I looked at the date today and realised that it’s now been six months since I last worked. SIX MONTHS not working in my mid-to-late twenties—”a typically lazy millennial who just wants to lie around on beaches sipping endless beers,” some will think. “Couldn’t hack it in the corporate world, so took the ‘gap yah’ he’d never had,” others might suggest. But those who really know me, professionally, socially, and personally, will know that neither of those statements is true. In fact, probably for the first time ever, I now feel like I’ve had, and still have, the time to sit and think about what I really want to do with my life.
A school education system that didn’t help me carve a career direction
As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve ever really considered exactly what career I want. Or perhaps it’d be fairer to say I haven’t been equipped with the right experience and knowledge to truly know what it is I want to do until now. Rolling back the years a bit, I suppose that the first time you start to carve a potential career direction is when you’re 13 or 14 and choosing the subjects you want to study for your GCSEs. At this stage, though, you pretty much choose the subjects you’re good at, or the ones you like, or even the ones your friends are choosing. And let’s be honest, you’re still studying enough subjects at this age that you can take any direction you want.
The next influential time, however, is where things get more interesting: selecting your three or four A-level choices. At this point, you’re given time with career guidance counsellors whose aim is to help you realise what jobs your interests and skills could translate into. I don’t know if I speak for myself or the majority, but I don’t remember these sessions being remotely useful. I chose to study French, Spanish, Maths, and Business Studies for a few key reasons: French, Spanish, and Maths because I enjoyed them most—and this was partly influenced by who my favourite teachers were—and Business Studies because I thought it’d be interesting, not to mention useful, generic knowledge for a multitude of careers. Sitting here today, choosing just four A-levels represents a massive educational narrowing at a very immature age. I don’t regret the subjects I chose whatsoever, but I do wish that I’d also studied a science—biology, perhaps—to keep my options broader.
A year later, you’re half way through your A-levels and you’re given the choice to apply to go to university. There’s another round of career counselling at this stage—including the tests you do that are meant to tell you what jobs you might like, but that don’t really work because, at the age you’re at, you still pretty much just put what you think society would want you to put. “Go and study what you’re interested in and your career path will sort itself out,” or “here are a few of the jobs people do after studying what you’re thinking of studying.” With that in mind, you think about the subjects you’re enjoying most and look at related degrees. Perhaps I’m alone here, but I didn’t put too much thought into where a specific degree would take me. Rather, I chose to study French and Spanish, with a combination of history, politics, and cultural studies, because it sounded interesting, and because I loved the ability that languages gave me to converse with different people and cultures all over the world. Something multiple people told me at this age is that it didn’t really matter what I chose as long as it interested me, “because the UK has a flexible system that doesn’t overly pigeonhole you into a set career.” For example, you could study languages, but then get a job at an accounting or consulting firm and that they’d give you the skills you need once you joined.
A university education system that still didn’t encourage me to focus on what I’m passionate about
Fantastic, I thought. I’ll study languages for four years and then a career direction will sort itself out from there. So, that’s what I did. And I had a great time. I loved university: I loved [most of] what I studied, I loved having the opportunity to work for six months in Paris and six months in Valencia, and I loved everything else that came with it (the sport, the social life, the independence, etc). In my final year, the time came when everybody started thinking about getting a job. At this point, there are all sorts of career fairs, career counselling possibilities, and so on, and these present you with a million-and-one possibilities. All the top firms in the country are vying to get the latest batch of clever graduates to come and work for them, and you feel like any option with a big firm would be brilliant: You get paid well, you get great perks, and it finally feels like a career path is in front of you. Companies lay out how within two years you could promoted to a senior, and then how you could be promoted to manager within another two years. Who cares about the specific industry, eh? We graduates just want a job with prospects like that, so sign us up!*
*Bear in mind at this point that I’m not saying everyone has the same experience. Clearly, everyone has different paths and some people have a clearer idea of what they want to do at a younger age. Likewise, thinking about what I talk about next, some people love what a corporate job gives them, from job security to getting huge exposure in a variety of roles to international work opportunities.
Joining a big firm and entering the real world
So, said batch of exciting young minds graduate with flying colours and head off to their fancy new careers with the UK’s largest and most exciting corporations. The first few months are great: New recruits are wooed with industry-leading training, fancy dinners and parties, opportunities to meet and talk to “inspirational” leaders, and all this while being paid. Life is great! Then you begin to settle into the day job and you realise you’re working in a relatively dog-eat-dog environment where a company has hired too many graduates, so opportunities are few and far between. No worries, though, you’ll put in the hours, learn what’s necessary, woo the right people, and then you’ll start to have what everyone wants and needs: A well-paid job in the city that gives you the life you want to lead.
Fast forward four years and you’re on a really good salary, you’re advancing up the ladder, and everything is going great. Right? This is where I was last year: I was extremely well-regarded at my company and many would think I was in the perfect position going forwards. This, however, became something of an inflection point for me. I was in a job that gave me all those things, but deep down I knew that it wasn’t a career that I could be passionate about pursuing for the rest of my working life. I’d begun to realise that I wanted a job that made a much more direct, and simultaneously more positive, impact on society and/or the environment. So, I found myself at a crossroads: I could keep doing what I was doing and make a successful living doing something I didn’t love, or I could do the unspeakable and leave my job to take a good chunk of time off to enjoy what the world has to offer, while also using the time to think about a new career direction.
So, what career advice would I give to a younger me?
The past six months have served this very purpose, and more. I can now say, without an ounce of exaggeration, that the past half year has been the first time I’ve really thought in earnest about the career I want. By that, I mean thinking about what I’m interested in, what I think is important, what I like about the jobs I’ve been in so far—and what I haven’t liked about them—and then talking to people from all walks of life about these things. Long-overdue, self-motivated career counselling, let’s call it. Clearly, what each of these factors are is different for everyone, but I’ve only started to discover what they are for me personally by taking time away from everything.
I don’t blame an excessively narrow education system or the pressure that society places on young people to “just get a job” as much as I thought I would. Yes, I think our education is narrowed at too-young an age, but I also accept that it’s impossible to put in place the perfect system that spits out students who know exactly what their perfect career looks like. That’s completely unrealistic and everything I’ve described above is part of a normal learning process. However, this is precisely why taking the time off to reflect on all the insights I’ve gained to date is essential. And it’s not something I would have been able to do properly if I’d continued to work in a full-time job.
So, with all that in mind, it’s about time I found myself my dream job, eh? Lauren and I moved to the US four weeks ago and this past month has been even more hectic than I imagined, from exploring areas around Boston and finding a place to live, to sorting new-life-in-the-US admin (fun times, I can assure you), to actually moving into our new place and making it a home. Now that most of that is finally done, my next major goal is to translate my new-found career objectives—to work for a company that directly influences positive societal and/or environmental change, that has hardworking, motivated employees who love their job, and that respects a healthy work/life balance—into a job in the near future. A big ask, some may say, but I’m determined to at least try to take this next step in my career. Wish me luck!