How can you know what you want
Till you get what you want
And you see if you like it?
— Steven Sondheim, Into the Woods

We had some good friends over for dinner the other night. While we waited for the roast to finish, Wayne and I took the air on the back porch. We talked about work. I told him that this is a slow time of year at the box factory.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s slow for us at the dealership, too. The last three weeks have been awful.” Wayne works for a local car dealership. He recently moved from sales to finance. He’s the hardest worker I know, often putting in six ten-hour (or twelve-hour!) days in a single week.

We sat silent for a few moments. Wayne took a draw on his cigarette. I sipped my wine. At last he said, “You know, I don’t hate my job, but I don’t love it either. It’s just not what I want to be doing. It’s not my life, you know?”

“What do you want to be doing?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d really like to open a cigar shop or a wine bar or something like that.”

“Do it,” I said.

“I can’t,” he said. “My family wouldn’t approve.” His extended family is very religious, and they frown upon smoking and drinking. “I’ve also thought about starting a winery, or at least going to work for one.”

“That seems like a good fit,” I said. “You like wine. You know a lot about it. You’re excellent with people. But…”

“But my family wouldn’t like that, either. The thing is, I make good money at the dealership. I like my boss. It’s a good job. But it’s not meaningful. I feel unfulfilled.”

We shivered in the cold November air. We looked at the stars. “It’s strange,” I said at last. “It seems that a lot of people reach their mid- to late-thirties and need a career change. They want to do something different. Or they wake up one day and realize that they have a certain skillset, maybe from a hobby or something, and that they could make money doing something they loved.”

“That’s kind of what you’re doing, right?” asked Wayne.

“Kind of,” I said. “I’ve always loved to write. On a whim I started to write about personal finance. I was surprised to discover I was good at it, that I could help people.”

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I love it. I feel called to it. It’s what I want to do. I’m not giving up my day job yet, though my day job is unfulfilling, too. I don’t like my work at the box factory. But that job gives me unexpected benefits, like the time to spend writing. That job also pays the bills while I find my way with this.”

Wayne lit another cigarette while I told him about my friend P., who wants to start a bike-fitting business. “I think the key is to find something you love and to do it,” I said.

“But how can you know what you would love to do?” he asked. “How can you find that?”

“That’s a good question,” I said. “I don’t have a good answer. If you had told me a year ago that my vocation was to write a personal finance web site, I would have laughed. The idea would have seemed absurd. I think the key is to be open to new ideas. To be in a state of readiness. You want to be receptive to even the oddest thing that might come your way.”

Wayne nodded.

“You want to be able to recognize an opportunity when it appears,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Wayne. Just then, Kris called us inside to dinner.

Wayne and I never did finish our conversation. In a way, it feels like the continuation of a discussion I had last week with my friend AJ. She, too, is in her mid-thirties, and at a place in her life where she’s not sure which direction to go.

“I just don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she told me.

Few people do.