Yes you are awesome but how did you get there?
February 27, 2011 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Type A Filter: For those of you who have big ambitions and plans for your life, how did you arrive at them? How did you go about creating a vision for yourself?

I've been thinking a lot recently about what I want to do with my life. To give you some background, my story in a nutshell is:

- abusive family, other abusive relationships (too gruesome to detail here)
- went to college, currently in graduate school
- starting a couple of part-time businesses

I'm now feeling much recovered from my childhood and the things that happened to me, and ready to take on the world --- but I'm really not sure what plans are "me", what I would most like to do, and what I want to be known for. I have a feeling that I can make a big difference somehow, but I'm not sure who I want to be.

I admire people who have very strong personal and professional identities (the ground-breaking entrepreneur, the professor who writes fiction) -- but I don't know how those arise.

If you are one of those people with a strong personal or professional identity -- or big goals and ambitions that you are in the process of realizing --

Can you tell me a bit more about what the personal process was like?
Did it happen all at once?
If you fell into it, how did you fall into it?
What is it like on a day-to-day basis?
What made you feel "ready" to commit yourself to your current identity? What were your growing pains?
Anything you can recommend?

(For background:

NOTE: No naysayers, please. Only people who have these sorts of ambitions and are in the process of (or feel they have) achieved them.
posted by 3491again to Human Relations (29 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

If you are one of those people with a strong personal or professional identity -- or big goals and ambitions that you are in the process of realizing --

I think the fundamental flaw in your question is that you think success at a certain level can be premeditated. I would argue that it can't, that while some people swear up and down that they worked hard and were somehow deserving of what they got because of x,y,and z, you could find people who arguably did x,y, and z, and did not end up with the same outcome. Success is really maybe 10% working hard, but 90% the luck of opportunity.

The things you can do to better your odds are cultivating a charming and lovable personality---being the person that everybody likes and wants to help. Hard work accounts for very little. Strategy accounts for little. But being the person everybody likes and wants to help and see succeed takes you a very, very long way.
posted by anniecat at 8:51 AM on February 27, 2011 [21 favorites]

Best answer: Childhood dreams are fun to think about, but at a certain point you have to weigh them against the dreams of who you are now. I am someone who had a lot of childhood dreams, and if I went after them now, I would be missing out on a lot of opportunities that I'm currently very excited about.

While the concern of your friends is worth listening to, ultimately you are here to satisfy yourself, not them. Do not let the boundaries of your thinking be constrained by other people, after a while you just start thinking in their voice and imagining what they'd say about such-and-such decision.

I was always the laziest person imaginable, with lots of ambitions but very little follow-through. At some point I learned to work hard. Part of it was being put in one situation after another where my work directly affected others, and where I was held personally, directly accountable for having done it (as opposed to office jobs or retail jobs where there is a sort of diffuse environment of responsibility).

Also, I don't know how old you are, but this really started to sink in for me as I approached 30. Almost overnight, my thinking changed to, "Okay, I've had my fun, but now that I've seen how fast a decade passes I need to start thinking about what I want to have done by the time I turn 40."

There is a huge push from others to look inward and do a lot of sou-searching when you're trying to find your path. I'd say that maybe 25% inward and 75% outward is more like it. Look around, observe people, talk to people. Eventually you'll find someone who is doing what you want to do, or has a process that you think would work for you. Finding a mentor is awesome, but sometimes just knowing someone or getting to watch them work will fill you with instant inspiration.

My partner is very goal-oriented, and I am very process-oriented. Partly that's because most of my work is creative, and I'm not necessarily supposed to know exactly what the results will be when I first start. I have to trust and accept and fiddle and tweak, and ultimately, decide when I'm finished. It's been hard over the years for him to trust that I know what I'm doing, where I'm going, because I'm always trying to focus on the project currently at hand, and THAT will hopefully determine what happens next.

It sounds like your friends may be people who need to know (in their own lives) where they're heading when they set out, and they expect you to do the same. You may not really be like that! And that's okay. Accepting that will give you permission to analyze your own way of working and learning; conforming to expectations is usually only going to make you feel like a fraud and a failure.
posted by hermitosis at 8:51 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would not recommend trying to cultivate it, but an intense, ever increasing fear of failure can be a very motivating force.
posted by Morpeth at 8:59 AM on February 27, 2011

Therapy and proper treatment for my mental issues really helped me. Not everyone has this sort of thing but if you do then getting treatment does help.

And if you find that your friends are always trying to "buttinsky" and help you, you might try to get some insight onto whether you project a childlike, dreamy or helpless image. I've known people who come across as so impractical and so headed-for-trouble that the impulse to step up and kind of "parent" them pulls very strongly even among normally live-and-let-live friends.

