It’s Friday afternoon. It’s raining. After summer arrived with a sudden vengeance this week, this is rather pleasant, despite the rainy monstrosity that was May.
The familiar sound of the guy two houses up talking on his phone carries through to me, pierced by the occasional ringing of bottles, as the glass recycling truck makes its way around the neighbourhood.
I’m thinking about writing more regularly. Hence this post I suppose. Putting thoughts down on paper. So that they’re real, tangible. I often find myself in the middle of a work day, just staring out of the window in thought about something very random. Sometimes not so random.
Today was no different. As it often does, my mind ventured into the realm of my own career, and what the next five to ten years had in store. I’ve also spent an unreasonable amount of time lately wondering what I’m truly good at. What are my natural abilities? How well do I even know this?
I was in someone’s house the other day, and they had this old vintage violin. Just sitting there like an ornament. I wanted to pick it up, but I dared not. It looked quite expensive. But it did make me realise that I’d never held a violin in my life.
In terms of talent I could be the greatest violinist in the world. Probably not. Definitely not.
But I’d never know, would I? And then I thought of all these parallel universes looking at us. Doorways and pathways untravelled. Talents unfound.
Do we have a natural ability to sense what our true talents are? Or is it entirely dependent on us trying it out? It’s scary to think of what we might be missing out on.
So much of life is just reaching out to something in front of you and hoping it works. Following some perceived north star, if you’re lucky. While seas crash around us we come into this life and throw the dice, hoping for the best. Living in mud huts while the ghosts of mansions cast shadows all over.
The rain’s still coming down outside. And I’ll keep wondering about this.
Leading up to September, many thousands (possibly millions) of learners in the UK and around the world will be making decisions around which field of study to pursue in college or university. For learners going through the clearing process in the UK around August, the pressure increases slightly as quick decisions are required around career and institution.
I suppose it’s easy in the heat of decision making to think along the lines of “Well, it’s just a course, it’s not my life.” But is it? The degree or programme you choose ultimately decides your initial employment opportunities. Then once in a job, your employment and daily routine of employment influence your livelihood, wellness and general happiness. Through a couple of quick Google searches it seems generally accepted that around 30% of adult life is spent working. So in many respects that qualification isn’t just a qualification, it becomes a large aspect of your life.
I suppose the other reason I feel passionately about this is because finding the right career can largely be an expression of who you are. An extension of your true self applied daily to your tasks. Getting into the wrong career on the other hand, can be somewhat oppressive. Expression vs oppression. That’s why the choice is so big.
Thinking back on some of my own experiences, and having worked within education providers for a number of years, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down on this to help young people make the right choices.
Specifically, I want to highlight some of the mistakes you can easily make when looking for a career path. There are four very clear potential mistakes.
Basing your decision entirely on passion
It’s important to feel strongly about what you do. Some people are lucky enough to have a real deep rooted passion for their career choice. But passion for a certain path can blind you from some glaring issues.
Like all decisions, choosing a career needs a combination of the rational and the emotive. Underwater basket weaving might be your thing, but the real world demand for this profession should be a guide to your thinking. That, and maybe the lack of underwater weaver millionaires out there.
Passion is a dangerous beast. Not only because it can cloud your judgement, but because it can be very temporary. It can burn out. Be extinguished. Die.
A better rule to follow is probably more along the lines of what you’re actually good at and weighing that up against demand. It’s about finding that sweet spot between three things – what you can do well, whether there’s actual opportunities in it, and whether you can tolerate doing it for years.
Even if you don’t necessarily love a certain vocation, if you’re good at it this builds confidence. In my experience confidence is an important part of long term happiness. And of course, if you’re good at something, rising to the top of that field is a little easier.
Doing it because others are
I suppose I made this mistake in some ways. I went into university studying an accounting degree – with the aspiration of becoming a chartered accountant. This decision becomes more absurd to me as the years pass.
In my high school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa around the early 2000’s there was this weird popularity around chartered accounting. I use the term “weird” because it’s strange to look back now at how many young people felt accounting was what they wanted to do with their lives. No offense to accountants.
