November 2, 2015

WTF Should I Be When I Grow Up?


A self portrait by Mr. Clay

One of my good friends is a neoclassical realist portrait painter (His name is Landon Clay, and you can check out his work here). He specializes in lifelike oil paintings of the human figure. He wants to be a famous artist when he grows up, so he paints for 14 hours a day.  

We all have those friends who just KNOW what they want to do with their lives and they’re doing it. If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of things you want to do, and you’re blessed to have a myriad of options with how you could be spending your time. But how do you choose? Here’s the story of how I did.

I prefer to think of myself as a metaphorical painter and my life as a canvas. While I could focus on becoming really good at one style of painting, like say neoclassical realism, I don’t have the conviction like my friend Mr. Clay. Instead I get to fill in corners of that canvas with the exploits and creations of my life, some as fine detailed drawings and others as broad brush strokes thrown in passion, rage, and conviction. But the question remains: how the hell do I know what to paint?

I boil it down to three things I value in life. These are the three things I want to be remembered for long after I’m gone. Simultaneously, these are things I love doing. They’re not finite goals – things that can actually be “accomplished”, but pursuits. In a word – they are my personal values tied up with my dreams.

When you can define your three values and ensure that you’re doing them in any job you have, any company you start, any consulting gig you work on, you’ll gradually be making progress towards figuring out when you when to be when you grow up. As soon as a project or a gig diverts away from those three things and focuses on something else, it’s time to move on.

By that process of elimination, I’ve been able to constantly work towards becoming the person I want to be remembered for, always inching towards mastery of those passions I hold dear.

Quickly grab a pen and paper – write down the three things you love doing and the three things you value most in life. They don’t have to be the same things – but if none of those six align, and none of those six apply to your current career, ask yourself what you’re working towards. What will your canvas look like at the end of your life?

Today, I make sure to remember these values when I get in a rut. It took me years to define them, and I wanted to share what they are and how I was able to decipher that they are my calling:

Telling Stories

When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I’d been obsessed with reading since I was a child and that career seemed like a natural extension of my love of fiction. And while I take immense pleasure from putting pen to paper, the act of producing something I’m proud of is like banging my head against a wall and hoping that the wall will move.

My favorite writers were those who lived lives outside of academia, outside of the pages of their own books, and instead brought their experience living a diverse set of lives back to the page. Kurt Vonnegut was famously a chemist, an employee at GE, a soldier, and a used Saab salesman. Charles Bukowski worked at the post office.

Vonnegut used to doodle on his stationary at work.

Vonnegut used to doodle on his stationary at work.

Simultaneously, I realized that the written word was only one way to tell stories. I loved films and plays and poems, but more than anything I was intrigued by the ways in which the web was opening up a whole new world of storytelling, not only by creating platforms where new voices could emerge, but by connecting people with each other and with unprecedented audiences.

I started to wonder if trying to build the next generation of printing presses wasn’t more inspiring that writing the content that they churned out. At WeVue, I get to build tools and work with organizations that empower people to tell the stories of how and why they do what they do. That brings me more joy than any blog post I’ve ever written…and the best part: I still get to write blog posts! 

Creating Things Bigger Than Myself

During my adolescent years of self discovery, I got involved in theater. There I learned the joy of co-creation.

Making something more complex and layered than is possible via sole authorship seemed to me the highest calling of an artist.

So I became a “producer” and worked on theatrical pieces where the stories we told were more compelling than the stories I told myself because they involved a set of actors, a writer, a director, set designers, etc.

Those adventures taught me that my skill set extended well beyond just telling stories and that I found joy in being able to pull together a diverse group of people to create something bigger than any one of us could have pulled off together.

I also learned that I liked to sell and I liked to market both my own work and the work of others.

Helping People

My first job out of college was for an advertising technology company. While I was fascinated by the fact that the system we built was able to process billions of data points and help advertisers serve up the right product to the right audience, I didn’t feel like my job was actually helping anyone.

I justified my work, thinking that advertising was what made the internet free – it was what allowed people to tell stories on these wonderful new platforms, and by being a cog in that machine I was doing my part to help maintain a free and open web.

And that story worked for awhile – I learned how to tell stories about companies and products in order to better connect them with their audiences. I learned that complex, technological systems where the greatest works of co-creation I’d ever imagined, built not only by teams with diverse skill sets but on top of code bases and languages invented by giants of the recent past.

But I wasn’t really helping people. I wasn’t telling the stories I wanted to tell, and I wasn’t co-creating something that I personally valued. When that realization outweighed the fact that I was making strides in filling out the canvas of my life in those three areas, I knew it was time to grow up and be something else.

Follow your Values

Starting a company is not for the faint of heart, but more than painting, working as an account manager, writing alone in a room, or anything else I’ve come across so far – it allows me to tell stories, co-create, and help people every day.

If you can identify and articulate your values, you’ll be more easily able to not only identify the type of job you want but also to articulate why you should have it. People hire people. Unless you’re applying for a job as a javascript developer or a neoclassical realist portrait oil painter, chances are the person interviewing you is looking more for you to incorporate a set of values, and experience related to those values, than to embody one set of specific skills or work history.

Likewise, if you don’t know exactly what you want to be when you grow up, working for a company comprised of people that embody what you find important in life will help show you the way towards how to pursue those values to the best of your ability.

After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ”Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.’’

When I interviewed my friend Mr. Clay, the portrait artist, for this piece he reminded me that before he drew all the time, he played music, he studied art history, he was an anthropologist, and eventually he found himself drawing…all the time. He valued creation, but only through a process of elimination was he able to find his way towards painting full time.  

If you’re unsure if you should draw, write, sing, paint, design, code – identify those things in your life you truly value and make sure the work you’re doing leads you down a path towards living those values every day. You’ll eventually stop worrying about what you want to be when you grow up…you’ll just be it.

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