I've found there is a balance of knowing what one realistically might be able to achieve with hard work on the one hand, and taking a foolish risk on the other. In particular don't risk death, permanent disability, a prison term, or having a child you don't want or can't care for. Other than that, it's a question of thinking about what risks you can handle, who you are responsible for (dependent children in particular) and how you plan to achieve your goals.

Anniecat is 100% right about having people skills. You don't have to be a charismatic extrovert, but you do want people to like you and want to help you. It's so hard to achieve even modest goals if you piss people off left and right, and it's sad when someone seemingly can't help but to alienate people, or even just can't connect with them, and then doesn't understand why no-one will give them a job reference or whatever.

Know you don't have to do things the popular way, and that "overnight success stories" or people who have six-figure jobs that only demand 40 hours a week are written up in the papers and magazines because they are extraordinary and newsworthy and success for most people doesn't look like that. Most people have workaday jobs, albeit ones they do like and that fulfill them; many people change careers more than once; many people take long, meandering paths toward success; you don't have to be a superstar to succeed (unless, of course, you are in showbiz).

Finally, a five-year plan doesn't have to be grandiose and sweeping. Have bite-sized goals: "today I will update my LinkedIn profile. In a month I will have X number of informational interviews lined up. In a year, I will have a job that is a foot in the door to my ultimate career goal. In five years, I will have achieved X." Goals are not a huge trapeze swing but rather a series of steps. Know your steps and be happy when you achieve your steps.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:38 AM on February 27, 2011

Best answer: You reach a point where you need to stop equivocating over your goals and just go for it.

I have a friend who is always telling me how much he admires the fact that I went to graduate school for writing, the fact that I've written novels, the fact that I'm trying to make an earnest go off of "being a writer" (note: my income doesn't come from writing; I am not a professional yet). This is hard for me because something about his attitude suggests that all of these were out of reach for him. But the major difference I see is that I've decided I wanted to do these things and done them.

There are things I've tried that didn't work out. There are paths I could have taken but didn't. However, for the most part, I take opportunities when they arise rather than intensely debating them. And this includes opportunities I make for myself (want to be a novelist? then write a god damned novel. Make yourself work on it every day. No excuses). I don't really concentrate very much on what it all means. That seems like a waste of time, to me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:43 AM on February 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your input, but I am specifically looking for personal experiences of people who have these sorts of goals and how they arrived at them.

- psychological commentary about me
- beliefs about how it is impossible to plan for success
- general advice about becoming a more charming and charismatic person

Please, please, stick to the question asked.
posted by 3491again at 9:56 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Of course it doesn't happen all at once, and anyone who says differently is lying or wrote a best-selling book about sparkly vampires.

I'm not sure what "ready to commit to an identity" means. I am who I am. I do the things I do. I'm not my job, or my relationships, or my hobbies. I sort-of feel like, looking at your last question and this one together, that you need an identity to "hide" yourself in? That you NEED this calling card so that you don't have to present "you"? Look, being the wearable computer art guy or the fiction-writing professor isn't going to change who YOU are, and it isn't going to change the past you come from, and it isn't going to make you successful. STOP WORRYING ABOUT LABELS. I am going to sing Cat Stevens at you.

So, I'm a fall-into-it kind of person. Here's how that works:
(1) I worked my butt off in high school, college, law school, and grad school, without necessarily any clear idea of what I was going to do, but fortune favors the prepared. Those credentials you like to gather are preparation.
(2) And then when something sounds the least bit fun or interesting, try it. I've taken tons of "community rec" classes just to learn about stuff that sounds passably interesting (pottery, stained glass) and met a lot of neat people and learned a lot of neat stuff. I've gone to music festivals with indie music nerds and inner city neighborhoods with deeply religious volunteers. Someone says, "Hey, you wanna do X?" I say, "Okay!" The more stuff you do, the more people you'll meet and the more you'll learn about your world.
(3) Involve yourself in your community. Sort-of an extension of #2, but you have to give as well as take -- volunteer with a community group. Do a neighborhood cleanup. Do trail maintenance. Read to first-graders. Whatever.
(4) When you see a problem that needs fixing, fix it. Find out how to fix it, involve yourself, use those connections you've developed through classes and indie rock festivals and volunteering and, you know, fix it. When you have a story you want to write, write it. When you have a cool software idea, develop it.
(5) Despite 4, realize time is finite and not everything is attainable and some things are just dreams. That's okay. Pursue some things, half-heartedly pursue others, stick some in your wild idea file. You can always do them later. I'd love to write a novel, but the fact is that I have a dozen things more important to me on the front burner. So I write a little for my own enjoyment and realize I'll either get around to it or I won't and either is okay; if it becomes important, I can shift my priorities and do THAT.

