Crafting a Rich, Creative (Debt-Free) Life: An Interview with Novelist P.C. Dettman


Last week we discussed how to pursue creative passions while paying the bills. The best way to truly tackle this topic, though, is to hear from someone who is actively doing it. Enter today's interview!P.C. Dettman is a thirtysomething UK-based fiction writer, software consultant and trainer, blogger, and owner of a business that invests in and advises entertainment industry experts. Not to mention a family man.

In other words, P.C. knows a thing or two about putting food on the table while staying in touch with the creative writing that "found him" when he was 9.

What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome in your 20s? 

My 20s were a total nightmare, even though I had a good job [as a software consultant based in London] and all that sort of stuff ironed out early.

The nightmare came within a year of starting work, and it was simple really: I didn't want any of this stuff. I mean that I wanted nothing of what had been planned out for me, and it hit me so suddenly, like within 6 months or so, that the whole consultancy model was basically evil, it was flawed, and it wasn't right for me.

But the thing was, and the reason this was a total nightmare, is that I had already decided I was never going to do a standard office job. I worked my summers, and I seriously could only do 12 weeks of that before I was bored and demotivated and almost ill actually. It made me really quite low to think of doing 40 years of that.

So I hit the consultancy thing straight out of college, I have all the grades and friends and money and I'm in London and flying around the world every week and getting paid to do that, and I physically hated it. I really did. My body rejected the hours and the exhaustion, and my mind rejected the whole thing. And I had no idea how I could live another year, by which I mean I had no idea how to earn my living if not like that. I just felt there was nothing available to me that would pay the kind of salary that would impress my friends and family. Crazy!

So how are you paying the bills these days?

I've realised that there is no money in writing novels.

Even people I know who have 'real' book deals with 'proper' publishers can't earn enough to do that full time. Realising this would be a hobby and not a job has taken lots of years. That industry is just so hard to get into, even if you put in the legwork and build up some contacts, that a rational person would not become a full-time author.

Right now, I am trying out a few different things to see what works. The good news is that I have a bit of money put aside if times get really tough. Everything I read about saving money I agree with and happily pass on. You can never save enough money. However much money sounds like a lot to you, it isn't. This is the biggest secret in life: there are no rich people. What do I mean by that? I mean however much you have, you can always spend more, and the more you have, the more you run up outgoings like fancy cars and boats and palaces and that stuff - the more you make, the more you need. So nobody is actually rich. I believe this.

I'm dabbling in some theatre investments in the West End (that's our Broadway) and doing some freelance writing, but that doesn't pay too well either.

My main income in future is likely to be from consulting and training people in the various software tools I've become expert at. For me, training is specifically the thing that manages to combine my writing and talking with computers, and at the same time makes some good money. That gives me time and space to pursue the kind of fun things like novels too.

It is a constant juggling act, I never feel that I totally have it down, and I think that's also good. Challenge and uncertainty keep you fresh, as does adversity. You need to face adversity and come through it, and you will no longer be afraid.

Can you tell us more about how you balance creative writing with making money?

In the early part of my career I totally went towards making money at the expense of my creative work. I saw doing a job as the easy option, the easy short-term money option, and it was, and is. The hard part is stepping back, realising it's not working for you, and then figuring out what to do instead. All of that took around 15 years, believe it or not.

Sometimes having kids is when people realise it's time to get a steady job and settle down, but I did it the other way around. I settled down at 18 to do the safe thing and now I feel it's time to do the right thing, the creative thing, and properly give that a try. I want my daughter to know who I am, and know that it's okay not to do the safe thing.

I'm reading Morrissey's book right now. He says something like a safe life is not living. I agree.

What's your advice for 20-somethings as they pursue meaningful, self-driven work?

Whenever you read advice like this, and it's from someone older than 35, I think you get one of two answers. It's sort of along the lines of well, I did the right things and you should follow me and do your time and get promoted and work in an office and have a pension and paid holidays and you'll be comfortable and happy. That's one type of answer, but it's not mine.

