How To Find Your Dream Job by Following Intuition

Posted on Aug 30 2014 - 11:05am by Jamie Sterling

AKA “How I Found My Dream Job Without Really Looking”

My oldest son, The Dude, came home from school one day, looking a little down. He plopped down on the couch, turned, looked at me, and, with a sad face said, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” 

I bust out laughing. The first thing I thought to say was, “Well, even I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!” Which, at least, got him giggling (because he was looking awfully sad). But, that’s not entirely true. I smiled to myself as I realized that I found my dream job already and am thrilled to be working for a company that has a mission I am so passionate about and where I know I can make an impact.

I then tried to re-assure my son that not many people know what they want to be when they grow up, even when in high school or college, and that he really doesn’t need to figure it out quite yet. I explained that the best thing he could do is find the things that he likes the most and that make him happiest  – and do them all the time to get better and see how much he loves it. We talked about the importance of hard work and discipline, especially when other people rely on you, and I thought the talk went generally pretty well.

He declared that he loves ART and ran off to draw or color or do something arty in the dining room.

On a related note, I absolutely love applying this idea to business. It is best to find a person’s strengths and passions and lean into them. Of course, we should always develop and learn new skills, but really becoming experts at what we do best is how we can make the biggest impact. My supervisor had her reports read and complete the activities for StrengthsFinder 2.0 and it was a wonderful exercise, during which I learned a lot more about myself and how I work best, alongside how to best work with my team and colleagues. Highly recommended!

At this point in the conversation, I had the epiphany that I should share my own experiences with my son about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to demonstrate how many times someone can change their mind and STILL end up doing something they love…even if it wasn’t their intended path….and, even if there were bumps along the road. I told my son about ALL the things I wanted to be when I grew up. As I told the story, I realized it was a good example of the motto that I used to drive my life…basically, that hard work, paired with the ability to spot an opportunity and willingness to take a risk, is the key to professional success and growth. So, I decided to share my story here too.

Due to a series of unexpected situations, crazy career path choices, ups and downs, and leaps of faith, I somehow took a very “crooked” career path into an industry I never studied and, before the age of 30, landed the dream job I didn’t even know existed! It hasn’t been easy, but I HAVE always learned something. And, I know there is much more to come.

Here’s my story…

{PS: If you want to skip to my tips on how to find your dream job, scroll down to the bottom of the article!}

Thing I Wanted To Be When I Grew Up #1:

Donut Truck Driver + Teacher

Age Range: 3, or so, years old

When I was very young, and a smidgen precocious, I apparently told my parents that I wanted to be a donut truck driver and a teacher. (Yes, at the same time). My plan was to deliver donuts in the morning, then bring the leftover donuts to the teachers at school and go teach. My Mom is a teacher, which may have had an influence. If I must say so myself, I did have quite the plan to become friends with my teacher colleagues!

Sadly, this did not become my ultimate career.

Here I am as a little whippersnapper:

Little Whippersnapper

Thing I Wanted To Be When I Grew Up #2:

Doctor (specifically, Oncologist)

Age Range: 7th/8th Grade through First Year College

When I was in junior high, I lost my grandfather. My Pop Pop was very dear to me and his death from cancer did have a major impact on me, early on. Around the same time, I was also obsessed with the ridiculously depressing Lurlene McDaniel books. Some of my favorites had titles like: Six Months to Live, Don’t Die, My Love, Sixteen and Dying, and, one of my favorites, Someone Dies, Someone Lives.

You guys, I’m tearing up just remembering these books. Can you tell I still hold a fondness for a good cry? 🙂

Around this time, I decided it was my duty in life to make a difference in people’s lives through the medical profession. (You’ll see an ‘I want to help people’ theme throughout my intended careers, lol). Because I remembered the oncologists that cared for my Pop Pop during his last days and thought the doctors in my favorite books were heroes, I felt that my calling in life was to be a pediatric oncologist. I wanted to fight for and help save dying children.

I was VERY serious about this goal from junior high through my early college years. My conviction in my future path grew year over year. I continued to take all Honors & AP courses in Math, Science (Physics, Chem, Bio), English, & more to prepare myself for my collegiate studies.

In 11th grade, I applied for a prestigious program for high schoolers in my state, the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Healthcare, where only 110 students from 11th grade were selected (I believe it was 5-10% of total applicants) to attend a college for 5 weeks in the summer before senior year. During those weeks, students do a deep dive study all aspects of the medical profession. I was surprised to learn that I was accepted and gladly headed off to be 5 hours away from my parents! (What can I say, I was a teenage girl and was beyond ready for college already!)

