Purpose Archives - The School Of Life

When it comes to deciding what to do with our lives, we are frequently presented with what looks like a very painful choice: the passionate path vs the safe path. The latter involves the slow mastery of a dependable profession; we will be bored — but we know we’ll never be fired. Meanwhile, the former is a high-wire act in which we fantasise generating an income from what we deeply love and yet we constantly fear penury and humiliation. 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The choice can feel acute, but it may be less so than it seems, once we properly explore the concept of safety. We are never properly safe so long as we are doing something we hate or are pursuing out of cowardice. In the deeply competitive conditions of modernity, our back-up career – the one we adopt out of fear — will be someone else’s central ambition; our plan B will be someone else’s plan A, which places us at an immediate disadvantage in terms of the energy and focus we are able to muster. The ‘safe’ choice might ruin us.

By contrast, what we love is what we are obsessed by anyway, we’d do it for free — which decisively increases our chances of mastery while reducing the price of failure. A decade of mixed results on a passion-project is inherently less onerous than unspectacular returns for a whole career in a hateful field. 

It is in the end not very safe to use the one life we have forcing ourselves to do what we know from the outset we won’t enjoy — simply in order to keep living. This isn’t safety; it’s masochism. We may all have to spend our first two decades suffering through the education system; but at some point, we are allowed to leave school; at some point, we need to have a shot at answering what life could be about beyond obedience and timidity.

It is not very common to have a passion; most of us don’t. Yet if we are blessed enough to have one, we are risking far more than we should by failing to heed its call.

One of the most common and deeply-cherished fantasies of our times is the idea that we might ‘retire early.’ Websites abound promising to help us with the dream, managing our finances, working out where we might live and deciding with us how close we might want to be to a beach – or perhaps a mountain.

But what we often miss in glowing discussions of early retirement is the extraordinary work that is being done for us across this subject by the apparently innocuous term ‘retirement’. This word manages to pull off an astonishing feat: it momentarily anaesthetizes all those who hear it into forgetting their society’s founding pressures and most ingrained competitive values and renders deeply desirable states of inaction that could – without the word – simply have appeared contemptible or downright lazy. 

Someone in the prime of life who loses any interest in going to the office, who doesn’t care about promotion and who isn’t trying to accumulate ever more money would standardly be described as a loser. Unless, of course, that is, they could declare that what they wanted to do was ‘retire early’ – at which point they would be transformed in our eyes into fascinating and near saintly figures. We would know that they had stopped working not because they were incompetent or got sacked or were mentally weak-willed. They were almost certainly very good at their jobs; they just gave them up freely to focus their attention on a host of intriguing things that gratified them far more. 

Strikingly, at present, we only invoke the idea of retirement around employment – which is a profound pity because there are so many other things that it might be extremely important for us to stop doing, but which we feel obliged to continue with because we are under punishing pressure from others to conform. ‘Retirement’ is the word we should learn to use to explain quitting a host of activities otherwise deemed crucial without forfeiting our claim to be classed as honorable and dignified.

Ironically, it might not even be work that many of us most want to retire from. We might be far keener to retire from, let’s say, late nights, going to the theatre, using social media, holidaying abroad or having sex with new people. Take the idea of announcing ‘early retirement’ from parties. Usually, if someone turns down every invitation and stays at home, they’d be seen as lonely and withdrawn – and probably unfit for human company. But suppose we could say that we’d ‘retired’ from social life; our decision would instantly acquire nobility and prestige. We’d be seen to be giving up not because we couldn’t stand other people or because we were gauche or unpopular. The implication would be that we might have been perfectly capable of making witty conversation over cocktails – but that we had decided we’d done enough of that sort of thing and were going to concentrate instead on deepening our friendships with just two or three people or on learning a new language by ourselves in bed. 

The same could hold around material competitiveness. We could step back from having an impressive car or a large house and declare that we were ‘retiring from consumer society’. While such a move would typically be seen as a mark of failure, with the word retirement in tow, we can imply that our interests have been willingly and intelligently redirected towards new more aesthetic or spiritual targets.  

A flaw in the current notion of retirement is that it is unimaginative about what an individual might retire from. Mostly, the vision is that one stops working so as to be able to undertake outdoor leisure pursuits – tennis, gardening, sailing – and perhaps move to a place with a milder climate. But we can get more ambitious about what we unshackle ourselves from: we could retire to connect more deeply with our own minds, to develop our creative potential, to keep a handle on anxiety, and to explore who we could be if we stopped caring so much about what other people thought of us. 

Reference to retiring also softens the blow for others. When we retire from work, people don’t feel we’re letting them down – our colleagues will perhaps throw a party for us, congratulate us and say how much they’ll miss us. Likewise, by announcing our retirement from social life or relationships, we’re making it clear that there’s no suppressed personal hatred at work. We’re just rejigging our priorities.

It’s ironic that life-advice for the young is so overwhelmingly focused on what to do in one’s career. In a wiser society, the emphasis would at the same time be about retiring – as early as possible – from a host of supposedly necessary demands which, on closer inspection, are entirely unsuited to who and what we are. 

Our societies are very keen for us to have busy, competitive, complicated lives. We should express thanks for the well-meaning suggestions and then, without causing anyone offence, make our moves towards announcing early retirement from a host of areas that torment us in the name of the simpler, kinder lives we long for.

For most of history, we had no choice around most things in our lives: there was only one job we could do and it would be chosen for us by our family. There was only one candidate we could marry and our parents picked them out. There was one set of people in the vicinity and they could not be avoided. There was no chance to live anywhere else; there was little one could afford to buy; there was no news from anywhere and nothing much to envy or long for. No figures of authority could ever be questioned: one had to follow whatever was dictated by families, preachers, teachers, kings and queens and, of course, God, who knew everything and had very precise plans for how one should conduct oneself, from birth till death, pretty much every day. There was no point even wondering if we were happy; nothing could change if we weren’t. One existed between a set of very firm and very prescriptive walls.

Modernity has blasted open our confines and rendered us ‘free’ at every level. We can choose whatever job we like, marry whomever we please, divorce at any time, live anywhere, question anything, obey no one. It sounds pleasant and in some ways it is; but it is also a very heavy and, at points, almost intolerable burden.

For long periods, we may manage to shield ourselves from the full realisation of the freedoms we possess. We continue into adulthood with some of the mentality we adopted in our early years, we’re meek children pretending to be grownups. We place our trust in teacher substitutes (bosses, governments). We tell ourselves that various irksome aspects of our lives belong to ‘duty’ (like a version of homework). We dismiss thoughts of change by imagining that our friends and acquaintances would be shocked and deeply invested in our current arrangements. And all the while, we picture that people in authority must know, they look so respectable and so knowledgeable, and therefore we follow them even if we don’t quite understand the reasons for their dictates. What is just has to be.