My advice is that people need the courage, and it really is courage, to follow their dreams. If you don't do that, you may get through the next five or ten years and have a nice life with a big house and that stuff, but you won't ever be happy. You'll be comfortable, you won't starve or lose your house, but you won't be alive. Your family and friends will think you're awesome and you'll all feel awesome together, but it's a giant lie.

You need even more courage for this if you had an expensive education and you have a professional family, because the unspoken pressure to conform will be gigantic. The second you take a step off the expected path, you'll face criticism either spoken or not, and the further you stray, the greater the pressure from friends and family. Especially if those people are all doing dull office work! Boy, you're going to need nerves of steel but that's what it takes.

Worst case scenario, you end up following the herd, but you won't starve. Best case scenario is that you'll be happier than your old friends from the days when you just did what other people wanted. To me, that's worth taking a chance.

Any closing thoughts?

If I die knowing that I always held myself to certain standards, no matter what else happened, I will have done the right thing, and I'll hopefully be happier that way. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye, when you look in a mirror. I'm my harshest critic, and you need that skill, but you shouldn't dwell on mistakes. Just roll with them and you'll be fine.

As a writer, people always say everything bad or good is just material, and there is truth in that. Your 20s are about finding out who you are, so that you can become a great person, whether that be a parent or a great leader of business or some political thing.

Whatever it is you're aiming for, you need to know yourself before you can do any of it.

Have a question for P.C.? Pop it in the comments below!

How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills


Q:  "What advice would you give to millennials trying to pursue a creative passion in the arts who also need to pay their rent. I'm having a life-crisis trying to figure it out and I think I'm not alone. I expect my passion to become my career but what do I do in the meantime so I'm not racking up debt?" Olive B. Persimmon, @Olivebpersimmon A:  I love this question because it's the story of my twenties.

I wanted to be a fiction writer so I worked extremely hard toward that goal. (The Grand Tally:  10 years; 2 writing groups that met monthly for years on end; 5 week-long writing conferences; 4 weekend writing conference; purchase of enough writing books to currently inhabit 1/10th of a 10 x 20 storage unit; more rejections than I can count; lots of tears; many extraordinary moments of insight).

Following all of THAT, here's my totally subjective advice on making life work when our passion simply won't pay the bills.

1.  Do Not Rack Up Debt

The sentimental image of the starving artist isn't a life I'd suggest. I've known people in this boat; instead of being creatively free, they're too overwhelmed by day-to-day realities to create much of anything.

Instead I used the following formula:

  1. Limit expenses to the bone (monthly budgeting and daily use of cash worked best for me)
  2. Take a job that covers said minimal expenses in the fewest hours necessary (and if it happens to be fulfilling in some way, all the better! Number one consideration:  it must not drain your creative brain)
  3. Use every single free moment to pursue your art. (My typical day:  mornings to create; breakfast and lunch reading or watching artist interviews for inspiration and knowledge; evenings reading masterworks of fiction and/or researching contests and/or putting submission packets together)

I spent years rich on creativity but poor on money, yet without carrying a hair of consumer debt. The stability of work freed me to be fully present for my art.

2.  Learn To Love the Morning

Not a morning person? It may be time to change.

Sure, we can create in the evenings. Late nights work for many people.

That said, I'm a big believer in the age-old advice that if you want to prioritize an activity high, you should do it first thing. When my coaching clients re-order their day in this way, their prized activities suddenly get done. Consistently.

By the evening it's too easy to make excuses. The drag of the day often overpowers the weak willpower that's fighting to get us to sit down in front of the computer or go into the studio. That's human nature, not a character flaw.

So I spent three years diligently waking up at 5am to write fiction. 5am. (Then I got "lazy" and started waking at 6am instead.) Sometimes I felt angry that I "had to" wake up so early, until one day it dawned on me that getting to pursue art in any measure was a genuine luxury. And also that it was my choice to do so.

