Finding your career path in a boxed-in world

A woman thinking

By Dr Helmut Schuster and Dr David Oxley

We have spent our professional lives and focused our research on helping people overcome big career crises.

Careers, unlike jobs, often span entire lifespans. Indeed, they can become the fuel that sustain us long into our twilight years. Rather than measure their success by quantitative measures like money and status, they are shaped more by relationships, challenges, and causes.

“If you spent your life concentrating on what everyone else thought of you, would you forget who you really were? What if the face you showed the world turned out to be a mask… with nothing beneath it?” Jodi PicoultNineteen Minutes

Jodi Picoult’s quote could be about careers. A big determiner for achieving a successful career is the ability to distinguish self-delusion from self-determination.

From Observation to Action.

2-years ago, we found ourselves talking with an increasing number of extraordinary NextGen, GenZ, and millennial individuals who found themselves unhappy at work. Faced with enforced pandemic social isolation, and unexpectedly given the time to look at their work from a different perspective, they felt disillusioned.

As we attempted to coach, mentor, and advise these individuals, we realised how little had been written about our need for meaning and fulfilment and how it intersects with our professional lives. We resolved to do something about this. In the process, we enlisted our NextGen friends to help us find useful, relevant, and practical solutions.

The Danger of Pursuing Someone Else’s Career

There is a risk of being swept along on prefabricated career paths. We are surrounded by powerful societal influences that popularise stereotypes of desirability. We are conditioned to believe that ‘success’ is the most sought-after graduate scheme in London, New York, or Palo Alto. So, quite naturally, many of us put blinkers on and dive in.

As Izzy Holder observed, we don’t stop to think about how much of our early career is self-determined. It is easy to get blown along on the powerful forces of others’ expectations. Time speeds by, and we can easily find ourselves 5-10-15 years older. As time passes, we face the danger of embracing a self-deception. One where we fatalistically resign ourselves to ‘go with the flow.’

I do think we can follow a path set by others’ expectations. As I reflect on my journey from university to work it was very much based on what seemed desirable to those around me. I think a lot of my motivation back then was to compete and achieve in a difficult arena.”  Izzy Holder, Co-CEO Fittle

The Seductive Power (and danger) of Going with the Flow.

In our late teens and early 20s, the prospect of making the transition from dependent to independent, from student to employee, is the first big professional crisis we are destined to navigate. Society, family, school, and friends, all seek to propel us into a respectable job. In the maelstrom of well-intended advice and encouragement, we can lose ourselves. We suppress nagging doubts about our deepest desires, beliefs, aspirations, and dreams, and defer them for a more convenient time.

But what happens if 10 years flyby, and in a fleeting moment of reflection, we realise we hate our job…. and don’t even know why we are doing it?

Yvonne Rieser found herself in this position. Something was missing and she realised she could no longer postpone the search for an answer.

I found myself in my mid 20’s at the top of a mountain in Colombia having a conversation with a stranger about how we were both very unhappy in our jobs. In that moment, I re-evaluated the path I was on and started to genuinely challenge whether the traditional career path was the only way. It was a seminal moment in my life. Up until then I think I was following a path of expectations and routine.Yvonne Rieser, President Chirimoya Colombia, Attorney, Mom.

Don’t Postpone your own Self-Discovery!

A trap in our early career years, is unquestioningly accepting other’s definitions of what is desirable. This can create a dangerous incongruence between our authentic sources of happiness and fulfillment, and the reality we are forced to live. Like an elastic band, if this gets stretched too far…something may snap.

While it can seem easier to ‘go with the flow,’ it is far better to stay centered and take the time to understand what makes you, you. You can still choose to tread down a traditional corporate career path but do so in the knowledge it does not define you. Knowing why, for what purpose, is the important thing.

How do you fight against a world that continually pushes prefabricated and superficial expectations at you and insists you should be satisfied by them? Here are some simple exercises for doing just that:

  • Drop out, tune in, turn on. Find time to remind yourself what makes you happy, what you are good at, and what you care most about in the world.
  • When do your eyes shine? Carefully curate opportunities to find out what your loved ones see as your exceptional qualities.
  • Speculate on recurring themes that emerge for you from the above and brainstorm educational programs, companies, new business ventures, NGO, and other opportunities to learn more.
  • Take some risks in trying something new. Remember, you can do two things at once and you will learn far more from failure and reinvention, than if you never tried.

Continually investing in exploring who you are, what makes you fulfilled, and what you are prepared to fight for is the bedrock of a great career.

David and HelmutA Career Carol: A Tale of Professional Nightmares and How to Navigate Them by Dr Helmut Schuster and Dr David Oxley is out now, published by Austin Macauley Publishers and available on Amazon.

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