Maybe it was because we didn’t know what the hell else we wanted to do, so it became a bit of a default for many. Maybe because the hallowed title of chartered accountant, although far off on the horizon, was a promise of a hefty salary and lifestyle we dreamed of. Consequently the term “chartered accountant” was always a revered one.
I was lucky enough to be able to switch degrees after one semester to something I was far more interested in – marketing. With a clever enough re-shuffle of modules I was still able to finish within three years. Some aren’t so lucky, and the process of changing qualifications can cost an entire year. That’s an entire year of earnings potential, job experience etc.
The bottom line is that following the crowds is never a good idea. Particularly with career choice. This is one time in your life where you really do need to think as an independent individual. Who are you? What’s right for you? What your mates are doing shouldn’t come into the equation at all. In a few years they may not even be your mates anymore.
Friendships that have run their course can be discarded easily. Bad career choices stick with you a little longer.
Getting into a career without a solid understanding of it
I had a friend in my first year of university who started studying law. But he just didn’t seem the type. As the year drew one I could tell he liked it less and less. Eventually he just dropped out of it, and started year two in a completely unrelated field. Talking to him over a few beers one night I realised just how misinformed he was.
His idea of being a lawyer was the glam courtroom stuff you saw on Law & Order, or LA Law or something like that. You know, the hotshot attorney making impassioned, eloquent arguments in front of a jury and packed courtroom.
I couldn’t believe it – how could someone be this naive? Maybe because my own father was an attorney, I knew what it was and what it certainly wasn’t. But even if that weren’t the case, I’d surely know that the legal profession is largely an unglamorous one, filled with paperwork, contracts and documentation.
Due diligence is key here – excuse the appropriate legal term. It’s more important to see the gritty underside of a certain career rather than the glamorous public idea of one. The internet should have all of this if you search well enough. Even better would be using your networks to talk to people in roles. And don’t ask them what they do, ask them what a typical day looks like.
Asking someone what they do is like asking for a highlights reel. Asking what their typical day looks like will get you closer to the good and the bad. The exciting and the mundane
The nature of “work” and its roles within society is changing quicker than ever before. That is such a clichéd statement, I can’t believe I wrote it. It’s always been a bit of a given. But Covid is changing the way we interact with the world, and each other – particularly in the work space. On top of all this, technology continues to surge forward, embracing AI, crypto and all kinds of new technologies – some gimmicky, some no doubt here to stay.
When I studied marketing around 2004/2005, the term “social media” literally didn’t exist. Blackberries, now outdated and uncool mobile phones, were still just fruit, and nothing else. Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was still just the sound of birds chirping. SEO, Apps and content marketing? What on earth is that?
In the space of 15 years, I’ve seen the concept of marketing become something completely different. The great digitisation of marketing has led to the emergence of a number of new job titles, roles and careers. In other industries job titles have disappeared. What are compilers of the old yellow phone books doing nowadays?
The internet is full of trend reports on careers – what’s becoming obsolete and what will come into higher demand. And as with everything in life, even if you don’t follow the road signs, make sure you take note of them. Who knows, those two skills you’re really good at could be key in a trending or high potential career route.
Even taking all the above into account, you could still make the wrong decision. And that’s ok. It really is. A study from a few years ago in the UK suggested that half the working population in the UK are in roles unrelated to their field of study.
It’s life after all, and nobody should be wedded to a career forever if it’s not working for them. Sometimes you learn most by making wrong decisions. But in your first ten years of work, it really does help if you’re doing something you’re good at.
And if you’re going to spend good money and valuable years going through college or university, it might as well be worth it.
I can’t claim to have a large amount of friends. Almost intentionally I’ve always kept my friend base low – quality over quantity. That’s the introvert in me. Nevertheless, down the years I’ve found myself visiting countless homes. Homes of friends, homes of my wife’s friends, homes of friends of friends and of course in-laws and family.