But on #4, everyone I knew was bitching about how awful the local schools were and how badly run the local school board was. Everyone. And there were serious problems. But no one was doing anything about them! That makes me nuts. So I ran for school board, in a three-way race, as the outsider candidate, with literally zero funding. I won in a "landslide" (quoth the local paper). What did that look like? Using everything I learned in those years of schooling to help me understand issues. Using all that connecting I'd done in #2 and #3 to campaign and connect with people old and new. Doing a bunch of stuff I absolutely loathed, like going door to door, all day, every Saturday, in the freezing cold. (And stuff I liked, like speaking at PTA meetings.) Now what does it involve? Reading 600 pages of depressing discipline files by tomorrow. Reading excruciatingly dull school improvement plans. Keeping up on problems at 28 different buildings. None of it's sexy. Most of it is slogging, hard, through tons of stuff, and trying, hard, to do right by people. What's the difference between me and the people who just complain? I was willing to slog. (Literally slog! Five months pregnant! In one of the coldest winters in memory! Door to door, ankle-deep in slush! It was horrible!) That's just one little aspect of my life (I'm on community boards, I helped found my neighborhood association, I work as a lawyer and an adjunct professor, I'm a full-time at-home mom, etc.), but that's how it happened.

That's what you do. You prepare your mind, you open your life, and then you slog. Sometimes literally. What distinguishes the lifetime student and the connected party-person from the professional success is the willingness to slog and slog and slog. Sometimes literally.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:08 AM on February 27, 2011 [19 favorites]

Thanks everyone for your input, but I am specifically looking for personal experiences of people who have these sorts of goals and how they arrived at them.

- psychological commentary about me
- beliefs about how it is impossible to plan for success
- general advice about becoming a more charming and charismatic person

Please, please, stick to the question asked.

You wrote all this stuff about how you come from a certain background and then expect no one to give you the advice tailored to your situation, or advice like being likeable.

Seriously, it's not all that clear what you're looking for other than a redirect to the "Why I'm a Success and You Can Too!" self-help section at Barnes and Nobles.

Why don't you just write to people you think are successful and ask them for advice?

I suppose Tony Robbins is what you're looking for.
posted by anniecat at 10:12 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: anniecat, I appreciate that you're trying to help. But please do not continue to respond to this post. If you would like to discuss this further, please memail me.

If you think my question does not have merit, please do not respond. You are derailing my one question per week, and I really don't like it.
posted by 3491again at 10:21 AM on February 27, 2011

Response by poster: eyebrows, thanks for your story...that's the kind of thing I'm looking for. But don't put down sparkly vampires. Who knows? I might want to write a book about them one day. ;)
posted by 3491again at 10:23 AM on February 27, 2011

I think what you're missing is that for many people, their success is a part and parcel of who they are psychologically. It's impossible for me to talk about the things I've been successful at, and how that success has been achieved, without saying that being proactive and not overthinking these things is a big part of how I've done it.

For example, I want to have short stories published. So I write and edit them and send them out. When I get a rejection, I send them out again. Until I get an acceptance. The people I know who want to do these things, but never do, mostly never send things out, or they stop after they get a rejection and decide it's because they were never meant to be a writer, or whatever. Success is just the result of constant forward momentum. That's psychological as much as it's the result of planning.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:23 AM on February 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

Even when you ask people to relate their experiences to you in a certain context, you can't expect to be able to control exactly what stories they tell you and what advice they think will be helpful. AskMe isn't here to tell you what you want to hear. There's a great wealth of experience and wisdom on this site sprinkled amidst the bits that don't match up with what you're looking for.

You have made yourself pretty clear, I recommend you sit back for a while and let the answers roll in, and suppress the need to respond to everything you don't find helpful.
posted by hermitosis at 10:36 AM on February 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

Eyebrows McGee put it better than I could, but the main things to do are:
1) Start things
2) Finish them
2b)... but know when to dump them too

That might sound banal, but most people don't do either of those. Basically adopt the Nike slogan.

The difference between someone who just has a bunch of ideas that they bore people with at dinner parties and someone who actually achieves something is following through. It's not as simple as that though, just working hard within the constraints set by other people will get you a steady career but it won't give you what you seem to be looking for. You've got to have some kind of unique idea or vision and then try and make that happen.

From your previous question:
I'm afraid of being pigeonholed and of failing.

You have to overcome this ASAP. Being a little afraid of failure can be a good motivator, but not if you're so afraid that you never start anything.
Maybe you should force yourself to do some things that are so challenging that you'll almost definitely fail at them. That way you'll learn that:
a) failing at something isn't too bad
b) nobody else will remember it a week later

Can you tell me a bit more about what the personal process was like?
Did it happen all at once?

For me, I became substantially the person I am now in terms of vision and effort during my gruelling university years. One thing that's really helped me was project managing all the things I wanted to get done. At any given moment, I have 4-5 big long term (12 months +) projects open and I know what I need to do (or more accurately what I think I need to do) to move each of them along in any given month, week, or day. Obviously these projects evolve over time as well.

