Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jennifer Gresham at Everyday Bright.
I sat in my hospital room, anxiously twirling the strings that were not securing the gown behind me, waiting for the nurses to wheel me into surgery. My husband squeezed my hand and told me we’d be okay.
Up until that moment, it certainly looked like I had it all.
I’d spent 16 years in the military, and by all accounts, had a bright future in front of me. I wasn’t on the fast track, but my boss valued my ideas and was a gifted mentor. I was engaged with my work and liked my co-workers.
I told myself again and again how lucky I was, but I still felt a kind of euphoria every time I took a day off.
Worse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the opportunity for the life I’d always wanted was disappearing with each passing year.
It took a tragic loss, my second miscarriage in the space of twelve months, to realize what was nagging me.
Life is too short to not spend it doing what you love.
Sure, sure, we’ve all heard it before. But as I awoke in the recovery room, my belly sore and my emotions crushed from the loss of my second baby, I resolved to find the work that made me feel alive.
I walked away from nearly a million dollars in pay and retirement benefits.
Crazy, right? Certainly more than one person said so.
Who wants to get paid to be unhappy?
Then a strange thing happened: one person after another confided they were unhappy with their work too. Not the usual malcontents, but smart, vibrant, upward moving people, the ones who also appeared to have it all figured out.
As friends and colleagues asked for my advice about what to do, I struggled with whether they needed a new career, a new job, or just a long vacation on the beach.
Ultimately, I came up with three scenarios where I thought only a new career would do.
1. No “fire in the belly”
When I announced to my dad I wanted to be a scientist, he responded with an experiment of his own: he left copies of magazines like Discover and Scientific American lying around the house.
In two weeks, I never picked one up. Not once.
What I’ve learned in retrospect is this: if you’re not interested enough in a subject to research it, read about it, play with it, and find others to talk about it – it’s probably not the career for you. And it’s quite possible you haven’t yet discovered the work that excites you—after all, there’s a lot you haven’t experienced.
When you have “fire in the belly,” as my dad called it, you’re willing to put in the time and effort to build your skills, even when you’re frustrated or depressed by how much you still have to learn. It’s what gets you through Seth Godin’s dip.
It wakes you up in the middle of the night with ideas, and then, bleary-eyed, makes you excited to get up in the morning.
I was successful as a scientist, but as my dad’s experiment proved, I didn’t have the fire in the belly. Trust me, it’s worth finding yours.
2. The wrong success
We think we know what success looks like, because society tells us over and over the importance of money, power, and fame. When we want to indicate someone is successful, we almost always invoke their salary or who they know to impress.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those outcomes, but it’s entirely possible they don’t mean as much as you think. If you’ve ever felt a bit empty after winning some big award, you know what I mean.
Define success for yourself, then dare to pursue a career that lets you achieve it. Maybe that means saving elephants in Africa or helping a small business hire their first employee.
If you live your life trying to achieve someone else’s definition of success, you’ll always feel a bit of a sham, no matter how high you go.
3. Trapped behind a mask
Even superheroes like Superman and Spiderman got tired of leading a double life.
One of the things I hear a lot is that people want to be their true selves at work. For example, the military culture demanded I establish my authority and demonstrate my place in the hierarchy. But I’m an egalitarian at heart—I hated treating people differently based on rank alone.
If you’re tired of holding back your true opinions, if you’re tired of working long hours for outcomes you don’t really care about, then it’s time to remove the mask and revel in who you really are.
Don’t let tragedy be your teacher
Some people resist change until a near death experience reminds them they may not have the luxury of waiting until the time is “right.” Others won’t change until they are laid off, admitting they never liked their career anyway.
A friend of mine recently led a workshop for financial executives. He asked them to reveal one thing they were proud of. As he noted, “Not one of them mentioned the size of their office or the make of their car.”
You don’t have to change careers tomorrow. But you should start spending some time figuring out what really matters—to you—today.
I spent 16 years wondering, “what if?”
Letting fear make your decisions, instead of owning what you really want, is a lousy way to live.
Now I can say unconditionally: Ignite that “fire in the belly.” Make yourself proud. Choose courage over comfort.
And when people call you crazy for pursuing your dreams of fulfilling work, remind them what R.D. Laing said, “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.”
Jennifer Gresham is the founder of the No Regrets Career Academy, which offers a free mini-course in career change. She’s on a mission to help people make Monday their favorite day of the week.