At the beginning of the year I experienced a small existential crisis related to making pottery.
Ceramics is hard on a body, and I’ve seen the effects of doing it long term: the wrist surgeries, the sciatica, the permanently curved spine. My hip hurt when I sat down to throw, and I worried that I was doing permanent damage; every twinge I felt made transitioning into another line of work feel pressing.
I spent the spring reading What Color is Your Parachute and cataloging my strengths. I thought about signing up for a sonography program; an almost totally random choice, predicated upon some internet articles claiming that obstetric sonographers made good money and ranked very highly in job satisfaction.
I felt stuck.
I never intended to work as a potter my whole life. Many of the people I look up to the most- the people who seem the most well-rounded, fascinating, and engaged- have changed jobs again and again over the course of their careers: An unschooling mom I admire worked as a costume designer and a wedding dress maker and a dog trainer and finally a minister. Another long time friend has worked as a writer, a hedge fund advisor, a gold miner in Central America, a lingerie factory worker, a sheep farmer, a sculptor, a teacher, and a cook.
Eventually, I decided to stop trying to arbitrarily pick a new career out of a hat and instead spend time pursuing activities that made me feel engaged and delighted. I took Spanish lessons and tried to improve my mile time in the pool and developed the initial content for this blog and took a short online writing class. I worried that I was spending too much time on activities that were never going to “pay off” in any way, but eventually a mentor I was corresponding with reminded me of the importance of this type of exploration:
“The thing about “navel-gazing” is that you never really know where it might lead you–sometimes these seemingly obtuse pursuits wind up being significant connectors or starters, and suddenly they’re not obtuse any more. And even if they’re not significant in themselves, they may wind up having useful applications elsewhere […] It is the nature of exploration, sometimes, that you make six left turns to make a right– sometimes the stuff that is seen in the fourth left becomes more significant than the right turn you were trying to make to begin with.”
Soon after that, I became obsessed with popsicles.
Let me explain. I spend a lot of time selling pots at outdoor craft fairs. At most of these shows, I watch a popular popsicle vendor selling $3 popsicles hand over fist, and I spent one show doing some math about their business model. One cart, 5 flavors, $3 a pop. No set-up- just a wheeled cooler with their brand name and a large umbrella. Juice and dairy based flavors. Low cost, high volume sales. The ingredients to make the product were cheap, and it could be made in large batches.
In the days following the show, this popsicle idea kept niggling at me. I would eat a piece of fruit and a flavor combination would occur to me. Hmm, I would think. What would happen if you paired lemon zest with blueberries and lavender? One night I found myself unable to sleep because I was inventing recipes in my mind.
The next day, I caved and ordered a popsicle mold.
Over the following week, I bought mangoes and strawberries and cream and nutella and peaches and cherries and kiwi and grapefruit and mascarpone cheese and sweetened condensed milk and lemons and raspberry jelly and pomegranate juice and yogurt and ginger and avocados.
I tried several pinterest recipes, but quickly felt confident enough to start experimenting on my own. This resulted in some…inadvisable combinations (the grapefruit kiwi combo I tried turned out so sour that it was borderline inedible) and a couple of knockout punches (PB&J popsicle, anyone?)
Chris Guillebeau, blogger extraordinaire and author of The $100 Startup, talks about the “Ready, Fire, Aim” method, in which you don’t wait until you have the skills or knowledge necessary to start doing something; instead, you just start doing it. I’ve always mentally referred to it as the “Seat of Your Pants” method, but regardless, it’s the way I learned to make and sell pots and the method I employed for this experiment.
I’m not sure if my popsicle business idea will ever come to fruition. To be honest, right now I’m more excited about this blog than I am about PB&J popsicles, and I’ve decided to let the idea simmer on the back burner for a few months. But I learned a lot about a number of things in the process, and I think that’s why the idea of career hopping appeals to me in the first place.
What factors allowed me to throw myself so wholeheartedly into this idea? My low-budget lifestyle enabled me to allocate a little bit of cash to the project, and without the emotional drain of a 40+ hour a week job I had the mental space to devote to playing around with a new idea. My limited work hours meant that I had enough time to dedicate to testing recipes and doing research.
Here are my three tips for anyone interested in changing careers, starting a new business, or simply learning about something new:
Tip #1: Stay where the passion is and keep playing. Pay attention to the ideas that keep you up at night, and don’t be afraid to devote time, energy and money to a project or an idea that may not “pay off.” You never know what connections you’re forging in the process.
Tip #2: Simultaneously, ask yourself what the end goal is and what pragmatic steps you need to take to get there. Creating new and unusual popsicle flavors was the fun part, but I spent an equal amount of time researching food product laws, searching for commercial kitchen rental opportunities, pricing equipment, and creating budgets. This “behind the scenes” work isn’t typically fun or exciting, but it’s essential for your success.
Tip #3: Start before you’re ready. Create a blog and publish the first post. Arrange a spanish lesson with a native speaker. Throw some fruit, sugar and cream in the blender and see what happens. You’ll doubtlessly make mistakes, but you’ll learn rapidly and have the opportunity to self-correct with each iteration, and the momentum you’ll feel from those first steps will compel you to continue. In the words of Johann Goethe: “Anything you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”