What is it like on a day-to-day basis?
I don't know, I have nothing to compare it too. A lot of the time it seems that I haven't got fuck-all accomplished but then I compare it to 6 months ago and feel better about progress.

What made you feel "ready" to commit yourself to your current identity? What were your growing pains?
Anything you can recommend?

You talk about starting a couple of businesses, that's sounds good, it sounds like you want to be an entrepreneur. So do that.

In a previous question you said you wanted to write a novel, so write one. It'll probably be shit, because even most published novels are rubbish, but so what? At least you'll have gotten the first one out of the way. Most published novelists write two-three books that no-one wants before getting something published.

Stop talking about things you might do in such a fluffy way and just do them. If you manage to persevere through the stage where you suck at them you'll one day be in a position to write a comment trying to explain that what you did was nothing special.

NOTE: No naysayers, please. Only people who have these sorts of ambitions and are in the process of (or feel they have) achieved them.

If you want to infuriate a Type A personality into not bothering to answer your question, irritatingly didactic instructions as to what answers you want is a great way to do it.
posted by atrazine at 10:45 AM on February 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: When I was younger (high school and earlier) I had the goal of getting the best education / being the smartest I could. This led me to get into one of the best colleges by being a near-perfect student who also did lots of impressive activities. I was really motivated because at the time I stuttered and was clueless about women, so I wanted to prove myself. Things got better and I'm less driven now.

It sounds like you want Drive. I'll quote a blog post by Marc Andreessen, who invented the web browser and got rich:

"Drive...That's what you want. Some people have it and some people don't. Of the people who have it, with some of them it comes from guilt, often created by family pressure. With others, it comes from a burning desire to make it big. With others, it comes from being incredibly Type A. Whatever... go with it. Drive is independent of educational experience, grade point averages, and socioeconomic background."

I'll also recommend a blog post by Cal Newport, a postdoc at MIT, on the messy art of becoming great.
posted by sninctown at 10:48 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The greatest influence on my life has been the book "Mindset".

In short, it gets you to stop thinking about what you have to offer as being a finite resource of talent you already have, and instead gets you to think that all your interactions with other talented people help make you grow into someone special who can really help people (always by learning from them). A tonne of what Eyebrows McGee wrote comes across as that exact archetype of the growth mindset. What's special about this mindset, is that everyone's tap is flowing, and so truly great things happen.

Also: proximity. Whatever your goals are, review them on a daily basis and in specific ways with deadlines. If you met them, how did you meet them? If you didn't, how come and what to improve?

Finally, you might overestimate how much you can change your life in 1 year and vastly underestimate how much you can change your life in 5 years.

Good luck.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:53 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't say I've been remarkably successful, but I would describe myself as someone with a strong professional identity (i.e., I get a lot of satisfaction from my career and am very good at it.)

I'll echo Eyebrows Mcgee and PhoBWanKenobi a bit: a big part of success is a) picking the next thing to do, and doing it, often without knowing what the thing after that is, and b) preparing yourself by meeting people and acquiring skills, even though you may not know what to do with them for some time.
I would not recommend trying to cultivate it, but an intense, ever increasing fear of failure can be a very motivating force.
This is really the total opposite of what you need to be successful. A huge part of success is failing, and failing a lot.

Now, for the Q & A. Again, I'm not successful in the change-the-world sense, but I am professionally very successful, and happy with where I am and where I'm going. That being said…

Can you tell me a bit more about what the personal process was like?

I have been programming since I was like 13. In college, while others worked at restaurants and the like, I was a web developer at a small company. For reasons of immaturity, I didn't study computer science, but I did a lot programming and have experience few have at my age.

After graduating college (in aerospace engineering), I decided I'd rather keep doing programming, and moved to NYC to gain access to better opportunities.

Did it happen all at once?

Nope. It happened when I wrote my first C++ program when I was a kid. It happened when I made a website for me and friends to share photos when we were exchange students. It happened when I spent last weekend working through interview questions, and this week at work when I contemplated the best way to accomplish something, rather than just going with the easy and obvious solution.

If you fell into it, how did you fall into it?

I would say I did fall into this career path, in the sense that I had an interest in programming. I didn't fall into my career, however. As I mentioned previously, there have been various places to make decisions along the way.

What is it like on a day-to-day basis?

Awesome. I program, which is like one of my favorite things.

What made you feel "ready" to commit yourself to your current identity? What were your growing pains? Anything you can recommend?

I was honest with myself. If you read my askme thread about which career path to choose, it seems like many of the people recommend that I go the engineering route. And maybe the way I phrased the question, I suggested that that was the route I wanted to take. And after all, I'm currently paying off a fairly large amount debt for a degree that was meant to take me down that career path. But when I looked at what I had in front of me, I knew which path I actually preferred (and which held the most promise), and I took that one.
posted by !Jim at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2011

I have a strong personal identity.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can create a story about how I got here. But it's complete rubbish, because life doesn't work like that.

