The creative path to a successful career
I have a hypothesis about careers.
My hypothesis is that each individual, when they are curious and receptive, experiences impulses to serve others by fixing problems & offering solutions that draw upon their unique skills and interests. The beauty of being human is that we are each wired to enjoy being of service — and there is some human or societal need that calls to each and every one of us.
And when an individual follows these sparks of curiosity, they can unfold into something intelligible, meaningful — and dare I say: sometimes even magical. Through hard work, a valuable idea, and some secret “success” sauce (of which many books have been written & consulting careers been sustained, so I won’t go into it here), the curiosity will develop into either a creative output, a business around a product/service that solves a problem in some sector, a project of meaning & value for some group of people, or some combination thereof.
That’s not groundbreaking — but here’s my idea.
I believe that both an internally rewarding life (what I would truly define as a “rich” life) and an outwardly “successful” life of reputation, influence, and financial sustainability in today’s world of connectivity can be achieved by living in passionate commitment to these inspired projects.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t another directive to “pursue your passion” or to uncover your purpose. In fact, there are problems I have with those notions (that I will discuss in a later article).
I don’t necessarily believe everyone should throw it all away and start a business. And I don’t think we all have One True Purpose.
(As a matter of fact, I don’t know that I even agree with the notion of a purpose. I like to believe that we each — as a result of our personalities, backgrounds, skills and interests — have themes that run through our lives. We embody different archetypes; I believe I’m primarily a messenger, for example. And that what we call “purpose” is merely one manifestation of this archetype that we are, whether it’s to be an innovative tech icon like Elon Musk — or to be a nurturing expression of love and family, like a stay-at-home mom.)
There is nobility in doing the “uninspired” work that needs to get done in this world that doesn’t just come from creativity, inspiration, or wild sparks of idealism, certainly. And the contrarian in me also challenges this new demonization of desk jobs so trendy in our modern-day discourse of fulfillment.
Not to mention that for much of the world, a lifestyle centered entirely around pursuing these sparks isn’t possible, so for us lucky few who have the luxury to even consider living what I’ll call an “inspired” life, a large helping of humility, gratitude, and awareness of privilege is in order.
But even so, for those of us with the yearning to serve, to change the world, to express our gifts, I believe that these drives are nontrivial, and they contain the seeds of big impact.
It’s critical to maintain perspective on how lucky we are to have whatever lets us live creative, idealistic lives — whether it’s the education or network or safety net — but it’s also important not to dismiss these motivations as indulgent aspirations. For a long time, I felt guilty and embarrassed about my own idealistic yearning for a life of both service and comfort, of my own hunger to “save the world” (or the small corner of it that I can) by both doing good and doing well.
Now I see that this isn’t anything to be embarrassed about. That as long as my dreams don’t float my head away into the clouds, and as long as my feet are firmly planted on a foundation of perspective, it’s okay to use the advantages of an Ivy League education I worked hard for and of a network of brilliantly creative & successful friends towards what I find meaningful.
So I think a life truly well lived is about being of service, and it’s my humble opinion that we shouldn’t seek our end-all, be-all life “purpose” or “calling” with a focus on what’s in it for us but rather that we should listen to the voice inside that wants to help others, and that we should work towards identifying just what our own gifts are and how we can harness those to make a dent in human suffering, discomfort, confusion, or need of any kind.
The more I think about this, the more I live in celebration of the elegance of the universe we live in, and feel grateful that so often it seems that when we dedicate ourselves to easing the burdens of others, life & society give to us in return in greater measure.
In short, my theory captures my faith in a modern, connectivity-driven lifestyle where we can have our cake and eat it, too: both inner fulfillment and outer success can be best achieved by living a life of “projects” where we identify a need and joyfully work to fill it in a way that makes us feel creatively expressed in the process. These projects can be actual jobs or short-term experiments. They can be as small as an ebook or as large as a movement.
I emphasize the role of connectivity because I believe that the internet, its vast information reserves and the cheap technology available to us is what facilitates such a career, one driven by side projects, which can often gain traction & build reputation through communication platforms we can tap online.
To me, this is the new success, driven by reputation-building instead of by obedience to someone else’s corporate ambitions through a slow climb up a ladder of conventional accomplishment & rewards, where the gatekeepers are multitudes instead of one superior whose approval of your work is what your future hinges upon.
I began my own career after my formal college education on the traditional path, modeled on what I would call the 20th century career design approach. I then realized that my intensely sensitive, creative and curious nature makes me uniquely ill-suited for the politics, authority, and constraints of a traditional corporate career — so I high-tailed it out of what many would consider a promising professional journey beginning at Google (which I still think is a wonderful company). And then I dove headfirst into the alternate path of uncertainty, creativity, and self-starterdom, and my journey is just beginning.
It’s my hope that this journey will unveil itself to be an encouraging precedent, and not a cautionary tale. But I feel a tremendous amount of faith that some magic will come out of it, even if in the form of some valuable lessons gleaned from a courageous jaunt into the arena of life.