What to do when you grow up…

Next week I have the privilege of taking part in an Upper School Careers Fair, manning a table for the development and humanitarian sector. I really enjoyed it last year; it’s always interesting hearing young people’s plans and thoughts. It seems to me that for those tiny proportion of careers that feature in childrens books about what people do ‘when they grow up’ (musician, ballet dancer, acrobat, explorer) etc, the choice is made from an overwhelming compulsion, but for most of us, it’s a more prosaic process of weighing the options. I am sure there is masses written on how to do this, but here’s my penn’orth.

I think there are four key aspects of any job that are helpful to think about beforehand because they affect most how you feel about it when you’re in it. I can’t claim it as an original analogy, but if you imagine your job satisfaction relying on a set of ‘springs’  (thanks to Rob Bell in ‘Velvet Elvis’), when one isn’t going well, there are still others to hold you up. And their importance will ebb and flow at different stages in your life.

A lot of people are rightly motivated by the Purpose of what they do, wanting to ‘make a difference’, which is what leads many to look at international development. Whilst I entirely agree it is important, there can be dangers in placing too much emphasis on the stated purpose of the organisation. When I graduated, I had little understanding of how key parts of economy and society interacted and I don’t think I am alone in that. By restricting yourself to looking at organisations with a purpose that fit your ideas, you can miss opportunities in those that could ultimately have a much more significant impact, for example in the way they drive employment conditions, environmental impact, etc. And you cant entirely rely on it all the time.  Either the purpose can seem a long way away from the messy bit you in, or a hard grind on the frontline that can seem frustrated by decisions you have little control over.

The best piece of advice I was ever given at a Careers Fair was by a solicitor who worked for The Red Cross. In response to my naive questions she said that unless she found reading and analysing vast numbers of legal documents interesting, it wouldn’t matter  who it was for. It made me realise that the day-to-day Process of what you do is probably the most important factor in whether you find your job interesting. For many graduates, that process will require several more years of acquiring job-specific or professional skills. If you restrict yourself to roles immediately available in worthy organisations, you may find yourself frustrated in a process that isn’t really a good fit, and less able to contribute as you would like.

Frankly it’s your colleagues that make or break your experience of being at work. I am always fascinated by the way different organisations or roles attract different types of People. The nature of the work, or the purpose of the organisation, or the operating environment perhaps means affects who is attracted to it in the first place and who is rewarded within it. No set of colleagues are perfect, but the organisational culture, the way decisions are taken, the type of people in senior leadership makes a massive difference. It’s a truism that if you are rejected from a job then perhaps it wasn’t right for you, but I am sure there is truth in it. I think whether you aspire to be like the people ahead of you is crucial to your career aspirations. When perhaps the process is boring, or the purpose unclear, it’s your colleagues that are likely to give you positive motivation, not just because they can make a difference to you, but also because of the difference you can make to them.

And finally, the underpinning of your relationship with work is the Package (pay, conditions etc). If your life satisfaction relies on a particular level of renumeration, then you have to restrict yourself to the jobs that will provide it. Idealism is fine if you are prepared to take the consequences of what your ideal job will pay. Flexibility can become a massive issue in the years when you have older or younger dependents and is perhaps worth a lot of other considerations. And at the end of the day, in any job, when it’s not going well, you can console yourself that if you enjoyed all of it then you wouldn’t need to be paid! I learnt the hard way that passion about a role is all very well, but a bit of pragmatism and perspective goes a long way.

So, before I sit at the table next week, I am keen to know what you think.. And then maybe I will start thinking about what I will do when I grow up!


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