This afternoon I found myself talking to my friend Megan about why I ended up working as a legally qualified policy advisor with a deep-rooted passion for blogging. It's not a career title I officially use, but it accurately sums up how I see myself today.
Over tea and cupcakes from Floriditas, we fell into talking about careers and why we have ended up doing what we do. I explained to her that when I was in my final year of school, I decided to let go off all the subjects I was okay at and go with the ones that I was really, really good at. All arts subjects. While some people might have said I was narrowing my options, I just decided 2007 was going to be the year where I did what I wanted.
"People often say good things come to those who wait. I would say excellent things come to those who go after them, hustling like a #girlboss"
I ended up passing university entrance with good grades and getting a few scholarships under my belt to boot. I went off to study law, feeling confident. I hadn't yet made the connection between being good at the subjects I enjoyed because they were creatively rewarding and thinking about work. But it didn't seem to matter because I had 5 years to figure that out.
Though 17 and creative, I was also a realist. I considered that a nice life required a stable income (something which I know now isn't necessarily correlated but that was about as far as I had been exposed in life). So rather than go to fine arts or design school in the face of an academic downturn, I picked law.
Law school proved to be harder than I thought and my performance was somewhat patchy. Nevertheless, along the way I convinced myself that I might want to try lawyering out, mostly because it seemed like it was a straightforward route, simple and clean. In 5 years, I could be 'further along', flying high. Instead, my career has been somewhat of a tap-dance (with the occasional misstep and stamping on my stage-mates toes). As I come up to my fifth year of working, I could never have imagined I would have ended up where I am now.
Why this big long rambling intro? Well, at this time (and through a lot of University) I thought having a five-year plan was vital. It is the kind of thing our teacher's said, self-help books suggested and slightly precocious friends bragged of. I thought I needed to work backwards from where we wanted to be in order to set oneself up for 'the future'. It seemed that those who didn't plan for the future were planning to fail. However, at 27 I think that the WORSE advice you could give a young person today is to have a five-year plan. I doubt that when I started working I would have written down that in five years time I wanted to become a legally trained policy advisor blogger. Simply because I had no idea what I actually wanted to do, nor what suited me. Here are the four reasons why and what to do instead.
REASON #1: Certainty of change plus evolving self-knowledge
When we are children, we are frequently told we can do anything. The truth is, we can't. We have particular things that we are good at and not as good at. These are referred to as our strengths and weaknesses. However, there are variables outside our control in work and life that we just can't account for until directly experienced. For instance, I knew fairly early on I was not good at catching balls. Therefore, I've avoided most ball catching activities in life. Similarly, I've known I was good at writing, so gravitated towards writing and the humanities at school and university. The reasons I knew I was good at writing was (although I didn't know it at the time) it allowed me to enter a state called 'flow' where I could be fully absorbed in my task, not noticing the passing of time. Because I was good at writing I thought I would be good at law because in the practice of the law there is a lot of writing.
However, this kind of simplistic knowledge about strengths and weaknesses isn't enough. We must learn our own likes and dislikes - and often we cannot know these until we are exposed to a range of novel experiences outside out comfort zone many of which we cannot anticipate as we grow older. We also cannot avoid all things we are poor at. For example, I didn't know until starting work that I did not particularly enjoy the technical bent of legal opinions and filling out contracts. To make matters worse, I simply detested having to write things when I was being timed while doing so for billing purposes. I found that this broke my flow, distracting me with thoughts about how I might be being slow.
"Flexibility is vital for survival"
Often we think we have black and white rules about what does and does not work for us. However, it is easy to forget that things are not always what we imagine they will be. When we get there, we may detest that thing we thought we would love and need to change course. I discovered that while I found law tiresome, I really enjoyed being a policy advisor because it was about thinking about what the law SHOULD be, rather than interpreting and applying the status quo. It is a far better fit for my creative brain. It is, therefore, important not to get hung up on what 'The Plan' said, but to look at how we feel and question whether what we are doing is actually right for us. Flexibility is vital for survival. The trick is not to beat ourselves up, but to reflect on how we have a more precise and up-to-date sense of self-knowledge than we did before, applying it to our next move.
REASON #2: Your vocation may not have been invented yet
Three years ago I found myself talking to a man called Alan Schaaf. Alan Schaff created the website Imgur - one of the fifty most popular websites on the internet (also, he is only 29 - terrifying right?). I was talking to him because he was a key speaker at the 2014 TEDxWellington conference for which I was a volunteer. We were both at the after party at St John's Bar.
After awkwardly making small talk, I asked him what I should be doing in my job (bold, I know, for an internet entrepreneur I had just met but I figured I would probably never get a chance to ask him again). More specifically - should I be learning to code (my coding knowledge at that point was limited to editing my Neopets and MySpace accounts using basic HTML)?