During my "early rising" period I remarked to a friend:

"By the time I walk in the door of my office, I feel like I've already lived a worthwhile day. Whatever else happens - good or bad - it doesn't matter because I've already had the sort of day I wanted."

Powerful stuff.

3. Treat Your Passion Like Exercise

That said, hard work with no reward can be grating. With a few curse words thrown in.

For all my Grand Tally of fiction work, how many pieces were published?


Do I find this discouraging? I did then. Often. So my uber-athletic husband encouraged a reframe. His questions went something like this:

  • Q:  Do you enjoy the experience of making your art?
    • [A:  Absolutely. The insights I gain into myself and others while creating are second to no experience in the world]
  • Q:  Do you think what you're gaining from doing the work itself is worthwhile?
    • [A:  Yes, it makes me more open to experiences, much happier on a daily basis, more alive, and more authentic]
  • Q:  Then if you never, ever make a dime off of it, or never have anyone read it, wasn't it worth it in and of itself?
    • [A: <begrudging sigh> Yes.]
  • Reframe:  None of us will ever make money nor have an "audience" from exercising yet many of us do it. It's for the experience of it, not the outcome. You get to decide if this is enough. If it isn't, then stop writing. And don't complain about your choice.

He was darn right.

I do not - in the least - regret spending years developing my creative writing skills with no readily-observable "output." Those were some of my most well-lived years of my existence to date. Rich, full, genuine years.

Besides, I have a LOT of short stories my daughter may get a kick out of when she's grown (imagine being able to read what your mom wrote as a twentysomething?!)

Bottomline:  If you don't like something about the act of creating art - not every day, mind you, because sometimes it's a slog! but on many days - then is it really your passion?

4. Think Hard about Convergence

There comes a point, though, when creating without an audience feels a whole heck of a lot like navel gazing.

That's when it's time to consider what Chris Guillebeau calls "convergence" in his book The $100 Startup.

I detail this concept - and how to find it, step by step - in my guest post on a A Young Pro Does Passion Matter? How to Find Your Dream Job, but in short:

Convergence is “the intersection between something you especially like to do or are good at doing (preferably both) and what other people are also interested in…Not everything that you are passionate about or skilled in is interesting to the rest of the world, and not everything is marketable.” - Chris Guillebeau

If we truly need an audience - and their dollars - to continue our pursuits, then we simply have to consider what the world wants and needs. Not what we wish they would want and need.

5. Get Acquainted with Creative Entrepreneurship

Along those lines, the field of creative entrepreneurship has a ton to say about creating financially sustainable art.

My favorite blog on this topic is The Thriving Creative by actor Steven Sparling (who is now studying for his doctorate in the field!).

6. Don't Kick Yourself If Your Art Changes

As  we move from #3 ("I'm creating art for the act of itself") into #4 and #5 ("I need an audience"), our art tends to change. Drastically.

You don't HAVE to make that move, mind you. You can forever pursue your art on the side of a paying job and live a wonderfully full, meaningful, purposeful life.

By 30, though, I was ready to move on. That meant getting 100% clear on the IMPACT I wanted to make through my writing, rather than being hung up on the TYPE of creating I was doing. I came to recognize that my long-standing goal was to enlighten people's understanding of human development and meaningful living.

Fiction is one way to reach that goal. Writing non-fiction magazine and online articles is another.

I suspect you know what path I chose.

This did not occur altogether consciously nor in an instant. It was a subtle shift - mornings spent on fiction some days, on non-fiction others - until I accepted that the reason none of my fiction was being published was because, quite frankly, I didn't want it to be . It stunk and I knew it, so I shot myself in the foot at every turn.

Non-fiction is my forte. In part because of the decade spent developing the craft of writing. Regardless of genre.

Lo and behold, when we accept our strengths - not what we wish our strengths would be - deep satisfaction...and the money...begins to follow.

