I was always envious of people that could articulate their dreams. You know, the kids that had thoughtful answers for, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Regardless if it was a traditional dream (a doctor) or an unusual one (a graffiti artist), deep passion guided them through life’s decision tree.
Sadly, I lacked a guiding dream. My only teenage aspiration was making out with my secret crush, James Lovington*, at a Pearl Jam concert. When pushed to “think bigger,” I nervously told people that, of course, someday I’d be doing “dream stuff.” Perhaps I could land a job writing limericks about mosh pit makeouts?
My parents encouraged me to get a well paying job to support this nebulous “dream stuff” with a regular paycheck. My friends, all mini Sheryl Sandberg’s, agreed. “Figure out a goal and make a linear path,” they said.
So I did what I was told and started climbing that decision tree. I got a B.A. in Economics and an M.B.A in Marketing. A “safe job” at a management consulting firm built my resume while padding my bank account. I frequented cocktail parties in fashionable dresses, sashaying through the city’s elite, securing the interest of “suitable men.” We spoke politely about the fog while biting into miniscule hors d’oeuvres. My life came in perfect size 4, including the canapés. On paper it seemed as though I was doing all of the right things. Yet as each year went by I felt conformity setting around me like concrete. I didn’t know what my dream was, but this sure as hell wasn’t it. It was time to escape and figure out this “dream stuff” before I’d become permanently stuck.
At age 30 I did what I wasn’t supposed to do. I quit my job, my relationship, and San Francisco. I used my picket fence fund to spend 6 months traveling the world, diving into other cultures and non foggy climates. I watched women washing laundry in rivers and men carry babies on motorcycles. Going abroad, however, wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to be another yuppie that “found themselves” in Bali, then came home and lived the same life they always had with the addition of an “Ohm” tattoo on their left ankle.
I yearned to understand different archetypes of American women, especially those who broke free of society’s mandates and braved paths I wasn’t used to. Screw the cocktail dresses- I wanted wetsuits, dungarees, and camo.
My quest for understanding evolved into a 4 month “interview roadtrip” across the United States. I spoke with professional surfers in Southern California about their relationship woes and prostitutes in New Orleans about their career ambitions. As I traveled across the country, I broke bread with soldiers, stay-at-home moms, artists, salsa dancers, disaster relief workers and race car drivers. Women revealed tales of love, violence, failures and aspirations. Every woman sacrificed status for passion and demonstrated intense bravery in carving out a path that their peers didn’t always understand. I listened avidly, hoping to find my dream in theirs.
Through their voices, I found it. Every conversation ignited me with a passion to write it, broadcast it, and connect people over shared struggles and ambitions. My dream was to create impact through the power of words.
When I came back I looked for a job that wasn’t a mere “job,” but rather a way to support my dreams. I spoke with 10 firms before learning that IDEO was hiring. They described their business development role as someone that could listen, solve problems, and tell stories. DING! THIS WAS ME! I sent in my resume and stalked everyone I knew there. Instead of giving me a restraining order, they asked me to visit.
My roadtrip, not my business accolades, was the main interview topic. The design firm wanted to hire someone who could empathize. Afterall, finding inspiration in others is how we innovate ourselves. After my interviews, I sent all my interviewers a poem describing my dream. What I lacked in meter I made up for in passion. The women on my roadtrip had taught me to relentlessly go after what I wanted. I was hired the next day.
Now, three years later, I no longer feel restless. I’m living my dream every day by listening, writing, and connecting to help make an impact in the world. My firm also supports my personal writing on the side, which has become a large part of my identity. Thankfully I’ve moved beyond mosh pit limericks to craft prose on human connections.
I found my dream, but I never saw it as “jump to” destination. I had no idea what it even was until I got out of my comfort zone and immersed myself in life. Once I uncovered it, I had to doggedly pursue it and leave no stone unturned. IDEO could have hired anyone. I had to show them (and myself) that human connection and storytelling was my entire raison d’être and that no one was going to be better at it than me.
If you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, it’s ok.Just throw yourself into the bowels of life. Talk to different people and try new things. The “dream stuff” isn’t always found in your usual routine- it’s found by courageously living and relentless pursuing. You won’t just uncover your dream, but also other people to inspire you along the way. At IDEO we call it “analogous inspiration.” I call it “sucking the marrow out of life.”
My dream continues to evolve. And when I finally did see Pearl Jam play a few years ago, I could much better relate to their songs because I had a richer understanding of humanity. I also had an awesome makeout session.
*name has been changed so my high school crush is never revealed.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post in “When to Jump.”
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