My favorite commencement speech is by the author, Neil Gaiman. His elegant, yet simple call to action of, Make Good Art has been a beacon for creatives everywhere.
The part of the speech that I find the most inspiring however, is when he gives the advice to always, “move toward your mountain.”
Gaiman’s life-goal, or his mountain, was to become an “author of books.”
“And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from my mountain.” -Neil Gaiman
Knowing what your mountain is can be difficult. And even once you can see the peak, staying on the path can be even harder. The biggest trap of all, however, is staying on the wrong path for too long.
The way to the top of the mountain is always moving. The same path that gave you the courage to start climbing in the first place will eventually become dead end. The opportunity that made you feel like, “Hey, I can really do this” last year, may be the exact thing slowing you down now.
Last year, I knew I wanted to leave my full-time job and work remotely. I didn’t care much about what I would be doing, I just knew I needed some variety. I heard someone say, “The average millionaire has 7 sources of income.”
That sounds pretty good, I thought. I’ll just do that.
And so the side-hustles began. I was already pretty good at Instagram and knew how to turn-a-phrase while using H-tags. I knew enough about email marketing to hold my own in conversation. Why not put those skills to use for others?
I began doing on-the-side marketing for farmers markets, yoga brands, and even a national dog toy company. I’d be getting a haircut and ask the owner if they had a website. “No? Let’s get lunch next week.”
I called these side-hustles my “life-rafts.” If my mountain was professional independence, I’d need seven life-rafts to comfortably float away from my full-time, 9–5 cruise ship.
A funny thing happens once you tune your ears to listen for new opportunity. You hear it everywhere. What I thought would be a long voyage to the mythical seven seas wasn’t at all.
I reached the mountain peak quickly and quit my full-time job. Success! Time to sit back and enjoy the view.
Not so fast…
My life-rafts took a lot of work to keep afloat. And because they all had uncertainty built into their lifespan, I was spending a lot of time just scouting out new life-rafts. What happens when one of these sinks?
I was also having a hard time learning new skills. There isn’t a ton of “on the job training” in the freelance world. My clients hired me to do things I already knew how to do. I didn’t have a group of peers or colleagues around to teach me new strategies. I started to feel stuck with what I already knew, which, don’t tell my clients, wasn’t all that much.
I realized that quote about millionaires didn’t include the detail that most of those seven sources of income are passive. And that having seven freelance clients at a time didn’t really equal the kind of variety I had in mind.
My mountain hadn’t moved. But the path that helped me reach the first peak — leaving my full time job — was now leading me somewhere I didn’t want to go. What once moved me towards my mountain, was now taking me farther away.
I made it my new goal to find one main source of income that would allow me to work remotely, teach me new skills, and still leave open enough brain-space to new welcome interesting opportunities when they came along.
The hardest part during this transition was saying no to all the shiny, new life rafts that kept floating by. Because I’d trained myself to be open to them, my world was abundant with opportunities that fit my old goal.
My inbox would be flooded with offers to work on some pretty nice life-rafts. Offers that, just a year ago, I would have jumped on. I haven’t always had the best relationship with money, so saying no income, opportunity, and new connections was difficult.
What saved me from spinning my wheels and chasing ghosts was Neil Gaiman’s question. For every new shiny opportunity that floated past, I’d ask myself, “Is this still moving me towards my mountain?”
Neil Gaiman goes on in his speech to say:
I said no to editorial jobs on magazine, proper jobs that would have paid pepper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.
Everyone needs a mountain to climb towards. But when the path that started your journey turns out to be a cul-de-sac, don’t waste time circling around.
Don’t be afraid to say goodbye to the opportunities that helped you get started on your journey. There’s always a new trail around the corner as long as you make space and tune your attention towards it.
And if you reach the top of the mountain and decide that the view isn’t as nice as you’d imagined, just look towards the horizon for your life’s next mountain peak and start moving.
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