Finding the highest expression of ourselves

Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent.

– Larry Smith

Last week, I gave a careers talk to my former secondary school. I had been tracked down via LinkedIn and was contacted because my career path looked interesting.  I decided that I would use this opportunity not just to talk about my professional life but also to provide some tips about what I’ve learnt over the years about careers. I know that when I was 17 and making decisions about University,  I would have liked to have heard similar advice.  For your interest, I’ve provided my top ten career tips at the end of this post.

I chose my University course predominantly according to what was most likely to get me a job. I had seen the long hours, sacrifices and hard work my Dad had put in throughout his working life to provide his children with a comfortable upbringing. Both my parents endured hardship that is unimaginable in our society today. My Dad in particular rose out of poverty by winning scholarships to prestigious schools and Universities. I thought that I would have to do right by my children, in the same way that my parents had done right by me. At 17, the only way I felt I could do this was to choose a job which may not give me particular enjoyment, but paid well and gave me security.

When I was lately confronted with failure, I decided to become honest with who I was. I realised that life is indeed short and I can no longer spend it doing the things I ought to do instead of what I would love to do. I made a list of my personal qualities, what I enjoyed doing, what brought me pleasure and what came natural to me. And guess what? Being a lawyer did not make it on the list! It was then that I turned to the book ‘What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers’ by Richard N Bolles.

The section of this book that I found really enlightening was the epilogue at the back, entitled ‘How to Find Your Mission in Life’.  I take two profound insights from it that I can benefit from. First, that my mission/calling/dream job takes time. I have to take things one step at a time, and I have to understand that I won’t necessarily know where each step will take me. This ties in quite nicely with what Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech about joining the dots: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He continues, “Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path.

The second insight is that my mission in life may not be grand or life-altering, and I may never reap the rewards that following it brings. That in fact, my “mission” may just be to deal with the daily trials and tribulations with more kindness, fairness and grace.

So having a purpose in life can be very simple one. Yet, I do believe that one of the sources of my happiness is to do the things that I love. Larry Smith argues that we will fail to have a great career if we do not act on that which we are most passionate about. Steve Jobs agrees that the only great work is to love what we do. But there are costs involved in pursuing our passion. First, we need to know what it is. Secondly, realising what our passion actually is, added on top of the fact that we are not actually realising it, is really scary. Doubts about our ability invade our minds. Then there’s feasibility. Even if we find our passion, can we make a living out of it? If we are already quite experienced in one career field and have a family, can we really just recklessly up sticks and pursue our passion? And what about the hand that life has dealt us – that some of us may not have the luxury of doing what we love because of economic or social circumstances?

Larry Smith and Steve Jobs take no prisoners when they affirm that we must do what we love. But, their message is so powerful because they each use a weapon to stun and shock us into reality: Smith uses regret; Jobs uses death. They are connected. Being on the brink of death and regretting the fact that I didn’t at least try doing something I loved is a terrifying thought.

Four years ago, I went back to my secondary school to help out at a careers evening. That time, I sat in the politics and law section speaking to students eager to know more about these fields. I remember one girl who came to me. She told me that she was worried about her future as she really wanted to study art but felt pressured to do law instead. As if from nowhere, I gave her this piece of advice: “Do what you love and your career will come to you. It will lead you to the right path.”

I know that this may not be easy, but I think we have to at least try.

Here are my top ten tips on career that I recently gave to the sixth form of my secondary school:

Gemma’s top ten tips

1. Please, please, please, please do what you love

Whether this is in your studies, in your working life or in your hobbies, please do not forgo what gives you great enjoyment, pleasure, fulfilment and satisfaction for the sake of what society/parents/teachers expect of you, or, what you think you should be doing. If you forgo what you love or try to suppress it, in the long run you will be unhappy. If you only take away one tip from this list, please let it be this one.

 2. Find outlets to channel your loves and passions

We all have passions and loves, we just find them in different things and express them in different ways. If you are studying a subject (or doing a job) which is suppressing your passion then try to find ways to let it out (like with extra-curricular activities).