We attended classes from 8 am to 8 pm, had the amazing opportunity to shadow those in the medical profession (my assignment was for a breast cancer specialist!) and even touched cadavers. It was sweet!

I loved it. I loved the University of Pittsburgh, where we were hosted. Pitt has the 10th rated hospital system in the US (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), ahead of Cedars-Sinai, NYU, and even the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania (Penn) hospital, that hosts a thriving medical community and degree program options. When it came time to apply to college, Pitt was it!

(Sidenote: Hail to Pitt!!)

I began my college studies and began to realize that, while I always performed well in my high school Honors and AP courses, I didn’t LOVE science or find the subject matters I needed to pursue very intriguing. I certainly didn’t love math, especially once I hit advanced college calculus classes. I started to question my path, my studies, and everything I had planned for so long. I wanted to do something I enjoyed and was worried about the path I had chosen since I was not enjoying my studies (which, was rare for a lover of learning like me). And, there may have been that mild nervous breakdown involved at the end of freshman year, when I didn’t have straight A’s for the first time! 😉

Needless to say, after some soul searching, I began to see that math & science was not what I was best at and may not be what makes me happiest to do everyday. I was not finding or leaning into my strengths. What I did find was that the classes I loved the most in college involved writing & reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, reading a full book in a few hours, when given the time. I decided to spend the summer taking summer courses to see if I could figure out my path.

I absolutely LOVED the first Honors philosophy course I took, at my advisor’s suggestion. Because of that class, I stumbled across a major through that same advisor in the Pitt Honors College. He advised me to start the Honors Degree “Politics & Philosophy” Track. It is, essentially, an Honors degree on steroids. The degree incorporates major studies in Honors Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics. At the time, the Pitt Philosophy degree was ranked second in the US (it has currently dropped to tied with Harvard in 5th).  In fact, I’m giving a big shout out to David Hornyak, my Pitt advisor, who ROCKED when he pointed me in the right direction when I needed it most.

Here I am in college, obviously working very hard on my studies (hahaha, meant to be funny, but I did work my butt off for the record) 😉

Sterling Mom in College

Halloween in College

Thing I Wanted To Be When I Grew Up #3:


Age Range: Second Year College through 4th Year College

At this point, I was feeling pretty ambitious and saw myself as a future judge, politician, or lawyer (you know, the ‘fighting the good fight’ kind). So, the natural thing for me was to follow a path to law school. I interned on a political campaign, loved each and every one of my classes, made sure my coursework aligned with the optimum pre-law track, fought local slumlords as the head of the “Off Campus Housing Committee”  for Student Government Board (trust me, this was my own college passion for justice moment), and started studying for the LSATs (Law School Admissions Test). I worked really hard. I even obtained a very rare 100% in Logic class, which I LOVED and, because the practice of law is so grounded in logic, made me feel that I was headed down the right path.

I took the LSATs, a nearly six hour test that determines whether you will get into law school or not.

The day the score came, I was tremendously pleased to learn that I scored in the top 4% (96th percentile). I also took another test that day and determined that there was going to be a major change to my life that would change all of my plans. (Here’s that whole story).

So, at this point, I needed to graduate my undergraduate studies (now at 7 months pregnant) and re-focus on my growing family and changing priorities.  I also graduated college magna cum laude, with a certificate in Public & Professional Writing and another certificate in the Conceptual Foundations of Medicine (the result of my early science, math, medicine courses combined with Philosophy of Medicine classes). I was surprised with an induction into the Phi Beta Kappa organization, the most respected academic honorary for undergraduates in this country. And, I worked a part-time job until a week past my due date!

Here I am on my graduation day and at my Phi Beta Kappa induction:

Graduation Day

Phi Beta Kappa

I took a few months break to enjoy my little one and realized…

I Don’t Know What I Want To Be When I Grow Up Anymore!

Commence nervous breakdown for a control freak like me.

Age range: Immediately post-college

Four months after I had my first child, I was restless. I wanted to pursue something…education, a career, SOMETHING. I was not built to be a stay at home Mom. Being a driven, very Type A personality, I wanted to forge a path for myself. But, I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore! And, considering my family situation, we could not afford law school immediately, as planned (with or without loans).

I decided to take two approaches, let go of the reigns for a little, and let the universe take control of my destiny. 😉

First approach:  I would apply for jobs as a paralegal and eventually go to law school (hopefully through the help of whatever firm I worked for).

