These Career Boxes Sure Are Uncomfortable!

“We insist on the straight and narrow when the Artists’ Way is a spiral path” (Julia Cameron, The Artists Way, Souvenir Press Ltd.)

I wonder what this quote means to you. For me, this quote encompasses something very important about the paths that we choose for ourselves and how we guide others in choosing their own path. I’m not suggesting we all see ourselves as Artists – but I do believe we all have ‘creative potential’ within us. One of the ways in which we express ourselves creatively is in the work that we do – in our professional lives. I’d like to invite you to consider the quote above in the context of how we approach our careers and prepare young people for theirs.

My intention in writing this article is to explore the concept and implications of encouraging young (and older) people to pursue a career path that is ‘logical’ and ‘straight-line’ in nature. I’ve recently formed a belief that a career does not HAVE to be ‘straight-line’ in nature. What I mean by this is many people will find themselves going from compulsory schooling, to College, to University, to a career, to a promotion and so on – but many won’t. Many will find themselves chopping and changing and finding it challenging to find a place to settle and rest as a profession for life. I found myself in this latter group and part of this article is my own story. I hope that by sharing and questioning, someone somewhere might begin to consider a more fulfilling career which might just break the mould.

Like every writer, I am influenced by my own personal experiences. I, therefore, present to readers an ‘opinion piece’ with the objective of stimulating debate, discussion and deeper thinking about how we prepare young people, and encourage adults of all ages, to conduct their professional lives and to steer their career trajectory. The article considers the way that we are prepared for our careers as children and pupils at school and the support we may or may not receive from the ‘system’ when making choices about our education and our professional or vocational direction. I am very happy to share some of my own personal experiences, not only revealing why this topic is of interest to me, but also demonstrating the complexities of finding a career path and understanding what this ultimately means in the ‘grand scheme’ of things. For me, this writing will be more than worthwhile if one reader has a little think about the issues I raise. That is not to imply at all that this article is to be taken too seriously. In fact, I hope to encourage readers to consider the possibilities of a broader, multi-faceted career path. If I was being really bold I would even share my secret hope that this would then reach some of the members of our inspirational younger generations and may even lead to one person feeling hopeful, relieved and excited about not fitting into one career box or a ‘straight-line’ career path.

Our lives are often categorised into the ‘big five’: health, wealth, friends & family, leisure, and work, which may or may not equate to a ‘career’. The importance we place on our work is unique to the individual of course, and the centrality of our career to our identity will also vary immensely. For example, for some work is just a way to spend a few hours five days a week, which also happens to pay the bills and is generally just something we are ‘expected’ to do. For others a career is the embodiment of a life’s purpose. A professional role for this person might be as central to their identity as their nationality, gender, age or religion. For the former, work is just a something they Do.

Compare these two sentences:

I work in a shop three days a week on the meat counter.

I am a butcher.

I grew up in the UK. Around the age of 14, kids are asked to choose their Options for which subjects they take for their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The culmination of their studies in these subjects will mark the end of their compulsory education. I can remember choosing my subjects, Humanities, Drama, French, and all the compulsory ones, with little stress or dilemma. In fact there was no drama really for me at this stage. Two years after my compulsory schooling was complete, I found myself sitting my A Level exams and applying for University courses all over England. I applied to 6 Universities to study Primary Education with Qualified Teacher Status. I was accepted by a University in Nottingham. Off I went to Uni in September of the year 2000, having survived the Y2K disasters that were predicted! So at the age of 18 I found myself in living in Halls of Residence, attending lectures and placements, and generally having a good time.

By half way through the first year I decided to listen to a very strong ‘gut feeling’ that teaching wasn’t for me and made the call to tell my folks. I didn’t realise it at the time but that decision would be the first of many instances in which my intuition was calling out to me – and I listened.

Why am I sharing this with you?

What happened next was traumatic for my 18 year old self, having experienced basically no real drama up until that point in my life. As dramatic as it sounds, I think I totally lost sense of who I was. I call it my mini-identity crisis.

I don’t want to over-exaggerate this story, nor to minimise it, because it is only with the gift of hindsight that I can say that it was actually not as bad as it seemed. But to any other 18 year old in the same position, calling it trivial would be insensitive and disrespectful. Something I think we subject young people to all too often.

Who was I if not a teacher? What was I going to do? What was I going to be? Who was I?

The mini-identity crisis manifested itself in a number of unpleasant patterns of thought and behaviour for which I have since done a lot of hard work to replace with more empowering ways of thinking and Being.

Even after I went back to Uni, got a degree and went on to obtain a PhD, my ‘career path’ was still unclear to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve ‘known’ that what I want to do professionally is work with people who want to create personal change for a long time. Ever since learned that personal development can become a profession, I knew it was for me. It made total sense, and that was indeed the first time something made total sense when I thought about my career. Was that enough to get me training to become a specialist in mindset and human behaviour and taking the steps towards practicing as a professional coach and change facilitator? No. I didn’t actively pursue a career in coaching for another six years. Call it procrastination, waiting for ducks to line up, or just plain fear, it took me that long. I got there in the end and this is not where this story ends.

I’m 29 years old. I left school 13 years ago. It was only the other day that I began to even consider the concept of a multi-faceted career, made up of a number of activities and using the full range of my skills to earn an income and find fulfillment. All I can tell you is that when I had that lightbulb moment and I suddenly thought ‘Aha, maybe I can be a writer, and a coach, and a researcher, and a workshop facilitator…’ – my world opened up. For the first time since the bliss of childhood, it made sense.

Of course it felt unnatural to squeeze into a career box that didn’t fit me. Of course I found myself circling and never finding something to settle on. For me, there wasn’t one thing. There were heaps! It’s only now, looking back at the first chapter of my professional life, that I can sigh and relax knowing that it’s OK if I don’t fit into a career box. There wasn’t ever going to be one box, or one straight line career path for me. I’m well and truly on that spiral path to my destiny and I’m excited to finally trust that my skill set has a lot to offer in a number of fields.

What makes sense to me the most in all of this is the decision to follow my passion. To do whatever feels right. To do the things that take me into a flow of action and creativity. To let myself be free and express who I am through my work and my career. I feel safe in the knowledge that that is my true purpose.

I now ask myself how can this experience translate into a meaningful message for young people out there who are scratching their heads while looking at Uni courses and job descriptions that don’t quite sum up who they want to become. I don’t profess to have any universal wisdom but I do encourage all young people out there, and people of all ages, to listen to that tap on the shoulder and begin to entertain the notion that your career could be a spiral pathway made up of all sorts of different roles and directions. Education and training are important and if you approach these early decisions with the approach that it might not be just one box that you fit into, you might just hear that voice of wisdom from your intuition and find that first dream job that ticks ALL of your boxes and sets you off on the exhilarating career spiral pathway of your own. I now have the utter delight of working with people who want to create a career because of who they want to Be, not just who they think they should be. I’m just the lucky one who gets to come along on their journey with them. What joy.

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