A parting mantra:  it's not selling out if you're led by what's inside you.

With best wishes to you in pursuing your art, whatever its end,


Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me ( or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit


We face countless job opportunities throughout our lives, whether they be in the form of new positions, promotions, or side hustles. The trick to creating a life filled with meaningful work is knowing which opportunities to accept - and which to reject. During the past month, I've been mulling over an opportunity that, despite being a poor fit, was hard to let go. As I reflected on the (many) times I've said "yes" to opportunities that deserved a "no" - and then paid the price in the form of diminished well-being and less work fulfillment - I began to compile a "list to self" to help guide my future decisions.

When it was complete, I realized the list might be worth sharing. So here it is:  my 10 time-tested signs of a job opportunity that needs to be turned down.

1. Your first reaction was negative.

We know whether we want an opportunity within five seconds of hearing about it.

Did news of the opportunity feel like a punch in the gut or a lift toward the heavens? Did your mind scream, "oh no!" or a joyful "Are you kidding?! Me?!" Did you want to run away or run and tell your neighbors?

These snap judgments aren't throwaways; they're our real thoughts and feelings, as Malcolm Gladwell argued persuasively in Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Just because we can't put the reaction into words doesn't mean it's worthless. In face, this unspoken quality may mean the feedback is even more valuable.

2.  The opportunity feels heady.

The first thing I thought when I entered the gorgeous atrium where my prospective teaching job would be housed was, "Whoa, this is heady." I had the exact same reaction five years later when I walked into the marbled lobby of the publisher who I was considering contracting for.

In both cases I said "yes" to the opportunities.

In both cases I deeply regretted it a few months later.

Heady is just like the buzz of alcohol:  it wears off. Rather quickly.

The status or power or pay or physical setting may feel intoxicating. But when the real work begins, we're left with little more than a hangover.

3. Success will hinge on your less-developed abilities.

It's terrific to want to develop ourselves and take on "challenges." I'm all for that; we'd stagnate otherwise.

That said, success in a position must rest primarily upon our strengths in order for us to feel content and like the work is feasible.

In other words, it's fine to take an opportunity that will cultivate a number of our underdeveloped abilities, so long as the key ability is our ace in the hole. Choose otherwise and we're setting ourselves up for misery - and failure.

4. The opportunity may make you re-prioritize your values.

The best time to get in touch with our values is when life is calm and stable between opportunities.

Once an offer's on the table, all sense of values tend to go flying out the door.

That's because we humans tend to be awfully good at convincing ourselves that a promotion or job offer is great for us, whether due to fear, excitement, or people pleasing. "I don't really care about evenings with my husband that much," a friend once after she'd been offered a promotion that would require longer hours. This was the same person who, a month earlier, had been waxing poetic about the grounded feeling her hubby provided, and how much she needed that touchstone on a daily basis.

So the battle here is three-fold:

1) Getting to know our values - and their priority level - when no opportunities are on the table.


2) Being realistic about the ways in which a new opportunity may threaten those values.


2) Staying true to that prioritized value list, whatever the job cost may be.

5. Saying "yes" is solely about the paycheck.

Speaking of cost, often the expense of saying "no" to an opportunity is quite literal.

Yes, we all could use more money. We all could think of great ways to spend an extra few thousand or more. Some of us may even need the money to simply stay off of debt collectors' speed dial.

I get this. I honestly do. (In fact, I started this blog a year ago because I so deeply understood this point.)

That said, we need to be clear not only about our fiscal budget, but about our happiness budget. If the opportunity threatens to bankrupt our sense of well-being, it may not be worth the gained income.

In sum, I've turned down opportunities worth at least the cost of my college tuition. Making these decisions felt a lot like band-aid ripping:  painful in the moment, but then I was so glad they were gone.

6. Physical symptoms have appeared since the opportunity arose.

While considering the opportunity recently laid before me, the stomachaches that plagued my childhood suddenly reappeared, I began waking up at 4am unable to fall back asleep, and I emerged from meetings about the opportunity with headaches that felt eerily similar to concussions.