And then come the crises that, as much as they manifest themselves in individual lives, are fundamental to our whole era: moments of radical uncertainty when we cannot any more explain why we are doing this rather than that, married to this person rather than someone else, doing this particular job rather than any other, living here rather than elsewhere. We realise two things above all: that no one cares and no one knows. No one cares who we are with and what we are up to; they may have some prejudices and points of view but they are essentially too taken up with their own struggles to bother with how we are living. Their assumptions about who we are are, that we once thought of as impregnable and essential to fit in with, are revealed as paper thin and flexible. We could call them up today and rewrite our entire biographies in their minds and they would, after a moment of surprise, shrug their shoulders and move on. 

It seems like our organisation would miss us a lot if we decided to quit: but within a week, they’d hardly remember us. We’re not indispensable anywhere. We might become an artist, a politician, a gardener or a recluse in a small house in a barren part of Andalucia. We don’t have to be anywhere; that is the old school way of thinking. Term has ended now and we don’t have to come back, ever… As for authority, no one seems to know: the government doesn’t, the old teachers certainly don’t, all the people we once looked up to appear to have little clue. 

And all the while, just to make our thoughts even more intense and agitated, we know that time is running out: that others have achieved so much more by our age, that we’re going to be old and then dead very soon. We suffer from a vertigo of choice. We may long for the old prison walls. We long to be told what we have to do by a voice in the sky. It feels like we are going out of our minds: we are just typical anxious citizens of modernity.

We don’t generally talk about such crises. They feel shameful. But they are an endemic part of what it means to live in modern times. If we are even slightly conscious, how could we not at regular intervals rattle everything that we are and have done? How could we not be panicked at the opportunities we have wasted, the questions we haven’t thought of asking, the energies we haven’t known how to harvest? We are dying and the best part of us threatens to be buried without us ever having had the courage to explore ourselves – because we are shielding ourselves from the infinite options of adulthood, trying to remain a child and blame other people and outwards circumstances for our inactivity and fear.

We should be allowed to admit that we usually don’t have enough strength of character to master our options. Only a few hundred people ever do in any generation. We will, in relation to our potential, have largely ‘ruined our lives’. We won’t have known how to make the most of our freedoms. We will have longed for too many decades to please the teachers and our parents. At least we can admit to the problem. It’s extremely normal – and in its way, viewed with genuine kindness, almost funny. We should hold out our arms to our fellow, tortured citizens of modernity. This isn’t just our fuck-up, it’s the human condition: to be able to choose but to choose wrongly, to be able to move, but to be too scared to budge, to know the big assumptions are false but not to have courage or mental will to come up with alternatives, to understand that most people around us are fools we don’t even like but to stay absurdly worried about what they think of us nevertheless. 

None of this is strange; it belongs to the agonies of modernity – which deserve to be charted, laughed over and railed against, even when they cannot be overcome.

For many of us, our strongest and at the same time vaguest desire is to be more creative. And when we think about what it would mean to be creative, we arrive at a dauntingly fixed range of jobs.

We might be visually creative: and so identify that we want to be a painter, photographer, film-maker, designer or architect.

We might be intellectually creative: and so want to be a novelist, journalist or academic.

We might be musically creative: and so want to start a band.

Or we might be sensorily creative: and so want to start a restaurant.

The problem is that securing any of these jobs is – statistically speaking – almost impossible. We end up blocked, sure of what we want to be, yet also unable to break into our chosen field.

We end up with what we call a fixation – rather than simply an interest – to signal the mixture of inner certainty and outer impossibility.

The solution to such fixations lies in coming to understand more closely what we are really creatively interested in because the more accurately and precisely we fathom what we truly care about, the more we stand to discover that our creative interests and their associated pleasure-points actually exist in a far broader range of occupations than we have until now been used to entertaining.

It is a certain lack of understanding of what we are really after – and therefore a relatively standard and obvious reading of the job market – that pushes us into a far narrower tunnel of options than is warranted.

When we properly grasp what draws us to one creative job, we stand to identify qualities that are available in other kinds of employment as well. What we really love isn’t this specific job, but a range of themes we have first located there, normally because this job was the most conspicuous example of a repository of them – which is where the problem started because over-conspicuous jobs tend to attract too much attention, get over-subscribed and are then in a position to offer only very modest salaries.

Yet, in reality, the qualities can’t only exist there. They are necessarily generic and will be available under other, less obvious guise – once we know how to look.

Imagine the person who has become heavily invested in the idea of becoming a journalist. The very word ‘journalist’ has become a coveted badge that captures everything they feel they want. From a young age, the job suggested glamour and stimulation, excitement and dynamism. They got used to parents and uncles and aunts referring to them as future journalists. However, the sector now happens to be in terminal decline and pitiably over-subscribed. A block and angst results.

The recommended move is to pause the fruitless job search and unpaid internships and ask oneself what might truly be appealing in one’s intuitive excitement around journalism. What are the pleasures one is really seeking here – and might they exist somewhere else, and somewhere more favourable, in the world of work?

We’re prone to a very natural vagueness here. We often just like the broad sound of a given job. But if we pursue the pleasure-point analysis, we start to prise off the lid and look more assiduously at the pleasures on offer. Once scrutinised, we might find that journalism offers some of the following pleasures: an ability to engage with serious political and sociological issues, to analyse policy, to write up thoughts with elegance and to be respected for one’s critical powers.

Once such elements are clarified, it becomes clear that they cannot be uniquely connected to the sector we call journalism. The combination can’t only exist – and isn’t only needed – in newspapers and magazines. It’s not really tied to any particular sector. The qualities can, and do, turn up in a lot of other places. For instance, a financial investment firm might have a huge need to analyse emerging markets and explain their potential and their possible weaknesses to clients; a university might need to analyse and understand changes in its competitive environment and explain these in clear and compelling ways to its staff; an oil company might need to analyse its future likely employment needs and convey this to its recruitment teams around the world. These industries don’t sit under the heading of journalism – but they all have needs and opportunities which in fact offer exactly the same pleasures which were initially and rather superficially associated with journalism.

Investigation reveals that the pleasures we are seeking are more mobile than initially supposed. They don’t have to be pursued only in the world of the media, they may be more accessible, more secure and more financially rewarding when pursued in quite different sectors of the economy.

This is not an exercise in getting us to give up on what we really want. The liberating move is to see that what we want exists in places beyond those we had identified.

