Posts Tagged ‘careers advice’

Published today: The Tyranny of Careers (and the Joy of Work)

January 1st, 2015 No comments

The Tyranny of CareersSo today, the first of 2015, is publication day for The Tyranny of Careers. It’s been a long time coming – the friends who have been early readers of the book have probably lost faith that the work they put in would ever amount to anything.

For anyone new to this blog: The Tyranny of Careers is the careers advice I wish I had received when younger – the advice that was not available then and seems very rarely given now. It is a product of the fact that, of the happiest adults I know, hardly any are those with full-time careers working for someone else – the stated goal of all the useless careers advice that I received.

The book will, hopefully, provide comfort to both students and those already in full-time work – comfort about that niggling sense that a full-time career might not be the primary source of self-esteem and innovation it is held up to be by school, government and society in general. The reason being that, in my experience, it is not.

At the moment The Tyranny of Careers is only published as an ebook (yes, the picture makes it look like a physical book – it just looks better that way). At some point I hope to publish it as a physical one. I love physical books. If, like me, you are somewhat averse to ebooks, email me and tell me that you would have bought the book had you been able to hold it in your hands. (If I receive enough emails I’ll get on to printing some copies.)

Here’s the blurb that would appear on the back cover, if ebooks had back covers. More details about the book and how to buy it here. Or to see what it’s like you can download the whole introduction as a PDF.



‘Work hard at school, get a degree at university, find yourself a good career, and you will be happy. Your career will be your source of self-esteem and give you control of your life.’

This is the subtext of every piece of careers advice I ever heard. It is advice I believed implicitly, that I believed for years as I bounced between highly-prized careers in television, film and publishing. Careers prevented me from wondering why the promised self-esteem was not forthcoming, burdened as I was by the stress and overwork that are common features of the work culture of almost every career.

All I wanted was to do work where I felt my brain was not being wasted. But this only happened when I began to pursue work of my own. Unpaid, uncelebrated work. But work that felt valuable to me, that felt like it might contribute something of value to the work, even if that was way off in the future.

My younger self needed don’t-chase-a-career advice. The Tyranny of Careers is this kind of book. Partly a memoir of my misplaced search for a career, and partly what I’ve learnt about work despite this: that it is possible to earn a living without a full-time career, whilst also pursuing work that is truly fulfilling.

The Career Realities podcast

December 23rd, 2014 No comments

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Listen to all interviews on this website

At school and through university, my knowledge of the working life of adults was pretty much limited to their job titles: doctor, banker, call-centre operator. (Sometimes a job title told me even less: management consultant, quantum physicist, futures trader.) I knew something of what these jobs entailed: doctors cured sick people, bankers managed (or mis-managed) money, call-centre operators answered phone queries. But I knew very little at all of the work culture of these professions: of how much autonomy you had in your work, of the hours and shift patterns, of the burden of the workload – of any of the details of these professions that would, should I choose to follow one of these careers, have the most impact on the way I lived as an adult.

I stumbled forward into the careers that I pursued almost blind to what they would mean to my life, to how they would make me feel at the end of each working day. And discovered that, even though I found careers in highly sought-after professions, in television, film and publishing, these careers did very little for the kind of life I had hoped to lead. That is, one where I had  work that I found genuinely fulfilling. And so I eventually abandoned the idea of a full-time profession for the self-made career I describe in The Tyranny of Careers.

Some insight into the reality of work culture might have propelled me towards a self-made career much more quickly. So I have begun a new podcast series called Career Realities: interviews about the day-to-day realities of being a teacher, or designer, or computer programmer, of working in the music industry and of many other types of career. Most of my interviewees are people who have made a self-made career for themselves: one that combines paid work with work of their own that they find truly fulfilling, in contrast to the traditional careers they used to pursue. They’re not necessarily all ‘successful’, or exactly where they want to be with their work – but hopefully their interviews will give you some idea of the unpredictable ways in which we end up finding the work we love, and shed some light for others on the realities of full-time careers. And how you might go about avoiding them.