Granted, I may somaticize more than the bulk of the population - we INFs on the Myers-Briggs scale often do - but we all tend to experience some physical signs when we're going astray, however minor those symptoms may be.

Pay attention to them.

Think about it:  if we're feeling ill just thinking about saying "yes," imagine how we'll feel when we're actually doing the work.

7. It seems too good to be true.

Ah yes, the "there must be a catch" phenomenon.

What holds in life holds at work.

If the opportunity looks way too good and feels slightly unearned - e.g., a promotion well beyond what would be expected for this point in your career, a job whose high pay that doesn't add up to the low hourly requirement, a change that elevates you from managing no one to 300 people  - it may be time to move on.

Sure, some great-looking opportunities actually are. But have you gotten your Publisher's Clearinghouse check in the mail yet? Didn't think so.

8. "Everyone" says you "should" take it.

The cardinal rule of creating meaningful work:  beware of "everyone."

Collective tends to be too hung up on extrinsic rewards and status updates to be helpful.

The antidote:  1) identifying the people that get us on a deep level, and 2) only listening to them when we're in decision-making mode.

In fact, I find it helpful to not tell anyone outside my (very tiny) personal board of directors that I'm even considering an opportunity. If friends and family don't even know I'm making a decision, they don't have a chance to weigh in. Problem of hearing from "everyone" solved!

9. The opportunity came to you, not vice versa.

Some amazing opportunities simply fall into our laps. There is no denying that.

Some absolutely cruddy ones do, too.

One of my prospective coaching clients described the latter as "being derailed by opportunities."

The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that come to me is about 1:20.  The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that I actively seek out or create is about 1:2.

When opportunities have made their way to us, there's a larger chance that they aren't aligned with what we actually want and need out of life. Instead, they often represent what someone else wants and needs - that they think they can get through use of our talents and skills.

An honor? Yes.

Right for us? Absolutely not.

(Sarah Bareilles' King of Anything is a perfect fit here.)

My mom always warned, "Throughout your life, people are going to see your potential and want to use it to suit their own purposes." Mom knows best.

10. You won't be living your sense of purpose.

Speaking of purposes, if we are to stand any chance of knowing when to green light an opportunity versus when to deep-six one, we need to know what we're heading toward.

Sure "purpose" is no small thing, and it can feel like an overwhelming entity to know.

We'll be breaking purpose down in the weeks ahead, but for now what it boils down to is rather simple:  What makes you feel fired up? What makes you feel "well used"? What makes you feel like you're building a legacy of which you can be proud?

If the opportunity doesn't involve any or all of those things, then forget it.

A superior opportunity will eventually come along. Or, better yet, we'll create it for ourselves.

What did I miss? What would you add to the list, based on your experiences of choosing well...or poorly?!

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski

The Key to Meaningful Work: Your Honest Hour


If you want to find meaningful work, you need to know when your "Honest Hour" occurs. As we've mentioned in the past, work's only meaningful when it has genuine significance to ourselves.

In other words, it must be freely chosen. By you.

Which means that all those voices in your head - your mom making an off-hand comment about artists being unable to afford the clothes they sleep in? Your dad saying that the true value of a person lies in her ability to support herself? Your "friends" on Facebook trumpeting their latest status coup?

They have to go. Like, now.

The best way I've found to quiet the Voices is by taking advantage of your Honest Hour:  the brief moment each day when the Voices have duct tape across their mouths and you can finally - finally! - hear your inner melody.

How to Identify Your Honest Hour

The timing of the Honest Hour varies from person to person.

Mine starts at 6am. (It's a taskmaster, I tell you!) If I sleep in a bit, the Voices - including that faceless beast "everyone" - wake up and start screaming at me. Then I can't have a true thought to save my life.

On the contrary, many of my career coaching clients' honest hours occur right before falling asleep.

