How to design a life, pursue a career, and build financial security without acting out of fear.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- How engagement and energy are key clues in planning your life.
- The value of speaking with others who are already living the life you are considering.
- The difference between growth-based decisions and fear-based decisions.
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Don’t Make Fear-based Career Decisions
I recently had a lengthy conversation with a successful children’s book illustrator who in his mid-to-late thirties decided to go to dental school with four kids still at home.
He just finished his first semester, which he described as a “pretty miserable five months,” and he is now asking himself, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”
He is seriously considering dropping out of the program. He agreed to let me share his story as long as I didn’t disclose his name.
When I say this illustrator is successful, I mean he is at the top of his field. He has produced book covers for best selling children’s fantasy series, and over the past decade he has earned between $80,000 and $150,000 a year, two to three times the average salary for freelance illustrators.
His family lives on about $60,000 per year after-tax and he has been a diligent saver, having amassed about $450,000 in assets.
He worked hard for that income, drawing six days a week, often into the night. But he also loves illustrating as time flies when he sits in the chair working, and he always looks forward to returning. He is totally engaged in the work.
I know dentists who get that same sense of joy and flow while crafting dental implants.
This illustrator is passionate about drawing but not dentistry. But passion for most people doesn’t come until “after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery” as Bill Burnett and Dave Evans point out in their book “Designing Your Life.”
This illustrator has put in the time in order for drawing to become a passion. He has mastered it. He is not yet at that stage with dentistry so perhaps that is why his first semester was miserable.
I asked him why he went to dental school. He said many people have asked him a similar question.
“Why would you want to look in people’s mouths all day?”
He said “for 95% of dental students, financial compensation is the driving factor. Now, many seasoned dentists do say they love their patients and staff, which I do believe and would hope to get there one day.”
He thought as a dentist he could work less and have more time for family and church. He could take more family vacations and be in a better position to help out his children in the future if they struggle with unemployment or other hardships.
He admits that illustration can be a bit solitary. There have been times he has left his home for two or three days to go off on his own so he could meet a deadline. He also thought that working with a team would be a great experience.
Prototyping Your Life
This illustrator did exactly what Burnett and Evans recommend when designing your life. He visited with other dentists. The authors call these prototype conversations where you talk to someone who is doing or living the life you are contemplating. You find out what they love and hate about their jobs, what their days are like and their career path that got them to their current position.
This illustrator has four dentist friends and a brother-in-law who is a dentist. He visited with them and they seemed to be financially secure with a lot of balance in their lives.
He mentioned how one of his dentist friends drove up to his house in a Porsche, and while he doesn’t aspire to own a Porsche he says he occasionally dreams of owning a 5-year old pickup truck. He also shadowed several dentists during the work day. He said he “found dentistry okay, but not nearly as dear to me as illustration.”
Burnett and Evans say designing your life is wayfinding, which they describe as “the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination.”
They write, “Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you, and make your best way forward with the tools you have at hand. We think the first clues are engagement and energy.”
Engagement and Energy
Engagement is what this illustrator experiences when he draws. While he has yet to find dentistry as engaging, ideally there would be some aspects of his studies he felt that sense of excitement.
Burnett and Evans write, “Follow the joy, follow what engages and excites you, what brings you alive. Most people are taught that work is always hard and that we have to suffer through it. Well, there are parts of any job or any career that are hard and annoying—but if most of what you do at work is not bringing you alive, then it’s killing you.”
The second clue to life design is energy; paying attention to which activities sustain our energy instead of draining us. Activities where we don’t feel completely exhausted and down after a day’s work.
In my conversation with this illustrator, he didn’t mention anything about dental work itself that excites him; that engages him or sustains his energy. It is the stability and financial aspects of dentistry he finds appealing, not the day-to-day work.
There were times as he sat in class he would ask himself, “Why am I here listening to a lecture on periodontal disease when I could be at home doing something I really love. Drawing.”
From a financial standpoint, he figures he can make $200,000 a year as a dentist two to three years out of school working three to four days per week versus the $85,000 per year he could earn as an illustrator, working six days a week. But it would cost him $350,000 in tuition, eating up much of his net worth to make it through school.
Ultimately, his decision to attend dental school is based on fear.
He says, “The biggest facet however, I hesitantly admit is fear. I know we shouldn’t fear, and I battle that daily. The fear originates from the fact that my father (a man who is very humble and oozes charity) had a real estate business that went under about twenty-five years ago. He never recovered and basically has been without a job for all that time. He has done a few things here and there, but my childhood was filled with financial struggles and relationship turmoil. I saw the damage it did to my parents and now in their early 60’s they are in a rough spot. My mom being forced to work long hours and my dad is always repairing a broken down car or 35-year old furnace.”
He says they are wonderful parents and grandparents that live simply and find happiness in the smallest of blessings, which has been a great example to him.
Still he worries that his illustration business could “take that same turn and my family suffer much of that same financial outcome. Now I consciously know this could be irrational because I am a different person, but I’ve been surprised how the events of my childhood forged such strong emotions that are constantly on my mind, even as an adult.”
“It’s blown my mind how this anxiety took a hold of me to the point that even my shoulder muscles were tiring because they were tense all day long. When looking at dentistry I thought that if I could have a profession with great stability, worry of my business and complete financial meltdown would disappear.”
He goes on, “Can I endure months of intense exams and jumping through many meaningless classes? Yes. Can I endure 3 1/2 more years of the same? Probably. The question here is, I am trading that time and nearly all of my assets to do this. Is that worth it?”
I don’t think so. I believe by building his own brand, creating online classes and continuing to publish his own books, he can build an income generating asset and create the stability he desires without simply trading time for money as he waits for the next illustration project.
In other words, projects tied to illustration are where his engagement and energy lies. Not dentistry, which will come with its own set of financial worries.