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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow up?

Let’s face it, creative people never really grow up.

Sure, we get better at doing the ‘adult’ things, like showing up for work, filing tax returns, doing the housework, remembering to vote.

But there’s always a little part of us that refuses to think and act like an adult all the time. The part that likes to dream, that likes to think anything is possible. The part that makes us insist on doing something fascinating, meaningful, challenging and enjoyable for a living.

The part that makes us creative.

If you’re reading this, then you’re either doing something creative for a living — or you aspire to do it someday. You may be an artist, writer, actor, designer, filmmaker, or pursuing another artistic profession. Or you may work in another field that conventional wisdom wouldn’t instantly label ‘creative’ — such as XYZ. But you take a creative approach to your work — solving problems, thinking up new ideas and making them happen — that transforms whatever you do into a creative enterprise.

So that’s what you ‘do’. But a job description isn’t the same as an ambition. What’s your ambition for yourself?

  • To earn a living doing work you love?
  • To be like your creative heroes?
  • To be the best in your industry?
  • To become rich and famous?
  • To have thousands of adoring fans?
  • To have the respect of your peers?

Don’t be shy. Admit your ambition, even if it’s only to yourself. Otherwise you’ll squash it — and no matter how successful you are in whatever else you do, you’ll always be dissatisfied.

Now let’s look at your ambitions for your work. What do you want to achieve through it?

  • To surprise, delight and entertain people?
  • To show them a different way of looking at the world?
  • To change the way they think and act?
  • To solve important problems?
  • To inspire or teach?
  • To change the world?

Don’t be timid. All of these things are humanly possible, and you are a human. But be honest with yourself as well. Make sure it’s something you genuinely, passionately want to do. If you’d rather make people laugh than solve climate change, that’s cool. Better to be a stellar comedian than a half-hearted activist.

How are we doing so far?

Do you have a clear and compelling image of your future self, beckoning you to fulfil your dreams? If so, great. But don’t worry if you don’t have it yet, or if the picture’s still a bit fuzzy. One of the great things about a creative career is the joy of discovery, as you learn about new opportunities and discover previously hidden talents in yourself.

The thing is, life is constantly giving us little clues about our dreams and ambitions — when we’re on the path to fulfilling them, and when we’ve strayed away from it. It’s a little bit like playing hunt the thimble.

You remember the rules of the thimble, from when you were a kid. One player goes out of the room, while the others hide the thimble. When the hunter comes back, she has to find the thimble. The others are not allowed to tell her where it is — that would spoil the game. But as she walks around the room, their job is to give feedback. Whenever she moves towards the thimble, they tell her she’s getting ‘warmer’. And whenever she moves away from it, they tell her she’s getting cooler. So through a process of trial, error and feedback she eventually claims the prize.

Your career is a game of hunt the thimble. You’re the hunter. So who are the other players? Your emotions. Whenever you’re doing work that brings you closer to fulfilling your creative ambitions, you get the ‘warm’ signal — feelings of curiosity, excitement, fascination and joy. And whenever you spend your time on work that isn’t really you (like that sensible job that pays the bills but corrodes your soul) you get the ‘cold’ signal — feelings of boredom, frustration, resentment and even depression.

Have a look back at your career so far. Which tasks, projects and jobs have brought you the strongest warm signals? And which activities have left you completely cold? What does that tell you about how you should be spending your time, and what you want to achieve with it?

From this point on, every day when you show up for work, pay attention to those warm and cold signals. Notice what they’re telling you about how you’re spending your time. Notice what they’re nudging you to do.

And notice what that little voice in your head has to say about it. The one that’s always counselling you to be careful, be sensible, and not to rock the boat. Does it typically agree or disagree with the signals you get from your emotions?

And if they disagree, which side should you listen to? Only you can decide that, but I think you know which side I’m on.

What’s that?

Oh that. Yes, I know what that is. It’s the little little twinge of fear that’s telling you if you go down that path — the path of pursuing your creative dreams — you’ll be stepping outside your comfort zone, and Bad Things Might Happen.

And you know what? The fear is absolutely right. Bad things might indeed happen. There are no guarantees, no safety nets in life. In fact, if you’re doing something original, that’s never been attempted before, there’s quite a high probability that some bad things will happen, somewhere along the way.

But how bad is bad? After all, it’s only going to be the end of the world once. Everything else, however bad it might feel the time, is temporary. Like it or not, you’ll come through it. And if you pay attention, you can learn a lot from it.

What’s the worst that could happen? Imagine putting that in one half of a set of scales. What’s the best that could happen? Put that in the other scale. Which way does the balance tilt?

In India, there is an ancient saying: “Better to fail in your own destiny then succeed in someone else’s.” If your chosen path is a safe bet, then it’s a safe bet it’s not your real ambition. You can aim higher than that, and you know it.

Okay, that’s the right-brain, touchy-feely, ‘do what you love’ approach to career goal setting. Maybe you will now rest up and raring to go, or maybe you’re still not completely comfortable with it. Maybe you like the idea, but you’re concerned about financial security and you’re still wondering whether you should opt for the boring-but-sensible job, and keep your creativity for evening classes and weekends.

It’s your life, so it’s entirely up to you — but before you decide, at least read the next e-mail, in which I’ll explain why choosing the safe option could be extremely dangerous. And why following your dreams could be the most sensible decision you ever make….

This lesson is part 12 of a 20-part free e-mail course, How to Succeed As a Creative Professional. If you landed on this page via a link from a friend, Twitter, Facebook etc, you can learn more about the course and sign up here.