A few others enter it somewhere around our natural siesta time:  about 3pm or so.

Importantly, though, whenever the Honest Hour happens to fall, we must enter it naturally for it to be worth anything. Sure it's tempting to reach for alcohol or some other substance to make the Voices quiet down and our "truth" come out, but that kind of "truth" is just falsity layered upon falsity.

We want to hear the real you, not the buzzed you.

So how do you discover your Honest Hour? Here's the 3-step process I've developed over the years:

  1. Brainstorm your possible Honest Hours. Think of all the times when you might spill the contents of your deepest secrets to your best friend. Or, even better, to a relative stranger! In other words, when does your facade come off and your truth slip out? Write down all the possibilities you can think of. (Note:  you can "cheat" and use the three times I've found to be most common - immediately in the morning, right before falling asleep, and 3pm-ish - but be sure to wrack your brain to take your own idiosyncratic ways into account).
  2. Prioritize your brainstormed list. Which of the times that you've listed seems most likely to elicit honesty? Which comes next? And so on.
  3. Test one potential Honest Hour a day, using the following instructions:

    1. Sit down at the first Honest Hour you have listed. On top of a sheet of paper, write the Honest Hour you're attempting. Below it, write a response to the first prompt below. (Note:  the goal is to trick your rational mind into not engaging, so do NOT read all the prompts and then carefully choose one. Simply do them in order!)
    2. Let the words flow out as long as they will. Aim for at least a page long hand. And YES, long hand is key, as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way fame would agree. The Voices lurk in electronic devices and get tempted by typing in any way, shape, or form. Once you've become practiced at shoving the Voices aside, you can return to the computer or tablet. For now, hand cramp it is!
    3. Here's the important test portion:  When a Voice appears - e.g., it says in response to something you've written "There's no way you could do that!" - make a little check mark above where it intruded. Then ignore the Voice and keep writing.
    4. Repeat this exercise every day at a different potential Honest Hour.
    5. After you've tried them all, compare both the length of  your responses AND how many checks appear on each page. The paper with the longest response and the least checks is the winner:  you've found your Honest Hour!

Rules for Entering the Honest Hour

Don't celebrate just yet, though. There's a bit more work to do.

In my experience, the Honest Hour tends to be a slippery little thing. If I don't enter it just right, I can't access it at all.

To top it off, many days it doesn't even last a full hour. Little stinker!

I take what I can get, though, and have found strategies to enter and preserve my Honest Hour.

The following are my personal rules. To develop your own, you'll need to summon up some good ol' trial and error (a lot of error, if you're anything like me!).

  1. Do not check email, social media or your phone before sitting down to honesty. Believe me, I've tested this theory about a hundred times. I wake up, think to myself, "I'll just quickly pop on email - I won't respond to anything, I'll just read them," and then find the Voices flooding my mind before I know what's happened. (I almost did it this morning, in fact!) Quieting the Voices takes a great deal of resolve. May the force be with you.
  2. Talk as little as possible before sitting down to honesty. My husband understands that I'm a mute in the morning. I can say "hi" and "how'd you sleep?" but I won't entertain questions about the day ahead, nor have any in-depth discussions. Anything that requires rational thought serves as a gong over the bed of the Voices. Don't ring it.
  3. Hide your to-do list well before entering your Honest Hour. I'm not being figurative here. Literally HIDE your to-do list. If you're anything like me, the mere sight of that monstrosity will set your rational mind ablaze. You'll soon be so hung up in "but I really need to [insert a task that seems important in the moment but actually isn't in relation to the meaning of your life]" that you won't have an ounce of honesty to spare.

How to Use Your Honest Hour

Given how recalcitrant the Honest Hour tends to be, is it really worth working so hard to find and preserve it?

In a word:  yes.

In two words:  totally yes.

In three words:  absolutely freaking yes.

I wouldn't have half the satisfying working life I do if not for my Honest Hour.

