I recently asked a friend of mine, during a career transition, what his dream job was. He considered it for a long time, as if he had never thought about it before. Almost as if he was trying to imagine a different version of himself who had the freedom to pursue a career based on his passions. He ended up answering with something practical, profitable, and not far off of his current career path.
I reframed the question to ask, “If you went back in time to re-do college, what would you study?” It’s a question I enjoy daydreaming about and asking new acquaintances. Personally, I imagine studying architecture or food science. Every time I see chocolate being made I feel an artisanal pang to do it, as does the prospect of being a flavor meister at Jelly Belly.
This month I wanted to ditch the royal "we," data and supplemental media (mostly) and write something personal, about passion. After taking a break from social media and blog articles in August, due to a lot of activity with contracts and curriculum for the new semester, vendor fairs and expos, and our first round of hiring instructors, I came to the point of having to accept how many hats I can sustainably wear.
In the past month, the topic of passion has resurfaced over and over again. As someone who just started designing their dream job in middle-age, I wanted to share aspects of my own journey with passion, the founding of a nonprofit, and the educational community.
To my comfort, I learned that middle-age is the best time to become an entrepreneur. Media and the celebrity of college-dropouts-come-tech-titans have given us this impression that entrepreneurship is a young person’s game. But consider it. I spend a lot of time around youth, and one thing that stands out right away is that they’re pretty bad at most stuff. Contrast that to someone with 20 years of experience in an industry, who knows its needs and gaps, has their ducks in a row, and has experienced enough failure to know that failure is a part of the process. For this reason, the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs happen to be middle-aged.
As it happens, I have a half-dozen middle-aged friends starting various business as well. I’ve started a resource group to support each other, which we call Dreamers & Schemers. We talk frequently about feeling overwhelmed at times, and doubtful. But those have both been the exception to the experience of waking up most mornings with enthusiasm and heartfire. As another symptom of middle age, I have a good handle on my discipline and boundaries. I work an 8 – 5 exclusively. That includes gym and errands. Occasionally work creeps up to 5:30, but only because I’m in a flow state and enjoying what I’m working on. I find it easy to follow my interests and instinct, and draw a line between work and life. And I have a wonderful wife and friends who provide enormous support.
August also marked our anniversary as a company. In that year I’ve transitioned from dreading and doubting my decision to form UnboxEd as a nonprofit to now defending and counseling people who are nervous about embarking on the nonprofit route. The simplest thing I can say is that the first year has been way simpler than I anticipated. That may not be true for the coming years, but I feel more than prepared for what they bring on the nonprofit front. And I’m happy to share resources and guidance separately.
Chasing one’s passion not only seems scarce in the professional setting, but it’s needed now more than ever. Despite the uptick in business creation during the pandemic, small business starts have been declining for decades. This has a huge impact on worker satisfaction, wage gaps, pricing power of companies, and more importantly to me, community cohesion and reinvestment. One thing I admire about Austin is its culture on sustaining and valuing local businesses.
I firmly believe that practical jobs are going to disappear to automation and AI faster than we realize. Which makes me think that most people will have less and less to lose through chasing a passion, and starting early, often and less unequipped than they’d like; all the while society will need more and more passionate people doing creative things that automation cannot replace and that invite people into a human, purposeful community. Unemployment is correlated with a lack of attendance at religious and social events. People tend to withdraw when they don’t feel as if they are contributing to society. I believe that is a problem we will need to address relatively soon, on a surprising scale.
The People I Mostly Admire is a valuable podcast for hearing from successful people who have chased their passion and where it led them. Andrew Yang’s interview talks specifically about the dire need for passionate creators.
I mentioned failure earlier, as a distinction between youth and maturity. It’s maybe more of a double-edge sword than I considered. One on hand, as we go through life, failure becomes more practiced, as does wisdom in response to it. Yet there is one looming fear that entrepreneurs take on, I think, which is the danger of identifying with failure. “If this thing fails, if I give it my best and it isn’t good enough, there will be no one else to blame, no other excuse except my inadequacy. What does that say about me? Am I good enough? What next? I won’t even have a dream job to fantasize about.”
Yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t conquered that fear yet. It still grips me from time to time. Especially, ironically, when things are going well. When there’s so much on my plate and it all falls to me. Some days I think, “I could quit now, call it a moderate success, keep it in my pocket and go back to something more streamlined, anonymous and flexible.” Maybe that fear will always be there. Beats me. If you find any good advice for this one, let me know.
But small victories, and gratitude. Those are instrumental. I bought a new printer and office chair this week while I waited on a vital contract that was 15 days-and-counting delayed. I am very excited about those additions to our team. The next time I need a boost, I’m going to let myself daydream about buying a sweet paper cutter, too.