Second approach: Apply for jobs in an entirely different industry. My one Political Science professor often tried to discourage me from pursuing work in politics or law. He was adamant that I consider a career in Marketing or Advertising, based on what he saw as my strengths and his time also spent in both industries. Despite his political science career, he was a freelancer for a local Pittsburgh advertising agency and spoke from years of experience. As a part of my writing certificate, I had taken some classes in PR, Fundraising, & Advertising in my senior year, which I really enjoyed. I also read an article talking about how, with the continued rise of the Internet and its favorite resident, Google, that Digital Marketing was one of the top 5 hiring fields at the time. Plus, a great self-help job-seeking book What Color Is My Parachute, had me wanting to think outside of the box and pursue whatever seemed interesting and creative. These things together made me consider applying for entry-level Marketing & Advertising jobs as well.

At this point, I was interviewing and applying to jobs like CRAZY. I read that it is important to treat your job search like a full-time job and that is some of the best advice I have for anyone reading this who cares. 🙂 I worked hard to get every possible interview I could for any law firm or advertising agency in Pittsburgh. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall, but started to get some job interviews, so some was sticking! It felt great.

I interviewed for an amazing paralegal position with a bankruptcy law firm that had long-term law school potential. They offered me a job shortly after my interview.

At the same time, I found out about IMPAQT, one of the top 5 Search Marketing firms in the US  was based out of Pittsburgh, PA. I was so excited when my (carefully thought out and written) cover letter and resume got me an interview for an entry-level position there. No kidding, they offered me a job on the exact same day I was given the paralegal job offer.

I found myself at a crossroads. Did I head towards my original plan and stick with the legal profession, even if it meant a lower, more entry-level salary and unknown timeline for law school? Or, do I take a risk and try something new in an emerging industry?

Ultimately, between the better salary and the excitement of taking a risk into the relative unknown, I decided to take the risk and pursue my first career as “Search Associate” in Client Services for a top  Search Engine Marketing agency.

Thing I Became When I Grew Up:

Digital Marketing Professional

Age Range: First Job Offer & Beyond!

Jamie Sterling Headshot

My IMPAQT Headshot

So, I began my job at IMPAQT. I learned SO much so quickly and got to work on Fortune 500 & 1000 client accounts. I enjoyed the work right off the bat! Because of my hard work, I quickly was given a number of special projects and changed departments, with these special projects, as needed. After being in Client Services for a few months, I spent some of my favorite time in the Knowledge & Enablement Department, then moved into the Marketing Department in a Lead Generation role and, later, as Interactive Media/Video Specialist. I worked with and was mentored by amazing people, brilliant minds, and most have been colleagues and friends since.

I still think it’s funny that I never took a Business or Marketing class as an undergraduate, particularly because of where I ended up and how quickly I became comfortable in the industry. My company was nominated for Pittsburgh AMA Marketer of the Year while I was on the Marketing team, which was very exciting for us.

A few years in, I was recruited for another job as Online Marketing Manager for the Art Institutes system of schools (within Education Management Corporation). It was a very exciting offer to me due to the large (multi-millions) annual budget I would have the opportunity to manage. And, because the job was all about testing & learning what NEW, interactive media types worked in Marketing, I had the opportunity to do quite a bit of, now considered groundbreaking, efforts and even research.

My company quickly emerged as the leader in mobile marketing amongst its competitors in the higher education space because of the success we had with early mobile advertising and Web property testing. I was invited to be a panelist at the National Mobile Marketing event, the MediaPost Mobile Summit. Our ads were also reviewed in the Mobile Insider newsletter from MediaPost, something hugely exciting for me. We won awards for advertising campaigns I ran with our agency. I spoke at other local events (SEMPO Pgh, PodCamp Pittsburgh, etc). It was a big opportunity for me to grow as a marketer and test digital, mobile, video, interactive, Website management, and so many other things. I really feel as though that, combined with the incredibly results-driven, analytical, and plan-intensive environment helped me learn and spread my wings from a niche marketer in Search Marketing to so much more.

I got to work with a strong team of Marketing and Interactive people for some really big, exciting campaigns (particularly LOVED the Bonnaroo partnership campaign!!) I learned so much, was promoted, and really enjoyed my time at that company, particularly because of the amazing team I work with (amazing colleagues and mentors is a theme among my career that I am very grateful for).

But, there were many layoffs at the company and lawsuits for student loan fraud and it was not an environment where I felt safe in my job or as though I was really helping people in the way that I hoped to. My second pregnancy with the Little Bird also fell during my time at EDMC, so I could not leave while on maternity.

Then, one day, while on maternity leave…I received a call from a former supervisor telling me about this open position for a Director, Customer Acquisition at a company called Kindermusik.

