The progression of purpose
Five hundred years ago, we would have had little say in what profession we entered; if your father was a blacksmith or butcher, in all likelihood, you would simply learn his trade and get to work. And career options were even less bountiful if you happened to be female. Nowadays, in the prosperous world, we have a good deal more choice, and we tend to think that – among the thousands of jobs on offer – our ideal vocation awaits us somewhere. Yet, despite those many possibilities, research suggests that almost half of the U.K.’s employed would like to change careers, with more than a quarter feeling they made a mistake by entering their current profession. It seems that, no matter how much choice we have, finding a career that fits will always require a good deal of further contemplation.
Perhaps the first question we might want to ask ourselves is: how did I arrive at my current job? What unique aspects of my personality, joined with certain details of my background, have conspired to lead me here? As with our predecessors hundreds of years ago, some degree of family influence is almost inescapable. It might be that we pursued one of the older, more esteemed professions such as medicine or law because we knew that the security and respectability of such a career would please our parents. We might have ignored our obvious talent for business and accounts, because we wanted to rebel against the advice of our family. Or we might have pursued a career with a high salary so that we can comfortably out-earn our siblings (whether or not we quite realised this was our motivation). The manner in which we were brought up, the expectations of our family and care-givers, will inevitably shape the decisions we make when we start to earn a living.
Education, in this respect, is also important for shaping the course of our career. It’s quite regrettable that our current system of secondary education does not give its students much time to consider how their chosen subjects will be used (and often misused) by the world of work. Each exam takes us further down a course of specialisation that closes off certain pathways, until the maths and science students are scooped up by engineering firms and data analysis companies, whilst those studying languages or psychology are recruited into sales or marketing. Before we know it, it seems as if these choices have been made for us without even realising it. And since re-training can be so costly and time-consuming, the path of least resistance often tells us to conform to the world of work, rather than daring to make the world of work more closely resemble those things which excite us and seem meaningful.
Stand back and reflect
Thankfully, there are always further possibilities in life. It is always possible to pause and change tack if we are willing to grit our teeth and plot some radical departures. Whether we choose to re-train, or decide to manoeuvre somewhat within our existing line of work, there are always new directions ahead. Finding out which new direction to follow, of course, can be harder to do, but there are a few useful principles to keep in mind when looking to the future.
The first thing to consider are the values of the profession or organisation that you would like to join. If you believe in the importance of promoting social responsibility, can the same be said of the business you’re currently applying to? Often, we’re so busy that we don’t necessarily know the answer to some really important questions about work itself. Is autonomy more important to you than responsibility? Would you rather work collaboratively and intimately on a small project, or deal with significant layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy on something that has really huge potential? When thinking about a career change, the question of what you value is of the utmost importance. And this ties into another important consideration: our goals. Without a clear idea of what we’d like to achieve, we can’t really know how close we are to bringing it about. The chances of feeling directionless in our jobs are magnified if we can’t decide what we set out to do in the first place.
We are privileged today in having so much choice about what we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still benefit from a certain resignation about employment. The fact is that a ‘perfect job’ is almost impossible to come by. No matter how glamorous or fulfilling we think another career will be, it will always contain its fair share of drudgery and frustration. Resignation, seen this way, is not the mark of defeat but a healthy bulwark against the pains of unrealistic expectations.
Deciding which career we’re best suited for is by no means simple; it requires reflection and – more often than not – some degree of trial and error. But at the same time, it can be possible for us to overcomplicate matters. Perhaps the best piece of career advice to emerge in the last 3,000 years comes from Aristotle: “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation”. The beauty of this advice, the reason why it perhaps feels so relevant after thousands of years, is that it takes some of the responsibility off of our shoulders and holds the world itself accountable for one half of our decision.