Today, I want to talk about three things:
A career is not the jobs you've had.
A career does not exist in the present tense.
To move closer to your dream job, it's helpful to understand your dream job is not important.
I know, I know. You're probably making this face right now:
Stay with me. I promise this will make sense by the end.
This Section is Not A Tangent
When I was a kid, I discovered a little card game called Magic: the Gathering. The game was fun - but then someone told me the people who made the game also wrote internet articles about how they did it, and suddenly my lunchtimes were dedicated to voraciously devouring design philosophies and world building approaches. (I was a really cool middle schooler, guys.)
I remember thinking how awesome it would be to work as a game designer for Wizards of the Coast (the company that made Magic). It seemed like the best job. But being a game designer was nothing more than the unrealistic daydream of a little kid - it was about as possible as becoming the president, or superman, or an orca trainer at SeaWorld. (Forgive middle school me; this was a pre-Blackfish time, people.)
Time went on, and I headed into high school then college then full-time work, jumping into different jobs along the way. Below is a full chronological list of every paying job I’ve ever done, as best as I can recall:
Telemarketer selling phone plans
Teacher Intern for a youth theater summer camp
Piano accompanist for private voice lessons
Improv performer at a comedy theater
Cutco Knives salesman
Full-time teacher for youth summer camps
Improv teacher at a comedy theater
Music Director for a community theater musical
Pianist in a Lutheran worship service band
Commercial actor with agent
Founder and Artistic Director of a youth theater company
Actor for a Shakespeare theater
Teacher for a Shakespeare kids camp
Voiceover and on camera talent for various projects
Kid band concert producer / talent coordinator
Personal assistant to a kid songs musician
TA for a grad school course on improv
Instructor for a grad school course on improv
Actor for a youth theater company in NY
Disney Imagineering intern
Universal Studios theme park consultant writer
Translator / technical writer for a theme park development company
Translator / coverage writer for Disney Imagineering
Translator/copywriter for an online higher education company
Lead narrative designer for theme park projects in China
PR / Social Media manager for a comic book and game store
Staff writer on a bilingual Chinese sitcom
Copywriter for a web SEO company, writing blogs for dentists and carpet cleaning companies
Script writer and consultant writer for live shows at Disneyland Shanghai
Copywriter for Wizards of the Coast
Community manager for Wizards of the Coast
Narrative designer (with game design contributions) for Wizards of the Coast
Narrative designer at ArenaNet
The full list, at first glance, looks like a chaotic mess. But hey, look at that at the end - I got to work for the company I dreamed of working for as a kid! I got to work on Magic, writing the story and even designing cards for the game! Dream job, achieved!
And then I left that company.
Past and Future
A career is not the jobs you've had.
As I was growing up and working and learning, I remember looking at folks in jobs and “career tracks” that I admired and thinking that I should try to do what they did. Surely, the path to success was following in their footsteps and emulating the careers and trajectories I found inspiring.
Yet as I moved along my own journey and as I got to look more closely at the arcs that folks I admired had traveled, it became apparent a career (at least, in creative fields) was rarely a solid line or a straight path to follow. It was more a pointillistic painting, a series of dots and points (and jobs and decisions) that when viewed from a zoomed out view created an impression of a coherent image.
If you look at each individual job I've held, it seems pretty scattered and doesn't really make much sense. However, when asked to describe my career, I talk about my passion and work as a storyteller, connecting the various points of my work history to show my progression of teaching, performing and writing for stories across disciplines and mediums. This includes specific jobs I've done, but also plenty of work I've done outside of paying jobs. This includes education, personal projects, and my passions. I talk about how my improv and performance experience shaped my playwriting and screenwriting chops, about how I've always grown as a storyteller and artist by approaching and learning how to tell stories in new media - from written fiction, to theater, to music, to TV and film, to theme parks, to games. I talk about my passion for crafting interactive experiences and modal storytelling.
My career isn't just the sum of my collective work history. My career is the story of my intention and goals as I advanced through life and took different jobs and projects that excited me, that brought me closer towards work that fulfilled my goals and desires.
A career does not exist in the present tense.
Careers are narratives we construct of our past work experience and projections of our ambitions and goals into the future.
While careers occupy the space of the past and future, the work occupies the space of the present.
