Work

9 Tips For *Actually* Pursuing Your Dream Career

Susan Shapiro
5 min read
September 22, 2017
9 Tips For *Actually* Pursuing Your Dream Career

New York Times best-selling author Susan Shapiro landed what she thought was her dream job. Then she got fired. Here’s how that might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to her.

“We’re letting you go,” my boss said.

I was devastated. As a young, broke, struggling poet, having my own weekly book column in a major newspaper was a dream. Sure, reading and critiquing five books a week for $300 was tough. But for the last year, I’d had the rare power to pick which novels, poetry and essay collections I’d include. I was sent free boxes of books from publishers, every day like Hanukkah, and invited to uptown literary soirees where I’d dine on free shrimp and meet Manhattan’s literati.

But that same week, my director boyfriend left me for the coworker he’d been seeing on the sly. Even worse than getting dumped for a thinner actress, the editor of my section replaced me with a better poet. Then, when my substitute couldn’t handle the workload that did me in, he let her do only three books a week. So she was getting paid the same salary to review 104 books less that year than I did.

“It’s so unfair,” I complained to Patty, my therapist. I’d been seeing her since graduate school, back when she only charged me $20 on a sliding scale, which was all I could afford. “This was my fantasy job. I can’t envision anything ever topping it,” I sobbed. I pictured having to beg my Midwest parents to loan me money, hearing my father scream, “Get out of that dirty, scummy city and move home.”

“Didn’t you once say that if you weren’t reviewing books, you’d want to write them yourself?” Patty asked, smiling, handing me Kleenex. I nodded, blowing my nose.  Transitioning from reviewing to writing books wasn’t easy.

But here’s what helped me finally get over losing what Ithought was my dream job and find the courage to pursue what I really wanted to do all along:

Find new mentors

When a former coworker was made editor of that newspaper’s entertainment section, I told him about being fired and asked for his advice. “So, pitch me ideas,” he said. After a few “almosts,” he finally said yes. My splashy features ran in the same section as my one-time column, but were longer and paid twice the amount. Publishing well was the best revenge.

Surround yourself with peers you value

With cohorts from college, grad school and work, I launched a Tuesday night writing workshop in my apartment. I’d put out popcorn and soda while we’d critique each other’s pages. I invited people more successful and smarter than me. Within months, we were all publishing in top magazines and newspapers. It led to literary agents, book deals, a few marriages and lifelong friendships. Supportive colleagues won’t magically find you, create your own support.

Get yourself some talk therapy

While I complained about getting dumped by my old boss and my ex, and started obsessing about dating again, Patty advised, “Love doesn’t make you happy. Make yourself happy. Then you’ll find love.” She was right. Get a recommendation from someone you trust. Having an unbiased advocate on my side was invaluable.

Be willing to say “yes”

I couldn’t find another newspaper staff gig. So when somebody from The New School sat in my workshop and asked if I’d teach an evening class, I said yes. I had no interest in teaching, but I needed to pay my rent. I ended up loving it. The pay and benefits kept increasing until I was making a great living teaching only eight hours a week, all at night. As they say, when you do what you love, you’ll never have to work again a day in your life.

Ask for—and take—criticism

When my first novel would not sell, I asked Laura, a tough critic friend, what she thought. She said “You have no imagination whatsoever. Stop writing fiction. A story about two sisters-in-law is boring. Try sex. Write about people you love.” I went home crying, then started a nonfiction project about sex and ex-boyfriends I’d loved. Being willing to listen and compromise without being a control freak led to a total reinvention.

Quit your bad habits—you know the ones I’m talking about

I didn’t realize that smoking, toking, and drinking were hurting my work, love life, and success. “You think like an addict. Your brain is cloudy. You don’t delegate. You don’t stay with bad feelings. You smoke or drink them away,” said a substance abuse specialist, who I’ll call Dr. W.  After I stemmed my addictions, everything improved—work, money and love. When you quit a toxic habit, you make room for something better to take its place.

Spend money to make money

When I told Dr. W about two older friends who’d sold their book projects, he suggested I ask their advice.

At lunch with Yona, she confided she’d hired Sally, a ghost editor and former Doubleday editor who did the preliminary book doctoring. Treating my colleague Larry to dinner, he whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but I sold my nonfiction proposal with the help of Sally, a great ghost editor.

Complaining to Dr. W that I couldn’t afford the $2000 to get my book edited, he said, “You can’t afford not to.” I charged it, took Sally’s suggestions, and sold my debut memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart to Random House for a $50,000 advance. That first deal led to a TV/film deal and seven foreign editions.

Help others

I shared all of my editor connections with my students and fellow workshop members, which inspired many publications and new careers. I also taught a special class for homeless people and those struggling with drug addiction at a local soup kitchen for 13 years. It led to another book and a lot of good karma. Sometimes by healing others, you heal yourself.

Never give up. Seriously.

Now I swear by ghost editors as my secret weapon. I stay clean, smoke-free and sober, continue my writing groups and teaching. I get therapy tune-ups when needed. When I sold my first novel (the one my friend told me sucked) 13 years after I’d started, instead of a book launch, I gave it a Book Mitzvah. We did a candle lighting ceremony for the colleagues, workshoppers, shrinks and mentors who’d offered inspiration along the way. In my work life, no never means no. It means “try harder.”

Susan Shapiro is the New York Times bestselling author/coauthor ofUnhooked, Only As Good as Your WordandLighting Up. Her 11th book,The Byline Bible, comes out summer 2018.