It’s easy to fall into the first career that will have you. And it can be difficult to break into the one in which you feel you truly belong.

Whether you’re just beginning your career or have been toiling away for ages, following your passion rather than settling for a ho-hum job can be immensely gratifying.

Aside from the satisfaction of doing meaningful work, passion may very well be a prerequisite for success — defined as truly mastering a skill.

Time commitment

“Research shows that you have to put a number of hours into an activity, in engaged focused practice to get better,” says Rick Smith, author of “The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good To Great.”

It’s a lot of hours of practice — 10,000, according to the research of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. His study of violinists at the Berlin Music Academy was recently cited in “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

“Passion comes first in the equation. It’s not just a nice thing to have in a job — it’s a prerequisite for people who have really excelled in what they have done,” Smith says.

Remember that just because you are passionate about something does not mean it will be lucrative. But nearly everyone who has been wildly successful at something was passionate about it.

So what’s an office clerk with dreams of designing skyscrapers to do? Give up and accept your lot in life? Never! But don’t quit your job tomorrow and enroll in an architecture graduate program. Do some research and come up with a plan for success.

Will your skills pay the bills?

“There’s this idea out in our culture that if you follow your passions, that will always lead to financial success. In interviewing people, I didn’t see much correlation between how much people earned in their careers and how passionate they were about their work,” says Martha Mangelsdorf, author of “Strategies for Successful Career Change: Finding Your Very Best Next Work Life.”

That’s why research is important. You need to ask: What is the demand like for what you can offer? Is there a market for what you want to do or what you’re selling?

If starting your own business is your dream, the Internet is a great place for burgeoning entrepreneurs to launch it.

To find out if your service or product has potential, check out the number of people advertising on the Google search pages in your area of interest. The ads are the pay-per-click blurbs that run down the side of the page and sometimes across the top.

“You want to see a healthy volume of advertising. If there is no advertising, that’s generally a sign that people have tried to advertise and it wasn’t worth it for them. So that could indicate that there’s not a strong enough market,” says Jonathan Fields, author of “Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love.”

Different approach for employees

If you’re considering switching to another profession as an employee, researching what’s out there requires a different approach. There may be a way to bridge the career change in your own organization.

For instance, say you’re working as a customer service representative at a bank and think you may be better as an art director in an advertising agency.

First determine if your bank has an in-house marketing or advertising department. Talk to people within your company and let them know what you’d like to do.

If there are no opportunities where you work, then you need to research what it takes to break into advertising.

Finding answers to these questions can help you get started.

  • What skills does this job require?
  • Are classes going to be necessary?
  • Can you take these classes locally while working?
  • If not, where can you take them?
  • Are there any professional organizations where you could find a mentor or at least someone to grill with questions?
  • Can you arrange an “information interview” with someone who works in your desired profession who can describe all that it entails?

The research phase helps you gather information that will allow you to work slowly toward your goal while mitigating the risk to yourself.

Creative alternatives

One option is to look for compromises in what will satisfy you at the end of the day, but also make some money. This could mean volunteering, working part-time or doing something in the field, but not quite what you dream of doing.

For instance, you might love sports, but the ship sailed on your professional athletic career in high school.

“Look beyond the immediate activity. A lot of people say, ‘My mad passion is basketball, but I can’t make money at it.’ So they bail on it. But if they take the extra step and look at the greater community that surrounds the activity — there is a huge community around pro ball that loves to talk about it, to plan all sorts of events and buy and sell basketball-related products,” says Fields.

“You may be happy running a basketball-related Web site,” he says.

It doesn’t have to be Web-based, though. Maybe you’ve always loved the ballet. There may be opportunities within theaters or ballet companies for administrative work.

“Find an intersection between what you like to do and what people will pay you for. Connect yourself to a cause or activity that has great meaning for you, and use the marketable skills that you already have,” says Mangelsdorf.

Or find a practical entry into what you love to do.

Mangelsdorf interviewed one artist who began painting pictures of houses. Real estate brokers would buy them to give to buyers when they closed on a house.

“At this point he and his wife have recently bought an art gallery,” says Mangelsdorf.

Taking on risk

Change is risky. But you don’t have to just chuck everything and leap off a cliff into the unknown. In fact, you shouldn’t do that.

In writing his book on careers, Smith found that when people went through this kind of transition, it took a while, typically a minimum of two years in the research phase, followed by “very low-risk experiments,” he says.

“For almost all iconic, daredevil entrepreneurs, the whole initial process of their success was about mitigating risk, taking low-risk steps to explore whether an opportunity might work. And then saying, ‘OK, that’s working. Now I’ll try a little more,'” he says.

Workers with big ambitions should look for practical ways to make their dreams a reality. Staying in your own little rut guarantees that you will never fail at something you really love, but you’ll also never succeed at it.

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