Hiding From Our Life's Work Behind Our Careers


Is your career helping you do your life's work - or standing in the way? Steven Pressfield poses this question - among many others - in his book Turning Pro. He claims that many of us have "shadow careers":

"Sometimes, when we're terrified of embracing our true calling, we'll pursue a shadow career instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its  contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us." - Steven Pressfield

When I read that passage, my mind screamed YES! I'd never have been able to put it into words, but Pressfield's description matches something I've witnessed - and experienced - time and again.

The tricky thing about shadow careers is that they look productive. We can easily convince ourselves and others that we are doing something with our lives, that we are pursuing something important, that we are attempting to making a life worth living.

All the while, though, we know deep down that it's just a ruse. We're taking the easy path - even if the career itself is excruciatingly difficult.

For while we may be doing work that is meaningful to somebody, it's not actually meaningful to ourselves. And as we've talked about in the past, the "meaningful to the self" piece is what actually matters to our well-being.

My Shadow Career

I "get" shadow careers not only because I've seen countless career coaching clients and alumni in them, but because I jumped whole-heartedly into one myself.

I recklessly launched myself into a PhD program straight out of undergrad to create a sense of productivity...and to run from my true desires to build a creative, entrepreneurial life.

I was a stress addict at the time; stress made me physically ill and miserable, but I didn't know how to live without it. What better way to escape what I feared most - living a self-driven, inventive life I'd imagine - than by plunging headlong into my addiction?

I did exactly what Pressfield says:

"Sometimes the reason we choose these [shadow] careers (consciously or unconsciously) is to produce incapacity. Resistance is diabolical. It can harness our drive for greatness and our instinct for professionalism and yoke them, instead, to a shadow profession, whose demands will keep us from turning our energies toward their true course.

Sometimes it's easier to be a professional in a shadow career than it is to turn pro in our real calling." - Steven Pressfield

Time is of the Essence

The good news is that once we recognize our own attempts to hide from our life's work, we can start to make change. For me, that came on the day I broke down from the stress of a statistics final exam - and finally realized that I was sick of being stressed out about tasks and assignments I didn't care one iota about.

Luckily I was only 23 at the time.

I firmly believe that the twenties are when we can most easily make a change and set a healthy course for our lives, a claim Meg Jay has popularized recently.

Pressfield seems to agree, writing:

"The shadow life...is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to go back." - Steven Pressfield

Hope is never lost, of course, but it typically takes twice as long to uncover the genuine desires of the fortysomethings I coach compared to the twentysomethings.

The younger we are, the less we've poured into our shadow careers and all the delusions that necessarily accompany it - the self-talk claiming, "maybe this is what I always wanted out of life," and "I might not love this work, but I could grow to love it, so I just need to keep giving it time" and, worst of all, "I was just an idealistic child when I wanted to do my dream job; now I'm an adult who needs to be serious about my work."

Make change before you've buried yourself so far beneath your shadow career deception that you can't manage your way to the sunlight, even if you thought to try.

How to Discard a Shadow Career

So if we need to make change, how can we do it?

Here's the advice from Turning Pro:

"If you're dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will point you toward your true calling." - Steven Pressfield

As examples of metaphors, Pressfield points to a person working on a Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because she's afraid of writing her own plays, or someone working in a support capacity for an innovator that he secretly wishes he could be himself.

In my life, my shadow career closely approximated my genuine desires to support human development through writing and one-on-one work. I was writing (research papers). I was working one-on-one (with students). That I wasn't actually writing anything creative - anything that was truly mine - or wasn't building a client base all my own? Small differences.

Except they weren't small. They were huge. Ginormous. Gargantuan.

They were the difference between feeling I was living my purpose and feeling like I was merely existing. The difference between flourishing and languishing. The difference between joy and suffering.

Getting clear on the impact we want to make on the world can help us find the metaphor in our shadow career, and then, bit by bit, one delusion at a time, we can break free from it.

Have you had a shadow career? If so, how did you break free?

(Note:  In the coming weeks, I'll be unveiling my strategies for uncovering your desired impact. I'm determined to help you make your shadow career a thing of the past - one component at a time!)

Photo credit: kevin dooley