The same analysis could be run around teaching. This doesn’t – it turns out – have to be done in a primary or high school; one might be in essence a teacher in an aeronautics conglomerate (you have to teach new recruits about the nature of the industry) or a wealth management firm (you have to teach executives about how to deal with difficult clients). Or, someone who was fixated on politics might realise that the pleasures they seek (influencing societal outcomes) are as much available (and better rewarded and more consequential) in a job with the the tourist board or an oil exploration company. This can look like a climbdown only if we don’t understand well-enough what we are actually looking for.

The surprising, liberating side of a creative pleasure-point analysis is that it reveals that it can never be a particular industry sector that is the key to finding a job we can love. Because when properly understood a creative pleasure is – thankfully – generic and can, therefore, truly turn up in many different and initially unexpected places.

Careful knowledge of what we love sets us free to love more widely.

One key thing that can go wrong in our thinking about a career is that we get fixated on a particular kind of job which – for one reason or another – turns out not to be a promising or realistic option. It may be that the job is extremely difficult to secure, it may require long years of preparation or it might be in an industry that has become precarious and therefore denies us good long-term prospects.

Here we call it a fixation – rather than simply an interest – to signal that the focus on the job is proving problematic because we have an overwhelming sense that our future lies with this one occupation and this occupation alone – while nevertheless facing a major obstacle in turning our idea into a reality.

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We might, for instance, get fixated on literary publishing, but find that there are few openings and that the pay cannot possibly cover the rent that would be required to live anywhere within commuting distance of the office. Or we might develop an interest in serious long-form journalism, though its economic base has been substantially eroded. We might become obsessed with the idea of a political career, though in reality the chances of effecting major changes are painfully slim; we might be fixated on a career in films, though the level of competition is ferocious and therefore the chances of success are tiny and horribly unreliable.

The solution to such fixations lies in coming to understand more closely what we are really interested in, because the more accurately and precisely we fathom what we really care about, the more we stand to discover that our interests and their associated pleasure-points actually exist in a far broader range of occupations than we have until now been able to entertain. It is our lack of understanding of what we are really after – and therefore our relatively standard and obvious reading of the job market – that has pushed us into a far narrower tunnel of options than is warranted.

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Fixation doesn’t only occur around work. In relationships too, we can become fixated on a particular person, whom we love and admire and cannot stop circling – even if, sadly, they happen not to be interested in us or treat us extremely shabbily and unreliably when we are with them. Despite the abuse, we say to ourselves (and concerned others) that we just cannot imagine an alternative life without them, so special are they (perhaps they are uncommonly funny in certain moods or play a musical instrument brilliantly or have a wry pessimism we adore).

The move to unfixate ourselves is not to tell ourselves that we don’t like this person or to attempt to forget how much we are attracted to them. It is to get very serious and specific about what the attraction might be based on – and then to come to see that the qualities we admire in fact exist in other people who don’t have the set of problems that are currently making a fulfilled relationship impossible. The careful investigation of what we love about someone shows us – paradoxically but very liberatingly – that we could in fact also love someone else.

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Understanding what we like – what gives us pleasure – is therefore a central anti-fixation move. By strengthening our attachment to qualities, we are weakening our attachment to specific individuals or jobs. When we properly grasp what draws us to one job, we necessarily identify qualities that are available in other kinds of employment as well. What we really love isn’t this specific job, but a range of qualities we have first located there, normally because this job was the most conspicuous example of a repository of them – which is where the problem started because over-conspicuous jobs tend to attract too many entrants and are then in a position to offer only very modest salaries.

Yet in reality, the qualities can’t only exist there. They are necessarily generic and will be available under other, less obvious guise – once we know how to look.

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Imagine someone who has become heavily invested in the idea of becoming a journalist. The very word ‘journalist’ has become a coveted badge that captures everything they feel they want. From a young age, the job suggested glamour and stimulation, excitement and dynamism. They got used to parents and uncles and aunts referring to them as future journalists. It started when they were 12. However, the sector now happens to be in terminal decline and absurdly over-subscribed. A block and angst results.

The recommended move is to pause the fruitless job search and unpaid internships and ask oneself what might truly be appealing in one’s intuitive excitement around journalism. What are the pleasures one is really seeking here – and might they exist somewhere else, and somewhere more favourable, in the world of work?

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We’re prone to a very natural vagueness here. We often just like the broad sound of a given job. But if we pursue the pleasure-point analysis, we start to prise off the lid and look more assiduously at the pleasures on offer. Once scrutinised, we might find that journalism offers some of the following pleasures: an ability to engage with serious political and sociological issues, to analyse policy, to write up thoughts with elegance and to be respected for one’s critical powers.

Once such elements are clarified, it becomes clear that they cannot be uniquely connected to the sector we call journalism. The combination can’t only exist – and isn’t only needed – in newspapers and magazines. It’s not really tied to any particular sector. The qualities can and do turn up in a lot of other places. For instance, a financial investment firm might have a huge need to analyse emerging markets and explain their potential and their possible weaknesses to clients; a university might need to analyse and understand changes in its competitive environment and explain these in clear and compelling ways to its staff; an oil company might need to analyse its future likely employment needs and convey this to its recruitment teams around the world. These industries don’t sit under the heading of journalism – but they all have needs and opportunities which in fact offer exactly the same pleasures which were initially and rather superficially associated with journalism.

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Investigation reveals that the pleasures we are seeking are more mobile than initially supposed. They don’t have to be pursued only on the world of the media, they may be more accessible, more secure and more financially rewarding when pursued in quite different sectors of the economy.

This is not an exercise in getting us to give up on what we really want. The liberating move is to see that what we want exists in places beyond those we had identified.

The same analysis could be run around teaching. This doesn’t – it turns out – have to be done in a primary or high school; one might be in essence a teacher in an aeronautics conglomerate (you have to teach new recruits about the nature of the industry) or a wealth management firm (you have to teach executives about how to deal with difficult clients). Or, someone who was fixated on politics might realise that the pleasures they seek (influencing societal outcomes) are as much available (and better rewarded and more consequential) in a job with the the tourist board or an oil exploration company. This can look like a climbdown only if we don’t understand well-enough what we are actually looking for. The surprising, liberating side of pleasure-point analysis is that it reveals that it can never be a particular industry sector that is the key to finding a job we can love. Because when properly understood a pleasure is – thankfully – generic and can, therefore, truly turn up in many different and initially unexpected places. Careful knowledge of what we love sets us free.

One of the most daunting obstacles to choosing a fulfilling career for ourselves can be traced back to our families. For most of human history, the working destiny of every new generation was automatically determined by the preceding generation. One would become a farmer or soldier like one’s father or a seamstress or teacher like one’s mother. Choices were cruelly restricted and penalties for deviating from the intended trajectory could be severe. In 18th-century Prussia, the sons of nobles were barred by law from starting businesses or becoming merchants. In 19th-century England, a respectable father could have his daughter locked up in an asylum if she persisted in a wish to become a singer or actress. It was conceptually impossible for the child of a lawyer to find employment as a potter or a carpenter.

