Not so great expectations

I was looking through some old school reports the other day. Back at school the teachers knew and supported everyone, and had high hopes for many of those they taught, but from university onwards each student becomes more and more anonymous.

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Well it would certainly be a conversation starter…

My tutor at university was great, I remember him telling me that I could do anything I wanted when I left. Nothing at all to do with my intelligence – one of his suggestions was joining the circus and another was becoming a weather girl! I think he was really just trying to say ‘the world is your oyster’.

Then you start applying for jobs and you realise just how big a pond you’re in, and just how small a fish you really are. And even once you’ve got that first job, there’s always that niggling feeling – is this really it? Can’t I do something better than this? Aren’t I destined to do something more meaningful?

And it begins to feel like you’re not living up to your potential. All of that talk of becoming an artist, a doctor, a teacher – whatever good solid, or even dream, job you thought you might end up with when you’d finished your education – has gone out the window, and worst of all, no-one really seems to care what you do or become anymore. You’re told you’re lucky to have any job in this economic climate, that it’ll ‘work out eventually’, that no-one really knows what they want to do.

Those dreams of doing amazing things, of travelling, of excitement, of adventure… “Oh yeah, you want to do that? Sure, you do that one day,” they say. Well I want to remind everyone, and myself, that we’re not here to live up to other people’s expectations of us; we’re here to live up to our own expectations for ourselves, so we better make them high.

pacific-blue-eye-really-is-a-small-fish-in-a-big-pond

Being a small fish in a big pond doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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Looks like I’ve joined the rat race

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I started a new job last Monday. I’ve put off writing about it due to some initial uncertainties but I’ve come to the realisation that, whatever happens, taking it was definitely the right decision and a positive step forward.

I’d had an interview the week before – a very awkward affair involving going out for lunch with the three members of staff, before an interview back at the office during which I downplayed my skills on purpose in an effort not to get offered the job. Yeah, not sure what went wrong there either.. (And note to anyone in charge of conducting interviews: Having lunch with applicants, no matter how well-intentioned, is definitely not the best way to relax a potential employee before an interview.)

This is really what inspired my last, rather drastic, post about emotion/fear versus intuition. My intuition told me I didn’t feel very comfortable with the people, and I was coming up with all sorts of reasons why this job was another wrong choice and I should do something totally different, but after giving myself some time to think I realised that it was my emotions talking and I had nothing to lose. They wanted me to start straight away and said I can give it a try for a few months and see how it goes – the perfect offer for a commitment-phobe like me!

Before I started I was thinking that I’d do it for two months and that would be it – I’d carry on looking for the ‘right’ job and this was just another good bit of experience, but just over a week in and, dare I say it, it’s actually going quite well so far.

I dislike the 9 to 5, but I don’t yet dread it. There are some things that could be better about the job, but there are many things that could be a lot worse. It’s informal, there’s variety, and it relates to some of my interests (and there’s no uniform! Though sadly no working from home in my pajamas either).

One thing that really does scare me though is how fast a working week passes. And how much faster the weekend goes. I can see how easy it would be to get stuck in a full time job, feeling like there’s no time to look for alternatives and gain other experience, and letting the weeks, months, even years, speed by. But I’m determined not to let that happen. This job is just the start.

The secret to a super career

strengths…Your personality?

As obvious as matching career with personality sounds, I’m not sure it’s so straightforward. Previously I’d thought that by considering my skills and interests and challenges I could take on, that I was essentially taking into account my personality when it came to finding a job I could really succeed at and enjoy, but now I’m not so sure this is the case.

In Free Range Humans (a book on self-employment that I reviewed a few weeks ago in a post titled ‘Dream BIG’), the author, Marianne Cantwell, questions whether skills – things we’ve become good at, are actually strengths – things we enjoy that we also happen to be good at. Marianne talks a lot about playing to your own strengths (which will be closely related to your personality) and not feeling that you have to do it all and be good at everything (i.e. not feeling you have to constantly build new skills and challenge yourself).

In the drive for perfection and success it’s easy to forget the things we’re naturally and effortlessly good at and comfortable with.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet (which I reviewed in my last post) talks a lot about finding a career that suits your personality. There may be things that we really enjoy doing, but only in small doses, and there may be things that we’ve taught ourselves to be very good at, but which are actually a struggle and oppose some of our inbuilt personality traits. Of course we can put on a bit of an act when we have to, but it’s really important that we do still have the time and space just to be ourselves.

