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Why most people pick the wrong career, according to a former rocket scientist

April 22, 2023
Borderless Leadership

The 29-year-old actor stared at his bank account statement.

He had only $106 left to his name.

His acting career was going nowhere. He couldn’t afford the rent on his cheap Hollywood apartment. He even tried to sell his dog because he didn’t have enough money to buy dog food.

To take his mind off things, he decided to watch the world heavyweight title fight. Reigning champion Muhammad Ali was facing off against Chuck Wepner, a relatively unknown club fighter. The fight was supposed to be an easy win for Ali. But defying all odds, Wepner fought for 15 rounds before being knocked out.

Against one of the greatest boxers of all time, this supposed nobody held his own. Inspired by this triumph of the human spirit, the actor decided to write a screenplay. Since he couldn’t get acting jobs in other people’s movies, he would create a lead character for himself to play. He grabbed a Bic pen, lined sheets of paper, and started writing.

He finished the script in just three and a half days.

One day, on his way out the door from another failed audition, he turned around and, on a whim, mentioned his script to the producers in the room. Intrigued by the premise, the producers read the script, loved it, and offered him $25,000 to purchase the rights. But they had a condition: They wanted a big-name actor with a big box-office draw to play the lead.

The actor refused.

He had written the script so that he could play the lead. “I’d rather bury [the script] in the backyard and let the caterpillars play [the lead],” he told his wife. “I would have hated myself for selling out.”

The producers mistook the actor’s refusal for a negotiating tactic, so they kept increasing the offer. To $100,000. Then $175,000. And then $250,000. Finally, $360,000.

He refused to budge.

The producers kept insisting that they needed a big star to play the lead, but the actor wanted to live by the moral of the story he told in the script—about the importance of going after your dreams and having faith in yourself.

The producers finally relented and green-lit the film on the condition that the budget be kept low. The film was shot in 28 days on a meager $1 million budget. To make ends meet, the actor cast several family members in the film, including his father, brother, and wife—and even his dog, Butkus.

The film beat all expectations. It went on to earn $225 million in global box-office receipts and won three Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Picture.

The movie was Rocky, and the actor was a young Sylvester Stallone.

Most people in Stallone’s position would have given up the lead to another actor and just sold the script. But Stallone wanted to be an actor. With his long-term guiding principle clear, the decision was simple. He wasn’t going to throw away an opportunity to star in a potential blockbuster—playing a role created specifically for him—even if it meant walking away from a lucrative deal with nothing to show for it.

If you put a seed upside down in the ground, the sprouting plant will right itself. Roots know which direction they need to point in order to grow and will turn themselves until they get there. But unlike plants, most people who know they’re pointed the wrong way will still keep growing in that direction—simply because that’s what they’ve always done. As a result, they end up living a life out of alignment with who they are.

Ask yourself: What do I want from my life? What do I really want?

Deciding what you want can be incredibly hard, particularly if you’ve spent your life—as most of us have—going along with what others want for you or chasing what you’ve been told you should want.

Here are a few ways to get started:

Forget following your passion, which is far too difficult to figure out. Instead, follow your curiosity. What do you find interesting? Say yes to the tiny internal clues nagging you to learn more about botany, take welding classes, or pick up that sewing hobby you abandoned. The things that pique your curiosity aren’t random. They will point you to where you need to go. Unlike your appetite, indulging your curiosity will increase your curiosity. The more you follow the breadcrumbs, the more they tend to appear.

Ask yourself: What would I do if no one could know about it—if I couldn’t tell my friends about it or post on social media about it? The principle behind this question is simple: It doesn’t matter how good it looks or how prestigious it is. Trying to impress an invisible jury will often force you to conform and prevent you from taking bold actions that bring you into alignment with yourself. Any choice is a poor choice if it doesn’t bring you alive.

