Practicality and Idealism in Developing Your Career

My career path has been a meandering path comprising roughly equal doses of idealism and practicality. The goal here is to show you how the jobs you take out of necessity can still allow you to pursue outcomes that suit you.

My original bachelor of arts degree in English set me on a path to trying to become a science fiction writer (what else do you do with an English major, history minor, and a mix of science classes?). However, I was not terribly diligent about story writing or publishing–certainly not diligent enough to support myself after college–and I really enjoyed the idea of being able to support myself and eat. Accepting my father’s charmingly worded premise that I had “no marketable skills” with my B.A., I still wanted to get out into the workforce. I decided to move to Florida and work at Walt Disney World. I figured I could work there until I figure out what I wanted out of life or wrote the Great American Science Fiction Novel. The work was relatively easy, the people friendly, and the climate good. Practicality: get a job. Idealism: work where I’m happy.

After several months of working at Epcot, it became pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to support myself, get full-time hours, or get health insurance selling t-shirts, pins, and souvenirs at a merchandise cart. The hotel front desks were offering full-time positions with benefits, and I still wasn’t gung-ho to get a professional job. Practicality: get benefits. Idealism: get a full-time job at Disney.

By the mid-1990s, I was getting a little frustrated by not finding writing work in the space business (one large aerospace company’s HR manager laughed at me when I told her what I did for a living). Disney, however, was hiring in what was then called the Guest Letters department. Practicality: take a writing job within Disney. Idealism: get a job using my skills and education.

Fast-forward several years. I attended a space conference and decided I was going to make a serious effort to get into the space business. I’d been taking basic science and math classes to get a second bachelor’s degree in engineering. However, it was going to take until past my parents’ retirement age to finish up…and I didn’t want to answer complaint letters for 8-10 years in the meantime. Someone recommended I stick with what I knew and pursue a master’s degree in technical writing. Practicality: get a degree that was achievable and timely. Idealism: go work in the space business using the skills I knew I had.

I got the degree, but the aerospace business was going through one of its periodic slumps. The new commercial companies were hiring engineers, not writers. A friend had a cousin at a defense contractor in Northern Virginia. It wasn’t a space job, but I sent my resume because I was still interested in working in the defense business. Practicality: get a job working with engineers. Idealism: work in a field that interested me.

After a couple years, the defense company got bought by a larger company, which then got bought by a larger company. My managers got downsized but got picked up by a government services contract. Practicality: I needed a job. Idealism: work with people I liked.

The government services job was writing proposals to sell accounting and similar clerical services to various parts of the federal bureaucracy. I was not excited about the work. I started applying to other defense contractors as well as space jobs. In the middle of negotiating salary with one employer, I got a call out of the blue about a job doing tech writing for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. I flew to Huntsville, Alabama for a whirlwind of interviews and came back realizing that the defense job offering more money in DC could not overrule my desire to get into the space business. Practicality: the new job offered more money than I was making at the government services job, though less than the local defense job. Idealism: the NASA job got me into the space business.

After six years at NASA, I’d gone through a program’s rise and fall, and I saw signs of a similar fate potentially taking out the current program I was supporting. A friend wanted to hire me at his small company. Practicality: I still needed to eat. Idealism: I’d be working with people I liked and it was a new, more responsible position at a company doing exciting things.

The winds of change kept blowing, and a combination of government budget sequestration and a shutdown constricted my employer’s program funding. Where to go next? I could have stayed in Huntsville and taken a full-time job on the defense side of town, but I’d already done defense and wasn’t keen to repeat. I started to put out feelers for freelance work. Much to my surprise, I found a couple of opportunities that would keep me fed and allow me to return to Florida. Practicality: I needed work of some kind. Idealism: freelancing would allow me to spread my wings and be my own boss.

After a year and a half of freelancing, my money was running short. A friend I’d worked with at Disney wanted to know if I wanted to come work with him at Nissan. I knew next to nothing about the automotive business, but as I noted earlier, I like to eat. Practicality: steady contract with better money than I’d been making to that point.  Idealism: work with someone I know/like.

And so forth. I provided all these examples as an exercise for those of you uncertain about your career choices. It is not a sin to have a mix of motives when pursuing work. You might not take a direct path to your “dream job,” but along the way you will acquire skills, knowledge, and contacts that could lead you closer to your preferred destination. It’s not a detour, it’s the “scenic route.”

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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