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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare

WORK SMARTER

Following your dream career path is hard and lonely work – but that’s no bad thing

It’s the struggle that allows the dream to become real and worthwhile, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

The other night, I found myself in front of a very enthusiastic American man. My cynical British ears were perplexed to hear that everything was “AMAZING!” and my London-stamped aloofness squinted uncertainly at the vast waves of energy that seemed to be escaping through his every pore. He was excited about his new book, which started as a blog, is now a “community” of thousands and tells the stories of how people have “jumped” – how they left the career they were comfortable with and chose to do something they are passionate about.

The author, Mike Lewis, jumped aged 24 from a desk job in the finance sector to become a professional squash player. With a one-way ticket to New Zealand and a heartfelt belief in “now or never”, Lewis spent two years following his dream, living on sofas, mostly broke but incredibly fulfilled. It’s a dangerous talk to hear on a wet, cold January night.

Yet, for all his American polish – and the Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg cameos in his story – it wasn’t all said with a sparkling white-toothed smile. Lewis’ other mission, while travelling the globe and playing squash, was to collect the stories of others who had jumped – from anything, in any way, to any sort of passion. He became fascinated not with what you could become, but how you became it. In his own words, “the 10 million unsexy steps in between”. The bit that, by his own admission, was definitely not amazing.

And, despite listening to Lewis in the office of one of the world’s biggest tech companies, perched on a nondescript AstroTurf-covered object – the kind that Silicon Valley is still mistaking for office furniture – my British cynicism started to relax. Here was the antidote to a million and one Instagram platitudes that suggest all you need is a pinch of self-belief and a wisely chosen filter. Sure, follow your dream, Lewis says, but it’s going to be fucking hard work. It’s going to be really unpleasant, you’ll be broke, your parents and your friends will judge you. It could take years to build up any success – if at all. Suddenly, this American was talking my language.

As a recent freelance writer, no one told me about the bleak, bland Tuesdays where nothing neither bad nor good happens; where you’re just floating to the sound of BBC Radio 4 in your kitchen, spotting cats in the garden

And it’s not that I don’t want people to follow their dreams. But it’s a privilege if you do and one that isn’t often described as that. Or, at least, not the nuts and bolts of the privilege – the parent-bought houses, the confidence and self-belief established at good, expensive schools, the secure knowledge that if it all goes wrong, there’s a warm bed waiting for you and enough of your parents’ pension to keep you fed and watered. This springboard of privilege that has helped so many people jump – and land – is invisible.

And, even if you haven’t had the cashmere-lined helping hand, we’re not very good at talking about the grit and the grime. In the carefully contrived images of our online personas, very few insert the down days, the fuck-ups, the loneliness, the anxiety or the mediocre drudgery of doing the washing and going to Sainsbury’s and chasing invoices or just the bleak, bland Tuesdays where nothing neither bad nor good happens. As a recent freelance writer, no one told me about these bleak, bland Tuesdays where nothing neither bad nor good happens; where you’re just floating to the sound of BBC Radio 4 in your kitchen, spotting cats in the garden, avoiding a minor existential crisis by making another cup of tea. When I was standing behind a desk at a full-time job, freelance life was coffee and flexibility and control. I’ve now jumped and it’s a lot of coffee and flexibility and control, but it’s also really hard. My best friend, who’s just jumped to a European city, and is by all accounts living her best Oprah-ian life, messaged me to say she was feeling shaky. Dreams and jumps come at a price – they are hard and challenging and lonely and tough and sometimes even boring. But that’s why they are amazing. Because the hard and challenging and lonely and tough and even the boring is the substance that bulks out those empty and hollow Instagram platitudes. It’s what turns a nauseating #quoteoftheday into a lived experience – into something with meaning.

My cynicism thawed – although that could have been the wine or perhaps the unseen forces of the office-cum-greenhouse-cum-playpen we were in. After all, Lewis was selling nothing new – in fact, he was selling something that has shaped a nation for centuries: the American Dream of pulling yourself up by bootstraps. Starting with nothing, becoming something, a self-determination and the right of the individual to live their best life – the reincarnation of this message echoing through American history. But I felt that I was getting – for once – the full package. And not just a confession, but the emphasis of how important that hard bit was.

So, the next time I’m spotting cats in my garden on a bleak, bland Tuesday, I’ll be sure to remember it’s OK that this moment isn’t “AMAZING!”. In fact, this moment might actually be quite essential. And there will definitely be a lot more of them.

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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
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