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How Our Past (and Present) Can Help Us Find a Career

How Our Past (and Present) Can Help Us Find a Career

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

Find out more in our class on Purpose.

By The School of Life

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