What’s Your Backup Career?

I remember filling out an online profile on a creative website a few years back. There was a text field present to enter a backup career and I remember putting “None needed”. A part of me wondered why they posted that question to begin with, but I didn’t think much of it at the time and continued filling out the rest of the profile.

I was reminded of this when I was having a chat with an acquaintance not too long ago. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked her about the one thing in her life she could never give up. I was expecting a response along the lines of something insignificant like not giving up some foods, for instance. Without hesitation, she replied, music was the thing that made her come alive. A moment later, she said she’s going to law school, claiming it was her other passion. It’s worth noting law wasn’t the first thing she said (it was music). I found out later she was going to give five years of her life to study something (law), which wasn’t her main interest.

I was a bit taken aback. Then I thought, of course — the thought of pursuing music alone seems downright scary to her despite the strong connection she feels with it. What if music doesn’t work out? Maybe law felt like a safer option and one that was more accepted in the society as a career. But what if law doesn’t work out either? There are no guarantees in life. Just because you spend five years (or any length of time) doing something is no assurance you’ll make a career in it. Just because few succeed in something (music) also isn’t reason enough to not pursue it given the strong connection you feel with it. By ignoring our calling, I think we are doing ourselves a grave disservice, but more on that later.

This begs the question — Why don’t we give ourselves the chance to succeed? Why don’t we count ourselves among those who might succeed? Why are we naturally inclined toward failure? We can always pursue law later if music doesn’t work out, so why aren’t we willing to give music the chance it deserves if we feel so strongly about it? Why don’t we trust ourselves?

Well, our desire to keep “backup options” comes from our parents, schools, and the world at large. I had a conversation with my nephew (pre-teen) and niece (early teen) not long ago. I remember them telling me their academic advisor told them to pick a “backup career” (in case the “first one” doesn’t work out). At first, I didn’t get it, but understood later. This is how we cave down to status quo to pursue ordinary lives rather than greatness.

Every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear. We only give ourselves backup options when we don’t trust ourselves. Of course, it’s easier to conform to the status quo than to challenge it, but where’s the fun in that? Sadly, we tend to run away from challenges instead of fully embracing them. We forget the obstacle is the way forward.

Here’s another example. A niece of mine was applying to architecture school. From speaking to her, it was evident that there was a lack of conviction in her choice of major. Even so, she applied to multiple schools (in order of preference). As any student who has applied to multiple schools knows, the idea behind this approach is to increase the odds of acceptance, so you are at least admitted in at least one school from your list by diversifying your efforts. This is simply what one does to “succeed” in life.

There is a common thread running through these examples.

When we pursue more than one thing at a time, we reinforce fear by choosing to play it safe.

When we give ourselves backup options, we don’t trust ourselves to pursue that one thing that we feel a strong connection with; we end up listening to our mind rather than our heart first.

We are not fully invested in any one thing, so we end up spreading ourselves thin by diversifying our efforts.

The worst case scenario is even if you don’t end up pursuing something for whatever reason (or to make it work), then maybe you can pursue something else. Life is more than “making a living”. I am not discounting that we need money — we do — but we have something far greater that drives us (our Why), which is much more important than What we do. As long as the Why is clear, it can be manifested in many Whats. But if the Why isn’t clear to begin with, then it doesn’t matter What you do since you will never have a reason to pursue what you’re doing now. We can fail at what we don’t want, so we might as well take a chance on doing what we love.

Above all, we can do a few things better or many things poorly, but the amount of effort required in both of those approaches is the same. The choice is always ours.

Here are some ideas for what to do instead:

Follow your heart — it doesn’t lie. If you feel a strong connection toward something, it would be a great disservice to yourself (and to others) to ignore it. Of course, there are no guarantees (as with anything), but there couldn’t be a better place to start.

Stop paying attention to those around you and the world that wants you to play it safe and discourages you from following your heart. That’s the last thing you need. Listen to your instincts instead.

Forget about backups — they don’t exist. If the thing you pursue now doesn’t work out in the future, then you can worry about that then. Only cross that bridge if you get there.

Put all your eggs in one basket, pursue only one thing at a given time, and give it all you have.

Here’s my unsolicited advice to those mentioned in this piece (you know who you are).

Given the strong connection my acquaintance feels towards music, she should drop law and pursue music full time with the mindset that there is no backup. She should give her undivided focus to music. The idea is to commit to one thing and give it all you have. Of course, if it doesn’t work out in the future for whatever reason, pick the next thing and pursue that.

The same advice goes for my young nephew and niece. They should pursue one thing to begin with. I understand it can be difficult to pick one thing, but that should be a result of some initial exploration. The idea is to explore many options at the outset so you can converge to one over time. I think finding your Why is paramount here, as we start to form it in our mid- to late-teen years. Once you figure that out, your What can manifest in any number of ways.

It would do my eldest niece a lot of good to do more of that initial exploration first until she’s convinced that architecture is what she wants to learn. You have to feel that strong conviction from within (as in the case of my acquaintance); it cannot be forced. Once you have committed to it, you figure out the one place where you want to learn and you pursue it with all you have. The approach should be “all in or bust”, as if your life depended on it.

What if there were no options to begin with? How would you approach things if you knew you could only focus on one thing? For one, you would focus unlike any other time before.

The problem isn’t necessarily with having a backup, but pursuing multiple things simultaneously. Without your undivided attention on only one thing, you can’t give it the effort and focus it (and you) deserves.

We need to stop giving ourselves options for a backup career in case the one we pursue doesn’t work out. Stop playing it safe. Put all your eggs in one basket. Backup careers are a hoax. It’s either all or nothing, success or bust.

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