The last article we published, focusing on Literacy, dealt with a lot of these themes: identifying one’s heartfire, visualizing that it is achievable for this version of you in this reality, what it takes to chase it, and how to develop each of those tools. It’s lofty and ambitious, but that is truly our mission. When I think of students, I do not think of college and jobs and global problems. Community and citizenry and creativity is inseparable to me from their and our future. Leaving room for what we haven’t the context to envision.
But that’s our journey. That’s where we’re at, where I’m at.
As ever, and also part of our mission, what doesn’t sound better as a story? To speak about life’s cycles and kismet and validation and gratitude, let me introduce you to Felix. Felix was one of our first hires that we made this semester. He’ll be joining me in our Social-Emotional Storytelling class.
I happened to meet Felix when he was 9 or 10. He’s 20-something now. He was a student in my first-ever afterschool D&D club, over a decade ago. A few months ago he found me on LinkedIn via an article I wrote about D&D in the classroom. He reached out, informed me that he and 4 or 5 other former students still played D&D weekly, and invited me to join a game.
I jumped at the chance, enjoyed an at-times awkward but mostly amazing reunion with my old students, and proceeded to mercilessly derail Felix’s 5-hour campaign as the sort of payback that all teachers dream of.
Yet, the initiative, the experience, the passion, left such an impression on me that the following week, when I needed to hire two new instructors for the program, he was the first person I called.
Welcome to UnboxEd, Felix. Here is a short interview to introduce you to his own journey:
Felix, Professional Game Master/Instructor
Stefan: Describe your dream job.
Felix: For the longest time I believed my creative dreams, whether it be doctor or astronaut or inventor, were unobtainable. In other words, I viewed them as things that only happened to people in movies.
Today, I'm asked a question I used to find terribly difficult to answer, and I face it with confidence.
I WANT TO BE A WRITER. (The capital letters indicate that I’m shouting it from the rooftops.)
Regularly, I would have just said author, but I feel like I want my creative agency to span into multiple categories. Whether it be Dungeons & Dragons, or screenplays or novels. I believe that it is my goal to create a story that will make whomever interacts with it feel every emotion, and I believe that I have the skills to do it.
Stefan: Lame. (Just kidding.) Speaking of D&D, what benefits from D&D and RPGs in general have you seen in your life?
Felix: Lots of English teachers over the years would tell me how wildly creative I was; I had a significant amount of family members that wrote professionally, and much more. But the one memory I tie closest to when my brain switched and told me that every job (specifically creative jobs) were obtainable to me, was when my elementary Dungeons & Dragons teacher allowed me to run a campaign.
It was horrible, absolutely awful. Some of the worst written stuff I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure it was based off of a video game, and it didn't make any sense. But I loved every second of it. I cherish that memory despite wanting to permanently erase it from my mind due to how embarrassing it was.
Something about that moment of having agency over a creative project really took over in my mind. I would scribble short stories in my notebook every day. Once that moment had happened, I started caring so much more about the games we played. I started to realize that even when I was a player I was still creating and telling my own story.
I feel like D&D is the biggest reason I got back into writing books. I had given up for so long because I felt once again that it was too far of a dream to achieve, but running a roleplaying game gave me the halfway point between playing games and writing a novel. I realized it didn't feel difficult to write and I started writing again in both mediums.
Stefan: Everyone’s going to think I coached you to say that. So now you’re back, on the other side of the table. Why? What do you hope to accomplish as an instructor?
Felix: To ensure that everyone is having fun, and that at the end of the campaign, there are memorable story moments that every player will remember. You have to recognize that the story is not entirely focused on you alone, and that if you make it that way, the people around you won't have fun. It is also your job to make sure that your fellow players are feeling comfortable. If they feel like they can't speak up, or feel outcast, it's your duty to bring them in.
If everyone around me is happy, I typically feel happy and fulfilled. So when I come into the world of education, I want to start off simple. Making sure the kids I work with are enjoying themselves. If every player is happy, the lessons will come naturally. If they are happy together, I believe that teamwork will naturally form.
Stefan: You’ve worked in social work/healthcare, but you're somewhat of an outsider to the educational side of our mission. What has made an impression on you thus far? What unique vision do you hope to bring to game-based learning?
Felix: I think that I am unique in my experience being on the other side of the program. My whole future became filled with more options because it opened up the possibility of having a different future than the one I thought I was unwillingly destined to follow. I want the kids I work with to realize that the things they experience in the game can be applied to real life. They can be so much more than the path they are expected to follow. If they enjoy helping people in the game I want to be able to turn that around and have them realize that they can have a job in the future where they help people.
Stefan: Wow, you have no idea how suspiciously that ties into the theme of the article I’m writing. Thank you, Felix.
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