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Then, in the early 20th century, under the sway of a Romantic ideology, societies gradually freed themselves from parental strictures. In two central areas – love and work – parents ceded their power to their children, leaving choices in the hands of every son and daughter. We were liberated to marry whomever we liked and do – professionally – whatever we pleased.

Yet these theoretical freedoms have had the curious effect of hiding from us just how much familial expectations continue to matter and to restrict the course of our careers. Our parents may no longer have a legal power to block our bank accounts or physically restrain us – but they retain command over that central tool of psychological manipulation: the threat to withdraw affection in the event that we frustrate their aspirations for us. Love can control us as much as force or the law ever did.

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In the background of our minds, there are always what we can term ‘family work templates’ in operation – restricting what sort of jobs we feel able to devote ourselves to and encouraging us towards a set of favoured options. Our backgrounds makes certain forms of work more or less available.

At the most benign level, our family work templates are the result of what our families understand of the working world. Every family has a range of occupations that it grasps – because someone has practiced them and, in the process, humanised them and brought them within the imaginative range of other family members. There are families where, as long as anyone can remember, there have been doctors around. From a young age, one has heard about the often comedic habits of patients, the rivalries on the ward, the eccentricities of senior doctors and the fun and agony of medical school. It hence comes to feel normal and possible that one might, when the time comes, decide to join the ranks of the medical establishment.

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Other families have generations of lawyers or accountants in them, sailors or hoteliers, blacksmiths or butchers. A child might hear constant anecdotes that stress the fascinations of the courtroom or the impressive character of saving lives, the benefits of education or the vigorous dignity of running a kitchen, the excitement of making a successful deal or the honour of policing the city streets. Exposed to family members in the relaxed settings of home (where the gap between the professional and the personal is at its narrowest and where impressive destinies therefore come to seem less distant), certain jobs naturally end up feeling more plausible than others. Our uncle’s career as an air traffic controller won’t appear unapproachable when it is practised by someone we remember mowing the lawn and enjoying jokes with.

Seldom is stepping outside of familial experience presented as plain wrong, wicked or stupid. But it may just not be something that seems imaginatively available to us. We wouldn’t know where to start when no one in the family has ever gone into, say, sport, electronics or the theatre. The people on whose affections we depend can’t help us to become confident in such areas. They restrict us not because they are mean, nor because they have carefully studied all the facets of our characters and are refusing to accept our true inclinations, but because their own experiences are simply rather narrow.

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This said, at times, more value-laden dynamics are in operation. The family work template emerges as the result of what parents esteem and aspire to; and conversely, what they are afraid of and in flight from. In many families, there will be certain career options which the parents speak about with particular reverence: perhaps being a great writer or a senior judge, a headmaster or a civil servant. These frequently aren’t the things that the parents are themselves engaged in; they are what they once wanted to do (but never did). Many parents quietly hand their dreams on to their children to fulfil – without usually telling them that they have placed these burdens on their shoulders. Yet a message is conveyed that following a given route will be the chief way to secure love and admiration; the son or daughter will be the architect that the parents were too timid to be, or the entrepreneur they were barred from becoming. Nothing like this is ever stated, but the ambitions hover in the psychological ether nevertheless. It doesn’t seem like anyone is being strong-armed, but it’s remarkable how much we can be influenced by fifteen years of admiring glances cast in particular professional directions.

We’re equally liable to receive a few messages that certain careers are beneath us and not quite right for our sort of station in life. Modern parents don’t put up absolute barriers. It’s not that they’ll never speak to us again if we go into asset management or become a sound engineer. But they can create a forceful mental atmosphere in which the negatives of particular kinds of work come across especially clearly. Parents can subtly convey a low regard for jobs that are otherwise perfectly acceptable to society at large; they may quietly give out a sense that no reasonable person could ever wish to work as a dentist or that accountancy is a profession for the timid; they might imply that being a teacher is a waste of a life or that only unscrupulous individuals could even consider a career in advertising; they may intimate a view that architects are all slightly deranged or that anything touching on psychology is the realm of charlatans and cranks.

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We sense our parents wishes and excitements and are impressed by them and, because we love them, try to align themselves with them. It’s very natural. But it may be tragically at odds with doing the kind of work that could actually bring us fulfilment.

In Middlemarch (first published in 1871), George Eliot tells the story of Fred Vincey, the son of a successful local manufacturer. His parents, whom he loves, strongly believe that he should be a clergyman – not because he is in any way suited to work for the church but because his father thinks highly of the idea, and would himself have loved to do so. In the end, Fred becomes a surveyor and is very happy, but George Eliot shows over many pages just what an enormous mental struggle this move has been for Fred. She reveals how painfully conscious he is of letting down his parents, how it creates a rift with his sister who is embarrassed by his work and how he senses that his friends from college deem him a failure. Eliot tells us a story of someone who almost doesn’t manage to liberate himself from a parental template, because she is well aware that many of us never manage to make the break that Fred achieves. This shouldn’t surprise us: in a choice between love and our own satisfaction, it is understandable if we often close down our horizons so as to preserve our relationship with those who brought us into the world.

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What distinguishes modern societies from their predecessors is how quietly the messages about what it is wise to do are emitted. For their part, Fred Vincey’s parents may talk to him directly about his career choices and bully him in concrete terms. But few parents now operate in this way. Yet this is not the same as giving a child true freedom to do whatever he or she thinks is right. Because the family work template is only ever implicit, we don’t necessarily see what a powerful effect it may be having on us. In order to free ourselves, we have to actively make ourselves consider the net of family expectations we are likely to be enmeshed in.

We should ask ourselves what lies within the circle of familial work experience and what outside of it – and consider whether certain legitimate options have been discounted for arbitrary or snobbish reasons. We should ask ourselves what unfulfilled dreams our parents had for themselves and whether these may be resting on our shoulders in ways that don’t align with our deeper selves. We should wonder how our parents privately ranked careers. Even if they overtly said – of course – that all jobs can be good (‘we just want you to be happy’), we need to grasp the particular way in which they nevertheless did really imply that some jobs were very much more worthy than others.

Then, through such patient explorations, we will start to see what influences might still be lingering, foreclosing certain important options and perhaps holding us back from wholeheartedly embracing a career which we suspect in our heart of hearts, really is right for us.   

