A common refrain among people who want to change careers is, “But I don’t want to waste my education.”

I worried about that, too. I hold a BA in history and an MFA in acting. Both times that I veered away from these degrees, I thought about the years I had already devoted to them. The student debt I had racked up to get them. The energy I had put towards them. Wouldn’t it be wasteful to change directions now? Could I really just throw all that away?

I decided that I could and would change directions. In our wedding vows, my husband and I said, “I choose you this day and every day.” Meaning: Choosing you is not a one-time event that I am forever bound to; I am with you each day by choice. And that’s how I want my career to feel, too. Here by choice; not by obligation.

I made my choice. And in having the courage to step away from the familiar and onto a new path, here is what I learned:

Any education that has been truly significant to you cannot be wasted.

If it has worked on you; if it is in you; if it has woven its way into how you relate to the world: it cannot be wasted. It will merely be applied in new and unexpected ways.

Want to see what I mean?

Read the love letters I wrote to the education that I’ve “wasted”:

Dear American Literature class,

You taught me how to read and analyze a work of literature; how to excavate the hidden structure beneath the poetry; how the scaffolding of themes, repetition, and imagery supports a story.

Today, I do this with people. I imagine each client as a work of literature. I know a sensical, obvious-once-you-see-it structure is lying beneath the surface because every author has intention, even if the pattern is hard to see at first. Once we find the thread of the story, new chapters can be written.

Dear BA in History,

I didn’t see YOU coming. I went to a liberal arts college because that’s what you do when you’re 18 and have no idea what you want to do for the rest of your life. You get a degree but also keep your options open.

When my advisor said, “It doesn’t really matter what you major in; just pick something you like and can get good grades in,” you were the first thing I thought of.

When it was time to graduate I didn’t want to use you. And though you haven’t opened doors for me and I don’t work in your discipline, I do use you every day.

Thank you for showing me how the world is connected. War changes art, science changes religion, policy changes life expectancy, writing changes farming, education changes war. We may study “math” and “history” and “English” as islands, but everything is interconnected, influenced, and creates influence. Today, I take a holistic approach to careers that considers the whole person, not just “career” in isolation.

Thank you for giving me a long lens on how change happens over time. Species evolve, civilizations rise and fall, groups come to power, groups lose power. Nothing lasts forever, but the things that adapt last the longest. Today, I teach that careers are fluid and evolving and wanting change does not mean failure; it often ensures survival.

Thanks for all those damn research papers. They taught me patience, endurance, how to fully develop an idea (even if I didn’t do it all the time), and the cost of procrastination. Today, a significant part of my work is communicating my ideas through writing. Writing term papers was odious, but this I enjoy.

Thank you for being a starting point. For being a place to build from rather than a destination. For showing me what I didn’t want. Today, I help people start over. But you and I know that no one ever starts from scratch. They always build on the ruins of what came before. Thank you for being my ancient city.

Dear Acting MFA, summer intensives, scene study classes, etc etc etc,

Walking away from you is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I suppose I should count myself as lucky if that’s the case, because certainly there are greater hardships in the world. But you were my first love. My true love. And I thought I’d spend my life with you.

You taught me how to see and be seen, that strength without vulnerability is play pretend that everyone can see is fake, how to work a room, a crowd, a moment. That my first instinct is almost always right and everything else is edited to be more safe and palatable. That right where I am is the only place that I can be, and that in fact, I’ve already begun. You taught me to take up space. To know when to hold for silence and when to move on. That I am there to serve the story. That I can be relaxed and ready. That I can’t control everything, and that I’ll literally ache if I try to. That if I’m paying attention, my unplanned impulse is the most truthful and exciting thing in the room. You taught me to be curious about the world and to let the work teach me what it wants to be. And that the only way to improve is to be ok with failing over and over again.

You helped me become more of who I am. And that’s my wish for every single client that I work with now.

You’re not my work, but you’re still my home. You’re the house I grew up in.

Laura Simms is an expert in meaningful work who challenges conventional wisdom by asking people to ditch their passions and start with purpose.

If you have too many passions, zero passions, or can't seem to combine your passions, try her purpose-first approach to find a career you love.  


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