The latest Washington Post On Success query I was asked to respond to really hit home:
Q: At some point in your life, you probably decided to take a leap of faith and go in a direction — professionally or personally — that others did not expect. Like quit Goldman Sachs to be a goat farmer. Or leave a company job for your own venture. Was the move a success? Did the new direction turn out the way you thought it would?
I have had a lot of fun in my careers, but one of the the most exhilarating professional experiences I have had was rebooting myself when I decided after 18 years as a lawyer that I wanted to become a movie critic. Fifteen years later, I’m still doing both.
It’s not that being a movie critic is more fun than being a lawyer. Some days it is and some days it isn’t. But the experience of starting something completely new was completely thrilling. It was almost as much fun when I switched specialties eight years after law school.
Making a big change is a way to sweep out the mental cobwebs. By deconstructing your career, you challenge all of your assumptions about what you are capable of, especially any sense that you are stuck with what you’re doing just because that is what you have been doing. It’s a wonderfully bracing way for you to choose your life with energy, awareness, and purpose.
I had been the critic for my high school and college papers and had studied film history and criticism in college. Then I went to law school and did other things, including getting married and having two children, all of which occupied my full attention for quite a while.
But then the children began to become more independent. And I began to remember how much I missed seeing and writing about movies. I wrote an article for a magazine about sharing classic movies with children. And I became very intrigued with the then-new World Wide Web. I began posting my reviews and comments online. I knew I would need some sort of niche to make me stand out, so I decided the best was to use what I knew and write from the perspective of a mom. And I knew I would need some sort of credential, so I decided to write a book: The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies
That led to my being invited to review movies on the radio. By the time Yahoo was looking for a movie critic, I had an archive ready to move to their site and weekly radio spots across the country to promote it. I had not planned to go to work for anyone else writing reviews, but when they had a job available, I was ready because I had done the work to establish myself. I later moved to Beliefnet, which made it possible for me to reach a broader audience and write features, commentary and interviews.
People often tell me they’d like to become a movie critic and I always tell them that if they write reviews, they are a critic. If they want to be a good critic, they will have to spend the time to study film history and they will have to make sure that their reviews are lively, vivid, engaging, and distinctive as well as illuminating and instructive. If they want to make money at it, they may have to find a time machine and go back to the 1970’s. This is the greatest time in history to be a writer, but it may be the worst time in history to try to get paid for it.
So it’s just two steps and one secret to making it happen. Step one is to own it. Don’t say, “if only.” Say, “I am.” And then be whatever it is. Be honest with yourself and take responsibility for making it happen. Step two is to do the work, every day. And the secret is: Define success by what you find fulfilling and meaningful, not what your great-aunt or your piano teacher or your own interior critic think you should be doing.
If it really is your passion and not just a Walter Mitty daydream, if you want to do it because it is something you love doing so much you can’t not do it, and not because you think doing it will make you successful and admired, then you will be the one willing to do the work to make it happen. As “Last Lecture” professor Randy Pausch said, “The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” They are there so you can show everyone that you are the one who deserves the opportunity — and show yourself, too.
And I have found that my two careers nourish and inform each other in unexpected ways — really. But that’s a story for another day.