Alan Schaaf's response to my ill-framed question has stuck with me ever since that night. He asked what I had been doing 6 years ago. I proceeded to give him my whole life story over the last 6 years (can you believe it - me, waffle?).
When I finally shut up (after he had patiently listened for probably 5 hours) he politely said to me "You know, look at these." He pulled out his smartphone. I didn't get it. He persisted. "Six years ago, these didn't exist. Now think how much people can do with them. Check emails, surf the web, google answers in a second. Think how much the world has changed in six years. Now imagine how much it could change in the next."
What Alan Schaaf trying to tell me was that technological innovation has expanded at such as rapid rate, we can no longer know where the world will be in 6 years time. From Uber to Instagram, our world has changed dramatically. And while not all of us may be coders and developers, what we can do is be open to that change, greeting it with open arms. Yes, some jobs are drying up. But new ones are being invented every day. Why limit yourself to only the careers that currently are out there? The world is a constantly evolving and changing place. Get ready to hug it tightly.
REASON #3: Side projects pay off
Rather than pick a career, I would suggest getting educated, finding a job and then honing your passion. Start something on the side and let it grow. Make films, write music, blog. It doesn't matter what - just do something. My theory is that eventually, everything will feed into each other, like the base notes and melody of a song.
For instance, 6 years ago, blogging as a professional job didn't exist. Now, there is a whole blogging industry. None of the people who originally started out making YouTube videos or blogging knew they were going to become famous or be able to make a living off their hobby and passion. Your passion will push you to develop your existing skills and build new ones. For example, I never expected photography would be a skill I developed. But from writing, it has evolved as a natural partner in crime. Similarly, while I may never professionally blog, I at least know that I have a place where I CAN be a published writer, four times a week. Who knows where you will be in 5 years if you start treating your passion like a job today.
REASON #4: Be available to opportunity - get online and get found
I always say the most life-changing moments for me hit me right when I least expected it. An unexpected job offer on Linkedin. A great Tinder date. An email exchange. While I could never have seen the people behind these encounters coming, I was ALWAYS up-to-date with technology and my own 'personal brand', allowing myself to be searchable when that person went looking. If I had had a five-year plan, I might not have bothered to make myself open online because I would have already known what I was after. However, in this day and age the most interesting work is often the most novel. People often say good things come to those who wait. I would say excellent things come to those who go after them, hustling like a boss. Make sure that any online profiles you have are clean and crisp with good quality photos, that your resume is always brushed up and you have a good email manner.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
Get out a notepad and pen and write it down.
1. Three Goals Excercise
First, rather than being wedded to a specific result, focus on the work itself, one day at a time, one month at a time, or one year at a time. I think a year is the absolute most you should have goals for.
Make three goals for each day, three for each week, three for each month, each 6 months and then three years. If you want to go bigger, I'd suggest making three lifetime goals. Maybe you want to have a family, travel and open an otter petting zoo. But breaking down your goals into a limited number of aims will help you REALLY prioritise what you want to achieve in the here and now, rather than getting stressed about a future which may never happen.
2. Find a real role model
Second, find a role model. The person doesn't have to be the same gender, career or nationality as you. They could be famous or local (but ideally have intrinsic qualities that you'd like to emulate). Think of a person you aspire to be like. For example, for me, one is American entrepreneur Marie Forleo and the other is UK writer Caitlin Moran.
Write down the qualities you admire in that person (or those people), whether it be how they run their life or business. For instance, I admire that Marie Forleo solves problems, shares knowledge she gains from talking to interesting people, has strong personal branding and great hair. I admire that Caitlin Moran is an excellent and funny writer, is humble, works from home and challenges the status quo. She too has great hair.
"I am excited for the future because I am creating it, minute by minute"
Having a role model is useful because you can see that they probably didn't have a smooth ride to get where they are today. Marie Forleo worked on Wall St, in the magazine industry and as a fitness instructor before becoming an online life coach and entrepreneur. Caitlin Moran was from a very poor family and had to overcome many obstacles while forging a career as a writer. When we see others we admire, and acknowledge that they are human just like us and were not granted their dream career immediately, we can take the pressure off ourselves.
A five-year plan can be a useful tool for some people to think about where they want to go in a single linear career. For the rest of us, who will likely zig-zag through this life, it can be more of a straight jacket. Instead, we should focus on self-knowledge, investigating future vocations, starting a side project and making oneself available to opportunity.
I have no idea where I will end up in life but I am grateful my stroppiness led to me taking a road less travelled. I am excited for the future because I am creating it, minute by minute. I trust myself to take it one day at a time. What are you doing to make your future?