What Do You Do If You Don't Have Career Dreams?

Dear Dave,

What do you do with your life if you don't have dreams?

For most of my life I've been told to follow my dreams and pursue my passions, but I have none. I'm good at everything, but I'm not great at anything. I've been a firefighter, ski instructor, forest ranger, carpenter, graphic designer blah blah blah...the list goes on. Everything I've ever done eventually becomes so monotonous I have to get out. I've never experienced ambition like my counterparts, and therefore I don't have what it takes to be truly competitive in any of my fields. The things that give other people joy and motivation often seem absurd to me. If I didn't have to work, I'd probably live in a modest cabin out in the woods and read and walk and drink and relax.

Thought you might have an opinion. Take care,

-K. W. M.

There is a part of me that wants to mail you a "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" bumper sticker, but while that sentiment may be true, all who communicate to the world via the medium of bumper stickers are to be avoided.

There are numerous advantages to being, but one of the main drawbacks is that you can be made to feel like a real jerk for having merely modest ambitions. You live in the land of opportunity! How come you didn't choose a career path at age 12 and refuse to deviate from it? Why wouldn't you want to collect the most stuff? Why don't you spend your one life on planet Earth with a constant, humorless focus on winning? What's wrong with you?


You can do anything you want, which is only a problem when what you want is simply to be.

It sounds to me like you know what you want to do with your life, and it's to explore. I'm with you on that. I too was hypnotized into the idea that I needed to choose one career and devote my whole life to it. It seemed like the adult thing to do. So in my senior year of college I aimed myself toward the world of advertising. I papered New York City with resumes and cover letters. I got myself a job, and then graduated, went to work, and sucked at it. When my heart isn't in something, I can't fake it. Perhaps you can relate.

Now, if I'd had any real passion for my work, I could have pulled myself out of my tailspin. I could have identified my strengths and weaknesses and figured out exactly how to make myself the best ad man the industry had ever seen. I could have taken a good look at adjacent industries and made some kind of lateral move.

I didn't. What I did was take a breath, remind myself that I will only get one shot at this life, and quit. I decided that what was important was not that I be the best or the richest or the most famous, but that I live a life that is mine. I decided to follow my gut, always, and that decision has taken me on a winding, frustrating, thrilling ride that isn't anywhere near finished yet.

watch now

I am now in my forties, and I watch my friends who have stayed the course. They have thrown themselves into predictable career paths and now they have nice big houses and 401k's and they know what escrow is. Good for them! I have followed the things that interest me and made moves when my instinct told me to. We're all correct. There is no single way forward.

You are definitely hearing our culture's opinion over your level of ambition. But are you hearing yours? I recommend doing some serious meditating for a while. You've still got another 30 days of Lent, try to carve out 20 minutes on each of those days to quiet your mind and focus on your breathing. (There are plenty of smartphone apps that can give you some structure; I use Headspace.) When you finish, take 10 more minutes and do some journaling. I promise you it helps. Just let the pen go—don't think, don't edit—and see what comes out. See what themes you keep circling back to. There may be something new you'd like to try, but your fear and self-recrimination have gotten good at hiding it from you. The writing itself might become a thing that satisfies you. You already seem to have the observational skills and healthy skepticism of an artist.

There may be something new you'd like to try, but your fear and self-recrimination have gotten good at hiding it from you.

One thing I will suggest is that you go a few rounds with a good psychotherapist. Your comment about fleeing monotony has me a tiny bit concerned. An inability to concentrate during the humdrum parts of a job is natural and understandable, but it could also be a symptom of a mild underlying depression. It can't hurt to get yourself checked out for it. You wouldn't be the first. (I am in no position to diagnose these things; you should see a professional who is.)


You obviously have a brain in your head and some degree of work ethic; you've worked in fields that require skill, diligence, and creativity. You have enough self-knowledge to know that the more-traveled road is not for you. Keep questioning, keep observing, keep moving, and trust that each step brings you that much closer to the place in the world that is uniquely yours. Ambitions are things that evolve over time; just because you don't know exactly what you want to do right this second doesn't mean you never will.

And if yours don't—if that cabin in the woods is all you ever find yourself thinking about—that's okay. That's still a dream—your dream. You're allowed to have it. 

From: Esquire US

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Dave Holmes
Dave Holmes is Esquire's L.A.-based editor-at-large. His first book, "Party of One," is out now.
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