Our brains are fatefully badly equipped to interpret and understand themselves. We cannot sit down and simply enquire of ourselves directly what we might want to do with our working lives – in the way we might ask ourselves what we would favour eating. The ‘we’ retires, falls silent and fragments under examination. At best, our deeper minds let out staccato signals as to certain things that appeal to, or appal them. We might find ourselves saying: ‘I want to do something creative’ or ‘I don’t want to give up my life to a corporation’; ‘I’d like to make a difference’ or ‘I want meaningful work.’

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Such aspirations may be reasonable, but they are also foolhardy in their vagueness. The prospect of having to build a career on their foundations can rightly induce panic; not having a robust plan swiftly puts us at the mercy of the plans of others.

We’re liable to blame ourselves and what seem like our exceptionally obtuse minds. But our incapacities are not unique. We’re simply encountering at an especially stressful moment a basic problem of the human organ of thought. Our minds do not surrender answers to direct questions very easily. The same fractured replies would emerge if someone were to demand that we tell them what love really is or what constitutes friendship. We would feel baffled and put upon. We most probably wouldn’t be able to come up with remotely sensible analyses – despite one striking and central fact: we are bound to have a lot of ideas lurking somewhere about the constitution of love and friendship, for we have all lived through plenty of their examples.

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We necessarily already possess an immense amount of relevant material for framing extensive and highly penetrating answers. We’ve had so many fleeting thoughts and insights, we’ve known situations both good and bad which could feed into profound responses. Yet somehow our experiences are too easily blocked from coalescing into robust replies. The problem is that our sensations have been left scattered in our minds. We haven’t been able to collect them, sift them, see the connections and evolutions; we haven’t had the time or encouragement to consider what each one is telling us and how they all stack up together. And yet, if we felt more dextrous and confident, we would all have the capacity to come up with insights of superlative value (the people we call great writers are in the end merely people who’ve known how to manipulate the butterfly nets required to catch their own flightiest, airiest, shyest thoughts).

There are so many things we already know without knowing that we know them – because we haven’t been trained in the art of gathering and interpreting our experiences. What is a beautiful city like? What is an ideal holiday? How does a good conversation flow? The questions may sound daunting, but we have answers to them already – for we all harbour, somewhere within our memories, recollections of well-being as we walked the streets of a capital, or felt our senses reopen in a new climate or registered our sympathies expanding at a table of friends. Our belief that we don’t know is merely a symptom of tendencies systematically to underrate our own capacities. With touching regularity, we dismiss the fact that we already contain within ourselves the power to address the grandest themes of existence.

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Instead, from fear and habit, we turn away from inner exploration and reach for platitudes which we suspect won’t do justice to our impressions, sensing that our real feelings are hiding somewhere in tangled pre-verbal form, yet hoping that our questioner might leave us and make someone else feel inadequate.

So there’s ultimately nothing very special (and therefore nothing especially worrying) about our inability to give a direct or neat answer to an enquiry about what we might want to do with our working lives. It’s merely one more example of our minds’ unjustly weak self-reflexive muscle.

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Because these minds do not easily surrender answers, and yet the material for an answer is in them, we should take the time to consciously collect relevant evidence, create a library for it, pore over it and analyse it, and so ensure that stray thoughts and fleeting sensory impressions can one day be assembled into clear lines of argument. There may be a few complexities to doing so (we will address them in a minute), but the chief obstacle to getting started is the melancholy feeling that it would be peculiar and unnecessary even to do so. A search to understand our working characters has to begin with a basic acknowledgement of the natural vagueness and intellectual squeamishness of our minds – without our falling prey to a sense that our furtive mental inclinations are shameful or indicative of any sort of individual weakness.

When addressing the question of what we might do in our work, we should have the confidence to believe that large portions of a sound answer are already in us. But the best way to proceed is not to try to head for a conclusion too quickly, because the data that can contribute to a reply hasn’t been correctly tagged within us; doesn’t know its own nature or its potential to guide us and has to be disentangled from cobwebs of forgetfulness. We must patiently trust that we have already picked up a great deal of information and experience relevant to determining what kind of work we should do, but it has arrived in guises we won’t automatically recognise. Instead, in so far as it is there, the information has been encoded in us in those superlative indicators of career aptitude: distinctive feelings of pleasure, enthusiasm or distaste in relation to many rather minor tasks and challenges – that can appear to be wholly disconnected from anything resembling a fee-paying job.

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Paradoxically, it’s not our direct past thoughts about work that are typically most useful in guiding us to new more fulfilling work. The underlying question is about work we can love not work we have done – and so we need to get to know a lot about what we love and why before we move too quickly to the formulation of a career plan. We might begin by zeroing in on that storehouse of incidental career insights: childhood. When during these long and now perhaps rather distant years did we feel particular tremors of excitement? We should let our minds relax and surrender the smallest most incidental details. Perhaps it was lovely lying on the bedroom floor, in the old house (we must have been eight) cutting out pieces of paper from a coloured pad and arranging alternating strips.

Sometimes you used to particularly like just drawing straight lines across a blank piece of paper. Perhaps there was a jumper you especially responded to, it had yellow circles on the front; or you really liked running round some gorse bushes in the garden of a hotel you sometimes stayed at when you were little; or it was very special when your bedroom was extremely tidy. It was awful (maybe) at school when you had to do a joint project and your designated collaborator wouldn’t accept your ideas about the size and shape of the presentation document, or about the order of the slides. Or you hated the way some people always kept their hair carefully brushed, or you loved the time you chatted with a friend about your fantasy desert island.

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In such memories, we pick up on key incidents in the history of our intimate feelings. Something – we might not know exactly what – struck us as lovely or distressing. These very modest fragments hint at major tendencies in our nature that are liable to be still active within us, but not at an operative level. We will have to proceed slowly. It might take many months of careful reflection to uncover and define some of the central ingredients of our nature that can eventually function as important guides to a good working life.

It’s not only the past that we need to investigate. We should start to collect and analyse our present sensations. Because the mind is so prone to wiping out its own nascent autobiography every few hours, we should keep a notebook handy, so that we can trap a feeling and then return to it later, attempting to make connections with other experiences we have registered. We should proceed with some of the patience of an ornithologist lying in the heather waiting for a sighting of a rare migrating bird. The people who have perhaps most adroitly pioneered a careful method of data-collection have been writers. Almost all of these types have kept notebooks, not because of how much they felt (constant sensations are universal), but because of how valuable they understood their apparently minor thoughts might be – and how aware they were of the cost of our brains’ amnesiac tendencies.

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The great 19th-century French novelist Balzac was an inveterate note-book scribe. He was fascinated by human character, and in particular, by how the way people move and the expressions they exhibit give away key things about their personalities. With this theme in view, he became a constant observer of the mannerisms of people he saw in the streets of Paris or met at dinners and in offices. His notebooks tell us:

‘Her movements are not equally distributed over her whole person; she advances in a single block at each step like the statue.’

