Money no reason to stick with a career you loathe
There are plenty of things I’ve got wrong in life but there’s one thing I got unexpectedly, fortuitously right. I chose the best job for me. I love every element of being a journalist: the storytelling; the diversity of opinions; the front row seat on humanity as it makes and breaks history (or, in the case of the Kardashians, redefines our view on what constitutes a nice bum).
Mostly, I love the words. Choosing them, typing them, threading them together like charms on a bracelet.
But I very nearly chose something else.
At university, I spent a year studying law. It was a mindnumbingly dull trudge until one afternoon the head of the prison service gave a lecture. He was the first person to talk about people, real people, not precedents and proceedings and prima facie. When he disclosed that prisoners took their lives by sticking their tongues in the light bulb sockets, I realised I wanted to tell stories — the horrible and the life-affirming — rather than adjudicate on others’ lives.
It’s because of this close shave with a career I know I would’ve hated that I despair at our current preoccupation with pushing kids into jobs and university degrees based on what they’re good at, what will make them employable and what they’ll get paid.
I know, because I’ve been guilty of that kind of thinking as my eldest has deliberated on what path she’s going to follow. In the end, I gave her only one piece of advice: “Don’t worry about the pay or the prestige, just do whatever you like that makes your heart skip just a little bit more than anything else.”
The government is right in pointing out this week that university is not for everyone. We have a huge shortage of workers in trades, vocations and traditional blue-collar occupations largely because we’ve become hugely aspirational.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting better for ourselves and our offspring but it’s time we rethought exactly what is “better”.
“Better” is not leaving university with a degree you loathed, a huge debt you now owe and no practical skills when all along you had a
yearning to build things. Or cook. Or make beautiful gardens.
That said, I don’t buy into the adage: “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Even chocolate taste testers have to do their tax returns.
While my job has had its Devil Wears Prada moments, I love it still. Plenty don’t. Half the men I know loathe their jobs. The happiest among my mates are a plumber, a nurse, a yoga teacher and a guy who is gifted at designing kitchens.
Indeed, two blokes I know in top executive jobs are most thrilled by the provincial butcher shop they’ve set up as a side business.
In essence, the disillusionment stems from a conflict of interest. When economist Adam Smith explained that the “division of labour” was the secret to increased productivity, the workforce started focusing on doing one job. For life.
That job then shaped who we were, and determined how we were viewed in public.
Ergo scientists were seen as nerdy, teachers as warm and town planners as boring and municipal.
Yet as Alain de Botton points out, being “monogamous” in our work means extinguishing our multiple personalities and settling for the one. As he says: “No wonder that we’re quietly and painfully conscious of our unfilled destinies, and at times recognise with a legitimate sense of agony that we really could well have been something and someone else.”
But there’s hope. Our children’s generation will be working for longer than any before it yet they’ll see more workplace change. They’ll have to be agile and how they think will be so much more important than what they know. If work traditionally narrowed our lives, future generations may find that work expands their lives even if it feels less secure.
It seems to me that far from going to university or vocational training to learn something, the quest will be to learn about themselves. What makes their heart quicken? Where does their imagination take them? What makes them feel that particular harmony when who you are synchronises with what you do. It’s one of the reasons I like the University of Melbourne’s model of insisting students do a broad degree before specialising. You have to taste life before you decide what to do with your own. A friend of mine, a former CEO of one the nation’s biggest healthcare providers, told me his degree in history, rather than business or medicine, was at the heart of his success.
As for me, I did a Bachelor of Arts — a degree plenty now write off as a waste of time. Recently I returned to my childhood home where I sorted through my university texts. As I flicked through the mildewed books, I felt so lucky to have been able to immerse myself in literature. I never worried about my marks or what job I’d do; loving words was enough.
Miraculously, all these years later it is still enough.
“Even chocolate taste testers have to do their tax returns
Andy (Anne Hathaway) finds herself in a job she hates in The Devil Wears Prada.