Career Advice For A Friend

I received a message recently from a very talented young designer and artist who used to work for me. She's done a great job of placing herself in her element. Her bliss and professional domain are aligned. But she was uncertain about her career path, despite her insanely great talent. She expressed dissatisfaction with her professional progress and excessively worried about making the right choices. It seemed the answers were maybe in another company, or another industry or maybe another part of the world.

Trust me, this person need not worry. We would all be fortunate to have her skills and worldview. But perhaps because this was someone I respect and care about, who specifically reached out to me for advice, I felt a need to honor her concerns as best I could.

In the end the two of us realized the advice was maybe universal. That maybe there were other people out there in a similar situation who would benefit from the thoughts we shared. So, we agreed to share it. 

If any of you have carefully chosen your field, but are dissatisfied with your progress and the opportunities in your career, this letter is also for you.


Hi (Amazingly Talented Person),

Your worry about not yet achieving enough in your career is a very common, even universal thing.

It takes a long time for most of us to realize that life is not what our youthful imagination made it out to be. Life, it turns out, is something different. Not just in the bad ways we might fear, the deficits we imagine, but in profoundly good ways too. People spend decades of their lives filled with disappointment in themselves, with a feeling of dissatisfaction; there is that "thing" we wanted when we were in school, and we make the mistake often of confusing that thing with a life of success. What's important to remember is that the greatest life you can possibly live is not related to that career goal. Or rather, those are two different things. Of course you want to accomplish great things in your career and you will! But life makes sure you just won't know when it will happen. You can't. Every person's story is unique. Every person has success on a different timeline. But every person has a story, and although their path to success is unique, it comes. And it will come for you. But it will appear in a way, in a form and a style that you can't imagine. It will probably be totally different than what you imagine for yourself. But it will be fulfilling. One day you will reach an age, and a point in your career, and realize, quite uneventfully, that you have it. Some people realize, only after the fact, near the end of their storied lives, that they indeed had it. The thing is, it won't feel at all like what you thought it would, it won't look like what you think it will, which is why it will take you so long to realize you have it.

Life is not that vision in your head; that picture is a cartoon. Life's what's right in front of you. Younger-you would be amazed at who you are today. And there is a you-of-the-future who you would be amazed to know about.

So it makes no sense to worry about that now -- to feel anxiety about how it will happen. It will happen when you least expect it. When you stop trying to force it. It will happen when you let go and enjoy what you actually are doing.

Movie formulas are based on universal human experiences. It's why they are so popular. Every movie ever made has a common structure. One of those universal truths  --  part of every movie ever made  --  is that it's not until the hero changes, lets go and embraces what she has and who she really is, that the solution presents itself. Near the end of every movie the hero reaches a point where she gives up. It was all just too much. She tried everything. She has fought hard to overcome. But she is nevertheless facing the reality that there is no way she can solve the problem. Everything has imploded  --  despite all her fighting, no options appear to exist. The bad guys are bearing down and about to win. It looks like they have already won. It seems hopeless. It all came down to this. And finally the hero realizes the hopelessness and says, "I give up," and slumps in a corner. Total acceptance.

And then, a moment later... all of a sudden, like magic, an answer presents itself. Something unexpected. Some basic truth. A memory, a new idea, a forgotten key, a friend, an unexpected answer. And she grabs it and discovers that was the missing piece  --  and she wins!

But she would never have been able to see it, she was never open enough to the world and to her true self to have seen that opportunity until she let go of forcing her original intent. This is a universal truth we all face. For example, it often isn't until we stop trying to remember a word, that it comes to us.

Letting go of the fight for a specific outcome is often the only way you can discover the true opportunities around you. Because the path is never where you expect it to be. Let go of the fear that people may discover your perceived weaknesses (let them see those!). Let go of the exactness of the quest or career vision. Life is not exact, and we humans have to beat our heads against life before we truly learn that such a thing truly, universally, really, actually doesn't work that way. Never works. Life is never what we imagined it would be. In many ways it's better. But not until we let go and embrace what it really is.

The funny thing is, we all know this. Down deep, we all know this, but we still hope against hope that maybe we are different, maybe we can force life to be the way we wish it would be. "If only I can have that, I will be happy." That hope is so strong we hold it until the end. Even when we think we have indeed let go, sometimes we have rather only let go of it superficially, hoping to appease the "you-can't-force-it gods."

Just remember that your career is not going to be defined by what you want. And it won't even be defined by what you create insofar as what you want and create are rather defined by how you face life.

How you face life, meaning this moment, right now  --  not tomorrow or two years from now, not in Asia or Europe, not EF Education First or freelance, this moment right now, wherever you are, whatever you have, whatever you are doing  --  how much passion and joy you put into the thing that life has actually delivered you, is what will define your career. Every day. No matter where you are, or what you are doing, if your passion and joy is engaged, you will achieve more meaningful success in life. That is the thing you have control over. That is the only thing you have control over. So that is the thing you must define as "success."

Accept what you have in front of you, and enjoy it. No matter where you are. And only then, will you notice and discover the many opportunities around you.

Those will be the true paths to your goals.

I know that's not always the answer young people want. When you're young you want to imagine you have direct access to get where you want in a straight line. We imagine all it takes is switching jobs or cities or working hours. We imagine that if we do that we will find happiness. But usually these external changes merely change the shape of the same thing. This is true even of people who have great commercial success early. That apparent success doesn't bring happiness, so what's the point? Really, what benefit is even "great professional success" if it doesn't make your life happier? I know you think it will bring happiness. Everyone starts that way. We all think if we can just have or achieve "X" in our life or career we will have "made it." But it's not true.

Success comes when you are happy, not the other way round.

Eventually you realize that the meaningful opportunities come to you -- more of them and in more ideal and exciting forms -- when you are joyfully focused on what you have today, not when you are looking outward for something else.

I have had incredibly gratifying professional projects that had huge budgets. And I have had just as much joy and gratification doing little projects with zero budgets for myself. But looking back, I was always still just me, full of faults, sadness, happiness, fun, all of it. So you realize  --  it's just not about any of that. It's not about the achievement of preconceived career goals. It's about how you approach what you have now. It sounds clichè but the whole answer is inside you. Not outside.

Focus on the work you have in front of you, that's what you have control over. Make it great, and take joy from that.

Then life will surprise you. And grab it when it does.