aligns with their passion. But I had also been in that large body of students that believed A) enjoyment was the same as passion and B) that passion was fixed. So both of those things blew me out of the water when I realized they weren’t true. Yale researcher Amy Wrzeniewski surveyed professionals to see who saw their work as a calling and who saw it as just a job to bring in money, but at 10 years of being in a specific career, the difference was practically impossible to see. Everyone, doctors and secretaries alike, saw their work as a calling, even though we generally assume that doctors were the only ones entering the field with a calling (of helping people).
I couldn’t fathom seeing myself in any technical field because, though I was good at them, I had never enjoyed them. And, as such, I gravitated away from them and towards the creative fields I’d always found pleasure in. But stepping off that path forced me to forge a new one – to think about where I wanted to end up and how I could get there. As a recent graduate, there was no college track to follow, no option for cruise control. I was adrift and I needed to pick a direction fast, or risk drowning.
So this time I went with what I knew I could become good at. I talked around, took free classes, and actually investigated what different career fields would be like by dipping my toe in and taking tours. It paid off. I felt the difference when I found an interest in web design and programming. There were no goosebumps, no chills, and no big dreams. Instead I found a problem – constructing an online platform from virtually nothing – and worked at it like a Rubix cube, following tutorials, reading documentation, brainstorming project ideas and actually coding them. And, just like a Rubix cube, the better I got at it, the more I enjoyed it and my passion for it grew.
Looking back, I wish I could tell my past self to reserve judgement. To hone what I’m skilled at without worry because the right workplace can make any career fun. To pick a field and become an expert because when you’re at that level, you have the freedom to be creative, the ability to be impactful, and some say over how, when and where your work gets done – key things we need at our job to be happy.
But I’m on that path now and in order to make that dream job happen, I’m making myself into the employee that deserves it. After all, creativity, control, and impact are incredibly valuable things to have in the office, and in order to get something of worth, I have to give something of worth. So I’m following Cal Newton’s advice.
As the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal recommends making yourself rare and valuable. That means looking at your job as a craft that you can and must hone. Take on the challenging projects no one else wants until you’re the go-to person for projects in that area. When you’re the first person people think of to take on a project, you’re garnering respect, trust and influence because people know your track record and know you’ve become somewhat of an expert in that field.
Then, to make sure you really stay cutting edge, practice your skills daily. Alternate between work you’re comfortable with and work that challenges you while getting immediate feedback and guidance from seniors or mentors so that you can keep pushing yourself to get better and never have to worry about becoming stagnant. Most people don’t like to feel uncomfortable or unsure, so when you make a habit of pushing yourself, what you’re really doing is pushing yourself ahead of the competition. And that’s a powerful position to be in.
I’m writing now with the start date for my new job as a Software Developer coming up. I’m nervous, excited, and anxious about my first day. But the one thing I’m completely sure of is that I’m going to push myself to accomplish these two goals.
After all, I decided to choose my passion instead of just following it. Now it’s up to me to develop it.
And if you’re not sure about your own path – I can’t stress this enough – get as close to actually doing the work as possible to test out a career field. Then ask yourself: is this something I could get better at?