Just about ten years ago, I had my future all mapped out. I knew I was going to marry Kyle (he was slow and would take another three years before he got on board). I knew we were going to have kids and Kyle was going to stay home and raise them. I also knew that we were going to be fabulously wealthy because I was going to be a lawyer.
Until I decided on law school, my personal career path was a hot mess. One of the crummiest realities of life is that you’re presented with a ton of paths between the ages of 18 and 23. Do you marry this person, find someone else, or go it on your own for a while? Do you go to college, go for vocational training, or start an entry level position and work your way up? If you do pick college, which degree will you go for? That decision alone will shape your career prospects, your social circles, and the bracket of income that you can shoot for realistically. So you wander around career fairs and make decisions based on the dumb things you think are important in your early twenties.
If you’re lucky, you hit the nail on the head. If you’re unlucky, you get sent down a rabbit hole that doesn’t feel right and at some point you realize that (even though you’ve fallen a considerable distance), it’s probably a good idea to climb back out.
I chose law because I had the ability to get into a good program, I knew I could do the work, and I wanted to pick something impressive that would make me a lot of money. Amazingly, I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer even before I left for law school, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself and I very much wanted to go to Ohio to be with Kyle, so getting into the law school at the Ohio State University solved many problems all at once. I think on some level, I thought maybe I would change my mind once I had the training to be an attorney.
I will say that I didn’t exactly give law the old college try. I showed up knowing that it probably wasn’t for me, even though I had my law books and my little suits and all of my notebooks with my classes written on them. My head just wasn’t in the game. I found myself surrounded by people who loved it (LOVED IT) and they followed trials in their spare time and chatted excitedly about the kinds of law they wanted to practice.
I wrote in my spare time. Blogs, essays, short stories, and even entire novels that will never see the light of day because fiction is notsomuch my thing. I also took photos and learned to cook new recipes and positively lived for long talks with friends. I only went to class enough to not fail and I received a string of grades that landed me solidly in the middle of my peers. Professors forgot me and I’m fairly sure that only a handful of people from law school would remember who I am. I was barely there.
I did the reading and wrote the essays, but when it came to being an almost-lawyer, I had no great talent. I stunk in mock trial because I didn’t care who won and I didn’t even try for law journals because that kind of writing made me glaze over like a donut. But still, I kept signing up for classes and paying tuition and moving forward because the idea of walking away after a year of law school (or two years or three years) just because I didn’t feel like going…not responsible. Especially when what you feel like doing is writing and taking photos.
It took a couple of years and a series of signs from the universe to make me realize that I didn’t have a future in law. It was terrifying at first to think about walking away with all those loans and no chance of getting that cushy income I had imagined, but it was worse to think about dragging myself to an office everyday to represent clients when I knew that I would never be very good at being an attorney. I was also the worst version of myself when I was in law school and I didn’t want to be that friend/wife/mom. So I walked away, irresponsibly.
Now I have my dream job and I’ve never regretted not being a lawyer. Thank heavens.
If you’re thinking about making a similar choice, here are 10 things I learned. I doubt all will apply to everyone, but I’m hoping that at least some of them help you in your decision:
1 /// Jumping from a responsible job to your dream job is probably not a straight line. In my case, I worked odd jobs until I was able to make enough to focus on writing full-time. That meant swallowing my pride to take on entry-level positions that made just enough to cover things like our groceries in addition to my student loans. For other friends, it has meant years of working your responsible job during the day and your dream job at night so you have a cushion before you make the leap.
2 /// Learn as much as you can about your dream job. I love what I do, but there are a lot of things about blogging that I didn’t know before I started. For example, at a blog conference it was revealed that half the people in the room were living without health insurance because they couldn’t afford it. Most bloggers I know also ghostwrite, work as virtual assistants, or have day jobs they don’t love because they can’t make enough consistent income from blogging. I also didn’t know about filing taxes when you’re self-employed…a nightmare lesson to learn along the way.
3 /// Don’t invest too much all at once. I would say that over the years I’ve spent about two thousand unnecessary dollars investing in blog-related things that didn’t work out, the majority of that spending being in the first year. That’s small for someone who has their own business, but it’s still a fair chunk of change in our world. Be careful. Throwing money at a situation isn’t always enough to make it thrive.
4 /// Don’t rely on support, either emotional or financial. I feel a little silly saying that since I do rely on Kyle for both at times, as he provides the health insurance and I wouldn’t be able to cover all of the household bills if his income vanished. I think you should be able to go it alone, though, even if that means being really really poor or really really lonely sometimes. If the reason that your new path didn’t work is because your spouse wouldn’t give you money or your parents disapproved, you’re probably not quite ready to make the shift. The support might never happen, but if you give it enough time you can get along without it. My dad still doesn’t understand what I do for a living and at some point I realized that everyone in his office thinks I’m a sex hotline worker. (My dad has a weird sense of humor.)
5 /// Have a 3, 6, 12 plan for failure. If you’re not making your dream job work at three months, will you keep going? At six months? At a year? Knowing when to step away and regroup is important because it will keep you from finding yourself in a desperate place that you didn’t want to reach.
6 /// Have a 3, 6, 12 plan for success as well. If you’re leaving your job to do something creative, like opening your own business or selling your artwork, you need to come up with benchmarks that will tell you if you’re making it. A million dollars in sales after 3 months isn’t realistic, but if you’ve made $3,000 does that mean you’re doing OK? Define it before you make the leap to keep your perspective in check.
7 /// Live cheap, even if you don’t have to. The first time I had a surge of income from my writing, I think we went to Walt Disney World. I’m pretty sure the second surge bought us a treadmill. That’s fun and all, but if you’re going out on a limb you’re probably going to have a few lean seasons. Spending the first couple of years acting like you have no money will keep you from feeling flattened if you hit a dry patch later on.
8 /// Keep learning. The best investments I’ve made for my career as a writer have been conferences and trainings where I’ve been able to expand my network. I also love learning about this field because it’s my passion, so if the thought of studying your new field sounds like a chore…that’s a pretty big indicator that this might not be your dream job.
9 /// Leave some breadcrumbs behind you. I’m five years out of working in the field of law, but I still keep up with what’s going on locally for the type of law I was doing and if I really needed to get a responsible job I have contacts here and in Ohio who could help me. I’m hoping I’m never in that place, but it makes sense to help myself now just in case. Whatever you do, don’t burn bridges! It is never ever ever worth it.
10 /// Know that your endpoint isn’t really an endpoint. When I stopped working in law, my dream was to be able to support my family with my website about Disney weddings. I was able to reach a decent income after about a solid year of work, but that’s gone up and down since then as other things have captured my attention. I still have (and love) that site, but I now do all sorts of other things and I have big projects on the horizon that I’m excited about. Some of it involves more risk, but at the end of the day I really prefer to be challenged than comfortable. If you’re considering making the leap from responsible, you’re probably in the same boat!
Good luck! Any other tips you’d like to share?