3. Be open to trying new things

You can and should have at least a few passions (or many). If you are struggling to find your passion(s) then one way to start is to say yes more and try out new things. Saying yes more does not mean you can’t say no (and there are definitely times when you can and should). If you are in tune with your passions you will start figuring out which ones you can make a living out of and which should just stay as hobbies. Also, by trying new things you never know where they may lead.

4. What you thought you wanted to do at 18 may not necessarily be what you end up doing

I’ve known many people (including myself) that started out doing one thing and ended up doing something completely different. Sometimes your career changes because of circumstances beyond your control or because you realise that what you are doing is not right for you. It’s ok to change your mind and change your direction. So because you don’t know what life brings, it is far better to study what you really enjoy now than choose something because it will give you job security in the future.

5. It takes time to get your dream job

Unless you just happen to be in the right place at the right time (with all the hard work you have put in), it is unlikely that you will get your dream job tomorrow. So in the meantime, enjoy the ride! Try not to force it, go with the flow, create space for things to flourish and for ideas to flower. Also, if you do have a big dream, try breaking it down into little steps, taking it one step at a time – it is known that some of the big shifts in society came about through small victories. Focus on the small victories.

6. You will face failure and uncertainty in your life

There’s no running away from it. You will just fail at something. You will also face uncertainty. I know that times are hard for young people, I know that jobs for life are very few on the ground. But it’s also a time which is ripe for opportunity – to be creative, innovative, think out of the box. If you have to get a stop-gap job to tie things over whilst you think about the next step or to allow yourself to do the things you love then do it! If you can afford to take a break from work or study to really think about where you want to go next, then do it! If you fail, who cares? You gave it a shot and it just means something better is out there for you, just keep going!

 7. Create networks and get creative

If there are people you know of or heard about who are doing the job you would love to do, seek them out either through social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (or google them – you never know how easy it could be to contact them) or if you know them through friends of friends of friends. Exploit weak ties, looks for gaps or niches in the job market . Use the internet to publicise/showcase your work and skills or create your own job!

 8. There are more jobs out there than being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc

At career fairs we only see these type of professions because a lot of the time they sponsor the fairs and they are looking for young blood. According to research, there are at least 12,860 different occupations or careers that you might choose from! Hurrah for diversity!

 9. Your primary reason for choosing a course should not be because it will give you job security

Job security is a factor and it is an important one. But, it should not be the overwhelming reason for choosing a University course. Also, due to the rapid changing nature of the economy, jobs that are considered secure now may not be in ten years time.

 10. Please watch these great TED TALKS

The first is ‘Why you will fail to have a great career’ by Larry Smith – http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_smith_why_you_will_fail_to_have_a_great_career.html

and the second is ‘Why 30 is not the new 20’ by Megan Jay – – http://www.ted.com/talks/meg_jay_why_30_is_not_the_new_20.html

They both give fantastic advice on careers and on life.

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Do what you can, according to who you are

“First, we must ask ourselves who we are before we know what we can do.”

– Robert Bilheimer

October 18th is the European Union Anti-Trafficking Day. On this day, I attended a screening of the film documentary, Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer. This was an evocative yet distressing film mainly showing the lives of children who have been trafficked and coerced into labour in Nepal, Senegal and Ghana; prostitution in the United States, India and Cambodia; and into combat as rebel soldiers in Uganda.

The film showed the magnitude of what constitutes modern-day slavery and what it is used for: sex work, menial work and war. It is beyond belief what people can do to one another for money or power, and particularly abhorrent what grown adults can do to children: stashing them away under the floorboards or in the roofs of brothels to evade police raids; kidnapping them from schools to train them to kill; selling them into prostitution for the services of paedophiles.

According to Robert Bilheimer and Cecilia Malmström (the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs), there is no global anti-human trafficking movement. It is hard to detect and prevent human trafficking and it is even harder to know what it is –  the film gave varied examples of trafficking which was intertwined with slavery and child grooming. Also getting tough on slavery may be bad for business. In times of austerity, consumers are lured by even cheaper prices, companies are ever-pressed to be competitive yet profitable.

