On Dream Jobs and the Importance of being a Self-Starter
Photo courtesy of Karl Baron.

On Dream Jobs and the Importance of being a Self-Starter

Written by Emilie

Topics: Work

I had a crazy moment the other night. I was up to my elbows in green goop (literally), and I suddenly thought: I’m getting PAID to make silly putty right now… This is my work.

Now, nobody actually said, “hey Emilie, I’ll pay you to make silly putty with your friend Mike.” I set that up for myself.

If you’re wondering what the silly putty’s all about, it’s a symbolic gift that I’ll be giving to the multipotentialites at my seminar tomorrow night. This art/science project is just one of the many surprises that I’m smooshing into the event. I’ve also brought in my love of music, some communications theory, a bit of history, a touch of Shakespeare, and some dramatic storytelling. The seminar is going to be so much more than just a talk.

There’s something incredibly meta about the whole thing. I’m teaching others how to smoosh their diverse interests together into one “group hug” career. Meanwhile, the presentation itself is a glorious smoosh of disparet fields and formats. But I can’t not do it. Everything I create seems to be a combination of multiple, “unrelated” ideas. Life is so much more interesting at the intersections.

This experience illustrates one of the main themes in my talk: that you need to be a self-starter when it comes to your career. In other words, if your dream job doesn’t exist, invent it.

“Discover Your Dream Career”

A few weeks ago, I Googled “career test” out of curiosity. I wanted to see what the mainstream approach to career selection looked like, and what students were being taught. One of the headlines struck me. It said “Discover your dream career.”

Discover? Hm.

While seemingly romantic at first, this statement embodies the problem with the mainstream approach.

It explains why a few years back, my good friend went to our law faculty’s career development office and was told that she could become: A) a corporate lawyer in a big firm, B) a lawyer in a small, boutique firm, C) in-house counsel at a company, D) a lawyer at a non-profit or governmental body.

She was presented with a set number of predetermined roles, and she was expected to choose one of these profiles and FIT herself into it. Nothing was mentioned of people with law degrees who are using their skills in unconventional ways– people like Dustin, Rachel, or Jodie.

The problem isn’t just that career counselors are unaware of the wide range of alternative careers out there. It goes much deeper. It’s that we’re encouraged to approach our careers from a place of discovery, rather than design.

What if, instead of looking outside of ourselves at preexisting roles, we came at our careers from a place of introspection and conscious design. What if we ask ourselves, what kind of life do I want to create, and how can I make that happen?

That’s a totally different starting point.

What kind of Life do You Want to Create, and how Can You make it Happen?

I asked myself this question about two and a half years ago. I didn’t imagine myself making silly putty per say, but I did imagine a life where I got to do creative activities, explore new concepts, collaborate with inspiring people, concoct fun projects, do challenging work, and make a difference in the world. I imagined a mix of coffee shop flow states, group work, co-working, and teaching.

(Note the absence of any specific medium. It didn’t matter if I was painting, developing websites, or doing math. It was about the feelings that I wanted to experience. The types of activities that I wanted in my life.)

I had no idea what this would look like in practice, and I certainly did look to other mentors and think about what elements they had in their careers that I would like to integrate into my own career.

But I approached it from a place of design.

Approach Your Career like a Mad Scientist

The best thing that career counselors can do for students these days, is to encourage them to be self-starters. To be proactive and approach their careers like mad scientists, so that they can have lives that are fun, fulfilling, and fueled by their super powers.

Being a self-starter isn’t necessarily synonymous with being an entrepreneur by the way. Even if you want a more traditional career, it’s still important to approach it with this attitude.

What if Your Dream Job Exists, but is really hard to get?

Lets say the traditional approach works for you and your dream job IS out there. Don’t wait until you get the gig before doing the work. Lets say, for example, that you dream of writing for the New York Times. Don’t wait for the New York Times to hire you before you start writing. Do the work that you WOULD do for them, but do it now, on your own. Start a blog and publish it there.

I listened to an incredibly inspiring interview on Pat Flynn’s podcast the other day. Leslie Samuel had dreamed of being a professor of neurobiology. He was doing his masters, heading down the traditional path toward academia. However, during his studies he found himself doing a whole lot of experiments on crickets, which he hated.

The prospect of another six years of crickets was too much for him, so Leslie decided against doing his doctorate. Meanwhile, he had already created several blogs on different subjects (multipotentialite). Suddenly it hit him. Instead of waiting to be hired as a professor, why not begin teaching the stuff he wanted to teach now, on his own?