The Career Realities podcasts began in January 2015 – if you would like to be updated when they are broadcast, subscribe to the newsletter on this website. (There will also be notifications on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter pages. Thank you for (future) listening. Or you can subscribe to the podcast itself: (iTunes | RSS)

‘What kind of person do you want to be?’: careers advice from Hunter S. Thompson

November 21st, 2013 No comments

The question ‘what do you do?’, asked by a new acquaintance and understood to mean, ‘what work do you do to earn money?’, has always annoyed me. Partly, I suppose, because I have never been able to give an answer I like, such as ‘writer’ or ‘astronaut’. But more because of the implication: that paid work is therefore the defining feature of my life, that tells others what kind of person I am. (Sometimes I’ll acknowledge that new acquaintances are just making conversation, but this is usually after I am annoyed, and many hours later.)

I found an interesting explanation for the source of my irritation in a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson in 1958, to a friend who wanted advice on what to do with his life. (The letter is from the fabulous newsletter, though it was originally from the equally interesting Letters of Note website.) Thompson writes:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

Which I take to mean: to answer the question ‘what do you do?’ with the simple statement of your job title, to think of yourself as mainly a teacher or a banker or a fireman is to diminish your sense of yourself.

When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

I see this in some of the book designers for whom I sometimes do freelance work. At the start of their career they were delighted to be a book designer, a highly-prized job – but after months, years, the job title means little to them but the payment of a salary. And yet this is the career that they have bound themselves to, with little option for development unless they strike out into something different – in other words, give up their career.

For Thompson the goal should be not a particular job or even a particular goal:

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

For me this is getting to the source of why satisfaction and self-esteem will never be found in a career, because paid work for an employer will always define the limits of how you can personally develop. And so Thompson’s advice is less about careers than about asking yourself what kind of person you want to be.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development).

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

(The original letter on Letters of Note seems to have disappeared from the site… but you can read more of the letter on this post.)

10 Pieces of Careers Advice to My Younger Self

December 11th, 2012 3 comments

1. The majority of career jobs do not involve work or goals you intrinsically value

Traditional careers advice tells you that a full-time career is the one essential source of valuable work, and that valuable work is the source of self-esteem in life. But the majority of career jobs are work towards goals that you do not personally value. Self-esteem does come from valuable work – but only very rarely does this work begin within a career.

2. The rewards of rewarding jobs are suffocated by the stress of a full-time career

Medicine, teaching and working for a charity are all worthy professions with rewarding goals. But these rewards are so submerged beneath overwork and work politics in a full-time career as to make the rewards almost imperceptible.

3. The pleasure of creative work is not found in a ‘creative’ career

Most careers in the ‘creative industries’ are not creative, but administrative. And the positions in these industries that do require creativity do not want ideas that stem from your own personal interests – they require ideas to sell their clients’ products or find the largest audience. This is a wholly different different creativity from taking pleasure in your own creative ideas.

4. A full-time career does not give you control of your life, it takes control away

When you place high value on your career, for both your income and self-esteem, you hand your employer control of your life: control of your time, your ambitions, and your respect for yourself. For fear of losing that hard-fought-for career, you allow yourself to be treated in ways you would not put up with in your personal life.

5. Earning money is less important than your own creative work

The work you do to earn money for rent and food does not need to fulfil you, or be the source of your self-esteem. The real source of self-esteem is work you have originated yourself, not (at least at first) for money. The purpose of work for money is to support the discovery and pursuit of your own creative work, the work that you do find fulfilling.

6. Learn to live cheaply

If you avoid a career you will almost certainly, at least to begin with, need to live on less money than your careerist peers. But you need  less money to treat and entertain yourself when you can spend a significant number of hours a week taking pleasure from your own creative work.

7. Genuine self-esteem comes from pleasure in your own creative ideas

Everyone can be creative. Just because you were not labelled arty at school means nothing. Creative ideas are not limited to the traditional arts, they are found in the setting up of charity, in science, in anything. What would you do if money was no object? Creative work begins by copying your heroes. Everyone who does creative work feels like an imposter until they recognise the progress they make.

8. University or college is not essential

The valuable experiences you have at university – living with your peers, meeting interesting people, further study – can be found elsewhere where they will not leave you with enormous debts. University can be fantastic, but is only essential for a degree in order to get that career job. And if you do want to go, there is nothing that says you have to go straight from school, or after a gap of only a year. Do the minimum number of exams you need for college to leave the option open. And exams can always be retaken.

