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A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction

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.

You may also enjoy:

A Message to Those Aspiring to Blend Meaning and Money

Two Books to Encourage & Console Creatives

23 Comments to A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction

On Jul 30, 2009, Peggy commented:

Please, can someone fix the coding so the reply box doesn’t cover a huge chunk of text in the articles? It’s happened on this one, and the one immediately preceding, at least.

Thank you.

On Jul 30, 2009, by Mark commented:

Thanks for the heads-up, Peggy. We’ll take care of this. ~Mark

On Aug 1, 2009, Gerry commented:

Hey, this article reminded me of when I got into college. I remember looking at my friends and feeling that they already had their lifes planned: they would go to X college, work here, live there, then go over there. I felt pressured to have the same plans and goals.

In the end I chose to get a Philosophy degree, even though I only had a glimpse of what philosophy is. I didn’t think about career opportunities and goals; I just saw philosophy as a road I wanted to walk and maybe get to learn about myself as I walked through it.

I’m in my last year in college and I still don’t know what I want. I just know that this is where I want to be now.

Greetings from Mexico

On Aug 2, 2009, Darcy commented:

To piggy back on Peggy’s comment, the ‘banner’ that is supposed to appear to the right of this posting is actually down below. For example, you have to scroll down if you want to subscribe to an RSS feed or see the list of related articles. I’m still on an older version of IE- so perhaps it is that?

To comment on this actual posting, as I reflect on my recently completed MBA and how I got from “there to here”, I am struck with a quote that I have carried with me throughout the program. That is “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” -Chesire Cat. I started the program because I did not know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go but I felt like I needed to do something to progress myself. Throughout most of the program, I still had this feeling. The program (and largely Tim’s class actually) helped to solidify what it was I wanted to do, but now I just have to figure out how to get from point A to point B- which I will do! I think sometimes taking some kind of positive action, even if it is not clear why you are doing it or if it is even the right action, will help opportunities come to light that you would not have seen if you had done nothing at all.

On Aug 2, 2009, Mark commented:

Darcy – Regarding the site-formatting part of your comment, we appreciate your remarks. Our site designer advises that Soul Shelter (and many another newly designed site around the Web) is best viewed using IE8, which can be painlessly downloaded here.

The rest of your comment made me think of the novel-writing process, which is similarly geared toward trusting one’s intuition and “helping opportunities come to light.” E.L. Doctorow describes writing a book as being “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Some of the most worthwhile/exciting things in life require a willingness to wander a bit.

We hope you’ll stay with us through our continuing aesthetic upgrade of Soul Shelter. We’ve got many good things in store as we move toward our third year.


On Aug 3, 2009, by Tim commented:

@ Gerry – I had the same feeling in college, and chose psychology. Though I didn’t continue professionally in that field, now, many years later, I can see my career curving back toward that initial choice. Trust your intuition.

@ Darcy – One of my favorite quotes is “action cures indecision” (by who knows who). Good decisions are made by trying stuff out, not in the vacuum of navel-gazing. BTW, thanks for the kind words about our class. Can’t wait to hear the latest on Point B!

@ All – Our designer has fixed the viewing problem, which turned out to be common to both IE6 and IE7. Even YouTube is discontinuing support for IE6, so you may want to consider upgrading.

On Aug 3, 2009, Dyane commented:

I have found that what makes it hard to explore whatever’s-currently-in-the-headlights is others telling me there’s something Big and Final out there that I will love alone, a sort of one-and-only work, even if unpaid. That makes me interpret normal difficulties as some indication that this isn’t IT. Thanks for the agreement with my experience; I’ve enjoyed the ride, nothing is so perfect that it’s all I want to do, and when I’m having a hard time deciding it’s probably because the various options are equivalent, flawed but…just fine.

On Aug 4, 2009, by Tim commented:

Well said, Dyane. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that exclusive occupational focus may not be enough to satisfy us. I’m sure I would go crazy if all I did was teach, or if I wrote full time, or if I worked on my doctoral thesis 40 hours a week — or if I didn’t spend many pleasurable hours playing music, which for me is an anti-career :-)

On Aug 19, 2009, The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Never Eat Alone Book Club Edition commented:

[…] A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction It’s normal NOT to know what you want. It took me most of a decade to figure it out and there’s still times I believe I don’t have it perfect. The biggest challenge is that we often want conflicting things – things that simply cannot coexist. Figuring this out can be a real challenge. (@ soul shelter) […]

On Aug 19, 2009, Georgia S commented:

I’m a first time visitor to this site, but this article REALLY resonated with me. I often feel like there must be some calling for me, but more and more I realize that I need to simply piece together various things that I enjoy, and not expect one sole thing to be the be all and end all for me.