Leslie used the tech knowledge that he had acquired while building his other sites, and created the website Interactive Biology, a platform on which he could teach all of the ideas in Neurobiology that he was excited about.

A few years later, you guessed it, Leslie was hired by a university to teach. The only reason he got this job was because of Interactive-Biology.com. He didn’t have the credentials, and they almost didn’t consider him for that reason. But after spending some time on his website, it was clear he would make an incredible teacher. He already was one. Leslie got his dream job by being a self-starter and doing the work he wanted to do immediately. He didn’t wait to be chosen.

Become an Expert in Yourself

You don’t need to become an expert in one field, but you do need to become an expert in yourself. Who are you? How do you like to work? What kind of impact do you want to have in the world? Nobody knows this stuff from the get-go either. Use your passions as a compass, explore those intersections, and reflect/tweak as you go.

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll look up and find yourself doing something like this:

Your Turn

Do you approach your career from a place of design?


Come see me speak at Portland State University tomorrow!


  1. Andy says:

    I love this. That the problem is “we’re encouraged to approach our careers from a place of discovery, rather than design.” This is very pertinent and spot on.

    I think it’s because of the word career – a career is currently a pre-set path, a structured journey through which we are fed. I think through design there IS discovery, and in designing and creating our career around our own lives we discover much more about where we want to head. When our passions and interests are free to evolve, our ‘career’ and self become intrinsically linked – our career reflects our identity because it is an extension of it rather than being the other way round, ie our identity reflecting our career (we conform to the stereotypes of what it means to have a certain career).

  2. Janet says:

    I do try to approach from a ‘design’ perspective, and I should, because I’m a designer!!

    But still, there is a traditional path/approach to design and it’s nothing like designing your lifestyle and dream job, unfortunately.

    I’m writing a post right now about a similar topic.. Except instead of likening it to a mad scientist (which is also good, by the way), I’m saying it’s like being a Jazz improv artist vs. a Classical stiff (guilty as charged).

    Personal development is important to me, and I’m now convinced that the entrepreneurial path is the biggest personal development journey you could ever take.. So reevaluating these questions and being an expert on myself is something I’m always looking at and evolving!

    • Emilie says:

      Totally, I agree with you Janet. Design itself has a “traditional” path. I’m looking forward to reading your post.

      And duuuude we totally have to rock some “Classical stiff” when you get into town! :)

  3. Douglas Eby says:

    Thanks for this stimulating post. Parts of it reminded me of Tama Kieves, who wrote (in her first book, This Time I Dance! Creating the Work You Love) about being a graduate with honors from Harvard Law School and working in a “huge, elite law firm” but feeling “desperate to be free, exhausted in my good, safe job, dying of meaninglessness, suffocating the life out of my creative soul.” She talks about what stops us from living our dreams for a fulfilling life, in a clip from The New Wealth Experience.

  4. Jenny says:

    I wish I had read this the day I walked into my career center. Your seminar sounds so fun Emilie! I wish I could be there in person. What an interesting, entertaining, and exciting event. I love that you are sharing actual putty with your audience. So so fun!

  5. Leslie says:

    Yes! I love this post. I’ve recently started writing about a career as a creative process, especially on an international scale. I just created my first experiment in the world of online offers to focus on this concept. http://www.leslieforman.com/how-to-create-your-international-career/

    I also agree with your idea of approaching a career with design in mind instead of “pick from this short list of *all* the available options for your field.” One of my favorite tools for this is Business Model You: http://businessmodelyou.com/

    Good luck with the seminar! I wish I could be there. I’ll let you know when we’re ready for the Chilean version (perhaps via Skype…)


    • Emilie says:

      Wow Leslie, your course looks really really cool! Thanks for sharing, and good luck with it.

      I am totally down for the Chilean version. Seriously. Skype would work, but to be honest, I’d much rather do it in person! Lets be in touch, cause at some point I will need a vacation from all this rain. :)

  6. Mary says:

    Great post, Emilie, and spot on about design vs. discover. When I was teaching a workshop “Life by Design” a few years back I started working with big questions as a tool for a career change I wanted to make. My big question then had 3 components: “What would it look like if I had all the freedom and flexibility I wanted to spend with my family, did work where I got to use my full creative expression and made a really good living.” At no time did I think that those 3 things were mutually exclusive. They were key design elements, I now realize. What I found/designed was beyond my wildest dreams. I’m doing it again now with a new question: “How can I make a 10 fold increase in my contribution and fulfillment in the world?” All the things I love to do are taking on a new form with the new question. Pretty cool stuff. Love your writing. Looking forward to learning more.