‘He walks like a despot: a menacing suggestion of security and strength in his slightest movements.’

‘A  brusque movement betrays a vice.’

‘The way this woman saunters around, she can flaunt it all while revealing nothing.’

But Balzac didn’t stop there. These moments of experience couldn’t really honour their role until he worked out where they would be useful. In his case, this meant finding them a place in one of his stories. Though this concern might seem localised, he was stumbling upon a task that is really for everyone. We too need to trap and analyse our sensations, assembling from a thousand diverse hints the material that will form not so much a work of fiction but something far more important: the fabric of our own future working lives.

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So far we’ve been collecting feelings. But there is a next step. The mind needs to connect and generalise outwards from these feelings – while keeping in mind that their implications are almost always indirect. For example, the pleasure of reading a magazine shouldn’t automatically be taken to imply that we must logically try to work for a magazine. Our satisfactions deserve to be examined a little more closely in order accurately to reveal the real range of options before us. When they are attended to properly, the sensations around magazine-reading typically contain a compression of a number of agreeable feelings not indelibly associated with the professional structure of a career in consumer publishing: it might be that we are being drawn to something about the paper stock, or maybe the pictures of interiors or the tone in the problem pages or an atmosphere of dynamism that promises to compensate for a gap in our own background. These pleasures might have occurred while reading a magazine, but they are not – it emerges – especially tied to magazines. Our initial analysis may have passed too swiftly over the real import of our sensations and can lead us in dangerously false directions. In fact, properly sifted, our feelings might prompt us towards a career that has nothing at all to do with magazines: we may be more suited to a stationery firm, a psychotherapy practice or an industrial design studio. The information relevant for guiding us to these careers just happened to manifest itself in the back issues of Bella or Better Homes and Gardens.

This is partly why we should for a long time be so careful not to think with ourselves or others about specific jobs – and should instead focus on qualities within jobs. We should not rush to conclusions like ‘graphic designer’ or ‘teacher’ but rather stick for as long as possible with the pleasures that jobs contain, captured by words like: order, leadership, meaning, calm, team-spirit…

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At this point we need to invoke the idea of an inner dialogue. As we proceed, one side of the mind must generously, but insistently, question the other. The observer self should ask the everyday feeling self: ‘so you found this nice, what was it really about the experience that pleased you, it wasn’t everything, it was something more specific. Could you go into greater detail?’ And the feeling self can say: ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure. It was just sweet’. And the observing self can come back: ‘give it another go. It’s fine that you are unsure, we’ll circle around for another approach. Remember, that other time, there was something a little bit similar but not exactly the same. What if we compare them’. And gradually the initial hints yield up parts of the information they contain about what really makes us happy or upset – and hence edge us a little way further forward towards understanding who we can and ideally should be around work.

It isn’t only pleasurable sensations that hold out clues for the future. Envy too is a vital, if more unexpected guide. Shame is a natural response to feelings of envy. However, to feel embarrassed by our envious moments risks encouraging us to repress them – and therefore, to lose out on deriving some hugely important lessons from them. While envy is uncomfortable, squaring up to the emotion is an indispensable requirement for determining a career path; envy is a call to action that should be heeded, containing garbled messages sent by confused but important parts of our personalities about what we should do with the rest of our lives. Without regular envious attacks, we couldn’t know what we wanted to be. Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should make every effort to study it. Each person we envy possesses a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future. There is a portrait of a ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the envious hints we receive when we turn the pages of a newspaper or hear updates on the radio about the career moves of old schoolmates. Rather than run from the emotion, we should calmly ask one essential and redemptive question of all those we envy: ‘What could I learn about here?’

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Even when we do attend to our envy, we generally remain extremely poor students of envy’s wisdom. We start to envy certain individuals in their entirety, when in fact, if we took a moment to analyse their lives we would realise that it was only a small part of what they had done that really resonates with us, and should guide our own next steps. It might not be the whole of the restaurant entrepreneur’s life we want, but really just their skill at building up institutions. Or we might not truly want to be a potter and yet we might need in our working lives a little more of the playfulness on display in the work of one example we know. What we’re in danger of forgetting is that the qualities we admire don’t just belong to one specific, attractive life. They can be pursued in lesser, weaker (but still real) doses in countless other places, opening up the possibility of creating more manageable and more realistic versions of the lives we desire.

We must learn to tease out insights concealed in apparently tiny movements of satisfaction and distress scattered across our lives. Once we see how vague our minds really are – and how naturally tricky it is for us to piece together the answers to complex but highly important questions about our futures – we can gain a new perspective. We start to appreciate that our career analysis is going to take time, that it has many stages, that the reach for an immediate answer can backfire – and that it is a strangely magnificent, delicate and noble task to work out what one should most justly do with the rest of one’s brief life on earth.

In 1700, in Western Europe, there were some 400 different kinds of jobs you could choose from. Nowadays, there are approximately 500,000. No wonder if we sometimes have a bit of trouble settling on what we might want to do.

For most of history, the majority of humans have believed that this life is not the only chance we get to fulfill ourselves. There will be other lives beyond death, in which we will be able to correct the errors made here on earth. Career anxiety stems – in part – from a growing inability to believe in next lives.

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An average life might be – only – 600,000 hours long. Identifying fulfilling work requires a judicious blending of fear and haste – with self-examination and patience.

We pin our hopes for happiness on Love and Work. And yet in relation to both, refuse to plan methodically, to understand ourselves thoroughly, to train relentlessly and to go into therapy before we act. We worship instinct in precisely the wrong places.

Seldom are we both so acutely dissatisfied and yet so unsure about what would satisfy us as we are in relation to our work. We know only what is wrong rather than what would be right; our displeasure cries out to be heard and yet refuses to point us in any clear direction when we bend down to hear it.

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As with relationships, it’s an immense relief – and no sign of meanness – to know that other people are also very unhappy around their work. Not feeling alone is a significant, dignified consolation.

The witching hour for career crises is late Sunday afternoon, usually 5pm: when the vague hopes and sense of possibility of the weekend finally crash into the cold realities of the week ahead. The extent of our despair is a measure of our degree of unused potential.

Career anxiety is our latent talent howling through our minds, desperate not to go to the grave unspent.

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The modern meaning of life: that our deepest interests should find external expression in a form that others will find useful – and that will bring in sufficient funds for a bourgeois life. The ambition is enormous, beautiful and worthy of solemn respect for its trickiness.