I wanted to be an expert in my field. (I didn't have a specific field in mind). I have acheived this locally.

These are the things that I do.

I don't underestimate the power of being nice, sensible and admitting when I don't know things. This means that people believe me when I do know things.

I learn a lot. I listen to what other people say, and try and connect together different pieces of information.

I keep an ear out for opportunities that I'm interested in and deflect things that I can't learn from.

I do a good job. I take pride in my work. My biggest success was built on a 2 year period of working a full-time job, and another 20-30 hours a week on a side project. I treat all my unpaid work to the same standards as my paid work.

I'm flexible. I have made plans, but never stick to them. This suits my style.

Most of all, I know my strengths and play to them.

I don't know that you'll find all that helpful. But most successful people owe a lot to a combination of luck and hard work.
posted by plonkee at 11:14 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

After what my dad likes to jokingly call a sabbatical, I went back to graduate school in October. Five months later, I am running a part-time business as a talent and career manager for several people involved in film and TV. It's not about the money and it should not be about the money if you are doing what you love. You'll learn how to make that money to sustain you and grow your business on the way. Because the truth is that it doesn't cost a lot of money to do what you love. It costs a lot of money to have what you want. Loving and Wanting are different and it's important to know the distinction.
posted by parmanparman at 11:14 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

another personal story:

Though always a good student, I disappointed everyone around me by not going to college right out of high school. There wasn't a lot of extra money in my family, and I just couldn't see spending a lot of money and effort to go to school when I didn't yet have the slightest notion what I wanted to study or do.

So I was biding my time hoping that things would look a little clearer some day soon. I got married, lived in a trailer, and worked as a retail clerk. In 5 years, I was the store manager. I was working the register one busy day, and suddenly there was this thought in my head, almost as clear as a Voice: I want to be an environmental lawyer. This was in the 1970s, when "environmental lawyers" barely even existed.

That goal seemed a long way away for a high school graduate. So I started taking college courses like mad, and 1 1/2 years later had a BA with a 4.0 GPA. That got me into a top law school. I worked a lot harder than I would have if I hadn't been working toward a clear goal that I felt strongly about. And because my interest was genuine, and came from inside me and not from outside, it was fun. And the work I later did in environmental law was also hard and fun, and deeply rewarding.

So, the strategy that worked for me was to wait until I felt strongly about my goal, then figure out how to move toward that goal one little step at a time, and work hard at it.

(The next chapter wasn't so fun: I got sick and had to retire early. So, no happy endings are guaranteed, no matter how hard you work at the right things.)
posted by Corvid at 11:24 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

It seems like you're hung up on having the "identity" of a successful professional before you even begin. As if somehow the job is "you" before you even begin to pursue it. Sure, some people may be confident of what they are doing from the very first step, but it's not a requirement at all. Here's my experience- I left one field (A) for a much different and more ambitious one (B.) I was really worried that it would be difficult for me to be a professional at B because my personality was already defined so much by A. I thought people would judge me, think I didn't belong or really fit in with B. At first I felt like a total outsider. But that gradually faded away. Now B is my professional identity and that's how people see me. It just took time. And sometimes it even still surprises me- I wake up in the morning and think, wow, I can't believe I'm doing B now instead of A, and I love it.

How did I get here? I think the key is to be really open minded and not to rule out anything right away. You might be surprised what you end up liking. I did my complete 180 after taking one single college course. I found the field so fascinating that I just had to know more. And it took a while, because again, I was already committed to another field so I just assumed I didn't belong in any other ones. Gradually I came around and realized that in fact, I COULD pursue that other field and make that my new identity. This epiphany was followed by lots and lots of hard work (also important!) and some sacrifices here and there, but it all worked out.

If you're not sure what you want to be, I suggest you just spend some time out there doing stuff before trying to decide. Think of every single career you've ever considered, no matter how farfetched or unlikely it seems. Then spend time doing research into all of them. What would you have to do to be in that job? Could you do it? Would you? Do you know other people who do that job that you could talk to or hang around? Can you volunteer or intern or whatever at various different places? Can you take a class in something that you know nothing about but have always been interested in? Once I became interested in field B, I started reading as many books about it as I could, started volunteering, etc. It always made me feel energized and excited, and that's how I knew it was the field for me, and what gave me the confidence to push back against various difficulties I encountered while pursuing it. i think that's key. when you find something that energizes you, or a subject that you can't seem to get enough of, that's what you should be pursuing.

anyway, i get what you mean about the fear of committing to a professional identity. my biggest problem was always that there were so many options that appealed to me- how could I narrow it down? being pretty type-A i ultimately picked the one I did because I thought it would be the most challenging and I was afraid if I did something easier I'd regret not having pursued the Big Dream. but that doesn't mean I don't think all the time about other careers. i always think to myself how cool it would be to be a dress designer or open a vegetarian restaurant or train police dogs or to live in Hawaii and work in a resort like the chick in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But then I think about the career I've picked and I think to myself, this is pretty freakin' sweet too so I am still glad I picked it. (it's also a more lucrative one, so I'm setting myself up to possibly be able to delve into my other interests more at a later point in my life if I want to.)

you're welcome to memail me if you want more specifics. sorry my answer was kind of all over the place!
posted by GastrocNemesis at 11:26 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thanks everyone for your input, but I am specifically looking for personal experiences of people who have these sorts of goals and how they arrived at them.