In the present, there is only the work - for me, the writing and storytelling. When I sit down to write a play, or a short story for Magic, or a narrative arc for Guild Wars 2, it has to just be about doing the best work for that piece of writing. The easiest way to paralyze the ability to do work is to worry about the meta of that work. How does this new play reflect on my developing voice as an artist? Will it receive recognition and awards that could propel my career to greater heights? How will it compare to my past work, or the work of other artists? Letting "future" and "career" thoughts slip into present work has always resulted in a diluted product and creation with unproductive fears inhibiting my choices. Worrying about "career" in my present day to day is generally unhelpful.
However, thinking of your career outside of your present work and in terms of future goals and aspirations can be immensely empowering and energizing.
When I was an undergrad student aspiring to write plays, I remember looking up to playwrights I admired. They had big accolades and productions with amazing theater companies; I couldn't see the path to get to where they were. However, the difference between 12 year old me daydreaming of being a game designer and 18 year old me aspiring to write plays was I had developed the confidence to stride forward into the unknown, even though I couldn't see the exact path or steps that would take me where I needed to go. Having big career dreams of one day reaching far off accomplishments and looking towards the careers of folks who got there helped energize me to do great work at the scale and scope that I was capable of in the moment. As I progressed and grew and became better, I found myself moving towards those distant goals, and found the steps to getting there became clearer, closer, and more possible. Thinking about my career in the future tense helped drive me to keep going, and to seek out opportunities to grow, improve, and share my work with a wider audience each time. Also, it ultimately led to the evolution of my career goals and dreams - which brings us to...
Your dream job is not important.
At the end of the day, your dream job is just a finite destination. It's a constant point on the horizon, a useful beacon to help give you direction. But as you travel towards it, you may discover other things that excite you more, or you may come across other opportunities you didn't even consider. Don't let the fixed point keep you from walking down a different path.
When I got a job at Wizards, I wasn't trying to be a game designer. I was mainly working in script writing for TV and theme parks at the time. However, when the opportunity arose, I jumped on it - not just because it was a childhood fantasy, but because it also furthered my goal of telling stories.
Rather than fixating on JUST the idea of a dream job, look towards the idea of what you want to craft a career around. Craft a mission statement for yourself and your work.
For me, my mission statement revolves around being a storyteller. I want to learn how to tell stories in bigger and better ways. Over time, I realized I'm happiest when my work can touch and move people, and I'm most challenged when I get to learn new media and modes of telling stories. I've built my career and work around that.
At the end of the day, a dream job is but one point along the path of your career (and life).
It's awesome if you reach it. It feels super-validating and exciting. But your satisfaction and your happiness shouldn't hinge on only if you get exactly your dream job, and your hunger to grow and improve shouldn't end once you do achieve it.
I was thrilled to achieve a childhood dream of working for Magic. But I was also thrilled at the opportunity to learn new skills and grow offered by ArenaNet. I'll be honest. The thought of leaving a job that was a childhood dream job was a bit scary, and a bit sad. I was deviating from something I knew I always wanted for something new, where I had far less experience. There was a degree of fear.
And that's why I knew I had to take the new opportunity.
Believe it or not, I felt the same thing when I was offered my first job at Wizards. At the time, I lived in LA, and the Wizards job was in Seattle. Taking it meant uprooting my life and shifting my progress in the film and themed entertainment world towards working as an entry level position in gaming. I had one good friend in Seattle who was the person who suggested I apply for the job, and that's pretty much it. It was definitely a bit scary.
It was definitely important and right for me to lean into the fear.
The fear stemmed from the unknown, from the fact that those opportunities were beyond my comfort zone. With the fear came the need to grow. That same kind of combo of fear and excitement sends adrenaline pumping through you, energizes and motivates and challenges and pushes you to become your better self.
At the end of the day, we chase our dream jobs because they drive us and excite us and is a clear point to work towards. But we should also recognize our ambitions and passions should extend beyond one job, and our happiness and satisfaction with our work should encompass more than getting the exact thing we think is the thing we want. Don't wait for permission to start doing the things you care about. You don't have to be a game designer at a big game company before you can design games. You don't have to be a nationally recognized playwright before you write plays. You don't have to wait until you get a paycheck as a performer before you think of yourself as a professional actor.
Identify your mission statement, start doing the work in the present. The "career" will construct itself as you build your body of work, and will project out as you clarify what you care about. The dream job will always be there, and you'll get it or you won't - but if you do the work, you'll move and grow and maybe uncover something even bigger before you know it.