Who ever dreamed of becoming an Accountant?

stress

In my first post, which is based upon an article I am writing with my friend Ayelet Baron, I introduced the idea of lifeworking – an alternative philosophy for thinking about career and purposeful living. I would like to go deeper into this idea by discussing why it is that we often find ourselves on a life path which is not what we want, and why we sometimes make career choices that actually make us desperately unhappy.

Many of us were benignly guided away from our passions in pursuits such as sport, music and art at a relatively young age with the advice that such interests were unlikely to lead us into a ‘good’ job. I experienced just this advice having achieved success as an elite junior cyclist in Australia in my mid teens, before being guided towards the ‘rational’ career path of a university degree.

I grew up on a housing estate in a working class neighbourhood in a small town in country Victoria, a southern state in Australia. I spent my first four years of high school at a vocational college, but was a lousy tradesman. So I moved to an academic High School for my final two years of studies and did very well.

I had dreamed of being a professional road cyclist since I was nine years old, but despite having enough talent to make it to the national level I had increasing doubts about my dreams. It was not that any one person told me that I should abandon my ambitions, and my parents were incredibly supportive. But the influence of my environment – School career advisors, teachers and friends slowly but surely created doubts and fears.

The message was that a cycling career was a dream, and that I should be more realistic especially since I was clever academically. Of my six brothers and sisters, I was the only one to finish High School, and when I was growing up I knew of only a handful of kids from my neighbourhood who had gone on to tertiary education.

In the end, the choice to pursue an academic path was my own but it was not my most desired path. I am not sure if you can understand what I am saying – I felt that it was almost inevitable that I should stop cycling, even though it was a heartbreaking choice.

Why was this kind of subtle pressure applied to me even by those who cared about me the most – because of course, there was an underlying belief that if I might achieve ‘traditional’ career progression and a good income, then this would provide the platform for contentment and happiness. But for me, and for many career professionals, these last two outcomes remained stubbornly elusive. Why was that?

Since the turn of the century the higher education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to the functional division of labour.

By the age of fifteen or sixteen, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on an educational track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths. The bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees originally awarded by European universities have been adopted in the most diverse societies throughout the world, and while generalist degrees do exist, degrees in fields such as accountancy and finance, commerce, engineering, information systems, law and medicine have become increasingly prominent.

As a student progresses further and further up the educational hierarchy, the more functionally specialized their learning tends to become.  This linear educational path often then sets an individual onto a more or less linear career path – law students become lawyers, engineering students become engineers and accounting students become accountants. And once in an organization, career paths often unfold in an equally linear way – first as an individual contributor within a functional department, then team leader and on to middle and sometimes senior management in the same function.

Of course, this is not to say that a humanities major cannot become a Chief Financial Officer, and some organizations, such as Shell and GE, actively encourage cross-functional experience as part of an overall talent development framework. But in most large organizations this kind of zig-zag career path is the exception rather than the rule.

And if you were to ask many functionally specialized career professionals if they are really passionate about the career track that they have followed, how many would answer you in the affirmative? Most would answer with a kind of resigned acceptance that this is the track that they were put on when they were in their early teens, and there is not much chance of changing now.

Something else starts to happen on this linear educational and professional track – as we progress we are ranked and compared to others, typically according to a narrow range of performance criteria. First are academic grades, and then organizational performance indicators such as productivity or sales results. Indeed, achievement of these metrics often provides the basis for the next stage of progression. As we progress, we start to accrue artefacts of recognition – degree certificates and job titles, for example.  So it is not surprising that many career professionals start to define their success – and sometimes their identity – through the accrual of these artefacts by their late twenties and early thirties.

For some people these artefacts become important indicators of social status and position, and become a kind of career snobbery whereby one evaluates the value of another according to the academic and career achievements that they have attained. I remember the cocktail parties at some of the prestigious academic institutions at which I’ve worked – social interactions with new acquaintances were often short lived if the others realized that I was not within their own bandwidth of high-level career achievement.

The first question we often get asked in any social or professional setting is ‘what do you do?’  People then judge whether they should spend time talking to you based on your wrapper: how big your title is and how prestigious your organization is.  And in the back of their mind is their own self motivation of how being connected to you will help advance their needs and network.

How successful you are perceived is critical so many work toward the goal of being seen as successful In these situations, and it sometimes seems that your worth is determined by little more than a title on a business card. One of my favourite speakers and writers Alain de Botton has written a book titled ‘Status Anxiety’ on this phenomenon of career snobbery, and it is highly recommended reading.

So is it any surprise that ten to fifteen years into our careers many of us have really started to lose perspective about the wider meaning of success? This was certainly something that started to happen to me by my mid 30s. I felt that I was disconnecting from my deeper passions and dreams, and measuring myself according to criteria set by others.

Even as I was being singled-out as a ‘high-achiever’ and being shepherded towards a fast-track career, I felt that motivation was increasingly outside in rather than inside out. And it was at this time that I really started to sense that there was an imbalance in my work & life. There was a disconnect.

In my next blog I will extend upon this idea of a disconnect by going further into the idea of ‘being the best’ especially in an organizational setting. While my professional mentors were more than ready to set out the exciting path ahead, I experienced that this was defined in the narrow context of my relationship with the organization.

Wider life goals such as fulfilling private relationships and parenting, the pursuit of personal passions such as art or music, sport, health and wellbeing were not even part of the career discussion when I was in my 20s and 30s.  And this led to a situation, by my late 30s, in which many people around me thought that I had achieved a high level of  ‘success’ but which for me felt like something quite different.

The strangest bit was looking at myself in the mirror in the morning, and asking “Who is this guy and what does he really want from life?”

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