Because once we've found our Honest Hour, we can use it to sink our teeth into identifying and pursuing meaningful work.

It's the time to sit down and do introspective exercises (like the many that will be coming right here in the coming weeks!)

It's the time to dream up plans for next steps.

It's the time to trick ourselves into feeling courageous enough to take those steps.

The Honest Hour is where your truth lies. Get well acquainted with it. It's fabulous - even if it does fall at 6am!

Honest Hour Prompts

  • What would you be doing with your life if no one were watching?
  • Describe an ideal work day 10 years from now.
  • What work would you be doing if the emotion "fear" were alien to you?
  • When you die, what sorts of feelings and understandings do you want to have imparted to others through your work?
  • What's the most important work a person can do? Why?

I want to know if my 3-part strategy for finding an Honest Hour works for you...and what needs tweaking!

After you've tried the system out, please write a comment here, or email me at I'll send an exclusive Working Self self-reflective worksheet to everyone who shares their experience - plus I may feature a response as a case study right here on the interweb (with your permission, of course!)

Photo Credit: charliebarker

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 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

When the Dream Falls Apart


We always think that one day we'll be more than we currently are. Down the road I'll become a teacher. Or a CEO. Or a published writer. Or an anchor person.

After I figure out my path. After I get my degree. After I get some years of experience under my belt.

But what happens when we've crossed all the hurdles, reached the "one day," and realize it isn't anything we remotely desire?

I'm watching a loved one struggle with this question at this very moment, and it brings back ripples of remembrance of the time my dream fell apart.

The Fulfillment of a Longing

For nearly as long as I can remember, I dreamed of one day working from home full-time as a writer. I was the arrogant 10-year-old visiting my mom's company proclaiming, "I'll never work in an office. Never."

I had images of myself in sweatpants and a cruddy t-shirt, hunkered down in my house, scribbling the hours away, day after day.

What precisely I was writing in that scenario is as good a guess yours as it would've been mine. I had absolutely no idea. But if I could avoid pointy shoes, shrill ringing phones, and flourescent lights, I'd write about urinals for all I cared.

Fast forward twenty years:   A large publishing house approaches and asks me to draft a textbook in developmental psychology.

To be honest, this isn't much more exciting than writing about urinals. I try to be chipper, though, convincing myself that writing a textbook would be more thrilling than reading one (ha!).

The cash advances enable me to quit my teaching job and I begin working from home full-time, scribbling the hours away in my yoga pants and stained sweatshirts.

I live the dream.

And hate every minute of it.

Dream, Meet Reality

Before you go thinking that perhaps if I'd been writing something more glamorous - my novel! my heartfelt book on careers for twentysomethings! magazine articles! - my dream would have panned out, let me be clear:  what bothered me most were the circumstances, not the subject.

I missed seeing PEOPLE daily. My long-idolized publishing world turned out to be a petty, ill-motivated, poorly-organized place with which I had no interest in doing business. I actually <gasp!> wanted to wear non-workout clothes once in a while.

And those realizations made my long-held worldview come crashing down.

My immune system plummeted, sleep became a formidable foe, and irritability developed into my perpetual demeanor du jour.

It felt a whole lot like mourning, with a giant dollop of disorientation tossed in. The world wobbled around off-kilter and I couldn't find a horizon line to gain a hint of perspective.

If what I always wanted wasn't what I actually wanted, then what in my life held true?

How to Deal with a Dream Disemboweled

Forget a dream deferred, when we've actually reached what we'd hoped for and realize it's not at all what we'd imagined, it's more a unicorn disemboweled than a raisin in the sun.

This may be the very reason we routinely put barriers in our own way - oh, I can't pursue a social work degree right now, I have so many hours of Homeland to catch up on... We fear that if our dream is allowed to face the dry wind of reality, it may wither and crack, more heap of sand than sand castle.

Chances are, that's exactly what will happen. Nothing can ever match the beauty in our minds.

