Exit Stage Left – How getting off the highway can lead to finding your element

Recently I had a very close friend of mine ask me – How do I know what I want to be when I grow up?  How do I find my passion? More importantly how do I get paid for using it?

My response to her was not what she expected – “Just get off at the next exit”

In 1990 through the advice of my mum I joined the Army. I was only 15 and this wasn’t something I was passionate about or had even considered. My dad had served for 6 years and they though it would be the best thing for me at the time.  For 17 years I was a solider working my way through three different careers and multiple postings around Australia. Over the 17 years of dedicated service something just didn’t feel right. It was like I was just going through the motions and letting life dictate where I should be going.

What I was doing was something many people do, stay on the highway of life, cruise control on, letting life take us wherever it wanted to go. I was either unaware of all the off ramps that were all around me or too scared to take control over my own life. The Highway of life was consistent and safe.

This metaphor is my way of explaining to people who experience their own job or career existential crisis. You know those questions we all end up asking a t one point or another:

  • Why am I doing a job that I am not passionate about?
  • Why do I come here every day when I don’t even like what I do?

The highway you take is uniquely yours and how you navigate the road works, delays and detours are entirely up to you. Challenges like bad working environments, limited career progression or even difficulties in our personal lives often show us, for a micro second, that there may be something more to see than just this one highway.

Traveling adjacent to our highway are side roads that can take us to new places. A new direction or experience. Places we can only dream of. They are unknown and for most, a scary thought. It’s when we take a chance on these roads, we find out that our highway is not the only option available to us.

My friend and I had been in a similar position. She went to university, got a degree in finance and was working in her chosen career for over 20 years. Yes, she was excellent at what she did. Yes, it had paid well and helped put her children through school. But this was not her passion. She had fallen into this because her parents were in finance and she was really good at it. But it didn’t make her smile, it didn’t excite her and it didn’t have meaning. To her it was just a job.

We all spend time on the highway, not because we don’t want to do something cool, but because of the personal commitments we have made. Our individual circumstances impact our ability or even desire to take the next exit. Fear of the unknown is genuine and from a biological level is one of the main reasons why we resist change.

When we experience change, our body initiates a threat response. Our brain tries it best to keep the status quo and to do so our critical thinking narrows. We tend to focus on the negative aspects of change and think about the magic “what if” question. You know these:

What if I fail?

What if I have to go back to my old job?

What if I am no good at this?

Taking a back road or the scenic route brings with it uncertainty, trepidation and even fear. But it also brings insight, enlightenment and self-discovery. It opens our eyes to what else is there for the taking. We see potential around every corner and if things get too scary, we can always turn back and re-join the Highway. It’s when we explore the side roads that we find our true passion and a chance to love the work we do.

Exit Stage Left (Snagglepuss)

One of the great minds in this space is Sir Ken Robertson. In his book titled “Finding Your Element” he explores the concepts around how being in your element means having work or an activity that you love or have latent talent for. How realising that your life is truly unique and that you have total control over the life that you live.  Two of the core concepts that you can use to find you element include:

Recognise what you are good at – we all have skills and talents that we use every day, but the research shows us that most people either can’t recognise them or don’t feel confident to.  You may have the ability to calm down people when they are under stress, great at collating data on a spreadsheet or tuning a V8 engine so that it runs like a dream. These are all skills and abilities that you have but often not reflected on. This is about becoming self-aware and looking. To identify your skills, whether it be learnt or latent include:

  • Ask those around you to give you feedback on what they think your natural skills are.
  • Review the things you do well and find easy to do as well as things that you enjoy doing.
  • Do a skills assessment/audit. There are many different types available on the web. Here are two that you could start with – Clifton Strengths Finder and the VIA Character
  • Learn about your personality – There are many different personality instruments out there that can help you explore more about who you are and what strengths you have (MBTI and Facet5 to name a couple).

Finding Your Passion – This is not an easy process and for me it has taken over 30 years to work out my passion and more importantly how do I earn a living from it. Finding your passion is often about challenging the status quo or what you have been doing for a long time. For me finding my passion was about asking myself a number of questions:

  • When was I most happy at work?
  • What was I doing when time seems to disappear?
  • What makes me feel good and why?
  • If money wasn’t an issue what would I do?

Finding your passion is a journey over time and found through self-reflection and trying new things. It’s also about allowing yourself to chase that one dream you have always had.

Research different careers – There are more careers than there are days in a year and they all offer something different. Look at your skills and passion and try to match them up with the different careers available. Search the web and talk to people about what’s involved in these jobs to see if this is something that would interest you. Have a look at the “Holland’s Codes” assessment which is a career based instrument designed to help people identify careers that suit their strengths. It’s a great way to narrow down your options based on things you like and do well.

Take Baby Steps – Unless you’re someone who likes taking a risk, take small steps. Look for something that you can do outside work that gives you the opportunity to dab your toes into the water. For me it was going along to Toastmasters to learn how to speak in public and asking work if I could run a training session. Trying these things was the flame that ignited my passion.

In my friend’s case she recognised that finance was not her passion and that her natural abilities aligned to a different career path. She is currently on a new road, navigating towards a nursing degree, which is something that has always interested her.

Final Thoughts

I am not going to tell you that making the decision to turn off the highway is an easy one or free of risks. It’s scary and confronting and sometimes can be too much to even consider. But every time I took a chance, exited stage left, I learnt a little more about who I am and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

There is no way of truly knowing where your side road will take you. However, if you feel like your cruise control is stuck on, or that you are just marking time in a job that doesn’t inspire you, consider what the next exit may offer. Explore the options available to you and take a chance and chart a new course. You owe it to yourself to be happy and excited about doing what you do best each day.

Remember that no matter where you turn off, there’s always another way to get back to your own highway.