Considering where we get our energy, whether from people and action or from alone time and quiet, is really important in keeping up our energy levels. 

I guess the key thing I’ve realised is that I need to make sure I’m focussing on my strengths (as defined by Cantwell), and not just my skills, and to consider where I really get my energy from and make that an active consideration in my job search.

After all, no-one really wants just a job, or even a career in the long term, do they? Aren’t we all ultimately looking for something a little more meaningful? And I would argue that finding this ultimate career/life path is going to mean much more focus on personality, passions, values and strengths, rather than skills, vague interests and considering things you could learn to get better at (i.e. challenges for yourself).

See this great post Job, Career or… Something Else, and it’s reference to an ‘All I want to be…’ statement. And check out 20 signs that you’ve finally found your life’s work not just another career change for more inspiration.

It’s an extrovert’s world

I’ve just finished reading a well-known and well-reviewed book on introversion. It’s funny how I can’t imagine saying directly to anyone that I’m an ‘introvert’ – the word just sounds negative and abnormal due to our culture – but I would imagine that someone could quite easily describe themselves as an ‘extrovert’ with a much more positive reception.

I’ve heard people argue that you can’t separate everyone into one of two categories, yet I think doing so helps us to understand and accept that there are people on both sides of the spectrum and both should be treated equally, without pressure for the quieter ones to conform with the louder majority. Something needs to change in western culture, and I hope that this book is the start of that.

quietWhy we don’t all need to be ‘all-rounders’

(Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain)

Such a well-researched and well-organised book, and a very interesting read. Some great ideas on different kinds of leadership and work environments – the suggestion that extroverted leaders are better when staff are passive but introverted leaders are better when staff are proactive is a really interesting one, and I personally hate open plan offices as I need my own space.

Cain also covers the nature-nurture debate, explaining how some people are simply born more sensitive to what’s going on around them, and although they can learn to think and act differently as they grow older, those in-built sensitive reactions are still present.

The book also covers cultural differences in personality, specifically comparing America and Asia. While obviously you can’t stereotype whole nations, Americans do seem to prize charisma and speaking out while Asians tend to value quietness and thoughtfulness much more highly as an indication of wisdom.

We definitely need extroverts, introverts and all those in-between; we just need to make sure that all of them are heard and accepted for who they are without pressure to conform.

Go with the flow

One of our school mottoes was ‘Destiny is choice, not chance’, and this is something I feel like I’ve stuck to, a little too well. While I do try to take advantage of chance opportunities, I always feel the need to make actively thought-through decisions.

Basically I’m a bit of a control freak.

The following book was mentioned to me through a comment on a previous post, and it was definitely a good recommendation (thanks David Lindskoog). It’s not only helped me to clarify my thinking on taking advantage of chance events, but has also helped to convince me that I really don’t have to commit to long term career goals.

luckisnoaccident6. Coincidence or fate?

(Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career, by John Krumboltz and Al Levin)

This book basically describes life, or how life should be: trying things out, meeting and speaking to different people, and discovering opportunities through networking. It’s easy to forget how small efforts, such as attending an event or chatting to a stranger, can lead to significant links, connections and opportunities, whether immediately or sometime in the future.

I love the idea of flexibility and ‘going with the flow’; the idea that it really truly is ok to make mistakes, that you can always change your circumstances and goals and that there is no right or wrong answer as long as you’re exploring and experimenting. I realise this probably all sounds like common sense, and it is, but it’s easy to forget. There are some great quotes and loads of great examples of different people’s career paths throughout the book.

One particular quote stood out to me: The question that I hate most that we ask of young people is, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” And the truth is, I still don’t know at age 45 – Michelle Obama. Maybe there’s a feeling that you’re a bit ditzy if you don’t have a career plan, that you don’t care enough about your future and making the most of your talents, but this book has taught me that’s there is no shame at all in exploring your options.

You never need to decide what you are going to be in the future (a great sense of relief to me!). Unplanned events will inevitably have an impact on your career. Reality may be offering you better options than you could have dreamed. Expect to make mistakes.