The rub is that to get to doing truly meaningful work, we have to go through the disemboweling experience first.

So how do we cope?

The only answer I can assemble comes from thinking back on my dreadful full-time writing days and asking myself what i wanted to hear, what I wanted to know. If I had to boil it all down, the desired words would've gone something like this:

You are courageous beyond belief to not only formulate a dream, but to then pursue it, and then live it. You are even more courageous to stand in the full light of the knowledge that this dreamed-for life is not one you actually want, and to feel naked in the awareness that you have no clue what hopes and goals to move toward next.

Allow yourself to stay where you are for a time. It's so rare a moment when we're not pining or avoiding or striving or maintaining. Just be there, in your disoriented space. Learn what it feels like to break free of the "what's the next thing" mentality of our society.

Then, when the future path has become a blank canvas that you don't feel obligated to fill, then you can begin to imagine anew. This time it will be different; your early imaginings may feel jaded or cynical or disillusioned. You may mourn afresh the wide-eyed view you once had. That's OK; mourn it.

Eventually you'll be able to embrace what you've gained.  You'll realize that your new vision is grounded in what you always wanted:  genuine knowledge of who you are, the circumstances you can and cannot stand, and the impact you need to have on a daily basis to feel well used.

Instead of dreaming, you'll begin building. You'll be thankful for all you lost. And thankful for all you gained.

Photo credit: Bruce Stokes

The Great Fear of the Twenties: Wasting Our Potential


How often do you think about the potential of wasting your potential? Once a year? Once a month? Once a day? Once an hour? If you're anything like I was, that last choice rings the buzzer. If it comes with a parenthesis that says "or maybe more..."

I spent most of my twenties fearing I'd waste my potential. I mean, intensely fearing it. Thinking about it every time a room went quiet. Avoiding "successful" friends because they reminded me of it. Experiencing cardiovascular conditioning over it, without moving a single muscle.

Yet I never spoke this fear to anyone.

I'd picture myself old and gray, sitting on a porch talking to some faceless person, saying

"I could've been anything. I could've done so much with my life. And instead it all slipped by me."

I came to hate the word "potential" itself, resenting it and all that it symbolized. "Potential" was the concentrated pill containing crushed-up remnants of my hoped-for adult life.

"Potential" also feels so damn patronizing. Like, "oh, there's Sara. She has so much potential." And you just know that 9 times out of 10 that's said in that tone that implies "and she's not doing a frickin' thing about it."

I actually had a guidance counselor come up to me in high school and say, "I saw the colleges you applied to. Sure undershot your potential, didn't you?"

Did I? Well maybe in his book I did, but not in mine. I applied to schools that were a genuine "whole person" fit for me.

Which is how, for the most part, I lived my 20s - making choices that resonated with something deep within me and that squared with my awareness of my identity and deeply-held desires.

The rub was, I felt guilty about every single decision. Like I was "letting everyone down" by being true to me.

Like I was wasting my potential.

Smart people get PhDs, don't they? Star college students get high-paying jobs, don't they? Good daughters stay close to home, don't they?

At my core, I knew the answer to all of those questions is not necessarily. And that the answer for me personally was hell no.

Yet I felt pushed to live up to those stereotypical goals. Lest I waste my potential.

"Potential" felt like an imposition of another person's storyline on top of my unfolding story. (Cue Sara Bareilles' King of Anything).

I'm writing all of this not to complain but rather to say what someone might have said to me, had I had the guts to admit how much this fear ruled my life:  you do not have to live in fear of wasting your potential.

How do you break free?

By getting clear on this one key, vital, the-contentment-of-your-life-hinges-on-accepting-this-fact fact:

The only person who is going to be sitting in that rocking chair at 90 years old is you. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your teacher or brother or best friend's aunt. YOU. What'll feel like wasting your potential then isn't having failed to live up to their standards for you. It's having lived someone else's story.


All clear? Good. Then you can move onto bigger and better things. Like figuring out what you want your story to be.