The Dream Job I Didn’t Know Existed:

Director, Marketing and Employee-Owner of Kindermusik International

About a month into maternity leave, a job description was forwarded to me.  It was drafted FOR me. They were searching for a creative and analytical marketer. Bonus if they have a passion for children and music.

Hmmm, well children are my world.

Music. Well, that’s an easy one since it’s pretty much my #1 favorite thing ever (other than my children of course lol). I performed in dramatic theater for most of my life, played the lead in many musicals, played viola for all of my school years, sang in every chorus possible, played in many orchestras, and music was a part of my every day for as long as I can remember. Oh, and I may have married a professional musician and music educator on top of it all, so it had become every bit a part of my married and family life.

The mission of Kindermusik is amazing – to bring education to children around the world. I wanted to be a part of that.

The company was established over 35 years ago and has since served millions of families in over 70 countries in studio classes and through School curriculum. My Mom was a teacher and education was always so important to me, so more good reasons.

The company is employee-owned, so you have a bigger say and get the financial benefits of making a difference. Another good reason.

With the company based in NC, I could work remotely from my home in Pittsburgh and also have the chance for some minor travel. Yeah, couldn’t complain about that.

Oh, and they didn’t have a Director or VP of Marketing for the company, so there was potential for future growth. Type A Jamie says Yippee!

This was my dream job. Dream situation.

I submitted my resume and was given 4 case studies. I added a cover letter (included this part below so you can see how badly I wanted this job!) and worked my bum off on the case studies.

I passed a rough first interview and was offered the opportunity to come down to North Carolina. I would only have to put together a one hour presentation for my visit. 😉  (We take our hiring seriously at an employee-owned organization!)

I was terribly nervous about leaving for North Carolina for a number of reasons. The first reason was that my son was only a month/month and a half old and I had never left him for an hour, let alone overnight! (And, Mom TMI: Of course, I was breastfeeding!) I was also nervous because I was on maternity leave and, if I accepted a new job, would basically go back to work and give my two weeks’ notice. That really wasn’t something I felt entirely comfortable with. But, I decided to take a risk.

One step at a time. I flew down to North Carolina, put on my presentation, and was offered the job while I was down there. I was just going through my old emails from this time and I was just SOOOO excited!!!! I called my husband from the airport, my parents, my friend, emailed my former supervisor, etc. It was really one of the best days!

I accepted the position and, although I didn’t like having to leave right after my maternity, the company I was at was not hesitant to lay off the majority of our department and, as the primary breadwinner of a family with MORE children, I felt I needed to make the right decision. I had given many good years to that company and remembered the time fondly. Luckily, no bridges were burned, I wrapped everything up nicely, and moved on to my new role at Kindermusik.

Yesterday, I was so excited to have celebrated three years at Kindermusik, now as Director of Marketing, and I can’t wait for many, many more years with an amazing company and an amazing team (Kindermusik educators and employees are truly THE BEST). It’s hard to believe where I’ve been and where I’ve landed by the age of 30. I am excited about the opportunities at Kindermusik today, more than ever! Cheers to many more years!

Here I am in Kindermusik class with my middle son:

Kindermusik class


And otherwise very happy:

Jamie Sterling Mom

So, how to apply my career path lessons to find YOUR dream job?

Here’s some tips I’ve learned along the way…

Tips on how to find your dream job and get it!

  1. Work hard and be disciplined. Nothing good ever came easy. And, work gives you purpose.
  2. Go above & beyond. Take what you think work hard means and multiply that by 2. See #1.
  3. Look for hard trends (certain facts we KNOW about the future). What are the industries that show potential? What products are expected to grow? What industries or products do not have good potential < avoid!
  4. Figure out what your strengths are. (See StrengthsFinder 2.0 for a good workbook on the subject).
  5. Identify your passion AND lean into your strengths or figure out what jobs and industries fit you best. (What Color Is Your Parachute was an incredibly helpful book and exercise for me to do right when I didn’t know what I wanted to do post-college). Working hard for anyone = stress. Working hard for something you care about = passion.
  6. Practice your strengths, and become an expert at what you’re best at. Give it 10,000 hours (see: Malcolm’s Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story to Success and the 10,000 hour rule to understand this).
  7. Think big, but understand you have to take small steps to get there. If you want to be CEO some day, that’s your goal! Set it now! But, make a realistic plan for how you would get there, even if it means moving down a path with many smaller goals along the way!
  8. When you are job searching, treat it like a full-time job! Write a customized cover letter for each position you’re interested in and make sure your resume is top-notch. If you aren’t familiar with resume building, pay someone to look at it!
  9. Understand an opportunity when you see one. Ask the right questions. Does this job offer ROOM FOR GROWTH? If so, what are the exact positions you could be promoted to? What are your main goals and priorities? Do they align with your personal vision or passion or go against it?
  10. Don’t be afraid to take risks! Follow your gut, which will help ease your fears about change or taking a risk. You only live once. Seize each and every day and live with no regrets!