On Aug 19, 2009, by Mark commented:

Georgia – Thanks for stopping in at Soul Shelter, and adding your thoughtful voice to the discussion. ~Cheers, Mark

On Aug 21, 2009, The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Never Eat Alone Book Club Edition | Rich Dad Poor Dad Blog commented:

[…] A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction It’s normal NOT to know what you want. It took me most of a decade to figure it out and there’s still times I believe I don’t have it perfect. The biggest challenge is that we often want conflicting things – things that simply cannot coexist. Figuring this out can be a real challenge. (@ soul shelter) […]

On Aug 24, 2009, Truth Seeker commented:

I came upon this blog and this really hits home with me as well. I’m 37, happily married with a child and while I’m not unhappy, I keep feeling that there’s something else I should be doing. It doesn’t mean that I need to quit what I’m good at just to do something that I think will bring me happiness. I could easily find an outlet for what I think will make me happy and perhaps that outlet will open a new door or give me enough experience to know that my “dream” wasn’t mine in the first place. I think many of us fall into the trap of living our parents’ dreams or those from the movies. I think that if we take the time to love ourselves, we’ll be able to find what moves us and try to incorporate it into our jobs or be able to make a living at it. It’s something I’m trying and I’m trying to spread the word.

On Sep 1, 2009, by Tim commented:

Glad it hit home. You are always welcome in Soul Shelter’s loving arms.

On Oct 22, 2009, Ganry29 commented:

I needed a good belly laugh today.

On Oct 22, 2009, Resume Rescue » succes en carriere commented:

[…] de Botton [ hier Ted Talks en hier  de Volkskrant van 13 september en hier Soul Shelter ], observeert en schrijft. En wat hij zegt en schrijft bevalt me wel. In plaats van de gangbare […]

On Jan 22, 2010, where do you want to be in 5 years? « Bologna Blog commented:

[…] I refuse to buy the idea that it is normal (and possible?) to have a solid long-term plan. This post helped clarify for me a bit today, from Soul Shelter. I appreciated the thought from a career […]

On Mar 9, 2011, Michael Queally commented:

This post reminds me of how I felt when I first started in recruitment, many years ago. I wasn’t sure what it was I was looking for and sort of fell into recruitment (let’s face it, not many choose recruitment as a career when deciding which degree to study). Surrounded by all of these fantastic jobs which I was trying to find candidates for, I felt I could perform most of them and that any one of these exciting roles would be a lot better than the role I had. A serious bad case of the grass being greener syndrome. A few months down the line, having interviewed many candidates and listened to their reasons for each career move and why they wanted this next opportunity, I very quickly realised that we are all in the same boat. I think that sometimes the grass may indeed be greener or one man’s junk can be another man’s treasure however, in general terms we are all seeking the happiness we perceive others to have.

On Mar 9, 2011, by Tim commented:

What a great story! This belongs in BMY somewhere, Michael :)

On Mar 10, 2012, gargi commented:

i am all confused about my career..i a a software engineer by profession. I always loved art, i was a good artist but didn’t take that as a career option. Not that i dont like my job, but i dont love it. I came across dancing by chance(i always loved it , but never learned it professionally). So once I stated learning more and more of Belly dance, I was completely immersed into it..I want to take that up professionally, n m on my way for doin it(will start getting trained to perform :))…but i m lil confused as to how to pursue it:))..i like my job n earn well, so cant just leave that, but i dont wanna do that same kind of job al my life..

On Jan 8, 2013, Jenny commented:

I graduated from university in 2011 and I’m still unsure about my career path. I’ve interned in the media (PR and journalism) for the last year but I’m still confused.

On Jan 8, 2013, by Tim commented:

Most of us are still confused, Jenny :-)

My advice is to indulge your interests in PR and journalism, but to insist on paying positions going forward.

On Mar 1, 2013, Zac Miller commented:

What an awesome article! Makes me realize I’m not the only one.

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