1. I identify stuff that I like.

2. I do that stuff.

To expand of the first point, "stuff I like" is ANYTHING I like. As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference between a job interest and a hobby interest. Probably there will be different challenges to pursuing hobbies and pursuing things that lead to traditional careers, but at the "identify stuff I like" stage, those differences don't count.

There's no high vs. low; there's no worthwhile vs. not worthwhile; there's no selfish vs. selfless; there's no waste-of-time vs. not-waste-of-time.

I guarantee you that if my favorite thing to do was to lie around on the sofa and watch TV, I'd be working towards a lifestyle that allows me to do that as much as possible.

If what you like most in the world is playing D&D, but a voice in your head tells you "that's not a grown up goal," you're not going to be that driven sort of person you're talking about, because you're refusing to listen to yourself.

Which leads me to point two: pursue it. Make it happen.

I've brought up my story a zillion times on MeFi, and I'm bored (and probably lots of other people are bored) with hearing it yet again. So, short version: I'm most passionate about an artistic pursuit that will never, ever, ever make me money. In fact, it causes me to lose large amounts of money every years. So I've spent years working towards having a day job that (a) is not soul killing and (b) supports my "hobby."

In my experience, most people who "don't know what they want to do in life" DO know, but they let various feelings get in the way. Like they think their passion is stupid. Or they're worried other people will think it's stupid. Or they're worried about being poor. Or they're afraid they'll fail. Or they feel the have to "accomplish something." Or they want to be a certain type of person, e.g. "a smart person" or "a cultured person" or "a kind person," which is fine, but it's not the same as having a specific goal. And it can get in the way of having one.

I'm not saying those are dumb worries. They're not. But it's worthwhile teasing them apart from "what you want to do," whether you work to overcome them or not.

It sounds like your biggest problem is you're trying to be a "certain kind of person." That's a distraction. My boss at my day job and I going after very different things in life. He's an entrepreneur, and, I'm pretty sure, a millionaire. I'm a "starving artists." (Not really. I'm middle class. But I do worry sometimes that I won't be able to pay the rent because I'm sinking so much money into my passion.)

But my goal isn't "to be a famous artist" or "to be the darling of the critics." Not even for a second. My goal is to work on the projects I want to work on. Even more specific than that, it's to complete the project I'm working on right now. It's to SERVE that project.

My boss doesn't really care about money. He gets off on creating companies. He sinks hours and hours and hours into that goal. He doesn't care about being perceived as "that rich guy" or "that successful business man."
posted by grumblebee at 11:36 AM on February 27, 2011 [35 favorites]

Best answer: My experience is in technology, but think a lot of this applies universally, as I consider this to be true for my friends in other fields.

Can you tell me a bit more about what the personal process was like?

I worked my ass off at various start-up companies and a couple corporations. That experience helped to shape what I was looking for in a work culture & people. It's pretty easy to see the benefits of working in a meritocracy that gives smart, hard-working people a chance to succeed vs. a politically-driven bureaucracy.

I took a leadership class that, while wasn't the best, did teach me important things about leadership and communication. Namely:

1. Identify some of your heroes & find a mentor. It's a great way to crystallize what types of things you want to achieve in life, and what type of person you want to be. Fortune's 40 at 40 is a good example, and there's a ton of other publications that cover a wide range of industries, from green technologies to politics. Keep track of up & comers too, and see if you can meet them to learn more. If you can, identify a mentor who has strengths in areas that you are weak, and ideally, can help further your career advancement. I've been lucky in that I now have a network of folks I can turn to informally to ask about startups in the valley, business ideas, etc, and can get the inside-scoop, great feedback, and frank responses.

2. Set a vision and leadership style. This didn't happen all at once, and as a matter of fact, was mystifying until I found myself in a role of managing a fast-growing team. Having kept track of #1 made this easier.

3. Practice on your communication skills. A lot. Yes, you have to be likable, which means being positive and upbeat, but also honest when things don't smell right. You will need to motivate people and convince them you are the leader you say you are. You don't say what field your in, but the best people in my field are great at presentations and doing pitches, and are offered jobs easily because they can deliver a great vision in 5 minutes or less.

4. Be bold, and take some risks. This should go without saying.

Did it happen all at once?