At the Q&A after the film, it was asked what young people can do to help tackle the issue. Robert Bilheimer used the example of the actress Glenn Close, the narrator of the film. Faced with the magnitude of this human rights violation (it has been conservatively estimated by the International Labour Organisation that 21 million people worldwide are exploited for labour and sexual services), she humbly said that what she can do to help this cause is to lend her voice to the film. He advised young people to take a small, first step in helping the cause: share the film through social media.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Aristotle was of the opinion that some people are born be slaves, since it is in their nature to be so. Although he was (unfortunately) a proponent of slavery, he was not a proponent of those who were forced to be slaves: anyone who was coerced into slavery suggested an unnatural fit and it was therefore unjust.  Today, all slaves are forcibly (not to mention illegally) coerced into work which is not suited to their nature. It is unjust.

All of us can have a role to play in fighting injustice. But as Robert Bilheimer said, we first need to know ourselves so as to know what we can do. We have to figure out what our qualities, talents and limitations are so that we can make the best use of them. Our role can be large, it can be absolutely negligible, but this is beside the point.

For a long time, I had struggled to work out what I could do to make the world a better place.  I realise that doing my bit is probably not going to be particularly remarkable: it might just be in telling the story and spreading the word.

I encourage you to watch the film (password: nml123) and spread the word.

30

“Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.”

– Megan Jay

“Tired. Depressed. Unemployed. Single. Nearly 30,” read the first line of my journal entry of three years ago. I was 27 and already fretting about the big 3-0. It’s interesting that even though turning 30 was three years away, the fear of that age had already formed part of the miserable state I was in.

Turning 30 is one of the big milestones of our lives. By 30, convention has it that we are supposed to have achieved many things, mainly concentrated on the three Ps: prosperity, property and partner. If we haven’t done so (or are not well on our way to doing so) then we are made to feel bad about ourselves.

I am 30 years old. I rent a small one-bedroom flat. I have only started to save. I do not have a permanent job. I am single. I have never been more satisfied with my life as I am today.

I was delighted to say goodbye to my twenties. When I look back at them, I can recall many happy memories of travel, achievements and of time spent with loved ones. But they were always weighed down by a heavy heart: a love lost; suppressed passions; feelings of inadequacy.

Since turning 30, I have gained in confidence (and in grey hairs). I notice that I can exercise more authority as I have some experience and wisdom behind me. I am much more comfortable in my skin and much more open to change. I also value my time more: I don’t waste it on people or things that make me unhappy. Since I do view 30 as a milestone, it instils this sense of urgency that if there are changes I want to make in my life, I better start today. I believe that the choices I make today as a 30 year old have a larger ripple effect than compared to the choices I made at 20 or 25.

In her Ted Talk, Megan Jay drums it into the heads of twenty-somethings that their twenties are their defining decade, that they should not leave decisions concerning careers or love until their thirties. Those that tend to leave it till their thirties end up being under immense pressure to achieve in a shorter period of time, settling as a result, loaded with regret. She advises twenty-somethings to start taking steps towards the life they envisage now.

I understand the talk’s message but I felt ashamed that I only began making my changes at 29, not 20, possibly having wasted many years. But then again, why should we be constrained by age? We are entitled to go at our own pace and sometimes, it takes a long time to feel unstuck and change direction, or to feel like we are on the right track. When the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse how long it took to become real, he replied, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

Hitting the big 3-0 can cause regret, anxiety or relief. But if things haven’t worked out as planned or hoped by the time you are 30, it’s not the end of the world and you can always start making changes today.

And look on the bright side, turning 30 means that we’ve seen through yet another year on this awesome planet of ours.

The flip-side to failure

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”

– Oliver Burkeman

This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.

“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”

About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure.  I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.

Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.

After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”

So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.

If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.

I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.

I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).

Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.

And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.

Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.

Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.

To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”