Andrea Kay has always been a visual artist. But it was never her main work. By day, she is a career consultant, writer of a syndicated career column, and author of 6 career-related books, including Life’s a Bitch and Then You Change Careers. She is also a radio host and appears on TV.

About 10 years ago, she realized she felt there was something more she wanted to express, she told writers attending the 2014 American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York City on April 26. She spoke on a panel about finding meaningful work organized by Project Otter.

In 2004, she wrote in her journal, “I will create art and writing that matters and touches others.”

In 2009, her father was dying of complications from Alzheimer’s. She started driving two hours north to see him at first once a month, then every two weeks, and then every week as he got worse. She asked if she could draw him, since it was hard for him to speak. And she kept notes of their conversations on little pieces of paper.

After he died in August 2009, she assembled all her notes and all the drawings she had made in a three-ring binder. It chronicled the year, how his face changed, and what they talked about. When she showed it to her husband, he suggested she show it to somebody.

When Kay showed the notebook to the executive director of the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, KY, she sat looking at it for half an hour with tears rolling down her face. She told Kay, she would give her anything she wanted to share her work, Kay recalled.

You can have your own art show, the director suggested. Kay had also shown the notebook to a theater director who suggested it be presented on stage. Kay calls the performance, which is a mix of storytelling, art, and poetry, Flutterby. The name grew out of a conversation she had when visiting her father.

“Look, Dad, there’s a butterfly,” she said.

“Flutterby,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“That’s what you called them when you were little.”

In 2010, Kay gave her first performance. The 35-minute performance is a mix of art and storytelling that chronicles the year she spent visiting and drawing him. Some 500 people were in the theater. After the performance ended, there was total silence. Kay figured the audience hated it.

Common obstacles that block searches
for meaningful work

Two things can get in your way, says career expert Andrea Kay.

  • People look in the wrong place. They wonder what’s hot. What’s out there? They ask the wrong questions. What are my options? Instead, they should ask, “What’s in me?” What’s dying to come out? What’s summoning me? Kay’s advice is to look in the right place. “Look inside you,” she says. Look at the issues that matter to you. The odds are if something is important to you, it’s happening to you. And it’s happening to others.
  • Our obsession with arriving. We worry. How long is this going to take? Who is going to pay me?” How will I get there? Will people like me along the way? Be patient.

Later, she learned they were so overwhelmed with emotion that they physically could not move or react. Many people in the 45-minute long receiving line told her how her performance had helped them.

Kay realized she couldn’t stop there. “I have to do more with this,” she said. She promotes the performance as an experiential keynote across the country. Over the last 3 years, she has learned about aging and dementia, death and dying and grief. She attends conferences all over.

How did this all happen? She set out to create art. Due to personal circumstances, she had a new message to express: How to be with somebody in a meaningful way when they’re dying.

Creating Flutterby has not been smooth sailing. “This has been a really hard thing to do,” Kay said. People don’t get back to her. They don’t follow through. But it’s slowly building. She is hoping to turn it into a full-time pursuit.

If you’re searching for meaningful work, Kay advises you look in the right place. Within. Define what you care most about. And don’t wait. Be in love with your goal. “It will be your beacon,” she said.

One quote that will guide people looking for meaningful work comes from the movie, “The Road to Wellness.” In it, a character says, “Follow your heart. It is the one organ that will surely let you down someday. So don’t waste it while you’re living.”

5 things you need when you search
for meaningful work

  • Messy introspection
  • Guidance when you’re unsure. This might involve making a collage of images that reflect your interests and dreams. See The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron for more on this.
  • Surround yourself with inspiration. What you intend to create is on its way.
  • Patience
  • Collect breadcrumbs. These are experiences on the way that will lead you. For Andrea Kay, it was the little pieces of paper in her car that contained notes of her visits with her father.