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3 COMMON CAREER ILLUSIONS

And so this is Christmas… a magical time for thinking about things. Before we switch off for the next little bit and tuck into our favourite festive movies, I’d like to ring out the old by taking a look at three types of career-side magical thinking (in the less positive sense of that first word) that I have noticed in so many clients. If you’ve been erring in your career approach, and find yourself approaching 2023 with a mounting sense of frustration, then it’s possible you’ve erred in at least one of these ways.


MAGICAL THOUGHT #1: ‘IF I GET MY CAREER RIGHT, MY LIFE WILL FOLLOW’

This is the age-old error of living to work rather than working to live. Any amount of personal happiness and fulfilment is considered worth sacrificing, and on an indefinite basis, for the goal of career success.

What a cod! If you succumb to this superstition (and that’s all it is), then you will reduce yourself to a dog chasing its tail. Your work-life balance will be badly out of whack, as you invest your best hours, days, months and years into experiences that simply will not add up to a life. You will find it difficult to decompress outside work, and may even allow the institutionalised behaviours associated with your workplace to infect your non-workplace life.

Your in-work balance will also be out of whack, for you will be seeking from your job that which your job simply cannot give you: personal fulfilment. If I were to list all the on-the-ground distortions and wastes of energy to which this can give rise, the present blog post would be a painfully long read.

Let me just name one however: ‘I will become a worthwhile human being as soon as I am successful.’ If you are in any way captive to such a thought, you need to have a stern chat with yourself over Christmas. While career success can be a factor in self-esteem, it can never—never—substitute for genuine, healthy self-regard. But if you understand the proper place of work in your life, you will value its challenges and relationships in a balanced way without mistaking these for something else.

Many people buy into the living-to-work ethos subconsciously, and resent any suggestion that they are a prisoner to it. That’s why it’s so important to take an honest look at how you are actually allocating your time, energy and emotions: if ‘Work’ is trumping the awfully big adventure known as ‘Life’, then something has got to give.


MAGICAL THOUGHT #2: ‘PLAYING IT SAFE IS THE SAFE OPTION’

This used to be a prudent rather than a magical thought. The world of work used to belong to the steady-as-you-go Realists. Professions were structured in such a way that safety and predictability were the hallmarks of the solid career path. As Bono’s dad used to tell his kids, to dream is to be disappointed. ‘Get yourself on the ladder for a permanent pensionable job’ was sound career advice.

But not any more. Things have changed, and are going to keep on changing at an ever-accelerating pace. Technology (including A.I.) and globalisation are making the world of work a far less predictable space. How each of us responds to this fact will be critical.

The people who are getting squeezed worst in the new economy are the Realists, those same steady-as-you-go types who were in their element in the old economy. The problem for these people is not so much their realism as their lack of counterbalancing restlessness. They will stick with a role for years even when it gives them zip-all by way of real job satisfaction. They will coast along feeling bored and/or stressed and/or demotivated. They will put more time into planning their yearly holiday than mapping out their career. In short they will sacrifice their true career potential to some outdated notion of ‘being in the real world’. More and more, these people are getting found out in the new real world that is supplanting the old one. Their safety-first approach is becoming more and more high-risk, because their model of reality is broken and out of date.

I am firmly convinced that the future belongs to what I call the Restless Realists. Being career smart nowadays means planning for change and, in many cases, actively instigating it in bold and imaginative ways.

Does this mean that the pendulum has swung totally and that the future now suddenly belongs as a matter of course to the dreamers and lateral thinkers? Not quite...


MAGICAL THOUGHT #3: ‘IF IT DOESN’T ALWAYS GIVE ME THE RIGHT FEELS, THEN IT’S NOT RIGHT FOR ME’

If there’s one group of people I worry about more than the old-school Realists it’s those who don’t balance their restlessness with realism.

Take someone on a graduate programme who feels bored and underwhelmed. If they are restless without being realistic they will jump ship and potentially do material damage to their prospects.

So here’s the trick: know when to be patient and when to be impatient. By all means take risks, but make them measured risks. Allow in advance for certain amount of tedium and old-school slog. Assume that setbacks will fall in your way. Understand the law of delayed gratification, and put it to work for you.

I sometimes use the analogy of learning a foreign language. You need to put the work in. It won’t come instantly. It’s a process, and you have to trust in it, all the while looking for ways to optimise your learning strategies. A person who dreams big in their career but is not willing to do what it takes to get places is like someone who goes to sleep with a foreign-language audiobook on headphones and trusts that this low-effort strategy—and this alone—will make them fluent in the language.

A certain non-negotiable minimal level of commitment and follow-through is needed if you want to make it in your career. Think of it as learning the ‘grammar’ and ‘vocabulary’ of your chosen career field. If you run away at the first sign of discomfort or adversity, you are only sabotaging yourself.

People who fall into the error I have been describing here have allowed the subjective and the objective to get out of balance. Their moves are too often dictated by their moods. Their demand that reality honour their wishes is unreasonable. They are setting themselves up for failure in their careers, and no amount of poor-me whingeing is going to turn things around for them.

What to do if you fall into this group? Simple: get excited by the idea of stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone. Start relishing the challenge of making yourself a viable proposition in the world of work. Identify your true metier, roll up your sleeves, and put the damn work in. Your future self will thank you for it.


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Okay, enough with the real talk. On behalf of all at Clearview, here’s wishing each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and much career success in the New Year!


Jane

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