Ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up. Smile at the optimism, praise the ambitions, and reminisce a little about what crazy stuff you said (unless you’re an astronaut / ballerina /professional athlete /etc. today, in which case – “congrats!”).
Bob Lefsetz put a piece up last week titled “Star / Journeyman,” that I think best helps so-called grown-ups that don’t necessarily feel grown up answer the same question sans-naivety. If you’re not dead, you’ve still got growth potential.
For all of those little kid “superstar” ambitions, too many adults are still hoping to win the lottery, figuratively and literally, by either waiting for a lucky handout OR for the time to be just right to do “that thing.”
Let’s set the lottery-winner dream aside and focus on the more pragmatic aspects of the star / journeyman continuum. We all know what a star is – and that most people think you just have to “catch a break” to become one, but do you know what a journeyman is?
The word journeyman roughly means “day worker.” Historically, journeyman were a step above an apprentice, in that they had demonstrated required skills and could charge for their work, but often a step below the “master craftsman” who would typically employ them. In modern times, the journeyman and the master craftsman have merged, as the central aspect of their identity is to be constantly learning and evolving their mastery while getting paid to work (think: continuing education).
We all can imagine the easy path to stardom: the big break, the lottery ticket, the win without the work. The journeyman defies those ideas. He/she embraces the work, accepts that luck, whether good or bad, can show up or not show up, and that working today is enough of a win in itself.
Once in a while, if the quality of work is really good, then as Lefsetz says, he/she can go supernova. That super star burns far brighter.
This is why we want to think of the star / journeyman relationship as a continuum. People think the difference is in visibility, that stars are famous and journeymen are unknown, but what actually separates them on the scale is the continued work. A star that takes the lottery ticket and cashes out disappears. A journeyman can reinvent themselves multiple times, with or without the lottery winnings. A true journeyman will persist with or without the visibility, but always by doing enough work to survive. The work that enables survival within the craft is the right work.
Sometimes star status is achieved in surprising and diverse ways too. Journeymen can become the stars of multiple universes just by steadily keeping their presence known. See Ryan Holiday’s book Perennial Seller for multiple examples of these (i.e. Iron Maiden).
So let’s amend the question: what do you want to be when you grow up from wherever you are starting today? What’s the related journeyman job? What’s the required work? Are you willing to do it?
Respect the journeyman. Notice the ones in your life. Don’t just do the work, do the right work.