The Light at the End of the Tunnel

August 18th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

If you found yourself unemployed today, would you want the job you have now? Would you be eager to apply for it?

What about your career as a whole? If you’d never worked in your current industry, would you consciously choose to work in it now?

Many people just fall into their current line of work without ever consciously choosing it. For example, I fell into computer programming early in life. I took a BASIC programming class when I was 10 years old, and I loved it. From there it was a gradual progression to a double-major in computer science and math. My father was an aerospace engineer, and my mother was a college math professor, so there was certainly no family resistance to this path. I don’t ever recall seriously considering any other majors. Perhaps I was just destined to be a computer programmer.

It wasn’t destiny though. It was merely momentum. There was very little conscious choice along this path. For the most part it was the path of least resistance.

But the path of least resistance is usually not the path of best results, despite the musings of spiritual gurus who try desperately to paint it as such. Just because unconscious physical objects follow the path of least resistance doesn’t make it the correct choice for conscious human beings.

Your consciousness gives you the option of choosing a path where you will meet resistance and then overcoming that resistance. You can take the path of least resistance and avoid obstacles, or you can choose to work against resistance and grow stronger.

In terms of career choices, you aren’t limited to doing what you’ve been doing all along just because it’s convenient for you. You also have the option of doing something entirely different. Even if you don’t possess the skills to qualify to do something else, you do have the option of acquiring those skills.

People are often held back by focusing too heavily on the effort it would take to develop new skills. People say, “It would take me five years just to reach the same level in a new career that I’m at now!” And you know what… that may well be true. But the time it takes you is of no consequence. Those five years are going to pass anyway. You can spend them in your current career, or you can invest them in transitioning to a new career. It’s merely a matter of substituting one version of those five years for another. Which version would put you in a better situation five years hence?

When I wanted to move away from computer game development and towards working in the field of personal development, I had to deal with these same mental barriers. I thought to myself, “But I’m already very good at what I do. My position is safe and secure. How can I just abandon all I’ve worked for and start over with something new? I can’t just get up on a stage and start making a living as a professional speaker. My speaking skills aren’t good enough, and I know next to nothing about the speaking business. If I even attempt such a big change, my income is certain to go down in the beginning. It’s going to take me years to build the skills, credibility, and content just to reach the same level in that profession that I’m at now with my game business. That’s crazy. Why should I even start?”

But the idea that the time is going to pass anyway really got to me. I framed it as a choice between spending the next five years one way and spending them another way. The past was the past, and the momentum that it produced up to this point was irrelevant. What mattered was the choice in front of me. I could form a pretty clear picture of what the next five years running my games business would be like. And I could also get a general idea of what the next five years starting a new personal development business would be like. Even though the day-by-day details would be impossible to predict, the bigger parts were predictable enough. On the games path, I’d continue publishing games. Duh. It wasn’t hard to get a sense of where I’d end up in five more years. And on the personal development path, I’d be writing and speaking and producing info products, but this would require a lot of time up front working for very little income. It also wasn’t hard to get a feel for what the resulting business might look like in five years.

When I asked myself which five-year outcome I preferred, it was the personal development business. That probably doesn’t surprise you, nor did it surprise me. But what did surprise me was that I also could imagine that the way I’d be spending those next five years was more appealing on the personal development path. I not only wanted the outcome more, but upon reflection I concluded that I’d probably enjoy the path more as well. It would be challenging, and I’d have to take an income hit initially, but I was OK with that. I think what I found most attractive was that I was going to grow and learn much more on the personal development path vs. the games path. It seemed more adventurous and exciting to me.

Separate the question of what you want from the question of what you think you can get. Five years is a long time. You can qualify for almost any profession within that time, even if you’re starting from scratch today. At the very least, you can get close. You might not be able to apply for a neurosurgical position, but you can work in the field of medicine within that time.

