Wednesday, 28 October 2009

How would you describe your career?

As so often happens to me, I had the experience of two random events combining themselves into a new thought pattern in my head last week. I don't go looking for it to happen - it just does. 

The first was from a recent conversation with a colleague who had just read my post "Who's Managing your Headroom" (28th August) and sharing that, whilst he thought it was funny, he recognised the metaphor of "running out of headroom" as a critical incident for his thinking about his own career.

The discussion about his career that followed stayed in my head for a while to be joined by the second event at the weekend... We were at a delightful party for the daughter of a family friend to celebrate her 21st birthday. Katie is the same age as my own daughter and they have been great friends since pre-school days.

The party was a joyful event, tinged with more than a touch of nostalgia as we witnessed the positive effects of those passing years on the beautiful vibrant young as they prepared for graduation and their chosen careers, and the not-so-positive effects on our parental group as we approach retirement from ours!

I was struck, not only by the unoriginal thought of how quickly time passes, but also to ponder on why a career is called a career?

As a word it has an alternative connotation of something that is out of control, frantic and random in direction - like a detached snowbard on a steep ski run careering down to the bottom, (or a people-carrier driving at speed towards a low-tunnel with insufficient headroom?) It's an unmanaged process that is both dangerous and with great risk. I reflected on how I would describe my own working life if it wasn't to include the notion of a "career".

After over 20 years as a free-lancing consultant, I settled on "joyful gambol" in the field of coaching, learning and development. (I am acutely aware that this could also serve as a homophonic "joyful gamble" - which would also be true!)

So - my question is - how would you describe your career?

I'd love to know.


  1. Assuming that ‘career’ means something to which one devotes one’s precious years, days, hours, minutes post-school and pre-retirement, mine finished 17 blessed years ago when I achieved early retirement from full-time FE teaching—then I called it ‘escape from wage slavery’. Everything being relative, it was the total freedom that thereafter was involved in ‘working’ just whenever I felt like it, and not otherwise, that made the previous 38 years seem like ‘slavery’—working for somebody else.

    I've found it really useful to work my brain round Hilary’s question: I have to struggle like mad to put what I did for those 38 years in a category labelled ‘career’; the struggle throws up many interesting things: for me, trying to make any abstraction meaningful is like wrestling with a frog at the bottom of a pond; ‘career’ is somehow an unnecessary linguistic addition to what I actually engaged in for 38 years; I just did things which seemed quite useful for others, helped them to construct the world in different ways.

    Most of it was called ‘teaching’ but I started off in an Income Tax Office. It got to 10 o’clock on my first day at work and I wondered what it would be like on the day I retired. On the day I retired (38 years later, 17 blessed years ago) I made a speech which included a poem about when it got to 10 o’clock on my first day of work wondering what it would be like now (then)...

    For most of those 38 years I found Sartre’s notion of ‘Bad Faith’ really compelling: when you are asked, “What do you do for a living?” and you answer, “I am a waiter,” or “I am a teacher,” or “I shell peas,” you are committing an act of ‘Bad Faith’; you are not being faithful to Being-for-yourself; it’s so easy to escape from our humanity into a seemingly solid but ultimately false category, an abstraction that fails to denote, or even conceals, the huge range of individual acts that go to make up what we really do. We make ourselves into ‘things’. It makes it easier.

    I was a shepherd. I was a joker or clown. I master-minded intellectual patterns around specimens of English Literature. I executed pedagogical pirouettes. I built structures of ideas that some found useful. I wrote poems about it all to figure out how I did it.

    Mostly I led a charmed life; nobody bothered me because I seemed to know what I was doing. I never had a CV — never had anything that tied me down to a capacity for doing this or that. I managed, without thinking about it, to escape definition. I collected the money every time I passed GO.

    Looking back, I realise now that I had an amble through a series of situations that I gave meaning to. I had a glorious ramble through people’s lives, always taking them very seriously but teaching them not to take themselves too seriously.

    My wife wants to know when I’m going to retire from retirement. But I find it difficult to say, “I am retired”—it would be an act of Bad Faith! I have no intention of stopping myself asking questions, setting up brain-exercises for myself and others.

    The amble has been one I’ve been lucky enough to be able to sustain for myself—I can’t imagine why anybody should have given me money just for ambling.

    What would life be like, I wonder, if we were educated into doing what we do solely because we feel that it’s goddam important to do what we do, rather than for the sake of some abstraction like ‘career’ or ‘prestige’ or ‘achievement’ or ‘honour’ or whatever?

  2. Hah - so why do we call it "retire" - so that you can be "re-tired?" I don't want to be tired! Maybe should be "re-tyred" - then we could go to new places at exhilerating speed!
    Someone significant (;-))whilst performing pirouettes around the language told me that "all words are metaphors". I wonder who that was?