No one can tell you how to find your dream job. But I've interviewed hundreds of experts on the subject, and they agree on a few things. I call them the eight simple rules for finding work you love. Notice I said rules, not steps. It isn't, "Do this, this, and this." It's more like, "Keep these things in mind, and you're much more likely to reach your destination."
1. No Regrets
If you're contemplating a career change, give yourself a present: a clean slate. Let's say you've spent the first ten or twenty years of your adult life doing the so-called wrong thing. You can stick with that and have a bad time for the next twenty or thirty years, or you can be thankful for everything you've learned so far... and use it to find happiness after all.
Successful career changers approach life as an adventure. They dive into each new experience, perfect job or no, with a light touch. "I'll have fun," they say, "and I'll learn a lot." They frame mistakes as directions, which make it easier for them to get it right the next time.
2. Talk to Yourself
My life changed when I quit worrying about whether my career plans made sense to other people. It wasn't their lives we were talking about. I suggest you pay attention to that little voice inside that knows going after still another corporate job is wrong. Sure, some careers command more interest at a cocktail party or will pay for fancier vacations. But if you hate what you do for forty or fifty or sixty hours a week, you'll probably spend more time at cocktail parties... or on vacation.
Does this sound familiar? You weren't really crazy about a career in sales but everyone told you that you're great with people and the next thing you know you have twenty years with the company. Your family's used to the income and between juggling a two-career marriage and kids and everything that comes with them you feel lucky if you get an hour to yourself at the gym on a weekend let alone time to contemplate what makes you happy.
That's one reason people who get fired so often look back on the experience -- eventually -- as the best thing that ever happened. It gave them time to stop and consider other choices, something they'd never taken before. Why wait? Isn't your entire working life worth some time away from the grind to take a good hard look at the grind?
4. Ask for Directions
Once upon a time, I wished for a class on how to make a life transition. I'd never heard of anything like that, but I found it in a two-week workshop given by Dick Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute? One thing Dick taught me was, "If you're not having fun you're not doing it right." It made me wonder if I'd approached life backwards. I thought you were supposed to work hard, save a lot of money -- and if someday you had the luxury of having fun, well, good for you. It never occurred to me life was supposed to be much fun until "someday."
I was wrong. Realizing that changed everything. Suddenly it was okay to take my dreams seriously, and it was exhilarating.
5. Accept Free Samples
It took me several weeks to decide to buy a four-dollar pretzel. Every other Saturday, browsing the mall and savoring still another mouth-watering sample, I contemplated my choices. There was quite an array. Eventually I settled on parmesan, with honey mustard on the side.
I spent more time deciding on a pretzel than a college major, which is one reason I wound up with a degree in engineering. Lucky for me I also had three internships in school -- construction work, railroad design, and manufacturing management -- so I knew for sure by the time I graduated I wanted nothing to do with engineering.
I was sold on internships, though. They give you a chance to try on a job before you sign up for full-time employment. Why would you not do that? Well, okay, the pay isn't usually very good if you get anything at all, and most people have to do other work to support the supposedly free trial. But to sample a new job before committing to it? Truly, in my opinion, priceless.
You don't have to intern. Volunteer to do a job for free. Use the weekend to help a friend whose work intrigues you. Ask someone if you can tag along for a day. Anything to get a feel for what the work you're considering is actually like. You won't be sorry.
6. Say Yes
The first week of my sophomore year in college depressed me. I knew by then I hated engineering, and I had at least three years left. I didn't know what to do. The thought of quitting turned my stomach. I don't quit things. But I couldn't imagine surviving in a major that I had so little interest in or aptitude for. Now what?
I thought back to the spring semester, and a talk a favorite professor gave about exactly this. I trusted him, and listened intently to his advice. "It's about now," he said, "when a lot of you will want to quit." No kidding. Engineering students, as a friend put it, were dropping like flies. There was no shame in quitting, I knew at some level, and I was allowed to change my mind. "Before you do," the professor suggested, "make sure you're running to something and not away from it."
Bingo. I got my degree. I didn't know what the heck I'd do with it, but when you don't know where you're going you may as well hang out where you are.
Whether it's a job or a course of study, sometimes the right thing to do -- even if you hate it -- is to stay put until you find something to say "yes" to.
7. Have Fun
My first radio job was with the Minnesota News Network in St. Paul. When I was out with friends and they started talking about their work my first thought was always, "I don't work. I go to MNN." When those friends waxed dreamy about what they'd do if they won the lottery, I thought, "I'd still go to MNN." Back then my title was "intern" and my salary was "nothing." But I knew I was headed somewhere fun because I was already having fun.
8. Try Something New When You Stop Having Fun
I love to watch people at work. Are they happy? If they aren't, why don't they do something else?
I'm struck by the seeming ease with which some people will leave a marriage. But a career? It's as if changing your mind is out of the question. I think that's a shame.
I don't know how my story will turn out -- and I hope you don't, either. Let's take it one page at a time, and hope it inspires.
Follow Maureen Anderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DoingWhatWorks