Career Choices: Follow Your Heart Or Play It Safe?
By Liam Klenk
I am currently sitting in an office in Zurich, Switzerland, designing presentations for a global consulting company. It’s reasonably creative. Work conditions are excellent. Great infrastructure. Superb management. Smooth teamwork due to everyone being highly trained for their assigned roles.
Regular workshops to enhance EQ (emotional intelligence) and social competence in the workplace are mandatory and paid by the company. To approach each other with mutual respect, no matter how stressed we get at any given moment, is a core value. Diversity and inclusion are practised actively throughout all departments. Everything is structured and, to top it all off, we even have unlimited supplies of free coffee, fruit, bread, yoghurt, milk, soft drinks, and Red Bull. Overtime hours are few, work days are short, and the end of year bonus is splendid.
Yet… I feel restless and unfulfilled.
Naturally, I’ve been giving the matter some thought. This is not a new phenomenon. I’ve been in similar situations off and on during my thirty years of work experience. There was never any middle ground. Either I followed my heart to turbulent, all-consuming callings, like working as a theatre photographer, managing a small multiplex movie theatre, or guiding SCUBA divers in the Indian Ocean… Or I followed reason to safe, calm, well-organized occupations with a pension plan and proper work-life balance, like working in the administration of a book warehouse, or as a presentation designer for McKinsey & Company and The Boston Consulting Group. Without fail, following reason soon left me questioning the meaning of life and eventually led to a quest for new horizons.
The profession I was most passionate about so far was working for Franco Dragone’s The House of Dancing Water in Belgium and Macau. The job advert came to me in the form of a carpenter from Cirque du Soleil, whom I met on a dive boat off the coast of Palawan in 2008. He told me about a visionary aquatic theatre project in Macau… and that they were urgently looking for SCUBA diving instructors to train performers for their show. I had goose bumps all over, the moment he showed me the website and first teaser online. Its slogan, “Come stretch the horizons with us!” seemed to call out to me personally and resonated deeply within. Even better, I would be able to combine three of my biggest passions – theatre, teaching, and SCUBA diving.
I had found heaven.
Soon, I was sending one application after the other even though, up until that time, I hadn’t even known of Macau or that shows of this magnitude existed. My persistence was rewarded as, half a year later, I was hired and sent to Belgium to help prepare eighty acrobats for the aquatic element of this visionary endeavour. After Training & Formation, I experienced Creation in Macau, as well as two and a half years of daily operation in a work environment that had me spellbound from day one.
On the one hand, I found myself surrounded by more talent, dedication, passion, professionalism, grit, and focus than ever before. On the other hand, the work environment was turbulent and emotional. Three hundred people from thirty different countries shared a dream and were committed to bringing it to life, no matter what. In such a multicultural, charged environment, misunderstandings were unavoidable and often had their root in the clashing of different mentalities. This was further exacerbated by language barriers. Some of these could be solved with simple solutions, e.g., posters titled “You need a what?” hung all over the theatre building, with pictures of tools and the names they were called in different regions of our planet.
Fatigue was omnipresent. We were stretching the limits, creating and maintaining the greatest aquatic show on Earth. Everything was larger than life and much was at stake. Pro-active thinking was required. The only thing impossible was the use of the word impossible. If one way of implementing a part of the show wasn’t workable, then surely there was another way to reach our goal.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more tired in my entire life. My passport photographs that were taken each year during the time I worked for The House of Dancing Water document an incredible evolution. After four years, a tougher, grown up, albeit exhausted, individual gazes back at me from the depths of photographic paper. I barely recognize myself, while at the same time knowing this stronger Liam was always in there somewhere. Not only did I do my small part to help stretch the horizons for our show but, in doing so, I also stretched my own.
I left The House of Dancing Water in the fall of 2013 and have missed it ever since. Yet, I do not regret leaving. It was and is time for my own creations. First, I took a fourteen-month sabbatical to focus my entire energy and passion on writing my very first book. Then, I found my current job to make ends meet while I published it. On a roll, I began writing the second book soon after.
The longer I stay here though, I understand a profound truth: as comfortable as my day job currently is (leaving room and energy for monumental creative endeavours in my free time), it lacks soul and meaning. My team is polite, but people barely know each other. They have no shared vision they create towards. For most, this is simply where they will stay, because the thought of an unknown, possibly insecure future frightens them.
Too much security and complacency, on the other hand, frightens me.
No matter if I work alone on my books or work in a team on a creative project, in the long run, I need to feel passion for what I do, rather than experience safety and comfort.
I know this can be tricky. Passion can be strong just as much as it can be a formidable Achilles heel. From my own experience, I know how easy it is to lose ourselves in the things we love. But we will find ourselves there, too.
So I’ll keep listening to my heart. I’d rather be exhausted and sometimes even hurt instead of playing it safe. In order to feel alive, I need to explore the unknown, work hard, and give it all I’ve got. I need to learn, grow, and experience how far those horizons can truly be pushed.