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Entries in practice (1)

Thursday
Apr252013

dream jobification

Sometimes my day job can be such a day job. Meetings and deadlines and demands and fielding some weird combination of professional concern and personal anxiety from all corners and from everyone in the office (including me). There are days when I wake up thinking, "Wow, I used to love this job. Right now I feel like I could be happier working on a pig farm." 

Except I wouldn't. I know I wouldn't. Because frankly, there are aspects of my job that make it the best job I've ever had. I'm respected by the people I work with. I'm known to be a contributor, a hustler, an asset to the company. I'm an influence on company culture here, and I've been told I'm a good one. I feel vital to the company's goals and mission, and that's an amazing feeling.

Of course there are days when it's hard to face the work. Any time you're doing something worthwhile, something that builds and grows and makes the world better even in a slight way, eventually the adversary of us all will take notice and try to flick you off track. But let's say you don't "buy in" to Kevin's "wacky Christian philosophy"—in that case we'll just say that sometimes even the best job has challenges we don't really want to face, and that makes it tough to get out of bed.

It's especially tough when your job, even if it's a great job, isn't really your dream job. If you have a dream that doesn't involve working for someone else, or involves working in a different industry or doing a specific kind of work, and your current gig doesn't seem to support that, all of the challenges start to feel pretty heavy. 

In his book Quitter, Jon Acuff writes about the concept of thinking of your day job as an opportunity to practice for your dream job. I had never quite put it into those words, but that's a great way of thinking about my "recent" (as in, over the past four years or so) approach to my career.

I'm a writer. When I was a kid I wrote a book on both sides of about five pieces of lined notebook paper (top that, other second graders!). I used to dictate Encyclopedia Brown-esque short stories into a tape recorder and play them back for the amusement of my mom as she washed dishes. I wrote short stories that my step-dad actually found moving enough to include in our family Bible study. Some of my stories and papers got kudos and approval from my teachers, and I actually won a scholarship for something I wrote off the cuff in less than 10 minutes (because I had forgotten to do the assignment during the week prior). So you could say that my whole life I wanted to be a writer, wanted to tell a story, wanted to move people, and I've done that.

But I never wanted to be a Copywriter. I never wanted to be a Creative Director. I never wanted to work in advertising or work for a software company. These weren't on the list. And for a while there, some of these realities seemed to work against my dream. I became bitter and resentful and flat-out angry because "All of you are dream killers!"

Except they weren't. And the dream wasn't dead. I kept at it, in fact, in my spare time. And over time, it sort of ... changed. Most of that change was due to the fact that what I thought was my dream was really just that ... a dream. It couldn't be real, because it wasn't realistic. I had dreamt of essentially waking up to find whole manuscripts sitting there waiting for me to fire off to a publisher, who would gleefully print them without any further work needed on my part, and then send me gobs and gobs of money that I'd use to buy my exact working replica of the Starship Enterprise, so I could sail into the far reaches of space with Spider-man and Alyssa Milano as my companions in adventure. I love my dream.

What my dream became, though, as I learned more about the work, about the world, and about myself was the realistic version. I could write books, and I could sell them. That's real. But I'd have to work at them. I'd have to craft them. I'd have to work hard and learn and apply what I'd learned, and be prepared for my attempts to meet with failure. Failure has always been a possibility. It just doesn't have to be an end.

And my day jobs? I hadn't realized it before, but every day job I've had, every dream-killing block of work I had to endure, has actually been practice for my dream job. I've learned how to have a work ethic, how to manage time and resources, how to do research, how to build and lead a team that can support me. I've learned how to overcome my own laziness and do the work I have to do, to meet deadlines, to get along with co-workers, and to be honorable in what I do.

It's true, the day jobs aren't always ideal, or fun. But that's mostly because I'm the one making them torturous. If instead of ticking off each day on a mental calendar of anguish, counting down to the weekend, what if I spent those days thinking in terms of "How can I use this as practice for my dream job?" What if I looked at tiffs and dust-ups with my team as practice for dealing with clients or publishers or agents or readers? What if I looked at each day as an opportunity to get my "brand" in order, to establish how people think of me and what they come to me for? What if I used each day as a way to define myself to myself? 

I do this now, and have for a while, so I can cheat and give you the results up front: This friggin' works. 

Seriously, it works. It works so well you'll start wondering why you were dumb enough to do it another way all along. You can use your day job to fine tune your life and prepare for and build to your dream job. You can turn something that seems hard and useless into a challenge with great worth. 

So what's the trick? 

Caring. Loving. Looking. Listening. Paying attention and giving focus. Pausing before speaking, responding from a place of love and understanding. 

Easy? Nope. Hard. Really hard. That's why we're calling it "practice."

You will likely mess up from time to time or all the time. But when you do, you can take a few minutes to analyze that mess up and learn from it. You can try again the next day. If your screw up causes you to lose your day job, you can learn from that too, and take that knowledge into your next job.

I'm not just blowing smoke here, I've done this. I was let go from a couple of jobs because of my attitude. I was, at times, lazy and angry and rude and egotistical. I regret it all. But beyond regret, I learned from it all. And now I'm much better. And getting better all the time. Because I've had practice.

And when it's time for my dream job to become my day job, I'll be ready for it, because I didn't let the dream die while I learned how to live it. 

Now it's your turn.