Whenever I visited their houses, there was always something that stuck in my head, even though I might not have paid immediate attention to it. I knew it was there. And it was this – the fact that hardly any of them seemed to own any books. Or at least if they did, they were really well hidden.
It’s been done a thousand times – how people don’t read anymore. Or how the novel is dead, or dying, or something. It’s an interesting thing for me to observe, being a keen reader myself.
A good friend of mine even said to me last year that since he’d started using smartphones, he’d hardly read a single book. Yes, smartphones are largely to blame, but the decline was well underway before the Nokia 3310 was replaced by fancy Samsungs and iPhones.
The stats seem to back this up, of course. It’s all there when you research it. It’s easy to blame the youth, and indeed, they’re not reading much these days. Yet the biggest declines in reading are in the older age groups.
It seems to me that self-help non-fiction still does well in many circles. The genre that has suffered the most it seems, is perhaps the most important genre of them all – the classic novel. The literary novel. Call it what you like – the stories that make us think. The ones that make us question ourselves and our place in the world.
Men in particular don’t seem to read fiction anymore. Women are better at the practise of reading novels, although I notice it’s often your sort of “book club” books. You know the ones. The female lead, sucked into an adventure or saga of sorts. There’s a mysterious male character. Not overly good looking, but definitely ruggedly good looking, with kind eyes. Don’t forget those. It plays out, there’s a fairly happy ending and the two of them get together. Or the alternative – they get together for a while but it’s a painful ending – often with the male character dying at the end. You know the type. But at least someone is reading something.
The effects of these reading declines seem clear to me. When I look at the world I see it in an increasing state of division. People doubling down into their echo chambers, acquaintances and friends unable to speak to eachother for difference of opinion. Family members estranged because of a different outlook on the world. Constant arguing on Twitter with strangers. It’s all rather pathetic.
Because we don’t read anymore. Or, should I say, we don’t read things that stimulate our sense of critical thought. And if you think that’s overly simplistic, consider this – the classic novel put you in the shoes of the character. You were forced to investigate ideas from all sides, and forced to go along for the ride. Through different characters you were able to see things from different points of view.
Then there’s the difficult or contrarian ideas – something our society seems to struggle with. All great novels of the past would be based through the lens of the lead character, and through this the reader would be forced to understand the thought process and inner dialogue of the character. Right or wrong. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Simple or complex.
Modern headline culture merely tells people what media companies want them to hear, in a few words. No need to think critically at all. You’re already told what to think.
The decline of the novel has coincided with a strange period in society as a whole, and perhaps contributed to this element of a dumbed down world.
Instant gratification. Bite sized content. The classic novel takes time and effort.
Perhaps the saddest part isn’t even about the critical thinking element, or the intelligence part of it, but it’s in just how much the youth are missing out on in terms of enjoyment. Indeed, society as a whole. One of the greatest pleasures in life is the reading of great novels. In my case it wasn’t merely the reading of them, but more in all the thinking that they’d made me do afterwards.
Sometimes I still page through parts of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov and marvel at the incredible insightfulness of the ideas and conversation
Or the end of Gates of Fire, or snippets of Anna Karenina, or my favourite parts of East of Eden, or Geissler and Sivert talking at the end of Growth of the Soil. Or the chilling conversations between Winston and O’Brien in 1984. A few of many examples.
It feels like we’re losing something great. I sometimes think of 1880’s Russia, and how they hung on every new chapter Dostoevsky put out. How it would stimulate dinner conversations. How it would help define the zeitgeist of their time. Now the zeitgeist lurks in Tik Tok videos or celebrity Instagram posts. The great novelists resigned to their seat at the back, as society hurtles on indifferently.
My advice to young people is simple – you haven’t lived properly until you’ve read the great novels. Seek out the great novels and give them your time investment. If non-fiction helps us find answers, it’s in the classic fiction that we find the questions. And in this modern world of ours, it’s the questions that are essential – the questions we’re forced to consider about life. About the world. About living. About ourselves.