And that is my corny, but good, advice. At least, that advice is based on my first 30 years of life. It will be interesting to see what I learn over the next 30 years of my career!


*Appendix: Cover Letter for Kindermusik

AKA the importance of a customized cover letter in getting your dream job!

Music is the most important thing in my family’s life. I have been a violist, singer, and performer my whole life. My husband is a professional working musician who has been studying music for as long as he can remember and playing professionally for 18 years. We have been training both of our sons since they were in utero to love, appreciate, and play music. I think Kindermusik is a company with an amazing mission and there is nothing better than working for a company whose mission you are passionate about. Add that to the fact that I perfectly fit the qualifications for the Customer Acquisition Manager position and it is easy to get excited about this opportunity.

Now, to tell you a little more about me as a skilled online marketer, I may have to get to some indiscriminate resume and results sharing. I believe my experience is just what you’re looking for. I currently work within the education industry, guiding and executing the short and long-term direct response paid online marketing strategies for the Art Institutes system of 50 design schools in the US & Canada. The Art Institutes (Ai) is an education brand within the Education Management Corporation umbrella, one of the largest for-profit education systems in North America. Our mission is to bring art and design education to those students who are creative and passionate about their art, whether it is interior design, culinary arts, fashion, audio or video production, photography, or one of the other creative arts programs the school system offers.

As Senior Marketing Manager within the Ai Marketing Department, I am responsible for creating integrated DR marketing campaigns via the following online vehicles: search engine marketing & optimization, display banner advertising, social media, video/rich media, mobile advertising, emerging media and Web site/landing page experiences, to drive new student acquisitions at a yearly online media budget of approximately $XMM (# left out to protect the company). I am accountable for focused lead generation with an intense concentration on inquiry volume, quality, and cost and have driven results consistently in my current role. For example, in the past three fiscal years, I drove a 368% lift in student applications and a 165% lift in lead to application conversion rate, equaling a 47% drop in cost per application for Web Advertising media vehicles.

I currently manage the budgeting & forecasting process for paid online media. I manage multiple agency and internal resources; spearhead creative, targeting, testing, and placement strategies; negotiate contracts; monitor results and optimize campaigns in order to generate high-quality, cost-effective leads while ensuring compliance with branding, design, quality and industry regulations. While our business is a direct response one and I have driven strong conversion statistics, I have also driven increased traffic & brand results for Ai. I provide complete and ongoing analysis of all campaign efforts based on established metrics and goals, leveraging internal proprietary reporting systems and third party data, such as DART/DFA, Hitwise, @Plan, Omniture, Qlikview. I have deep experience with many other analytics systems from my time at a leading Search Marketing & Optimization agency and know the ins and outs of all Google tools, including Google Analytics. I am responsible for achieving system goals as well as 50 individual performance plans for each Ai school. I am also a ‘go-to’ for the traditional and creative departments to assist in driving better results for our traditional media via additional response channels, such as SMS, QR codes, URL strategies, and more. I’ve been recognized in various ways for my innovating marketing ideas, including receiving the OMMA award for best integrated campaign for small marketer and being a speaker at industry events including the MediaPost Mobile Insider Summit, SEMPO Pittsburgh, & Podcamp Pittsburgh.

Based on my time at a leading SEM/SEO agency and my training in public & professional writing, I am trained and skilled in Marketing writing, specifically ‘writing for the Web.’ Further, my current role has allowed me to play with large media budgets and test and learn from many media tactics. As a result, I have a strong baseline of what media vehicles and targeting tactics work in the DR education space and am well-versed in the art of optimizing to best performing campaigns, strategies, creative, & targeting.

I spent time in various roles at IMPAQT, a top 10 Search Marketing agency, in the Client Services department, managing and optimizing client SEM & SEO campaigns. I also worked within the Knowledge & Enablement (training & process roles) and Marketing (interactive media and offline lead generation roles) departments, which have provided me with deep Search experience as well as offline & lead generation experience.

I pride myself on being both a creative and analytical marketer who is able to innovate and problem solve to achieve desired goals and results.  I know I can go above and beyond on all listed job responsibilities and, hopefully, drive further development and improvement to Kindermusik’s customer acquisition via my ability to see the big picture and generate big ideas.

I’d like you to thank you for your consideration and hope to further discuss my skills and experience as they pertain to the role of Customer Acquisition Manager at Kindermusik.


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