Reassuring? I think so.

All in the same boat

allinthesameboatI’ve recently met a few people who also seem to be a little bit lost in terms of where their lives/careers are going. Thought I’d share their stories just to emphasise the fact that there are a lot of people in this particular ‘quarter-life crisis’ boat.

Firstly, let’s call her Katy, is in her late twenties and desperately keen to find a meaningful job in the environmental sector. She left school and worked as a shepherd in the Mendips (now that’s a pretty unusual and interesting job!) before getting a job with the National Geographic Society in London. Discovering that she really liked geography she then took an undergraduate degree in it in London. Since graduating she’s done countless unpaid internships, and even worked abroad for a while, yet still she’s really struggling to get a job.

Katy says she finds it hard to sell herself, and just feels really indecisive and unsure about what she wants to do (which, from experience, can make it even harder to sell yourself). All she knows is she doesn’t want to be stuck in an office from 9 to 5 everyday. She wonders whether she should just take a low paid job and be done with searching for something meaningful and enjoyable. She’s also considering teaching but knows she’d have to be sure she was going into it for the right reasons. She’s currently planning to go back to London to find temp work and continue searching.

Then there’s, let’s call her Nicola, who I met while working in a restaurant. She moved to New York for three years to study acting and says she even managed to find some work out there as an actress. However now she’s back in the UK and questioning all that she wanted to do since she was little – is an unstable acting career really what she wants? She also doesn’t want to be stuck in an office, hence waitressing for some money while she plans her next move.

Nicola is currently thinking about a big move back to New York, either to continue pursuing acting or to try to get into writing and directing. When talking to her she even used the term ‘quarter-life crisis’ to describe her situation. And she told me she’s worked as a waitress in quite a few different restaurants, often working alongside others in just the same position as us.

So we’re all in the same boat, we just have to try to enjoy the journey until we finally find the right place to step back on to dry land!

Some good advice

I’m always keen to speak to people about their career paths – to find out how they got to where they are now from school, why they chose that particular path and whether they’re happy with the work they’re doing. I also try to pick up little bits of advice on careers and life in general. Everyone has a different story and no-one’s life has been perfect. And you know what, a lot of people still don’t really know what they want to do even later on in life. This is comforting and worrying at the same time!

Some good advice I’ve received:

1. Live in the present

It’s an obvious one but it’s something that’s a lot easier said than done. Enjoy where you are right now. I’m finding this particularly difficult at the moment due to a lack of stability in my life. I’m working as an unpaid intern part time and doing some paid part time work while continuing to look for a full time ‘proper graduate job’ (whatever that is these days). I feel like I can only really settle and live fully in the present when I have a permanent job, but I just don’t know how long that’s going to take. I feel like I’m always looking ahead – what’s next and what’s after that – and I definitely need to focus more on the present.

2. Question your uncertainty

I was speaking to someone the other week about how uncertain I feel about what I want to do. He asked me a pretty unremarkable question which really made me think: What makes you unsure? I’d never asked myself this before and it’s a good question. Do I feel I wouldn’t enjoy some of my career ideas? Do I feel I wouldn’t be good enough at them? Or am I just questioning myself because I’m worried that there are better options out there?

3.  Make time for your hobbies

When discussing careers with someone else, first he asked me if I want to earn a lot of money – I told him no, that’s not important to me. Then he asked me how hard I wanted to work – I said I’m willing to work pretty hard but obviously I want a good work-life balance. Finally he asked me what I enjoyed – I had to think more about this and couldn’t come up with any one specific answer. His advice? Whatever you do, make sure you have time to do what you really enjoy. He added that even if your job includes something you enjoy, this may become less enjoyable when you’re doing it for a job.

4. Get some perspective

Numerous people I’ve spoken to have said this, or something along the same lines: travel – broaden your horizons. It’s something I want to do, and I guess I put it off because there are so many options of where to go and what to do.

5. Go with the flow

Now I find this advice more difficult to take on board. I like to have control over things and find it hard to take a particular route just because an opportunity happens to come up at a convenient time (prime example described in my last post!). However I’ve spoken to many people who have told me that their careers worked out simply through taking hold of the first opportunity that came up and making the most out of it.