An English Literature professor who always believed he would write novels. An assistant to a cutting-edge entrepreneur who, deep down, believes that she would be a brilliant entrepreneur herself, if only she dared. A construction worker whose true calling is to be an architect. These people have one thing in common: shadow careers.
In the pandemonium of raising two little kids in recent years, one of my deepest passions—reading books—has mostly fallen off of my schedule. However, two of the titles I that I have finished—The War of Art and Turning Pro—are from the same author, the brilliant Steven Pressfield. These books are directly addressed to artists of all kinds but very much apply to anyone trying to diligently pursue their true calling. Pressfield says that we pursue a shadow calling when we are frightened of owning our true calling. “That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career,” he writes. “Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk.”
This idea of the shadow career really struck a chord in my soul as I read. Something was stirring. I knew that I had some internal exploring to do. It was time to shine a light on the work that I have chosen to call my career and see if it really represents my true calling, or if it is a mere metaphor for my “real career” that I don’t yet have. Am I in a shadow career?
I teach Tennis for a living. I have done it full-time for about 12 years. Prior to that, I bounced around in other pursuits that very much interested me but that ultimately did not sustain. In my last life crisis moment—when I dropped out of my Ph.D. program and needed to figure out what was next—I kept asking myself what it was that I have always loved to do that also offered actual jobs. Tennis was my answer. I had taught it for fun here and there prior to that, never considering it an actual career path. But at that life moment, there it was. Something I love that also earns a paycheck—that sounded like the perfect combination.
What I loved about teaching Tennis—indeed, what I still love about it—is that I get to coach. I get a wonderful boost from helping people take steps towards excellence and personal growth. I like delivering both the information and the inspiration. I love the process of figuring out which button needs to be pushed at just the right moment to guide the student to a breakthrough and newfound confidence. Even as a graduate student, my absolute favorite part of the gig was teaching a couple of discussion classes per week with college freshmen. I loved leading them and opening their minds to new ideas. It was a rush. It is still a rush. Another thing I love about coaching Tennis is that I regularly get to share in the best part of someone’s day (or week). I don’t know that many professions that get to say that, so I don’t take it lightly. I also greatly appreciate that I get to share the first great love of my life—Tennis–with others. And I get to contribute to people’s fitness and overall wellness, which is enormously gratifying to me. As I reread this paragraph, I am thinking this definitely sounds like my true calling. Right?
Maybe not. Maybe it is really just a great shadow career. In the months surrounding my 40th birthday—I’m honestly not sure if it was the milestone birthday bringing it on or just the fascinating, inspirational stuff I was reading at the time—I started to really take stock of my life and wonder what I really wanted to do with the rest of it? Was I really living my calling, or had I missed some signs along the way that were pointing me right to it? I truly believe that our inner voice—our soul or intuition or the still, small voice, whatever you want to call it—is always communicating with us but that we are often either not paying attention to it or are hearing it but willfully choosing to listen to our logic or our senses instead. So I started really listening to that inner voice, started looking for its signs. I noticed when something gave me a big rush or made me feel at home or tingly. I sensed how reading about or talking to some people totally entranced me, how I was envious of their careers or how they were shaping their world. And I owned my longings rather than dismissing them.
It was also around this time that I began what I call “The Journal Project”, which was a thorough review of the nearly 50 journals I have filled in my adult life. The combination of paying closer attention to the inner voice and doing an in-depth life review was totally enlightening when it came to this idea of my true calling. What I found in both sources was a deep desire to be a writer/teacher/speaker/personal growth catalyst. Every time I came across an entry in my journals about feeling called to write, I would get tingly all over my body and my hair would stand on end. The still, small voice was speaking to me. And it spoke so plainly and so frequently that after awhile, I could not ignore it. I knew I needed to begin to move in the direction of my dreams. My first book idea became very clear to me, as did the necessity of starting this blog as soon as possible. I wanted my mission of helping people to know themselves better and to live more authentically and happily to have a vehicle immediately, even if I didn’t directly have a career in it for a while.
So, what does this say about my beloved Tennis career? To me it says that it is a shadow career, a metaphor for my “real” career as a writer/speaker/life coach. It certainly shadows it in many ways: I get to teach and inspire people, to share in their highs and lows while all the time seeking to build their confidence and push them toward growth and excellence. It is a great job for me; it really is. But, as it turns out, it just may not be the job for me.
So, how about YOU? Are you in a shadow career? Open up your journal and write about your career. What drew you to it? Do those same qualities keep you there still? Are you just collecting a check, or is your work fulfilling as well? How much is your career tied into your identity? Most importantly, what do you really want to do? Is your current career a shadow of that dream job, or perhaps not even in the ballpark? Be honest: do you think you will pursue your dream? Why or why not? Are you playing small because it is comfortable and what you know? What if you were meant to play a bigger game?
This topic obviously has a built-in challenge: if you admit you are not doing what you really want, you are forced to justify why not and why you aren’t—right now—about to make a move to change that. Leave me a reply and tell me if you are in a shadow career. I want to know: are you ready to step into your purpose? What’s your next move???
Let your light shine,