OK. You've finally let the bitter truth seep into the part of your brain that admits bitter truths. Your job sucks. The mere fact that window envelopes with pretty checks in them arrive every two weeks is not doing it for you anymore. You are becoming very good at the thousand-yard stare, the long, unfocused look past your cubicle into a green-and-gold world out there somewhere, a world that's passing you by. Or perhaps you're so damned wiped out at the end of a day on the assembly line, behind the cash register, or at the nurse's station that the thousand-yard stare shrinks to six inches.
Still, through it all you dare to dream. You dream of the job you love so much you can't believe you're getting paid to do it. The perfect match for your talents, habits, passions, and desire to make a difference in the world. It flickers in and out of your awareness. How do I get this job? you wonder, and then that plaintive question is smothered by dark thoughts: Pipe dream. The economy is sliding. The only real choice in the new millennium is between the burnout track in corporate cloneland—if you've been to college, that is—and a stupefying McJob.
Now, I don't disagree with these staples of leftist pessimism. It's bloody hard for most ordinary Americans to actually lead satisfying lives under an economic system that portrays itself as the final form of human felicity. Finding good work—work that both thrills and pays the bills—is a struggle for most of us. But if you put the right spectacles on at the beginning, it can be a more joyous, revealing, altruistic, fun, and even subtly subversive struggle than you might think.
The following ideas aren't conventional career counseling, which may be what you need to make a small, sensible move inside the corporate culture. But if you want to consider breaking out of the box altogether, you'll have to look a lot harder and deeper, risking (and delighting in) transforming your feelings about yourself and the working world.
Not only do you have a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but large goals are practical in a special way: If they really belong to you, they have more power to get you off your butt than "reasonable," "sensible," half-hearted ones do. So blurt 'em out. Sure, for an overweight 47-year-old, dreaming of a career as a professional gymnast is a little off the wall—but there's a truth inside your dream that you ought to pry out. Maybe you won't go to the Olympics, but can you see yourself doing something else triumphant and physical in front of an audience? Can you immerse yourself in the sports world in another way? The idea is to use the energy of your deepest desires—reliable energy—to make big changes.
Be prepared to create your job
While you're thinking big, ask yourself if you're willing to create your dream job if you can't "get" it any other way. And leave yourself open to the idea of a collage of jobs—food writer, cooking workshop leader, cook, restaurant consultant, saxophonist.
List your truest values
What's most important to you? Releasing your creative energies? You may think these things are foremost in your mind, but it's amazing how easily they slip away. Scads of self-help books and articles can provide you with values checklists, but my favorite comes from a simple memory exercise: Recall your life's two or three best moments—when you did what you wanted and were utterly happy, at one with the cosmos, in the groove, fulfilled. Write them down in detail, on paper, then analyze them for content. Were you alone? Using your body? Immersed in thought? In the country, or a foreign city? Now it's easy: Your most important values are the concise statements of what you liked about what you were doing.
Look over the list daily
Put it somewhere where you can see it, reread it often, and test all your pursuits against it. It just may warn you away from a gig that's convenient, available, and nowhere near good enough.
Tap the power of images
Clip images from magazines and paste them into a big, colorful composite image of your ideal job and/or life. Or draw and paint them yourself. You're not making fine art, you're creating a vision of your dreams. Put this "map" where you can see it every day.
Make firm commitments
Nicholas Lore, in The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success (Fireside, 1998), writes, "Nothing really spectacular will happen because you want it to or feel passionately about it. It will happen only if you promise that it will be so, and do what is necessary to keep your promise." The difference between "I really ought to go back to school" and "I will enroll in a Photoshop class by the end of the year" is clear.
Take a small step every day
Call one friend who can help you focus your job search. Take one self-help book off its shelf and put it on your desk. Write one vow or affirmation in your notebook. Look up the number of your library's business department and write it down. That's enough for Monday. On Tuesday you'll call a second friend, read one chapter, write another vow, and call the library. If you think this pace is paltry, wait and see what you've accomplished in a week and compare it to a "gotta-do-it-all" week of overambitious inaction.
Cultivate calm and acceptance
I know it sounds wacky—I mean, you're trying to get out of that hellhole, right? But it's worth a try for several reasons. First of all, a calm-as-possible approach to your less-than-perfect job, with an eye toward being of service to your colleagues, may change your mind about leaving in the first place. Not bloody likely? OK, then, it will minimize stress and conserve precious energy while you look for the next gig. Most important, it may actually make it likelier that you'll really leave, especially if you've developed family-style grudges against your bosses or co-workers. Deep resentment can hook you in a nasty, interminable replay of family issues that has a bizarre staying power and can actually magnetize you to your seat.
Convene a Wise Persons Group
That's my pet name for a committee of friends who agree to help you find job happiness. Pick a manageable but ample number of folks (five to 10) who know you, love you, and won't bullshit you. Include both genders and as many different personal styles and points of view as you can. (Don't invite family members; they're too likely to counsel caution and make you self-conscious.) Invite them for coffee or dinner and leave enough time for a good talk. Make your problems, desires, and values clear to them, and ask for their frank assessment of where you are and where you might go next. Not only will you get a stunning amount of support and hear ideas you could never have come up with in a million years, but you'll probably learn about aptitudes and advantages that you've been hiding from yourself but are obvious to people who care about you.
Interview interesting people
This one is so simple it hurts. Seek out people who are doing what you want to do and talk to them. Ask them how they got where they are, how they spend the day, what they like and don't like about what they do. Your image of that dream job will get sharper, you'll make allies for the quest, and the idea that you really can have what you want will brighten and solidify in your brain.
Job hunt with everyone
Your helper network potentially includes everybody with whom you come in contact. Make yourself alert for, and receptive to, help from odd corners and unlikely people. Share your quest with the friendly coffee jockey you chat up at your local cafe—she may be a potter or photographer or dancer who can hook you up with the art scene you're dying to enter. A conversation on the bus could lead you to a business venture you've never heard of.
Lose the blue-collar complex
Were you one of those working-class kids whose parents warned you to shut up, keep your nose clean, and keep punching the clock—the not-so-subtle subtext being that real fulfillment on the job isn't in the cards for the likes of us (i.e., you)? Well, you're as entitled to great work as the laptop-and-cappuccino people. So what if you didn't go to Harvard? You can go to the library, get on the Net, use the phone, and build as good a network as they've got. And you're probably hungrier and tougher than they are. Go for it.
Develop a spiritual life
Your search for fulfilling work is a wager that, if you do your part, the universe will provide what you need so that you can use your energy meaningfully and joyfully. Spiritual and religious traditions generally combine a doctrine of individual worth with a sense of humility and awe before the paradoxical face of reality. A spiritual life will help you feel the dignity of your quest and find meaning in its twists, turns, stops, and starts. And leaving its outcome in the hands of a power greater than yourself is the best way to make sure you do your part, daily, toward your dream.
Jon Spayde is a contributing editor of Utne Reader , a journalism teacher, and a fiction writer who is pursuing a long-repressed desire to do performance art.