I accepted that maybe I can’t go from game publisher to professional speaker at the same level of income in only one year, at least not without taking some very big risks, getting unusually lucky, and probably doing a very mediocre job on stage. But within a five-year period, I can develop a high degree of proficiency in speaking, build an abundance of great content, release a number of products, establish credibility, and produce a strong income if I work hard at it. I’ve been at it for 10.5 months now, and if I just keep making progress at roughly the same rate, I should have all those basic dots connected within the next few years. And if an unexpected stroke of genius or luck hits me between now and then, it will happen faster.

If you find yourself in a job or career you wouldn’t consciously choose today, the first step is to admit that to yourself. The next step is to choose something else you’d like to move towards. And your new choice doesn’t even have to be the absolute best — it just has to be something you reasonably believe to be a better fit for you, a career you would choose consciously.

Then just accept that if you want to switch careers, maybe it’s going to take some time. Maybe it will take five years, perhaps even longer. But then again it may not take as long as you think. You may be surprised to discover that skills from your current career can help accelerate your new career. For example, not many professional speakers understand Internet marketing, blogging, or search engine optimization nearly as well as I do — in fact, it’s fair to say that most are utterly clueless when it comes to the web. So I can leverage my web skills to rapidly and cheaply do things that are very time-consuming, costly, and confusing for other speakers, like building a high-traffic web site or selling downloadable products. You won’t find any flash intros here….

I think you may find that even if you switch from law to acting, there will still be a significant overlap which puts you ahead of the game in your new career. For example, you might be a better negotiator, and you might even make some money on the side helping fellow newbie actors with their contracts. At the very least, being more mature and experienced can give you an edge.

Take some time to imagine what those next five years might be like if you were to transition to a new career. How could your existing experience become an asset to you? Could you make it OK to live on less money in the beginning? Could you see those lean years as part of a wonderful adventure instead of an unbearable setback? What interesting new friends might you make along the way? What new experiences might you enjoy? What good could you do for yourself and others? Can you see yourself bounding out of bed each morning instead of hitting the snooze button?

I’m only 10.5 months along this path, so I can’t tell you what it’s like at 5 years out yet, but I can share what it’s like to get this far. Honestly, it’s wonderful. You’d think that the first year of transition would be the hardest, but it only looks hard from a very superficial standpoint. Sure I had to make some sacrifices. I’ve given up a lot of income I could easily have made if I kept working on my games business full-time, my aging car just passed 150,000 miles, and I’ve devoted months to writing and speaking for free. While this seemed like it would be tough to handle from the outside looking in, surprisingly it hasn’t been tough at all. It actually seems to be a lot tougher on the people watching me do it than it is for me. I’ve been enjoying the path tremendously, and progress has been more rapid than expected.

When I first got started, I felt like I needed to work hard to get through the difficult transition period as quickly as possible, so I could reach the point where I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. But what actually happened was that after a few months, I came to see that the tunnel itself was already very well lit. I didn’t need to rush to emerge in some future place because the present moment was perfect as it was. So I dropped the tunnel metaphor and decided that the present moment was the place to be.

What I mean by this is that instead of seeing the transition period as a grueling trial to be endured, I experience each day as something to be savored. I derive so much intrinsic pleasure from the work itself that future rewards are almost non-entities. I don’t need to see some whoppingly big financial reward after five years to verify that this was the right decision. Even though the total amount of money I’ve made in this new business so far can’t even match a good week of sales from my games business, I feel a lot wealthier now than I did when my income was higher. I think that as I continue working in this state of mind, it’s only a matter of time before the external world catches up.

I think the whole income issue (how will I feed myself and my family?) is one that keeps a lot of people stuck in jobs that are wrong for them, particularly men who take pride in their role as breadwinners. But think about what that money is buying you. If you had the choice to buy or not buy that life again, would you make the same choice?

Is your life paying wonderful dividends right now, or are you waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel when you can really start “living?”

Where are you right now — the light or the tunnel?


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