A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction
— Relax, it’s normal not to know what you want —
In past weeks I’ve been enjoying The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton, an extraordinary collection of essays on careers as diverse as rocket science, biscuit manufacturing, accountancy, logistics, transmission engineering, painting, entrepreneurship, and career counseling.
In Pleasures and Sorrows, de Botton shadows working people for days, even weeks, until he grasps the essence of their occupations. He then reveals in his crisp, poetic manner how modern society is reflected in careers — and what work means to us. Along the way, he provides a potent message for those confused about what they want to do with their lives.
In Career Counseling, my favorite chapter, the writer introduces us to Robert Symons, a fifty-five-year-old psychotherapist and South London-based career counselor.
Together with de Botton, we listen in on Mr. Symons’s initial interview with a successful but soul-searching tax attorney, who breaks down sobbing when asked what had become of the spontaneous and excited child she must have once been. Afterwards, Mr. Symons explains that:
… the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited — long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms — what they should properly be doing with their lives.
Mr. Symons goes on to say that his clients are “tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’.”
But the notion of “calling” originated in medieval times, and referred to a sudden encounter with a heaven-sent command to devote oneself to Christian teachings. Unfortunately, a non-religious version of this idea has survived into modern times, according to Symons. The notion is:
… prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret.
Career counselor Symons prefers a quote from humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow:
“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
So here’s a message to those confused about career direction: Not knowing what we want is the normal human condition.
No need to call off the search for yourself. Just relax — and consider taking some soul comfort from The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
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