Power of Play, Kara Stewart Fortier, Playgrounding

Career Choices Made Playful

Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to approach a very serious subject playfully. That subject is this:

What do I want to be when I grow up?

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. In high school, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had my whole plan laid out for how I was going to get into the Airforce Academy and become one of the first female pilots. But my ears stuffed up every time I flew. They wouldn’t pop until weeks after a flight. My guidance counselor told me I’d never become a pilot with allergies like mine.

Throughout my life, I wanted to be a musician. I was a pretty good oboe player and got a scholarship. I wrote songs and was the lead singer of a band in college. But that wasn’t realistic to pursue it as a career, right?

In college, I decided that I wanted to be a pastor. I would have been 4th generation in my family of pastors. My father never pressured me. I just thought it was what I was supposed to do. And now, I have a very expensive student loan payment each month for the seminary degree I’m no longer using.

Where’d the Dreams All Go?

Something happens to those dreams – not for everyone, but for many of us. I’ve spoken to people who knew what they wanted from when they were little and they made it happen. But I’ve met more people like me who roll their eyes at the memory of their childhood aspirations. “Yeah. Me in veterinary school? I gag whenever I see snot.” (True story.)

Now I’m a marketer. I stumbled into it. About ten years ago, I was a temp assigned to be an administrative assistant to a VP of marketing at a huge tech distributor. She thought I’d be good on one of her teams. And there you go. A career is born.

But does the decision I made ten years ago have to dictate what I’m going to do with the rest of my life? Stumbling into things can be beautiful serendipity. They can also be lazy. So many times I’ve heard people moan about their life choices only to sigh and give up in resignation because “Well, I’ve invested 10 years into this. I can’t start over now.”

But is that true?

Can We Start Over Mid-Career?

For a long time I believed that I couldn’t change lanes. I felt trapped. I still do. There’s got to be more out there for my career and I want a say in how it goes.

But how?

My usual approach was to start scouring Indeed, LinkedIn and Craigslist then bemoan the fact that I’m only qualified to be a marketer. “It’s all there is for me after all this time. I should suck it up and stop dreaming.” Etc.

Then I wallow for a while and get frustrated enough to start the cycle all over again. So I decided to use play.

My Playful Approach to Career

My new approach – one I’m smack in the middle of as I type this – is to approach this career decision with playfulness. I’m going to take the oppressive significance out of the career question and think back to how I answered it when I was little.

What did I want to be when I grew up?

  • Well, I like animals, so I’ll be a veterinarian! (I hadn’t yet encountered bodily fluids.)
  • I liked Top Gun, so I’ll be a fighter pilot!
  • I love my dad and want to do something important like he does, so I’ll be a pastor!

That’s how kids think when they make decisions like that. The little kid who says he wants to be a fireman probably isn’t thinking about what it might mean to enter a burning building. He probably saw a cool firetruck and thought the sirens sounded awesome.

Tackling Big, Scary Adult Decisions with a Childlike Mind

A playful approach to the question of career, for me, at the age of 41, begins with asking myself these questions:

What lights me up?

What do I love to do?

What stirs excitement in me the way that firetruck does in the little boy?

The catch is that we have to turn off our grownup brains for this exercise! We have a tendency to start following our train of thought to logical conclusions far too quickly. How it works for me is that I’ll answer with something like music. Here’s how the train of thought usually goes:

I love music!

But becoming a musician now is silly. You’re too old.

You haven’t written a song in over ten years.

A career in music isn’t realistic.

You can’t make money with music.

Focus on things that bring in a steady income, you insane, middle-aged woman!

So that’s how my thought train usually rolls. But when I approached the question with play – when I forbade the usual grownup brain responses and let myself pretend to be a child again, things got interesting.

Realistic Answers Are Not Required For This Exploration

So I brainstormed a list of things that light me up. Music, as always, was at the top. But other things on the list included a love for technology. While I was in tech marketing, I loved learning about all of the awesome gadgets and machines that make the world go round. I also love writing, storytelling, wine, cooking and travel. Starting my podcast and blog has been a HUGE dream. Hmmm…

Then I stopped. With the grownup brain still turned off, I didn’t move any further along the decision-making process. Instead, I started exploring. What kinds of jobs are available in fields like music, technology, wine, cooking or travel? I really didn’t know.

Explore the Web – I started browsing websites, looking into training courses, Googling “Careers in Wine” and “Careers in music.”

Explore Your Friends and Connections – Then I started going through my Facebook and LinkedIn connections to see if I knew anyone in those fields. I started setting up coffee dates and online chats with them to pick their brains.

Explore Industry Events & Conferences – I also decided to crash InfoComm, an annual event where over 40,000 audiovisual geeks come from over a hundred countries to learn about the latest technology innovations in AV.

InfoComm WAS AWESOME. Because of my love for music and podcasting, I ended up sticking with the audio portion of the program. I ran into an old friend from the technology community and he just happened to work for an audio system solutions company. I went to audio demos and classes. I was so excited! I was like the little kid watching the firetruck drive by and the sirens were AWESOME.

Then the kicker. At the end of one of the audio classes, the speaker said that he didn’t start with a love for audio technology. He said, “I should have been a rock star” and smiled. He said he does his job for the love of music. Most of the people in the room nodded their heads and laughed in agreement. I knew at that moment that I might be on a very interesting new path.

Narrowing the Choices, But Still Exploring Without Judgment

I’m still at step 2 of about 20 toward really knowing what new path is right for me, but stripping away the grownup judgement brain has been a hugely important exercise. People ask me now what I intend to do in audio. Right now – it’s keep exploring. I still have work. I have no need to make it all happen immediately. Whatever I choose to do, I’ll need training. And when I think of what I’ll learn, I feel lighter. I feel lit up. I feel the opposite of what I usually feel when I start fretting over the question of what to do next. And that’s a pretty great feeling.