Hell no. Again, what helped me the most was having mentors. I had to also break through the (gender) glass ceiling, and having senior people who have had that experience helps tremendously.

If you fell into it, how did you fall into it?

I read somewhere (can't find it now) that your first job out of school often time shapes the rest of your career experience. I found that what I'm doing now very much reflects that, and am grateful that my first job was with an amazing team of people who were willing to show me the ropes. What's interesting is that I took a bit of a roundabout to get to where I am now, but all that experience has helped me be a more well-rounded and competent leader.

What is it like on a day-to-day basis?

Amazing. It's opened my eyes to all the opportunities out there. Most importantly, now that I'm doing something I love, and am rewarded well for it, it's really easy to motivate myself and I have fun with what I do. I can't stress that enough. Of course there are challenges, but feeling good about my contributions and mentoring the next generation of up-and-comers sure beats everything else I can imagine doing if I didn't take risks. For me, I push myself to keep things fast-paced, so my day-to-day is more packed than others.

What made you feel "ready" to commit yourself to your current identity? What were your growing pains?

In terms of growing pains, I'd say the biggest one is how long it may take to reach a goal. Sometimes there are things outside of your control that you just have to concede to. If it was really meant to be, I've found that the opportunity may present itself again, sometimes in a slightly different form. You just need to be ready to seize it. I can't write any more (gotta go do things!) but memail me if you have q's.
posted by hampanda at 11:37 AM on February 27, 2011

You will find this book relevant:
What should I do with my life, by Po Bronson
posted by gmarceau at 12:15 PM on February 27, 2011

If I have this right, you want stories from people who "make a big difference" and have "strong personal and professional identities." I'm not sure whether I qualify, but I think I might. Success certainly did not happen all at once, and unless you're J.K. Rowlings, it won't.

But seriously -- what are you asking here? I know people have asked you to stop threadsitting, but I don't understand what you're asking. Is a physician someone who makes a difference and has a strong professional identity? A lawyer? Do you have to be Gordon Ramsay or Donald Trump? Is any notable level of professional success compared to the general population sufficient? And what is a strong personal identity?

I tend to think that "who do I want to be" and "what do I want to do" are two distinct questions, especially when you're starting out, and it's worrisome to me that you seem to be conflating them. I also think a large measure of flexibility and openness and willingness to adapt is pretty crucial to success (and you're projecting that you're kind of the opposite of that) -- for every successful person who decides exactly what she is going to do and never deviates from that plan, there are many, many, many more who do not wind up exactly where they expected or planned.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:38 PM on February 27, 2011

It feels like there are two things to respond to - one, being great and making a big difference; two, having a strong professional identity. I have a strong professional identity, and it's come out of doing various things, finding what stuck with me and what I loved about it and what made me rave to my friends and partner about how cool it was, and then just chasing that aspect of things further and further along.

But my standard for 'change the world' is pretty high, and I definitely don't meet it. Neither do the vast majority of even dedicated fiction writers, professors, or entrepreneurs (exceptions: writers and professors who inspire massive political action, professors who make big scientific discoveries, entrepreneurs who are in the right place at the right time to revolutionize or create an entire industry). So I'm going by your examples instead of by what 'being great' would mean to me.
posted by Lady Li at 2:01 PM on February 27, 2011

I fell into my general career area (show biz/film/TV) but I carved out my narrow little specialty niche, which has been more fun, lucrative and successful than I had actually expected.

I took a honest look at my most developed abilities (strong visual sense, keen negotiator) and where they could be the most useful. I also took a hard look at my general personality (great social skills, flexible, easily bored), and figured out how these traits could mesh with the momentum I already had, career-wise, and the goals I had set. Now, I could have become an agent for cinematographers or work in a fine art auction house, but I chose something else. And I could evolve this into something else and probably will.

I think you have to be able to assess yourself accurately, not in a rosy "I am special" way. If you're shy and easily discouraged, sales/marketing/advertising aren't for you. If you're not a detail person--then don't try to force yourself into a world that needs the picky.

I think a strong professional identity is more accurately described as having integrity (I do what I say I'm going to do), follow-through, determination, etc. more than being the lawyer who writes crime novels. That's what the person does, not who she is.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:06 PM on February 27, 2011

I'm not sure I'm that important or successful or am making a difference, but I'll share if it helps, as my story may be interesting.

This, by the way, is good: "The difference between someone who just has a bunch of ideas that they bore people with at dinner parties and someone who actually achieves something is following through." (from upthread)

I always wanted to be a librarian. Got my degree and my postgrad but had undermined myself by being out of libraries in between. Worked at library supplier and worked my way up the chain although not managing too many people - was successful. Didn't really find it interesting.

Downsized with partner, moved cities, and started a non-professional library job while he did a masters. Happier than ever before. Hooray!

