Think Feel Act

You are not your career

Recently I attended a careers expo at a local university for senior high school students.

Hundreds of teenagers and their parents braved Melbourne’s rain and biting wind (which had been piped directly from Antarctica) to listen to talks from bright young things about their experiences in various careers – and to collect the usual tomes from each university on undergraduate degrees.

Nothing much has changed from the type of event I attended when I was in high school in the 1980s. The formula is (and was) something like this:

  • [Career of choice] is a wonderful and fabulous way to [fill in superlatives here]
  • The secret to success is dedication and lashings of hard work.
  • You have to be prepared to put in the hours to make it in this career – 12-15 hour days are not unusual.
  • But when you love what you do the hours don’t matter.

Is this healthy?

But while I wasn’t surprised that nothing had changed – I was disappointed.

Disappointed because doing 15 hour days regularly is a risk for burnout and health problems – yet we are setting this up as a standard for the next generation to aspire to. Is working a 15 hour day wise or safe for anybody? Are the mental health and relationship risks worth it just to say you added some more clients to your client base or climbed a little further up the corporate ladder?

Disappointed because the implied definition of success is limited to success in career. Of course most of us must work. But if work must be part of our lives – work does not comprise our life, or take the place of other aspects of our life such as family, friends, community and stopping to smell the roses. Our lives run much more deeply and flow more broadly than mere work – no matter how noble or altruistic that work may be.

I wonder how many teenagers have now gone away thinking they won’t have achieved success until they can earn $200 (or more) per hour, or have so many blue chip clients in their portfolio. Is any of this even healthy?

It’s not who you are

But I never wanted to live my life with those values – and I don’t want my children to either. I wanted to shake these bright young things and tell them:

Being a [doctor, lawyer, designer, photographer] is not who you are. These things are what you do and they are an expression of your skills and talents at a certain time – not your worth as a person. Because your worth as a person is simply the fact you are a human being.

More important than the label any career gives you is how you behave. Are you ethical, honest, authentic in all your activities? Do you smile at the bus driver or say thank you to the cashier in your local supermarket? Do you judge people kindly? Are you quick to do a favour to someone who needs your help – whether that be friend, family, colleague or stranger? Do you give charity and support causes beyond your personal remit to influence?

Values like gratitude, kindness, honesty, integrity, charity, family bring you the real gold in life. They bring rewards that last a lifetime – their value is beyond all the hourly rates and promotions you can accumulate. How much an hour is a smile worth anyway?

Of course go ahead and earn money – make a mint if you like. But remember this is to support your life – not replace your life. If you are working so hard that you have no time left to look after yourself, let alone your family or anyone else – then there is a very big problem.

And that’s what bothered me the most this afternoon. Maybe these young professionals were riding the waves of energy and youth – but how long could it last for them or anyone else? Were they equipped for the burnout and mental health issues that affect so many? Will they need to wait for a crisis before they learn how to look after themselves?

What I tell myself:

So here’s what I want my children to know – and what I tell myself over and over:

  • Work and career are important but they serve a purpose of contributing to and enriching life, not replacing it.
  • You don’t need a career, fancy position or title to have worth as a person – you are a precious jewel by virtue of the fact you are a human being.
  • Do good in the world whenever you can – it will bring rewards that money can’t buy.
  • Whatever you do, remember to look after yourself because you are worth it.

So how about you? What does career and work mean to you? What do you want your children to know?

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