It is only in very recent history that we’ve even attempted not just to make money at work, but also – extraordinarily – to be happy there as well. How deeply peculiar the idea would have sounded to most of our ancestors: especially the aristocrats who never worked and the working classes who would mostly strongly have wanted not to. Happy work is the genius, malevolent invention of the bourgeoisie.

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Our career crises are aggravated by the sense that our talents aren’t real unless a) they make us money b) we mine them full time c) they aren’t just hobbies. Such dogmas are, at the very least, open to question.

We reassure ourselves about the amount of time we have left by pegging our imagined death to the date of the average lifespan, without remembering that long before we reach that terminal point, we will have passed through years of growing infirmity, terror as our friends die off, a sense that we no longer feel at home in the world and humiliating bladder problems. In other words: we must never hold back from a useful panic at how little time there is left.

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Given how consequential the issue it treats is, how extraordinary that career counselling should still be the most amateur and haphazard of occupations, about as shoddy as medieval brain surgery. 

Many of us are still trapped within the career-cage unwittingly created for us by some hasty ignorant choices made by our unknowing 18-year-old selves.

In the utopia, we would start studying ‘What I want to be when I grow up?’ from the age of 5 to 18, one hour a week, rising to three by the senior year of school.

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Where your talents and aptitudes meet the needs of the world, that is the zone of our distinctive life mission.

Write down 10 jobs that your acquaintances from university are pursuing that you yourself definitely have no interest in. List the reasons why. Start to understand the particularities of your working identity.

What we want above all is meaningful work – which means in essence: work that either alleviates the suffering or increases the pleasure of other people.

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When work feels meaningful, you’d be ready to lay your life down for it in return for a salary roughly equivalent to the minimum wage. When you know it ultimately makes no sense, you quibble over millions. Soldiers vs. bankers.

Envy feels unpleasant and shameful, but it contains vital clues as to your own submerged ambitions. Keep a record of everyone you meet whose job makes you envious. Slowly assemble a portrait of your ideal occupation through an analysis of your envious emotions. Keep an Envy Diary.

We often don’t make any change to our careers because we are fixated on enormous transformations – and disregard the role of evolutions. But a whole new career might germinate from an enrolment on an evening class once a week.

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People don’t tend to leave jobs because of the pay or even the office politics. They leave when they are no longer learning.

Reflecting back on our most satisfying childhood interests matters in part because we were at that stage free of the two great anxieties that later inhibit the flowering of our real working selves: the need for money and the longing for status. True success might mean, by 50, having returned in key ways to what it was fun to do at five.

All parents unwittingly (or not) create a sense that certain jobs are not possible for their children: because the jobs are too lowly, or too high – or just because people in our family don’t do that kind of thing. Reflect on 10 occupations that might have been plausible but were (psychologically) off the table back home.

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Serfdom had ended in Western Europe by the early 15th century. But it continues as a psychological category in our unconscious. Such things can take a few millenia to work themselves through. It is why we are usually so catastrophically modest about what we deserve to achieve.

It is humbling, not a little ridiculous and yet deadly consequential that the greatest part of our success in life should depend on CONFIDENCE, a subject never taught at school, that sounds like the preserve of dumb self-help manuals – but that will nevertheless determine how much we go on to dare (which is the half of it at least).

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If confidence can’t be summoned in more standard, gentle ways, death is always there as a resource to frighten us into productivity.

Change begins when the fear of not acting at all at last outstrips the paralysing fear of making a mistake.

MONEY, CREATIVITY, RESPECT, STABILITY. Rank in order of importance.

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Recognise how thin your knowledge of possible occupations may be – because of the unhelpful influence of art (especially film) which relentlessly throws the spotlight in the same few places: doctor, lawyer, politician… How many people have missed their vocation because there have – as yet – been no TV dramas set in the world of logistics.

When we think of changing careers, we’re often held back by the thought of a few friends in particular who we guess would be especially surprised and somehow offended. A career shift might involve, in part, readjusting one’s circle of friends.

Our prospective working selves are like Russian dolls. There are at least five utterly plausible working selves within each of us. We are multiple selves in vain search of singular identities.

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On a large sheet of paper, make a map of how you have got to where you are now in the shape of a river; show tributaries feeding the main current and dams where things got blocked or failed.

What job is the person doing whom you would most like to see fail? There are clues here.

Make a list of your fears in relation to work, among them: I won’t earn enough; I will be ridiculed; I will disappoint X; I will be bored; I won’t make a contribution to society; I won’t properly mine my talents. Give each a seriousness score from 1-10.

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A palliative nurse described one of the major regrets of the dying as the wish they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.

Stop thinking of jobs you might want to do – and start to think of qualities in jobs. In short, not ‘graphic designer’ or ‘teacher’ but words like: creative, leadership, meaning, calm, team-spirit.

We face two tasks: to get on well with our parents. To have a job we like. Parents should never make the choice harder than it is.

What I fear most about my career going wrong is: I won’t earn enough; I won’t be creative enough; I won’t make a contribution to society; I will be a nobody. Arrange according to urgency.

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Which of these are you – in the end – best at: numbers, words, images, people?

My mother/father gave me a sense that a good career is… If only my mother/father had really helped me to be a…

The prospect of succeeding is remarkably scary. Who or what experience may have made you feel as though you may not deserve success?

Not having a plan quickly puts us at the mercy of those who have one.

To create; To help; To serve; To teach; To design; To build; To earn; Give a score out of 10 to each.

Email seven friends and tell them you are taking part in an experiment which forces you to ask them what five jobs they believe you might be suited to other than the one you’re currently pursuing.

Every successful business is at heart an attempt to solve someone’s problem: what are – for  you – mankind’s most interesting problems?

Every moment of unhappiness is, potentially, a new business waiting to be born.

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In what areas of life are you thought by your friends to be especially ‘fussy’? Treat this heightened sensitivity as a storehouse in which business ideas lie buried.

Look back to the most ‘ridiculous’ ideas for a business you ever had: imagine they were not as ridiculous as all that. Emerson: ‘In the minds of geniuses, we find – again – our own neglected thoughts.’

If I was forced to run a shop, it would sell…

Don’t berate yourself for being preoccupied with your professional future. Don’t let others describe the anxiety as neurotic. Give the agony the time it needs; luxuriate in it. Prepare to spend one hour every evening on it and four hours every weekend.

That you haven’t yet found your vocation is no indication that you will never discover it. Even if you are currently seventy-three.

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It’s entirely acceptable to have wasted so much time.

How unusual to seek to be happy through work. We’re trying to do something new and pioneering, like space flight – and there might be accidents on our missions.

A job you love doesn’t mean that there is only job you could love. So it will always be reasonable to have regrets.

