Do what you love… and love what you do
Yesterday I got a call. It was from my ex-boss’ niece, who was looking for career advice. Why would you take advice from me? I hear you ask. Good question!
As it turns out, little E is doing Psychology and statistics at university, which is what I did for my undergrad. She was looking to speak with someone who’d done something similar, to find out the career paths open to her. Unfortunately for little E, she had come back from working abroad with a fairly serious illness and so she felt like she’d “missed the boat” for the graduate milkround. (I don’t know if you have this overseas but in the UK there’s almost a term/semester like thing where you have to apply for all the graduate jobs by a certain date, as they do their intakes regularly, like a school term or university semester. If you don’t apply in time then you’ll probably have to wait until the next year if you want a job on a grad training scheme.)
She was keen to hear from me because to the outside world I have a “good” job. I work for a large corporate. You’ll have heard of them. They’re one of four rather famous ones that a lot of graduates, particularly in business or accounting want to work for. As far as the outside world is concerned, I’m a “career woman”. I am at the bottom-most rung of seniority, which for a woman in this industry already puts me in a minority. I work in a very male dominated industry which is sort of to be expected considering not that many women do STEM subjects at university (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – Psychology is probably the exception in STEM where at least in my experience, undergrad females outnumbered males).
And little E was worried that she’d missed the boat for the milkround. Really worried, like she wasn’t going to get a good job just because she’d been sick for a while and missed the application deadlines.
I wanted to tell her: The world is your oyster.
I gave her some advice of a questionable nature, based on my own experience (because that’s all I had!). I applied quite late and accidentally to my first job, mainly because they were a bit technologically challenged (it was a long time ago – I am old) and they’d forgotten to close down the online application form after the closing date. So I got in by the skin of my teeth! (I always think it was the part where they asked about moments in life that defined me, and I put being adopted, I mean that obviously had a large influence on my life, right? Anyway – in my experience people always want to know about it – and they did ask in the interview!)
I told her how I ended up working where I do. Quite a lot of it was accidental, to be honest. I think it’s really tough if you don’t know, really firmly, what you want to do. I sort of followed the groove that my dad had left for me. I didn’t think to get a job outside of the corporate world. I never ploughed my own furrow. I just sort of went down the path of least resistance and maximising profit based on the skills I had.
That’s not strictly true. When I was really little, I always wanted to be an artist. I’d spend all my spare time painting, drawing, making things. But whilst such artistic past times were encouraged by my parents and school, the overriding message was that art is not profitable, and it’s not something you can make a living out of. Even at school when I was put forward for both scholarships, I ended up taking the academic scholarship because more money was on offer. And now… Well, I haven’t drawn seriously in years. I think education “unlearns” art and artistic expression from you. (If I ever have kids who are that way inclined, they’ll be mini Van Goghs. Without the ear thing.) Anyway, I digress.
And all this got me to thinking… Do I do what I love? Do I love what I do?
And the answer is no, not really. I never really followed my heart. As many people would say in the corporate world, the heart is overrated. The heart isn’t going to put a roof over your head. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (that again!) there isn’t a heart at the bottom of the pyramid, because you know what? It’s more important to have shelter, food, safety before you get to anything so fancy schmancy as self-actualisation. And let’s face it, you sell your soul in an industry like this. You subsume your unprofitable desires (making stuff, being expressive) for the satisfaction of making clients happy. (This usually involves Excel and/or Powerpoint.) And there is a certain satisfaction in making a nice Powerpoint…
This world rewards you big. You get the prestige of working for a big brand. The offices are shiny and new and the people there are shiny and new also (apart from when they’re old and not-so-shiny – they’re the important ones!). You get to travel. You get to stay in fancy hotels and go to the occasional big party and corporate do at places you’d never dream of going if you paid it yourself. (I’m Easyjet all the way on my own holidays.) Working for my firm means I’m in the 90-somethingth percentile in the UK for salary. (You can check your salary here.) I mean, that’s just nuts. But goes some way to explaining why, once you’re in that career, it takes a pretty big determination to want to go and do something else. It means that you have to really really want to break out of that mould and do something different. Because otherwise you’re giving up the comfort and the (illusion of) security and a pension and healthcare and all that good stuff – for a dream.
I don’t think my dreams were ever strong enough.
A reflection: I think as a person who was adopted, I always craved security. Maybe that’s being adopted. Maybe that’s my parents (who were very keen on ensuring financial security, having come from not very well off backgrounds and slogged it out). Maybe that’s just… me. (Though all of my siblings are quite career driven.) I don’t know because I’ve only lived this life. But I do know that security and being able to look after myself financially has always driven me. I never wanted to depend on someone else to pay my way. I never wanted to depend on someone who might then let me down. I never thought “Oh, I’ll just get married and give up work” because I never took it for granted that someone would be interested in looking after me that way. And it’s never been thus! I’ve always been financially independent, even when I was married. (We pooled some resources but we still earned our own money.) So… maybe it’s just me, maybe it was the world I was born into, or adopted into, or maybe my dreams just weren’t strong enough to break that need and take the risk of not being able to fend for myself. Maybe I didn’t have faith that I could.
But back to the oyster. Your world. I was telling little E that no, you have most definitely not missed the boat. I told her: one year in all your years of working is not a big deal. If you really want to have a graduate job, then you can hold your horses and apply next year. If that’s what you really want then it’s worth waiting for.
In my mind the priorities are:
1) Your health
2) Anything else
So I said to her, as countless others probably have also: get better. Take a step back. Figure out what you want to do. You have all these years ahead of you and one year out of many isn’t going to set you back. Take a gap year. Travel the world. Get some work experience. Apply for jobs you think sound interesting. Spend time with your parents. Enjoy life and figure out what you love, and find a job that lets you do that.
And I thought – I’ve given her advice that was the exact opposite of what I did. I was so desperate to be financially independent that I rushed into the world of work and never looked back. (I felt like my folks had already given me so much after all the studying, and there were a bunch more younger siblings where I came from who also had to go through uni!) I didn’t do a gap year. I didn’t go travelling. I didn’t step back and smell the roses. I just kept on ploughing on to the next milestone. Job. Tick. Promotion. Tick. New job. Tick. Engagement. Tick. Wedding. Tick. Crisis… Separation… oh.
Yeah, life doesn’t always work out how you planned. You’ve got to roll with the punches. And after a period of being Not Okay, I was Okay. I’m now fine. Pretty much happy, though I’d like to do fewer hours at work and spend more time with my little family (me, T and furry one). On the whole, Life is Good and I’m okay with it. (IVF is a bitch, but that’s another story!)
We got there in the end. But where is There? There is just today. And – if we’re lucky – there are a load more days after this one. And hopefully the majority of them will be Good Days.
So if I had to go back and give advice to my younger self, it would be:
There are no right answers
Life is a happy accident
Grab happiness where you can
A final thought for today and then I’ll shut up. I have a home office, which is something of an overstatement. What I actually have is a salvaged desk which is piled up with lots of stuff. And in between all those things, somewhere in a frame is my mantra. It’s a Quotable card that we got in Chelsea market in NYC on holiday last year. (I love printed words in frames. T says my taste in pictures is very boring because it’s pretty much letters… I love printed letters; and photos… I love photos – I love things that tell a story.) Anyway, too much blether. This is what I have on my desk underneath the rubble of work and life, and this is my thought for the day, week, year: