I’m 42, and I’m as happy as anyone. Finally, after decades of job-hopping and career planning, I am content. Along the way, I’ve tried many strategies in my quest to determine the perfect career, and picked myself out of some potholes, too. This is the story of what strategies worked and those that didn’t.
“Engineering is the only worthwhile profession,” said my dad. Guess what he did for a living? Unfortunately for me (and fortunately for the rest of the world), I am not mechanically inclined. His viewpoint did, however, influence my decision to pursue cold, hard facts on a career path that headed towards academia, but in the biological sciences rather than the physical ones.
The university environment had its own ideas of what constituted a worthwhile career. As anyone with any experience with university knows, academics are often very proud of what they do. And they have a right to be — most of them worked hard to get where they are, competition is fierce, and their position practically guarantees they are intelligent human beings. I’ve repeatedly witnessed the difficulty people have making the decision to leave academia. There is immense pressure among peers to not “give up”. Choosing another career is, quite simply, failure. But I did it anyway, spurned by the birth of a child. It became a life philosophy — never to make decisions based on fear.
Lesson One: The perfect career quest requires bravery
To listen, or not to listen.
It wasn’t until years later, when I started a new job with a small family company, that I realized it isn’t academia and engineers alone who have this sense of career righteousness. My new boss was a former corporate banker, an MBA who assessed how much to lend big business. Knowing of my academic credentials, he told me right away that growing a business was the most challenging thing in the world. At this moment it hit me: people who value their careers consider their careers to be the best. In a way, other vocations are inferior — for them.
This simple realization impacted the way I viewed my career choices. For one, I realized workplace peers are probably not the best people to turn to for advice about a career change. If I’m contemplating leaving my scientific workbench to become a full time fashion designer, I’m better off talking to fashion designers than I am biologists. For another, comments made by my well meaning colleagues over time made me doubt myself. I labeled them as OUT, “Officially Useless Thoughts.”
Lesson Two: Finding the perfect career is like vomiting. Others can help, but in the end, you have to do it yourself.
Enter the professionals
Several of my jobs fell along the wayside, some more dramatically than others. With one termination package, I spent $900 on an occupational psychologist, a lot of money at the time and well worth it. Mind you, I did not discover the career that was right for me (though it did confirm my suspicions that I’ll never be a used car salesman or a criminal lawyer). What the intense testing did was explain how my brain works, where it excels and where it needs a little backup assistance.
If I’m contemplating leaving my scientific workbench to become a full-time fashion designer, I’m better off talking to fashion designers than I am biologists.
For example, while other people approach problems by thinking A leads to B leads to C, my brain thinks like this: A leads to P leads to J and in the end we get to Z. This explains why employers have occasionally given me that odd, sideways glance while I’m laying out my latest great idea. I also learned that, luckily, my Zs — my decisions — are usually excellent.
Armed with the knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses I felt capable of navigating the career buffet.
Lesson Three: Confidence comes with understanding yourself.
Work with what you have
Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses may seem like a fundamental step in finding a career, but it is a step many miss. How many people have you met who are doing jobs that re ally don’t suit them? I once had to fire a young man whose energies were entirely focused on a career in writing. Trouble was, he was remarkably bad at it. We are not always good at what we want to be good at.
Some of us avoid our strengths. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, wasn’t particularly fond of painting; in looking for jobs he tried for military engineering while purposefully downplaying his painting ability. A man I know trained himself to challenge his weaknesses, rather than his strengths. It sounds like a noble life philosophy, but it is also frustrating as he constantly chases after pursuits in which he’s likely to fail. He pooh-poohs courses and careers that come easy to him.
I understand this — in university I toyed with a career as a nutritionist, and took loads of nutrition courses. I got grades in the low 80s. I also took some behaviour courses, in which I got high 90s. I assumed the field of behaviour was for intellectual weaklings until my nutritional professor said he always wanted to work in animal behaviour, but wasn’t good enough. Perhaps behaviour wasn’t easy after all. Soon after, I did my PhD in animal behaviour at Oxford.
Lesson Four: Physician (or otherwise), know theyself.
What do I want anyway?
Wow, I’ve got options. How exciting! It’s like picking strawberries. Who’s going to stay with one plant and miss checking out all the other bright, perfectly shaped fruit along the row?
The first 10 years of my journey were spent chasing strawberries. I’d see ripe fruit everywhere, pluck them zealously, throw away any tough, woody bits, and move on to the next treat.
Then, at work one day during a professional development session we were given the task of writing down 10 aspects of life that were most important to us. Words like love, trust, family, spirituality, and honesty were considered at our table. Then, we were asked to chop our list to the top five. Reluctantly, we whittled away another, then another, and ranked the final three.
I was shocked by what was left on the paper, or at least parts of it. Love was number one on my list — no surprise. But number two! Drum-roll… creativity. And here I was, working as a director at a not for profit. Sure, there was creativity in the job, but not that much. I was spending most of my time managing teams of people, doing budgets, and public speaking.
Someday, in the years to come, I’ll be putting on the ol’ career walking boots and heading off in another direction with another luscious strawberry patch in sight.
It seemed that by following opportunities, I’d fallen into a trap: people were giving me jobs to do for them. So I was doing what others needed, rather than what I found fulfilling. I was still reasonably happy with my work, and quite successful. But in that moment I realized just how important creativity is to me. My career path became more like a dedicated mission than a meandering stroll, and I’ve never looked back.
Lesson Five: It’s what’s important that is important.
The ranking of what’s important in a job is a critical step in using the top 10 list. For example, if it is important to you to live above the Arctic Circle, you might want to reconsider that diploma in motorcycle repair. (Though a small sidestep into snowmobile or ATV repair solves the conflict.) Sometimes, one simply cannot have it all.
Lesson Six: Prioritizing is inevitable.
Oh to be single minded…
While I envy those lucky, single minded people who’ve always known they wanted to be brain surgeons and foreign aid workers, I’ve learned to take heart in knowing my career smorgasbord has its own rewards, like adventure, well-roundedness, opportunity for personal growth, flexibility, and plenty of tales to tell grandchildren.
So why search for one perfect career when I can search for several? The average North American will have three to five careers and 10 to 12 jobs in their lifetime. Why not plan in advance for several careers? Even now, in my forties, I figure I’ve got time for six more careers — that is spacing them five years apart. There’s even plenty of time for re education, if required.
In this light, I stopped thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and started thinking about what I want to do first, or which of my most appealing careers I should do now, and which could be done later. I know a lifelong school teacher who became a lawyer in retirement, and a pilot. She and a girlfriend flew their Cessnas across Canada for fun. That could be me! (Fear of heights and mechanical ineptness aside.)
Lesson Seven: Why settle for one if you can have more?
If I had a million dollars…
This is a useful strategy for getting to sleep. Thinking of all the things I’ll do for my friends and family, and the greater good of the world when I win millions has been a lifesaver at many midnight hours. For a long time, whenever I asked myself the million dollar question, “What would you do with your time if you had a million dollars?” the answer I got was, “I don’t know.” My ex liked nothing more than to sit around and read newspapers all day. If he had a million dollars, that is certainly what he’d spend his time doing. Well, lo and behold there is a career for that. He found it soon after we split up: communications officer in politics. It took a couple of years for him to work towards his goal, but before long he had a job on Parliament Hill consuming news and feeding the relevant bits to his superiors.
When I ask myself the million dollar question today, the answer I get is, “Exactly what I’m doing right now.” I can feel it in my bones though; I’m not finished plucking strawberries. Someday, in the years to come, I’ll be putting on the ol’ career walking boots and heading off in another direction with another luscious strawberry patch in sight. Now there’s something to look forward to.