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It’s easy to imagine that everything has been done and tried: the exciting and simultaneously alarming truth is that we have as yet barely scratched the surface. There are hundreds of years of invention and creativity left in our species.

There’s a temptation to see the immature sides of your parents as stemming from their work – and therefore to discount following in their professional footsteps, thereby perhaps missing out on some potentially rather good opportunities. Don’t have too much contempt for the corrupted familiar.

Be suspicious of so-called “creative industries”: they tend to be far more “industries” than “creative” centres. There are perhaps in the end very few places where you can be both properly secure and properly creative.

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We often judge jobs by their beginnings – and therefore do certain careers a bad disservice, while overvaluing others. What the career looks like for the first five years may not be at all what it looks like later. Many of the best jobs don’t have good beginnings at all.

Time to rehabilitate and lend dignity to the notion of regret: of course there will be things we will never get to do… Spread a consoling spirit by learning to ask at parties, with gentle melancholy, not ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what do you wish you might have done?’

A very common way to identify what job we might like to do is to set our sights on industries that produce the sort of things we enjoy consuming. We enjoy their outputs – and therefore seek to partake professionally in their inputs.

This means that we’re pretty likely to write off whole areas of the economy, because they’re not obviously connected up with offering up things we enjoy consuming. If I’m visually creative, I’m likely to ridicule the idea of working in the cement industry. If I love nature, I’ll probably dismiss the energy industry as a good fit, or if I love self-expression, I’m probably not going to see the finance sector as an obvious area to look for a job I could love. We associate sectors with their overt outputs and therefore very quickly come to the view that whole fields have nothing very much to offer us.

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And yet there can be huge benefit in considering jobs not in terms of how we feel about their outputs, but in terms of how our interests align with their inputs. So when we think of a given industry, we should ask more rigorously than is usual what must in reality be required to produce its goods and services. What will the people working in it actually be doing so that the obvious output can finally emerge? We don’t necessarily need to go on extensive factual missions to find out more, we simply need to use our imaginations so as to make plausible guesses at the many things that must necessarily be going on in a business that will have little directly in common with the final output.

From afar, the shipping industry might sound very far from our interests. After all, we hate the sea and aren’t in any way moved by the sight of large container ships docking in ports. But, in terms of inputs, the shipping industry calls on many skills and interests far removed from its output. It will involve things like motivating international co-operation around long-term projects; explaining trade offs in ways that are realistic and yet bearable to all involved; there will be challenges around taking major decisions under conditions of uncertainty; there will be complex legal and political negotiations in the background; it will be necessary to turn masses of data into easily visualised charts showing who is responsible for what; adverts will need to be commissioned and assessed; conferences will have to be organised and catered for; there will be huge requirements around internal communication. In other words there will be a great many areas of work that are not inherently bound up with sending freight down the Suez canal. So the fact that one might not be especially interested in shipping – the output – might not be any sign that this sector really is the wrong place to be thinking about a possible career.

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Or imagine someone who automatically discounts a career in journalism, because they imagine (during a first, cursory glance) that it must be focused mainly on writing and analysis of current events. But if we reflect on the matter, we’ll start to realise that there must necessarily be a huge range of other inputs that accompany the production of the output. Media companies will be heavily concerned with controlling costs, there will be a great need for careful organisation of resources; learning about the interests of consumers will be a key factor in the success of a media enterprise; developing new business models will be critical too. So, even if one is not personally very interested in producing stories about current events, journalism might still provide many openings for the particular kinds of pleasure one is most interested in: organising other people, simplifying complex processes, time management or teaching and learning. These interests don’t leap to mind because they aren’t part of the output picture of the sector but they emerge as vital once we start to think more carefully about the required range of inputs.

What holds for the shipping industry or for journalism holds for many other sectors as well. The inputs will often look quite different from the things we initially associate with an industry. Instead of asking whether the output looks like the kind of thing we enjoy, we should therefore be asking whether our pleasures might be included within the input of an industry. It’s a modest, but hugely liberating move that can usefully expand our sense of where our best opportunities might lie.

Missions are things we tend to associate with astronauts.

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If someone at a party asked you what you did, and you said you were involved on a mission of some kind, people would look at you sort of strangely.

 

But in truth, we’d all benefit from focusing in on the purpose of our lives so that we can refer to them as missions of one kind or another.

 

 

 

When the entrepreneur Elon Musk was at university, he asked himself very explicitly what his mission in life would be. He began by wondering what the world needed most urgently, then he looked into himself to see what his talents were and that led him to a list of four possible missions: space exploration, electric transportation, Artificial Intelligence and rewriting the human genome. In the end, Elon Musk chose the first two.

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Few of us will ever settle on missions as mighty as these, but the notion of having a mission, rather than a mere job or hobby, remains widely applicable. How, then, can we learn to adopt the mission mindset?

– Firstly, what matters is to adopt a certain seriousness about one’s life. The working bit will only be, at best, 50 years. So the challenge is around focus: how can one reduce the range of one’s enthusiasms and see that having so many interests is half the problem. Talk of a mission forces us to reduce what we care about down to just a few very big things: it privileges precision over breadth. You give yourself a specific target, aware of how much energy it will take to reach it.

– Secondly, a mission is about having a plan; and reducing the amount of times that, because one has no clear goal, one gets swept along by the plans of others.

– Then again, a mission is different from an ambition. An ambition starts with what you want. A mission centers around what others need. People with missions may well end up making money and having status, but that isn’t what led them to the mission in the first place. Missions are about the intrinsic worth of tasks.

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– The search for a mission requires you to ask: among all the problems facing humanity, what are the ones that properly interest me? Be alive to the small-scale but authentic concerns.

– Having focused on a problem of humanity that feels right for you, you then need to take an honest look at your own aptitutes. What truly are your talents? What can you contribute? That may require a lot of introspection, career counselling and experimentation.

– Then, where your skills and aptitudes intersect with the needs of the world, that is your distinctive zone: that’s where your mission lies.

– A mission isn’t a mission because it is grand, but because it is precise. Examples of modest but crucial missions might be:

– a mission to improve the care that the elderly receive at the end of their lives

– or a mission to teach children music in an engaging way

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– or a mission to get the best pizzas out to the customers of north Liverpool or downtown San Diego.

– Conceiving of a mission requires us to throw off an attitude of inner serfdom, where we imagine that only other people have the right to plan their lives – and everyone else must just surrender to accidents and random whims of employers.

– We can and should all have missions.

With a mission in hand, the next time you’re at a party, you won’t need to keep the conversation at the level of where you’re employed, you can answer with reference to the underlying logic of what you are up to.

You can, with no space helmet to your name, legitimately announce that you’re in this earth with a mission to carry out.