It was an epiphany, if I ever had one. I was in a bar, recently, with a bunch of college friends, most of whom not seen each other in over ten years. As I was catching up with one such friend, it hit me out of nowhere. The ever-elusive definition of career, or, what most people think of, when they attempt to answer the question, what do you want to be when you grow up.
See, I had thought I had a definition. As a teenager, I’d had an interest in art – writing and film, specifically – and I wanted to be a screen writer, so I went to school and studied Communications – video editing and production. During my college career, I had gotten a taste of counseling – helping my peers through their problems. Boyfriend issues, homesickness, problems with roommates. So I redefined career, and set out on a new path, pursuing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. I worked on college campuses – counseling, supervising, and motivating students – and loved it. But the counseling part of things was just okay, as I soon learned that I preferred working with groups of people educating them in classroom settings, instead of in one-on-one environments. So I took that newfound interest and began searching for jobs that would allow me to train and educate. After landing a job in the training and development field, jettisoning the college environment for the corporate world, I found myself, six months later…
I would go on, but I think you get the idea. I had defined, and then redefined my definition of career, not once, or twice, or even three times. I had set out on several different career paths, thinking that with each one, I had found the elusive element I was looking for – the career that completed me.
In graduate school, I read about a career development expert, Donald Super, who theorized that any combination of qualities – passion, interest, skill, ability, family background, etc. – would lead one to a career. I thought Super’s theory was the best thing I had ever heard. Reflecting on passion and interest had worked for me, that was one way to define career.
When I taught freshman seminar at a community college, I had convinced my students they would find a career that fit them by trying different possibilities. Taking classes from different disciplines, volunteering, talking to professors, learning from professionals in the workforce. Essentially, taking an active approach to their career. That was another way to define career.
During my time as a counselor, the colleagues I had worked with were big into career inventories (like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which are essentially career personality tests – Read several scenarios. Fill in bubbles. A list of careers emerge. I thought those inventories were too limiting, but the students I taught loved them. Still yet, another way to define career.
So there I had been, with two degrees, a vast amount of education, counseling and teaching students, but still with relatively no idea of what I wanted to do, when I grew up.
Until the reunion.
My friend Sarah and I had been catching up. The music was so loud that her words were barely audible. But I felt everything she was saying. Sarah and I were in the same place. Like me, Sarah had two degrees. Like me, Sarah had well-laid out career paths, just knowing that when she got there, she would be happy. Like me, Sarah was stuck.
Career had evaded us both.
The more Sarah and I spoke about our careers – jobs we’d had, career interests that’d changed, the frustration from it all – the more career felt within our grasps.
What I discovered, with Sarah’s help, is that career isn’t the most important thing in my life. My family is. My wife, son, daughter, and even our pet dog. And since family is the apex of my world, my career should be something that allows me to maximize my time and energy with my family, instead of serving as a distraction from my family. This isn’t to suggest that I should consider working part-time, or not at all. Or not having career-related goals and interests. Rather, instead of worrying myself with finding a career to complete me, it dawned on me – in that bar, music blaring, basking in the smiles and laughter of friends I hadn’t seen in forever – that perhaps my preoccupation should be with, what Sarah referred to as, work-life balance.
In generations past, adults worked long, grueling hours, saving money to allow them to do things with their families. Overworked, fatigued, and much too stressed. On a never-ending quest for personal fulfill. Spending all of one’s time working, yet not being able to live. That lifestyle isn’t for me. I want to be present at my children’s games, matches, and rehearsals, and be there when they look into the audience, seeing I’m their biggest cheerleader. I want to teach my daughter how to ride a bike, and be there for her when she falls and scrapes her knee. I want to show my son how to throw ball and mow the lawn, yet instill in him that these are not necessarily men’s roles or jobs, that women can do anything men can, sometimes even better. I want to take my wife on all those vacations we swore we’d take, before we had kids and life became chaotic.
After chatting with Sarah, I made a promise to myself – to not worry myself sick, trying desperately to find a career to complete me. For the college student, this isn’t to suggest that you cannot, or should not, have, and seek to develop, career goals. My wife was introduced to occupational therapy as a teenager. She went to college to study occupational therapy. And she has been an OT for several years. In all likelihood, occupational therapy will be the career she has for the remainder of her life.
What this does suggest, however, is that changing majors, or switching career goals, or not being satisfied with a current occupation does not define who you are. You define who you are. A career doesn’t have to feel like the boogey man, making you afraid or ashamed to admit you don’t have your dream job. Nor does it have to feel like another person’s lofty accomplishments that you are always trying to measure yourself against, and failing miserably.
Work-life balance. For many of today’s students, that’s what career will mean. No longer is a career a place where you have to spend all of your time and energies, trying to make as money as you can, just hoping to get through the day. Where it feels like your job owns you, and you can never quite get out from under its grasp. That definition of career is outdated and passé. Like the tyrant sports coach, who yells and shouts, and berates his players in hopes of getting them to play harder.
Just as there’s a different way of coaching today’s athletes, there’s a different, better, more holistic way today’s employees are approaching career. An approach that says – As long as my job provides the financial means that allows me to travel, or has a generous PTO package that allows me to spend time writing my novel, or offers flexible hours that allows me to be there for my kids, whenever they need, and allows me to do something that makes me happy and satisfied on some level, that is the career for me. No longer do today’s students need to feel like prisoners to the idea of having a career. For many of today’s students, career isn’t going to be what makes them feel alive, work-life balance is.
That night in that bar, I said good-bye to the antiquated definition of career, and I took back the power I once gave it. No longer will I allow the idea of having a career to control and dictate my life. After all, career doesn’t define me. Rather, it’s just one of the many parts, that is me. Should I decide to change careers, it won’t make me any less of a person, less educated, or less talented. I’ve reframed my thinking. Putting my family in the center of my life – where they belong – and placing career on the perimeter, as supplemental tool that will allow me to do what I love most, spend time with my family. Because, in the end, the only entity that will ever give me ultimate fulfillment, in the way I am seeking, is my family.
Take that career.