Posted by Kerry Hannon.
One morning about 15 years ago, my father asked me how I was doing. We were walking down a white sand beach in Siesta Key, Fla. on a lovely spring morning.
At the time, I had what I had imagined for years would be my dream job–writing an expert advice column for a national newspaper… with my picture on it! That, I thought, would be it. That would be the true sign of career success for me.
It wasn’t. I was miserable. And I told my dad so that day. His plain, simple advice: “Quit.”
I was a little surprised that he called it so fast, but I trusted him. And boy was he right. I flew back to Washington, DC, and three days later, I handed in my resignation.
Luckily, I had a contract to write a book on Navajo weaving that gave me a project to go to immediately. I was assigned to tell the stories of three Navajo weavers and the history of an old Trading Post located near Farmington, New Mexico.
That book, Trees in a Circle, changed my life. I experienced first hand the joy that doing what one loves brings to a life, a joy unencumbered by other’s expectations, but pure in the process.
One weaver I profiled, Mary, was in her 80s and lived 45 minutes down a dirt road in a tiny hogan. She raised her children in there and her home had no electricity or running water.
When I asked her questions, though a translator, about what inspired her to weave these monumental rugs, (She only spoke Navajo.) she replied with a twinkle in her eyes, “You ask questions no one thinks about.”
I opened my eyes and looked around me. I saw the beauty of the impossibly big, blue skies of New Mexico and the magnificent red rocks, and I started to get it. Mary exuded joy and love, and she wove from the heart.
I went home and have been my own boss ever since. I write on porches overlooking mountains, fields of horses, and gazing out at lakes and oceans and cityscapes. You see, I write every day, wherever I am. Have laptop, will travel. And I’m never bored. I’m always learning something new, and I surround myself with beauty. The Navajo expression often echoes through my head: “May you walk in beauty.”
To me, that’s success. I’m now an advocate of following your heart to do work that you love.
In my book What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond, for example, I highlight stories of people who succeeded at doing just that. Most of those people work harder than they ever have. But not one of them looked back with regret. They love what they do and only wish they had started sooner.
When I met them, I didn’t necessarily want to do what they did, but they inspired me in immeasurable ways to pursue my own work with greater abandon and risk-taking.
Many of us at this time in our lives, post-40, feel the pull to follow a dream, often one from childhood, or to find work–paid or unpaid–with meaning and purpose.
I have loved to write since I was in grade school. I wrote my first book when I was 12 in longhand with a pen, in spiral notebooks. I still have it safely stored in my file drawer at home. It was never published…to date. You never know.
For me, the joy, my passion, is in my craft, in communicating, in touching other’s lives with my writing and advice on managing finances and careers and finding passion, loving what you do each day.
I knew I was successful when I no longer had to report into an office for duty, could set my own hours and spend my days doing what I loved-writing and learning and, yes, walking in beauty.
My career success goal is not really to get rich in the strict numbers sense of the word, but to have no debt. Debt is a dream killer has become my mantra over the past decade. My goal, rather, is to have enough money to have flexibility and the freedom to lead the life I want and to, yes, follow my passion.
It isn’t the same as yours, no doubt. But I want to earn enough to spend time with family and friends, to travel and to ride my horse and walk my dog, not worrying about money every step of the way. Every day I wake up amazed about what choices I have. I plan to always write, and if I can keep earning a paycheck for it well into my later decades, all the better. It makes me happy.
One lesson I’ve learned since that day walking with my dad is that when it comes to success, don’t let inertia hold you back, or the fear of failure paralyze you. There is no ideal starting point. Just begin.
To follow your passion, you don't have to take a crazy leap. This is your time, your chance to pursue something more meaningful with gusto, and to challenge yourself.
Here are my three steps to follow if, like me, having the freedom and guts to follow your passion is one way you measure success.
- Take quiet time to ask yourself these questions. What is your vision of career success? Of life success? How do you gauge your success? There are often many levels of it.
- Reframe your negative thoughts. If you have a bad chorus that goes through your head and disrupts your efforts to pursue a passion, say, “I’m too old to do that”—write that thought down in a notebook. Then switch it to a positive thought, such as, “I have these precise skills, and I’m going to use them in a new way.” You need to get rid of that old blocking refrain to move forward with your dreams.
- Start a journal. Journaling is a great way to plot your new direction and to hone in on the things that you’re truly passionate about doing. I urge you to make lists: write down great times in your life, activities you love, the things you’re best at. What you loved most about your work to date.
Dig deeper: How do you love to spend your time? What makes you feel good about yourself? These lists will help you sharpen your passion and picture yourself pursuing something new and exhilarating.
Trust me, you have to really sit with those questions. Finding your passion is a process and you probably have more than one. There’s time to experiment to see what path you want to take with your working life or volunteer time.
Keep in mind that as you’ve gone through your working life, you’ve been gathering up skills to take along with when you’re ready to move forward with something you’re passionate about.