9. Define your own success

Success need not be measured by the size of your impact upon the world, by how famous you become. Success also comes from the satisfaction of personal, truly valuable goals, even if they affect only a small number of people. Many people who feel successful are invisible in society.

10. A career can wait, perhaps forever

Don’t aim for a full-time career straight from school or university. Find paid work that best supports your discovery of the work you really want to do, that you would do without expectation of money. If you do later come to have a career, let it follow from this valuable work. But it may be that you never have a career at all. This is the life of the happiest people I know.

Read the full essay: Semi-Retirement for the Under Twenties: How Can Work Make You Happy?

A Corporate Career Makes You Less Than Human

October 9th, 2012 No comments

When we take a corporate job we are aware that we give up certain parts of our life in exchange for our salary, that we are making a compromise. But we rarely re-examine this compromise once we have worked a job for a time, and ask whether it is still worthwhile, or whether the balance has tipped too far. For the security of a salary dominates all considerations of the compromise, and we forget to ask what the work we do for corporations does to us.

Because for most full-time corporate career jobs, I consider the exchange to be a bad one. To work for a corporation (and I don’t consider this an exaggeration) is to diminish your humanity. Work in one for too long and you forget many aspects of what it means to be human.

Corporations demand loyalty that is never returned

Your boss may be a nice person. She may be someone who, outside of work, treats her family and friends with kindness and generosity. But if she is your boss in a corporation she cannot and will not treat you in this way. At least not sincerely. Your boss is not your friend.

True friendship requires loyalty. But if there are redundancies or ‘company restructuring’ your boss will not put themselves on the line for you. They won’t even want to talk to you, out of shame. This has nothing to do with whether they are a decent person outside of work or not. They are prevented from being loyal by working for a corporation.

If a friend treated you in this way, you would rightly want nothing more to do with them. But as an employee of a corporation, you put up with such bad treatment of yourself and others, like the victim of domestic abuse. You say nothing of being asked to work hours of unpaid overtime, or to take holiday at times of the corporations choosing, or to take work calls at home from countries in different time zones. So long as you still have your job you say nothing. Even if you lose your job, do you shout and complain, and ask if this is all your deserve for your years of loyalty? You do not, for fear of a bad reference.

Corporations make you subservient in a way you would never endure outside work

Look at how we react when, through no fault of our own, we know we are going to be late for work. We are desperate to call our boss to excuse ourselves, and if we can’t get hold of them we worry about how that might affect their opinion of us. Why do we worry so? If this was a friend we know we could explain that the train was delayed and that they would understand. But with a boss we worry they do not trust us, we worry we are going down in their estimation, that this will be a black mark against us. Then we stay late to make up the time, but do not view this as having paid back the time.

Corporations take control of your time

That we hand control of our time to a corporation is a terrible thing. Control of your own time is a pleasure that we do not even realise is missing until we work for ourselves. To start and finish work when we like, to take a lunch hour when and for as long as we like, to go to the cinema in the middle of the day if we feel like it, to make keeping in touch with friends as important a part of our life as our work, these are all marvellous things that we do not even know that we are missing.

A corporate environment is the opposite of what you need for creative work

Business leaders can be often heard declaring the need for creativity from their corporate employees – they need creative ideas to fuel the next generation of their business. But creativity within a corporate job is almost impossible.

Creative ideas comes from daydreaming, from an unspecified length of time spent musing on an idea, from unpredictable influences out in the world. None of these are to found whilst sitting at a desk burdened by a list of tasks. Unless you are Jonathan Ive<> you are very unlikely to be paid to sit around daydreaming for a large part of your working week. Each penny the corporation spends on your salary must be accounted for.

In addition, the structure of corporations sucks out creativity from tasks within its working day where you might be able to use even the smallest of your own ideas. If furniture is to be moved around an office, corporate employees cannot just rearrange as they like. Corporate rules insist this is done by trained removers, trained in health and safety guidelines, to avoid litigation for employee injury and to keep insurance premiums down.

Corporations are not doing this to be awkward – this is how any large organization has to work. But it dampens your creative spirit until you forget you had one.

You do not have to work for a corporation. If you feel you would like to leave, but cannot because you need the money, then stop needing the money. Or at least stop needing the same amount of money. Leave the corporation and take back your humanity.