“Don’t ask what the world needs,” as Howard Thurman says. “Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I used to think that doing things that brought me alive was self-indulgent. But it’s quite the opposite. Going after what you want isn’t a burden on the world. It’s a beacon. When you do that, you establish a new way of existing that others can follow. When you shine, you help others shine, to paraphrase Lizzo. When you let light hit your prism, you cast a rainbow that extends far beyond yourself.

To figure out what brings you alive and what leaves you depleted, keep an energy journal. Track when you feel engaged and enthusiastic, and when you feel bored and restless. Follow the subtle signals from your body—when it relaxes and expands, when it tightens and contracts. The more specific your observations, the better (“When I was answering emails this afternoon, I noticed I was clenching my gut”).

Sometimes you can’t explain why you love something, but you know that it warms you and delights you. Since we spend a lifetime ignoring these internal signals, it’s easy to miss them unless we’re paying close attention. Learn the signals your body sends you when you come alive and start following those signals.

Be careful about chasing moments that make you feel happy. In the most important moments of my life, I didn’t feel happy. I felt anxious about the path ahead. I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t feel ready enough. I felt heavy—intimidated by a load that I was sure I couldn’t carry.

Yet I still did the thing. Happiness came only after a wave of other emotions washed through me (and knocked me around a bunch). If you pursue only happiness, you won’t ever leave your comfort zone. Because stepping outside your comfort zone is, by definition, uncomfortable.

Also ask yourself: In my ideal life, what does a Tuesday look like? That’s a question I learned from acting teacher Jamie Carroll. It’s easy to dream about the Saturday night moments (getting promoted, booking an amazing acting role, or landing a book deal). But those moments are few and fleeting. The rest of the time, it’s the Tuesdays—the everyday.

You might be thinking, I can’t just do what I want! Maybe you assume that if you had the freedom to do what you wanted your life would just be cigarettes, booze, and mindless video games for days on end. With free rein, sure, you might engage in these activities for a little while, but you’d eventually get bored. You’d find that these are very poor substitutes for desires that have remained unmet—a feeling of adventure, flow, and engagement—that can be fulfilled in far more constructive and long-lasting ways. It’s only by giving yourself permission to do what you think you want that you discover what you truly want (and what you don’t want).

Finally, consider your life’s purpose. What is your “why”? Why are you here? If you were writing your own obituary describing your life, what would it say? If you were lying on your deathbed, what would you regret not doing? Your life’s purpose is often connected to your first principles. Review them again and consider how you can use your first principles to express yourself.

The North Star, Polaris, is known for being fixed, but it’s not. Like all other objects in the sky, it moves—so much so that in about 2,000 years it’ll no longer be the North Star. What you want from your life can also change, as the world changes around you and as you change as a person. In fact, pursuing your curiosity will inevitably change you, by taking you off the path you’ve followed in the past and introducing you to new ways of being in the world. As long as you choose it intentionally, there’s nothing wrong with changing your direction.

Once you’re clear on what you want, say no to things that don’t matter and opt out of meaningless races that don’t bring you closer to it. If you don’t decide your guiding principles ahead of time—out of the heat of the moment—you’ll let the seemingly urgent crowd out the important.

Jim Carrey says that his father, Percy, could have been an amazing comedian. But Percy assumed that it was foolish to try to make a living with comedy, so he made a safe choice and took a job as an accountant. He was later fired from that job, and Carrey’s family became homeless. Looking back on his father’s life, Carrey says: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

In finding our life mission, we often run away from what we don’t want instead of running toward what we do want. We make our choices based on “fear disguised as practicality,” as Carrey says. It can be scary to go after what you want. Because if you go for it, you may not get it.

Carl Sagan dedicated his life to looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life. He failed. He never found it. But he got millions of people—including me—excited about the stars. He made numerous contributions to humanity that transcended his own life and helped us understand the cosmos we are lucky to live in.

As long as you enjoy the journey—and as long as you create art you’re proud of—who cares if you don’t reach your destination?

You’ve already won.

Excerpted with permission from Awaken Your Genius. Copyright 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.

by: Ozan Varol


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