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Straight Talk – When I Grow Up…

Straight Talk – When I Grow Up…

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life” – John Lennon

When I was at that awkward stage (the in-between stage between childhood and teenage years) and I was asked what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’, I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying, ‘An authorisation clerk for a major credit card company’ (my first full-time job).

In fact, when it came to career choices, I was quite unaware of myself and what I was really good at or interested in and felt disconnected from the ‘normal’ choices that young people are expected to make at some point of their education.  My inner thought processes largely visited interesting ‘make-believe’ places and the stuff of Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood or The Magic Faraway Tree; that was more my ‘cup of tea’.

From the moment I could read, I fell in love with writing – stories, poems; if I could imagine it, I would write about it, resulting in countless school books filled with my handwritten yarns.  When it came to careers though, I never seriously considered that my passion for writing could be a career choice: I just didn’t put two and two together.  

When my teacher started discussing careers, in preparation for us choosing an outing for a career week we were having, I was shocked and remember thinking,

‘What? You mean I have to work one day, and I have to choose what that work will be now?’


I opted to choose the same career outing as my best friend, as you do, thinking that at least we’d be together.  We ended up on a tour of a huge hotel, my friend had said she was interested in a role as a guest relations manager (that’s a thing? I thought; someone’s been doing their homework!).  I just tagged along, bemused by it all, pondering the thought that people get paid for jobs that I’d never even heard of. As I ambled along behind the rest of my peers, I remember thinking how grey and monotone everything looked (corporate, I now realise) and how ‘grown up’ it all felt. 

Judging by the amount of career advice sites and tests available, a lot of young people face the same sometimes daunting thought of ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’.  My own children had to make subject choices, in South Africa, fairly early on in high school. The teachers emphasised how crucial their subject choices were at that point, as it would potentially impact the rest of their lives.  I must be honest, it seemed a lot of pressure to put on a 14-year-old, who struggled to decide what to wear to a class party, let alone what they wanted to do as a career for the rest of their working lives.

Their schooling system at the time seemed to focus on Maths and Science as the most important subjects to take for future career progression.  Maths and Science, whilst valuable, can be challenging to someone (like me) with a more creative mind. I certainly wouldn’t want to build a career on either, but I am very grateful that many people can and do. My doctor, for example!

Interestingly enough, when googling ‘What are the best jobs in the world?’,  the results didn’t come back with jobs that are satisfying, or ones that make you happy, content, or even jobs that inspire and serve others.  The results all seemed to focus on the highest paying jobs. 

Now I’m not saying that money isn’t handy, and I know that a lack of it can make a person miserable, but I also know that money doesn’t bring happiness.  Which leads me to think that there is so much more to choosing a career than how much you can earn from it. Journalist Katharine Whitehorn summed it up when she said,

Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it’. 

cup desk paper pens we work

Simple? Maybe.

Thankfully, us humans are all different with various skills and talents and strengths and there are jobs and careers that potentially fit every single one of us.  Perhaps the secret is finding out who we are first before we decide what we want to do for a living.

There are some of us who have a clear vision of who we are and what we want to be, from an early age.  A solicitor friend of mine realised that she wanted to go into the legal field when she was 14. She had been watching the TV programme Silk and had ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Martha Costello (Maxine Peake) and become a barrister.  She even knew that it was family law that she wanted to be involved in, and that’s exactly what she has done.  Impressive!

But do our jobs define who we are?   When I was working as a credit controller many years ago, I would have said a definite, NO!  There was a great divide between the social me and my work persona. I needed to put on a ‘mask’ to become that person who chased people for payment on their credit cards. The role brought on a whole world of stress, like hating Sunday nights as Monday morning edged closer.

As to whether our jobs define us, they may form a part of our identity – like choosing an outfit – it contributes to how we look and are perceived by the world but when you get right down to it, our jobs don’t make us who we are.  Rather, who we are should determine the roles we choose; jobs that are best suited to us, quirks and all. Is that the secret to contentment in a job? 

When meeting someone new, perhaps we also need to be more mindful not to ask, ‘What do you do?’.   To some, it may seem like a confronting question, as though we can be summed up in one sentence by our job choices, and it may come across as a bit ‘judgey’ if the recipient feels that their occupation doesn’t fit a predetermined criterion of what a ‘good job’ is.

Recently, I met a lovely lady and when I asked what she did, she looked slightly embarrassed and explained that she wasn’t working at the moment.  I felt awful, as I hadn’t meant to make her feel bad, I was just trying to break the ice and had used it as a bit of a conversation starter. Perhaps in the future, I could ask a more ‘relaxed’ question like, “What do you enjoy doing for fun?”.

desk plant pens computer cup

Fortunately, we live in an amazing country, where apprenticeships are available regardless of age; meaning that if we find ourselves feeling the need to reinvent our careers, whilst working at the same time, we can.  Adult apprenticeships help to improve the quality and range of opportunities available. So if, like me, you were a late starter when it came to knowing what you wanted to be when you ‘grew up’, it’s not too late to ‘grow up’ and start that career!

We are never too old to change course, and some of us will seek a career or a change of career as we enter a different stage of life. When my children were little, I had no ambition to climb any corporate ladders, I wanted to stay at home and raise them.  To be honest, it was the single most demanding, but at the same time, rewarding full time ‘job’ that I’ve had to date – talk about 24/7!

We may never reach the point in our lives where we feel we have found the perfect job and that’s ok too.  Life is about so much more and as we head to the hills on a hike, early on a Saturday morning, or a surf down in Cornwall, we can relax and feel fulfilled that we get to make the most of our downtime.  After all, we can’t all be Reubyn Ash – one of Britain’s best surfers (or, perhaps JK Rowling would be more appropriate in my case).

The secret, I think, is finding contentment whatever our roles involve but by the same token, if that means growing or progressing into another role, why not take the plunge?  Live life, love, enjoy, repeat!

Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos sourced via Unsplash

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