You are what you do

I’ve long been passionate about people’s career choices. Way back when I was an academic giving career advice at University Open Days, I would exhort kids (and their hovering parents) to pay less attention to which degrees will get them the most money, or the most prestigious job, and more attention to what they really wanted to do, and what they really enjoy. Sadly I still hear kids plotting their futures based on reasoning that seems to me to be not merely coldly practical, but actually ill-fated. “Where are the jobs?” “What will earn me the most money?” “What will be most impressive?”

Think about it in terms of numbers for a moment. If you assume an 8 hour day, 5 days per week for 48 weeks per year (working on the Australian system of 4 weeks’ leave per year), a rough, back of the envelope calculation that doesn’t include things like public holidays or sick leave, would see a conservative estimate of 30 years of working life add up to over 57,000 hours of paid work in your life. Sure, you might go part time, or take maternity leave, and there are things like long service leave to look forward to, but even if you pare it down conservatively to fifty thousand hours, that’s an awful lot of time to spend on something you’re only doing to pay the bills.

I’ve just finished reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, by Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield. Sure, it was fascinating reading all the details of life on the International Space Station, and how they coped with (and reveled in) weightlessness. Plus it was a very funny read, and I frequently laughed out loud – the man has amazing talent in all kinds of different directions. But the thing that struck me really intensely about the book was one point that he kept on coming back to: although his lifelong dream was to go to space, he enjoyed every step of the intense and laborious preparation along the way. If he had never made it to space, he still loved what he was doing along the way. If he hadn’t enjoyed it, he could never have stuck with it.

That’s not to say there weren’t bad days – and some of them make my tough days at work look like birthday parties in comparison – but overall he was in the right place to use his talents, his passions, and his energies on something he believed in with his whole heart. Whether he went to space or not.

The passion comes across with amazing intensity as you read the book. When I read the last page I was almost teary at saying goodbye to a very personal and emotional tale of a working life lived to its absolute limits. Chris obviously put everything he had into his work, believed in it heart and soul, and made a huge and very public success of it. Whatever your job, ask yourself this: do you feel that way about your job? Is there something else you could be doing that you could feel that way about?

I admit I have been exceptionally lucky. I’ve had opportunity after opportunity, and I have been well placed to take them and see where they led. But at the same time I have constantly sought to do the things I was most passionate about – almost never with a clear idea of where I would end up, or even any expectation of an immediate job. Those few times I had a plan for the future wound up being mere stepping stones to completely different, unexpected paths that have been breathtaking in their intensity and fulfillment. Those opportunities only arose because I was somewhere I wanted to be, working with good people, pursuing things I was fascinated by.

It took me until my late 30s to find a job that gave me everything I was looking for, and I can’t see myself giving up teaching for a long time, if ever, but I am always looking for new chances and interesting directions. I’ve been teaching now for 3 years and each year I think “Maybe this year I’ll do things just like last year, and have a chance to breathe,” but it never happens. There are always wonderful new chances to take, and amazing new directions to explore. Slowing down may be something I will have to contemplate one day, but in the meantime the opportunities are too good to waste.

Chris Hadfield may have retired as an Astronaut, but I have no doubt he will spend the rest of his life giving himself wholeheartedly to every endeavour. That, to me, is living. Anything else is just marking time.

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2 thoughts on “You are what you do

  1. Joe

    Finishing work at the end of this week (after nine years) and barely started advertising myself, I’m contemplating these themes at the moment.

    It’s odd… I can think of several situations where my skills would be well utilised, but in order to be deemed “valid” for those position I’d have to spend years doing tasks that use quite different skills … in which I have only average capability and little interest in exercising them.

    1. lindamciver

      Maybe the trick is to find ways to persuade people that you’d be great without those years… mind you, I didn’t manage to do that when i was looking for education/writing work in NGOs, so I’m not the best person to ask!

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