Ask Marcus Buckingham: How Do I Pursue My Passions
By Marcus Buckingham
March 12, 2010
Personal strength expert Marcus Buckingham answers questions on finding happiness, pursuing your passion in your 50s, changing careers and more. Ask Marcus your career question
How to Help a Loved One
Q: I am actually writing to ask you about my husband. He is a physician (anesthesiologist) and really wants to be a writer. He would never tell anyone this, but I know that this is his passion! He became a doctor because he felt that it was "God's work." He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone. He stashes loads of money away each month for early retirement and we live in extreme frugality. No one would ever guess that he made a doctor's salary (the cars we drive, the home we live in, the furniture, our clothing). I try to help him ease his anxieties in every way possible. I know that he would be a happier person teaching creative writing at a university. He is my soul mate and his happiness is my concern, not the money. Please help me to help him become a more fulfilled person.
— Jessica, age 33
A: Jessica, although your husband has the noblest motivation, taking on "God's work" won't help him or anyone else in the long run unless what he's doing is truly his own work in his heart. There's a fable I recount in my book. A woman is swimming across a lake. She's holding a rock. As she swims, she tires. The rock is pulling her down. People on the shore urge her to drop the rock. She swims on, tiring as she swims. The people shout louder. She can barely keep her head above the water. "Why won't you drop it?" they shout. As she sinks beneath the surface, she cries out one last time, "Because it's mine!"
I imagine you feel like those people on the shore, watching helplessly. But you're not helpless, and neither is your husband. He doesn't have to cling to the life he's built simply because he's built it. There are steps he can take to make the transition to a career that's less stressful and more fulfilling.
First, he should examine whether he truly needs to make a wholesale career change. One of the details you give stands out to me: "He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone." If that fear is driving his stress, it may be that the right step is to invest his time and resources in pursuing a different medical specialty that touches less directly on matters of life and death.
If that wouldn't solve the issue, then it's time to move on by building a bridge to the life he wants to have. Often, people feel financially unprepared to make a big career transition, but it sounds as though your husband has been preparing for a long time. In that case, what he needs to do is take concrete action toward change. If he knows that being a writer or a writing instructor will truly bring him fulfillment, what can he do to start down that path? Can he capitalize on his professional experience by writing about it? What courses can he take at a local college? Is it time to enroll full-time in a writing program? If he truly knows the direction in which he wants to move, then the only thing left to do is start moving. Love or Money?
Q: I turned 40 this past August and work in a dead-end job, doing billing for a major insurance company. I just started college for the first time this summer. I am currently enrolled in an associate's paralegal program. However, I am having second thoughts. I chose this area after researching and finding that this is a well-paid profession, yet I really never had any interest in law. My true passion lies with animals. I have contemplated going for a vet technician; unfortunately, the projected salary for this position is less than what I make now—so much so I could not survive on it. I am torn. Do I choose something for the money or for the love of doing it, even though it pays incredibly low? What are the chances of me succeeding in an area that I do not have a passion for? I am 40 years old and still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I better hurry up before it is too late. Can you help?
— Jennifer, age 40
A: Jennifer, "should I choose love or money?" is such an insistent and urgent question that I think we have to be careful that we haven't painted ourselves into a corner by asking it. It may be that you do have to choose between doing what you truly love and maintaining your standard of living; but it may also turn out to be a false choice that you don't have to make. The best way to find out is to explore what you love.
You are clearly confident when you say, "my true passion lies with animals." But do you have any passion about being a vet technician specifically, or is that just what comes to mind when you picture working with animals? Since that field seems too financially limiting to you, you should consider whether there are other ways to pursue your passion. If what you really love is knowing that you have helped an animal who needs it, you may be able to find fulfillment in the legal realm by focusing on animal rights or working for groups that do. If what you love, however, is working with animals hands-on, ask yourself: is veterinary medicine important to you, or could you be invigorated by pursuing work in another field, such as training animals?
The more specific detail you discover about what, precisely, makes you feel strong, the better prepared you will be to weigh your options. If you haven't done so already, I would encourage you to volunteer at an animal shelter or something similar so that you can learn what specific activities do or do not strengthen you.
If, in the end, you do find that it is impossible to reconcile doing what you love with your standard of living, I can't really tell you what to choose. All I can say is that, after spending my entire career talking to people about what they do and how they feel about it, I've found it incredibly rare for someone to be truly happy doing what she doesn't love. Pursuing a Dream Vs. Paying the Bills
Q: A wife and mother of two, I immigrated to the United States from Portugal at a young age. Our culture didn't encourage women's education, and I easily used that excuse not to attend college. I did well in the workplace and was always liked by my employers. However, at 44 years of age, I've never earned more than $20,000 a year. I've since enrolled in college and am a semester away from earning an associate's degree in executive administration. This semester has proven very difficult, as I feel so displaced and unsure about my goals, needs and dreams. Initially, I wanted to earn more money, but now I just want a good job and normalcy. I go back and forth about this, money or predictability or an energetic career I'm good at? I am anxious and disappointed in where I am in my life and am waiting to be miraculously enlightened. What should I be doing to move forward?
— Teresa, age 44
A: Teresa, aside from the obvious fact that we all need enough money to live, the choice between money and passion should be an obvious one: go where your passion leads you. The simple truth, as trite as it may sound, is that all the money in the world won't make you happy if, every day of your life, you have to spend most of your time doing something you hate.
It would be nice if miraculous enlightenment showed us all a brightly illuminated path to our best futures, but unfortunately things aren't quite that simple. Like everything worth having, illumination requires hard work. In this case, the work you have to do is to examine your life and pay attention to what you really love. You imply that you were drawn to studying executive administration as a means to earning a higher salary, but what drew you to that particular field as opposed to any other? Are there administrative tasks and activities that you enjoy doing? Or are there activities from your past jobs that left you with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? What kinds of things have you looked forward to doing in the past? As you complete your studies, are there particular areas that get you more jazzed than others? Take the time to really pay attention to how you feel as you're engaged in your daily activities, and make sure to note those times when you particularly love or hate what you're doing. Examining how you feel about what you're doing is the key to knowing what you will love. Once you know what you love to do, be honest with yourself about what it will take to orient your life toward doing it, and commit to taking specific, concrete actions that will lead to the life you want to live.
Q: I've known for seven or eight years now that a change in my path would be a good thing. However, I've been through two lay-offs during difficult job markets and have been unable to make a complete transition. I want to make sure that I'm comfortable with my decision on my new path, and I am also preparing to return to school. Knowing what you want is one thing, but finding the right opportunity to do it is another. Do you also have suggestions for making the dream a reality and getting the right break?
— Danielle, age 38
A: Danielle, normally I would advise anyone looking to change paths to make sure that you really do want to go in a different direction. If you've known for seven or eight years that you need to make a change, however, it sounds like you've given it more than enough thought. It can sometimes seem like there is a daunting gap between the desire to change and acting on that desire. The first step is to stop thinking of it as a gap. Change is not a chasm we fall into with one step; it's a path. Take the first step along that path by committing to at least one action each week that will move you toward the life you want. That action can include building your financial security so that you have the cushion to be bolder. But every action you take should move you further toward your goal.
How can you overcome the very normal fear of change that almost all of us feel? There are two ways you can beat it: first, get excited. Visualize and concentrate on how excited you are by the new role you want to be in. Picture how energized and satisfied you will be when you are doing things that you truly love to do. Second, get specific. Specificity is the antidote to anxiety. If you plot out the specific steps that you need to take to achieve your goal and anticipate the specific details of your dream job, your anxiety will give way to impatience to get started on the path you've chosen.