My eldest son left school in the summer and is now in his first year at Manchester University. He was Head of School in his final year and he delivered a speech at prizegiving. He had not rehearsed it with my wife or me beforehand, and why should he? We had no idea what he was going to say when he mounted the platform and stood in front of the microphone. Knowing him, it was going to be something witty or rebellious, perhaps irreverent.
He turned to face his fellow students with a compassionate expression and said, ‘It’s ok. You have plenty of time. Don’t rush. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you’ll be when you’re older. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you will do. And it’s ok if you don’t know or how your entire career is going to map out before you’re even old enough to buy a pint.’
Well, that certainly made me think. GCSE and A Level choices weigh heavily on young minds at a time when career choices are far from clear. Any why should they be clear? It was the same when I was at school. I remember being consumed by the question, ‘What are you going to be?’. A better question might have been, ‘Who are you going to be?’
Careers are rich and varied, if we’re lucky. People try many different jobs before they settle on one that they may hold for a while. Change is healthy and the only permanence is that there is no permanence, to anything. We evolve, circumstances change, opportunities arise, our motivations and aspirations alter, and we seek out new things. Some of us are more curious than others, some are motivated by stable and predictable routines. Neither is better, neither is easier. If we’re lucky, and careful, the constants in our lives are our family and friends, not our job.
For my son to have reached the conclusion that you don’t have to choose a career before you’re even old enough to order a drink is so encouraging. He is his own man, architect of his own future and teller of his own story.
If only I’d had that same clarity at his age. Or even now! Like many students still today, I felt rushed into deciding what I would be. Career advice was an episode of Mr Ben: ‘As if by magic’ the career advisor appeared and I would try on various outfits and see which one suited me, with almost no knowledge of what the role involved. More importantly, I did not have enough knowledge at that early stage of what I wanted, what motivated me, or what engaged my curiosity and interest.
I was advised, like so many students back then, that you got a job, worked very hard and success would come; that the amount of money you earned and success you found were entirely commensurate with the amount of hours you toiled.
Part of me still agrees with this sentiment and yet part of me thinks it’s a pernicious myth. Success – whatever that means – is certainly about hard work, head-down grinding away, but it is also about building connections, forging relationships, collaborating, motivating others, seeing opportunities, innovating and creating. If you work very, very hard for many hours a day to satisfy your ambition – whether it is to make money or make a difference – how will you ever know if you have reached your ambition if your head is always facing the work? I know this to my cost; I have set myself a punishing work ethic throughout my career as a teacher and author and have rarely had time to enjoy the view, or enjoy my family. My children speak to me in rapid-fire-rounds of short sentences because they know that after a minute or two my eyes will always divert back to the computer screen. I am ashamed of this and determined to alter my behaviour before all four of my children have left for university and are no longer around to interrupt my work because they want to tell me something.
If I were to deliver a speech like my son did – which is unlikely because it would never be as good as his – then I would probably say that it is worth spending time discovering who are you going to become, before deciding what you will become. The world of work is a white-knuckled ride that can quickly shape and define us. Establishing who we are before we get on the treadmill can help. I often say to students that achieving what you want in life is almost always possible, if you want it enough. The hardest thing is knowing what you want in the first place – and that must not be rushed. My son was right.
In The Bury Free Press 8th November 2019