Is Having Back-up Skills a Bad Idea If You Really Want a Dream Career?

Does it help to have absolutely no discernible marketable skills to fall back on if you really and truly want to make it big in a dream career? Maybe.

DISCLAIMER: I know this post could send parents of college age students screaming…mostly at me. So please know this is just something I’m throwing out there to generate thought. It is not in any way meant as advice. (Is it safe to go on now?)

So anyway…a couple of months back I was listening to an interview with Scott Adsit on WNYC’s The Sound of Young America. Among his credits, Scott is an actor on 30 Rock, one of my favorite TV shows.  He said that the only way he made it as an improv performer and actor is because he had no other skills to fall back on. Now Scott is a successful comedian and does indeed appear to have other skills, but I’ll bet he was only half kidding. I’ve heard this before from actors and other folks who make careers out of their dreams. They say it’s all they knew how to do.

So of course this got me thinking.

I’ll bet you know (or maybe have been) a parent who feels the floor pulled out from under when their precious child announces they want to be an actor or painter or musician or heaven forbid professional writer. Or some even more obscure field like dinosaurologist or large cat acupuncturist. And so, the precious (conflict-averse) children comfort their parents by agreeing to make sure they also get some solid employer-friendly skills to fall back on.  (Some simply let go of their dream careers altogether.) And those same parents feel better knowing their kids, who would most likely have failed anyway (it’s a dog eat dog world out there), have those nice safe back-up skills to catch them in their fall.

But there is more than one way to look at this. Maybe not playing it safe – and being the type of person who can take on life that way – is the only way to real success.

First a slight tangent

Having grown up in a small town many moons ago, my own dream was to have an exciting career in the big city, probably in corporate America (something I’d only seen in the movies). So while still in high school, I made my mind up not to learn to type so I wouldn’t ever feel tempted to fall back on that skill and wind up stuck in a “mere” secretarial job.  (This was way before personal computers.) Back then it was what many women saw as their only real business career move, but I was darned if I was going to be limited to a traditional path.

Truth be told, many women did make it up the career ladder using secretarial/admin jobs as their first rungs – especially as society opened up to the idea. They still do – and so do men. It’s largely about the person themselves, but I didn’t know that then.  I was determined to find a different path – and a different mindset. And so I figured I would do better by forcing myself to enter the world of work without that traditional female safety net – and see where I would land.

And as I sit here doing the 2-finger typing tango, I might slightly regret denying myself that oh-so-useful skill I now use every day…but I also know that choice helped shape all the interesting twists and turns I’ve taken.  And I never regret that.

Back to dream careers

But what about those people in the arts (or wherever else in the work-world they may be) who just can’t tolerate other kinds of work or have, as Scott put it, no other “real” skills to fall back on? Without a safety net, do they dig in even more to find a way that fits more closely with their dreams? Might they have a better chance of making it to a dream job after all, because they see no way other than to keep going?

While they might not exactly get the career they initially envisioned, being on a path they love can also open up doors they never otherwise would come across. Of course, they may also have to learn to get by on a lot of PB&Js.

What do you think?

Does relying on fall-back positions hurt our chances to make it big in our dream field? Does putting on a parachute too soon make it too tempting to jump? How do you know when it’s time to pull the ripcord? And what happens to a person’s spirit when they have a dream deferred, maybe forever?


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Hi Ronnie Ann,

    As you might expect, I would say “it depends”…on many factors. For some (partly due to their personality and preferences) having a plan B and additional skills to use while working on their dream may actually make it more likely that they’ll continue to pursue (and reach) it.

    For others, having a single focus for their attention and efforts and not considering/allowing other options is the key to successfully reaching their dream. Of course, it doesn’t mean it will happen quickly or won’t include many meals of PB & J (e.g., the musician who is now making a living solely through his/her music may have spent 20 years working on reaching this point).

    Thanks for the post and for inviting us to think about this question!

  2. Amy Verel says:

    So funny you use the example of learning to type, because my (successful, professional) parents insisted that I learn to type (around the time the PC was born, we’re talking Commodore 64). The story I remember was that my dad, in Army Basic Training in the Vietnam era, was pulled from duty “painting landscape rocks white in the heat” because he knew how to type. For this skill, he was brought into the air conditioned office to work. Lesson: skills=more comfortable work.

    I definitely see your perspective on avoiding a traditional path though; I’ve done that almost to the point of excluding options I’d likely enjoy and be good at! But I’m happy where I’ve taken myself and that’s what counts.

    However, to answer your actual question, I’ve found for myself that if you can’t pay the bills, you can’t pursue the dream. Practical skills pay for the dream (and the rent), and the more improbable the dream and competitive the field, the more you need the back-up skills to finance it. Maintaining focus on your goals and not allowing yourself to be lulled into abandoning it for security…that’s a testament to individual character as well as the fit between person and dream. Great food for thought topic! 🙂

  3. I understand this is controversial…but the “having practical skills” thing can go too far. You did mention here that sometimes having “practical skills” and getting a “practical” job can chase us away from dreams too. I was told “no one makes money in music”…which is clearly untrue! Lots of people do. Is it a “wobblier” path than some others; harder to define? It surely could be. But I’ve heard enough stories of people going on that one last audition— after which they were going to give it all up and start over, and then they got the part or job—that I have to believe going where the path leads, if we can but trust it, can be the most fulfilling.
    And PB&Js eaten by a fulfilled individual are bound to taste better than the most gourmet fare consumed by the miserable. 🙂

  4. Thanks so much Shahrzad, Amy Verel and MusEditions for adding so nicely to the conversation!

    I think new paths do open up when we close of easy answers, but the real trick is knowing how to stay open to ideas you never had that still fulfill dreams. I just read a story here that tells of a dream once started that vanished as the person saw what the underlying requirements were. But that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t gain valuable information by pursuing it anyway and that perhaps some aspect of that dream couldn’t still bring him to a new place.

    Love that point Muse makes about the one last audition. How do we know when it’s time to move on? Shahrzad tells us it can be decades. Is that too long? And how do we use the back-up skills Amy suggests keep us going and not let them keep us from pursuing with full heart?

    Thanks again for your insights!

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