One of the biggest wishes my clients want for their lives is work that matters. They want to wake up looking forward to the day, feeling excited and proud of their work.
My clients are not alone. Who, after all, wants to slog through their days in a soul-numbing job?
There are some people who know at an early age what they want to do with their lives. Like the kid who answers the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with doctor, and then studies and works with laser focus to make it happen (and pursues a long medical career). It may seem like they are lucky, but it’s easier to recognize your ideal career at a young age when the career is already established – it has a name and plenty of people doing it.
But many of us didn’t have that certainty, and when you look around you don’t see jobs you can name that excite you. And that’s OK. It just means you’re on a different path of discovery.
I have some great examples of people who fashioned their own ideal careers and are thriving. What’s special about them is that they were able to connect their essential selves to a career. But their future success wasn’t obvious as they were making their way. They illustrate the unexpected ways that work can go from meh to awesome.
These people are accomplished in their fields and when you look at them, it’s easy to believe that of course they were going to be successful, because they are successful now (as if they appeared *poof* fully formed as this successful version of themselves). This is an easy trap to fall into, and its sneaky sidekick is believing that you won’t be successful because you haven’t found your thing yet. So not true!
It was not a straight line to success for these accomplished people. They tried a few things, followed some tantalizing clues about what they love, took some chances. They also bumbled and stumbled and resisted and hesitated and went the wrong direction and sometimes failed along the way.
Over the next few articles I’m going to share their stories with you so you can see how they got to where they are. Their stories are inspiring – if they can do it, you can do it too.
Let’s begin with Max Brooks.
Max is the best-selling author of three zombie-themed books. (Yes, zombies.) He is also the son of comedian Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft.
Max was a self-proclaimed nerd as a kid, steeped in anxiety and neuroses. He grew up in Los Angeles with two neurotic parents, during a time of publicized kidnappings, crime and gang violence, the Rodney King riots, as well as earthquakes and fires.
There was a lot of anxiety coursing through his family, and Max wrote about what came natural to him: his reaction to fear and preparing for the worst. His first book, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, was written in response to Y2K fears. He described that time:
“What was interesting to me at the time was we were living in the largest post-war boom in American history and yet there still was this anxiety of, the clock strikes 12:00 and the missiles are going to launch. I’ve always grown up on the edge of the apocalypse in LA. People will say, do I have a zombie kit? I say yeah, I’ve had an earthquake kit. It’s the same stuff. So that’s when I started writing Zombie Survival Guide.”
Looking around at our current cultural landscape of zombie-filled TV shows and movies, it’s hard to believe his book wouldn’t be a hit. But he didn’t try to publish it right away:
“I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t think anybody in the known universe was as into this as I was. Because I always grew up feeling like an outsider and a weirdo and never fitting in, so I thought there’s clearly nobody into this except me. I’m writing it for me. I’m literally writing it because I went looking for this book. I went out looking for how to fight zombies because I thought that’d be a really cool book to read. Of course nobody wrote it, because nobody is as much of a weirdo as me. So I thought I’ll write it for me.”
You might think Max would have an easy life, riding on the coattails of his parents’ careers, but he wanted to make it on his own. For a few years he struggled:
“I was writing script after script and no one wanted me and I couldn’t get a job. I was working doing cartoon voices which was awesome but wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
He landed a coveted position as a writer on Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t a good fit (he admits he’s not good at group dynamics). He was let go after two seasons.
A meeting with an interested book agent propelled his book forward, but not exactly in the direction he wanted:
“He read the manuscript and really liked it but he didn’t get it. He thought it was a comedy book. And the publisher thought it was a comedy book. I fought against that, tooth and nail. I said you can’t do that. I said, you guys need to understand the nerd culture. Now nerds are mainstream. That was not the case when I started. Nerds (of which I am one of them) are a very insecure lot and the nerd world doesn’t know me. I haven’t made my introduction to that world so they’re going to have preconceived notions and they’re going to think that Mel Brooks’ brat is taking a giant dump on something that they love. By putting it in the comedy section, it’s saying this is a parody of the things we care about.”
“And that’s exactly what they thought initially, the initial reviews were horrible. Traditional media looked at it as a comedy book. It’s not funny. The nerd world thought that I was making fun of them. My wife said, you’ve got to go out and introduce yourself to your people. So I started doing interviews and talked about the horror films that influenced me and what a big nerd I was. And I started doing zombie lectures. They consisted of doing a self-defense lecture. If you didn’t know zombies were fake and you walked in, you’d know how to be ready. I went on the road and started doing these zombie lectures and that changed everything.”
“It literally was a zombie apocalypse lecture. I did my first one – I get on stage and I’m talking. I’m sweating and I’m nervous and I sort of get through it and I said, now I’d like to open the floor to questions. I thought, now they’re going to ask me what they really want to know which is about my dad or being on SNL, and sure enough it was all zombie questions. And I thought, I’m not the only person in the world who’s into this.”
“I’ve been invited to speak at the Naval War College and at West Point. I was invited to speak at a hurricane rehearsal of concept drill for FEMA and the Army. Because if you take the zombies out of Zombie Survival Guide, it’s just disaster preparedness.”
Thanks to the podcast How To Be Amazing for inviting Max Brooks to share his story. Listen here.