Excerpt from Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life by Roadtrip Nation: Brian McAllister, Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard (Chronicle Books ©2015). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Imagine you only get to wear one shirt, or dress, or smock, or whatever, for the rest of your life. And you have to go to the store right now and pick it out, but you don't get to pick the store, nor do you get to try the item on. You can't check whether it fits right or matches your complexion or is itchy as hell or smells weird. You just take a quick look and decide, and that's what you'll wear forever. That would be ridiculous, of course. Yet this is the absurd method of the old-school paradigm that forces us to squeeze ourselves into a career that's supposed to be forever.
A career is a container, nothing more. The traditional career model forces you to pick a career in high school or college and then reverse-engineer yourself into it.
It's like all those by-the-book personality tests that funnel us into an absolute prescription for our future (such as "Based on your responses you'll be best suited to be a nurse"). Maybe there's an essential truth in that statement, but that narrow diagnosis often ignores key parts of our personalities. What if you pass out at the sight of blood? That doesn't mean you can't build a life around helping people, but maybe the emergency room just isn't the place for you. The problem is that the pencil-in-the-bubble tests don't ask you to engage with your results. It's nothing more than an authority-imposed mandate that doesn't speak to who you are or how you interact with the world. The interest-based approach we're proposing is the opposite. It's expansive. Instead of being assigned an output, you are able to explore a world of options based on your input. Instead of leaving with a narrowed-down version of what you could be, this approach broadens the scope of what's possible for you.
We are each way too dynamic and unique to cram into a one-size-fits-all mold. Choosing a career forces you to make decisions about something when you have limited experience about what that something really is. But those who've climbed out of the career container tend to find exciting, unexpected ways to connect personal satisfaction to financial stability and success. How did they do it? How will you do it?
You start with your interests.
If you're among the harried readers looking for a distillation of this book (anticipating the "TL;DR" response), here it is. Our message can be reduced to one sentence: build a life around your interests. This is the one lesson we hope you take away from this book.
Everything else flows from this basic idea. The people who end up the most fulfilled in life put in the effort to incorporate their interests into their work, creating their own unique Worklife. What excites and engages them becomes the starting point for every decision they make on their roads.
The reason the interest-first approach is so much better is because when we're doing what we love, we're alive (and it really sucks to hate your job). But what if you don't know what you're interested in? Whether we know it or not, we have a tendency to sneak the things we love into overlooked corners of our life–we just have to look from a different vantage point to see them. You might discover that you're already engaged in your interests in some way every day.
We all know the feeling. Sometimes, we're engaged in an activity, and time simply vanishes. We get lost in the doing. It's in those moments we might consider trivial that we can discover our interests. Maybe you're posting videos you've made to YouTube on your day off, or hiking in the woods, or volunteering for a political campaign, or building a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house in Minecraft–whatever it is that speaks to you, therein lies your interests.
Exploring those interests, finding ways to fold them into your work, and letting them guide your choices and commitments is the best way to break free from the career container.
If you're not truly interested in medicine, don't listen to the Noise and convince yourself you are because it's an impressive and lucrative profession. And don't be afraid if the interests you uncover don't seem legitimately serious. Especially in today's fractured and diverse marketplace, there are countless surprising ways to integrate your interests into your work. You can take a love of Saturday morning cartoons all the way to a senior position at the Cartoon Network, as Mike Lazzo did, or you could take a simple fascination with bones all the way to becoming a prominent figure in the world of forensic anthropology, as University of Tennessee Professor Dr. Bill Bass did. The point is, don't silo yourself. Doctors work only in medical offices. Teachers work only in classrooms. All scientists wear lab coats. Programmers only make websites. When we zoom out, it becomes clear that none of those statements are true, but when confronted with trying to forge a new path for ourselves, we can have a failure of imagination in thinking about what it means to work in a certain field or follow a particular interest. The Noise drowns out creative thinking in this moment, confining us. You need to instead question your assumptions and explore to get to the truth.
Take Shawn Lani, the senior exhibit developer at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. At first, Shawn was apprehensive about working in science (despite his love for it), because the stereotype of the scientist, working in a lab all day, didn't appeal to him. He was drawn to that world for other reasons. "There were some things that I loved," Shawn told us. "Like the unknowns. The mysteries. The idea that you can look at a physical object or a place, and there would be more there than you could find. So that interested me, but in such a vague way that it was hard to apply."
Shawn meandered, unable to commit to a particular field. He played piano in a bar and sold shoes. Eventually, he discovered a job that satisfied his love of science and his creative side: creating hands-on museum exhibits in the Exploratorium's playful learning laboratory environment. The whole point of the museum is to encourage curiosity and profound exploration of the physical world, which lets Sean engage with what he loves about science.
Roadtrip Nation started when fresh-out-of-college grads Nathan Gebhard, Mike Marriner, and Brian McAllister hit the road in a beat-up RV to interview people who had forged livelihoods doing what they love. Now, a decade later, Roadtrip Nation has grown into a long-running public television series, an educational organization, and a movement of people committed to living lives true to their interests.