  7. Erin says:

    Yeah! Silly putty!! That’s awesome. I’m so glad it worked :)

    It’s only recently that I’ve been approaching my career as something I can design. It took me a long time to understand that you may not need a zillion degrees and a laundry list of credentials to be good at something. And just because you borrow a label from a profession doesn’t mean you have to do things exactly the way everyone else doing them does!

  8. Sean Cook says:

    Good article Emilie. I have read several articles and blog posts about “passion for cash” which is basically what you are saying here–create a niche around what your are good at or passionate about. The big plus side for us web designers/developers is that we know how to leverage the web and social media to make the “cash” part happen. ;-)

    I have a client that is doing just that: Sing Free Now! http://www.SingFreeNow.com where you “Learn Mark Bosnian’s amazing methods to unleash your full singing potential!” This is Mark’s passion, so we are helping him get paid for it.

    I am also like you Emilie, I have many skills and several degrees. It is hard to put me in a “box” position or job title, so I can appreciate your approach and thoughts along these lines.

  9. Erin OK says:

    Yes! I have always tried to approach my career from a design perspective. I read when I was 17 or 18:

    “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

    I really took that to heart and have always tried to do what I love, the problem is, the money hasn’t followed. It’s been a long journey of discovering what’s standing in my way and realizing that it’s just myself and the limits in my thinking. And also, limits in business know-how.

    Anyway, I read Renaissance Business, and started to put my plan together, and suddenly all these amazing opportunities have popped up for me, as I took some little actions that I WANTED to do. . .

  10. Lori Stalter says:

    I was hoping you listed the recipe for making your putty. That looks like fun!

    I hope everybody at the seminar enjoyed their bit of putty! And I can’t wait to hear about your experience.

  11. Jonathan says:

    That is exactly what fueled me to dive into photography & further into media itself. Just the vast array of ways to put yourself out now whether its via social media, audio, video, or even writing. It made perfect sense to me to start shaking trees with as much shaking as possible to see if someone takes interest in what I bring to the table in every odd balled way I find myself doing it. Most of the time its backwards, then I get that question of “why don’t you do it this way.” My quickest answer is I don’t understand it that way. Mostly, after a conversation with a friend over the weekend, I consider myself transitional putty at the moment. Also, a cult of Mutltipotentiality.

  12. Lulú says:

    I’ve been following the site for some time now but haven’t been actively following it lately.
    A few months ago I started a trip, spent a few months in the US and then soome more traveling across Europe. Today I am back home. It’s so weird, because now I am starting all over again, finding a job, moving into the big city once more, all while I am figuring out what is that, that I actually like. I started visiting the site because I consider myself a multipotentialite; I love art and writing, photography and books and history and… you know. One of my former colleagues say I am one of those ‘odd’ employees, because I don’t follow ALL the rules. That, of course, has worked out with some employers and not so much with others.
    Either way, I am really happy to have read this post today. Just yesterday I was discussing this same topic with my mother: the whole “start doing your own thing”. She’s a firm believer of it and I think that, aside to my “real” job (I can’t complain,though, my jobs have always been quite creative), I want to stat doing more of what I like, but in a more serious fashion, so to speak. I am writing more and taking those pieces to friends, magazines, also I’m starting my blog with my work (photographs, writings, things!) and basically doing more of what I like.
    Anywho, thanks for this post!

  13. Jo Bradshaw says:

    Hello Emilie
    I love the mad scientist approach. I was suuuch a good girl at school and started to follow nice, grow-up paths leading to respectful jobs like a big fat paycheque at a London IT firm. But I turned that down at the last minute in favour of travel and a rainbow of improper jobs. I’m finally finding my own superpowers and it feels like a really joyful place to be in now.

    Thought you might like this quote from Andy Stanton:

    ” I hold the World Record for being me” Old Granny, Mr Gum & The Biscuit Billionaire.

  14. Megan says:

    I love this. Great points. And now I want to go home and make silly putty :-)

  15. Sarah Lawson says:

    I’m so happy to see that you’re having so much fun doing (making) something you love! silly putty is love! :)

    I really liked this question from your entry: What kind of Life do You Want to Create, and how Can You make it Happen?

    It’s simple and yet so powerful on so many levels. It’s never too late to go after your dream career.

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