Library job got mucked around a bit. Had been doing writing and proof-reading on the side for years, for free. A colleague asked if I could proof-read some masters dissertations for students as he knew I did that kind of thing. The impetus I needed! Set up as a sole trader registered for tax, did a web page, earned a little on the side for a year.

Then I decided to commit to it properly. Did a better webpage, put posters up, joined some networking groups (online membership only), pushed myself out there. The result: business is booming, I am proud of myself and confident, and I describe myself as a freelancer or small business owner.

I'm nearly 40 - and this is not the career I envisaged originally. But I'm really happy, and making enough money to live.
posted by LyzzyBee at 4:10 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I’m very ambivalent about whether I should give this a stab or not, because I think it is hard to define what meets the criteria for “strong personal/professional identity” (by what standards?). However, I’ll try to answer this because I do feel that I did achieve some large goals (for me), and often the odds were against me.

The one that springs to mind as the most recent and relevant "big goals/ambitions" are 1) changing professional fields (leaving academia and getting into a new field, without much experience, in a field that I wanted, in a place that I wanted to live, and at a better salary than I earned in the past) and 2) starting my own small business (enough so that I don’t have to work at a fulltime job anymore). I do feel like I beat the odds for that last goal because I even had friends that disapproved of this idea, nodded their heads in disapproval and in a few cases, gave me lectures and or laughed about it. Now some of those same pple not only want to start their own businesses, but at least one person even asked me if I would hire them(?!).

What the process was like and how did you commit to the idea?

I will be honest and say that I often see alternatives (let’s say working for someone else at a corporate job) as a far worse option, so I am also motivated once I start along a path to not go back.

I’m going to sound like a crazy person here, but I often make sure that once I have a clear plan and I am ready to commit to the few ideas that I have – I make sure that I have no other options and do commit to it 100%. For example, unlike other pple who may test the waters by working fulltime while working part time to start a business…for me, I commit to the idea fully by making sure that I only have one direction to go, so that may mean quitting a job and working on the business or just moving away from a place so that there is no going back (again, this works for me). In other words, I actually do chain the wolf to the door and make it the motivating factor for me.

Another part of the process for me is to initially collect a lot of information (ask questions, everywhere – including in person or online-to people who are likely to have met this goal in the past to see if I can get a new angle or picture). To be honest, I also shut out the naysayers during that time (you know the friends that I refer to above? I didn’t tell them half these goals during that time because to me, I didn’t need to hear how it could not be done, only how it could be and possible solutions). Then you try different things, and you know it worked when you get to that point (you get the new job or the business earns X/year, etc., whatever the goal is or was).

What were (and still are) your growing pains?

Overcoming fear. Fear that the wolf chained to the door will eat me. Fear that I am wrong and fear that I will have to go back to do what I identified as not wanting to do (e.g. back to a 9-to-5 job, whatever). Afraid that even after I have possibly achieved something (like successfully starting a business that covers my living costs), if I now take a step towards a new goal to grow the business by hiring pple it will all go up in a ball of flames.

How do I overcome this? Talk to people who were on the path before me (if I can) and also talk to people who may think about the problem(s) from another perspective.

Making plans to mitigate the unknown risk factors helped me, too. So for example, when I quit the job, I knew that I had savings for a few months and at least 1 client. So if my plan didn’t work, well, a few months later you get another job; so in actuality, there was nothing to lose. Also, even if my crazy plan failed, then I learned something along the way and next time it is/was far more likely to succeed.

My new goal is to now hire other people, I’ll probably try it on a part-time basis, and put aside an allocated amount…that way, I’m not risking everything. I will learn if this helps my business (or not) and if this is something that I want to do. But where I am going with this is that it is not all or none, if you try it this does not = poverty or failure.
posted by Wolfster at 12:14 PM on February 28, 2011

Perhaps too late to answer a question from so far back. If not, my thoughts are that the fundamental aspect is the personal process, and the key for me was quite simple - to stop being frightened. And then, most importantly, to stop imagining that I could control my life and instead to just to allow things to happen in accordance with their nature. I simply let go and watched what happened to me.

After that things happened fast, and the process continued for about 20 years. If examples are useful, I quickly became wealthy through setting up interesting things like: writing a brochure for a local conservation movement (no previous experience); becoming a professional writer for four years, publishing internationally; running a deep sea fishing trawler; starting a factory, a breakfast bar, an insurance agency, a tourist beach . . . and so on. So day to day was simply fascinating, never knowing what would happen next. There was no pattern, no plan, events simply occurred and I believe I succeeded because I was content to let things happen, and not try to make life be what I wanted it to be. I now do the best work I've ever done, as a therapist earning almost no money and receiving huge job satisfaction. So I recommend that you accept that you are not in control, just allow life to unfold and don't be afraid. Good Luck.
posted by nickji at 11:56 AM on October 23, 2011

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