Archive for the ‘on work & careers’ Category

How to be a Good Mentee to a Mentor

February 2nd, 2015 No comments

This week I was discussing with a friend the importance of mentors for your own work. Someone who has experience of whatever it is you are trying to do, who can be a good source of knowledge for the progress of your work. To whom you can ask questions.

But how the hell do you find such a useful person? Who actually wants to be a mentor?

I think you just write to people and see who responds. Because I was thinking that if someone asked, I would like to be a mentor. It’s flattering for someone to think you have knowledge to impart. (Whether I do or not is not up to me to know.)

But although I haven’t been a mentor myself, I’ve been around other mentors. And I’ve seen some v. bad mentees. As in mentees who ensure their mentor would never be a mentor again.

So here’s my suggestions for how to be a good mentee:

  1. Be self-reliant. Don’t expect being a mentee to mean sitting around watching your mentor work and waiting to be asked to do something. That’s school work experience, and this is not the same thing. A bored person in the corner induces anxiety in mentors. Mentors are not wanting anxiety from the relationship.
  2. Propose a schedule for your interactions with your mentor. Make it as easy on them as you can. Do not propose, ‘I would like to come and shadow you work for three months from next Monday. I am vegetarian.’
  3. Keep religiously to the schedule you devise. Be ultra reliable. Be more reliable than on a first date.
  4. Don’t act as though your mentor is a parent and needs to worry about you. Act as though you’re working with them and as though you are there to help if you can.
  5. Take your own work with you that you can get on with when your mentor needs to work on something alone.
  6. Set out in your opening email/letter to your mentor how you are going to do all these things.

On the Supposed Pleasures of Work

January 16th, 2015 No comments
Business team

photo: Penn State

I’m a great admirer of Alain de Botton’s writing. His critics damn him with accusations that he has ‘forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious’, when I view this as his virtue: he states the obvious, but in a way that brings more clarity to a formerly mundane aspect of life.

Hence I’m generally a fan of his School of Life, and more recently his Book of Life, his attempt to bring together many short essays on Home, Relationships, Culture, Work, etc.

But I have to take issue with the Book of Life’s latest essay, Pleasures of Work. The intention of the essay is fine: to suggest where satisfaction can be found in the minutae of jobs as different as a car designer, or waiter, or just general office team work.

On the pleasures of ordering de Botton writes:

Take the work of a car designer, who finds pleasure in setting every dial in harmony with every other, of creating a fit between the fuel gauge and the rev counter, the air conditioning and the heater buttons […] The architect, the car designer, the waiter, the train engineer, whatever their differences in status and salaries, draw on a common satisfaction in their ability to create or manage small utopias in an otherwise chaotic, irrational and compromised world.

Or on understanding:

Then there is the pleasure of understanding. It is present in the working life of a plumber who must pin down what precisely is ailing the heating system within a myriad of pipes behind the kitchen panels. […] It is the pleasure of the writer, trying to put words to emotions, pinning down rare elusive butterflies of feeling, defining in language what the reader may have felt but never grasped so precisely before.

There is further discussion of the work pleasures of money-making, or serving, or collaborating. And I am not denying that all these pleasures are possible in work. But in my experience, as someone who has had supposedly highly-prized, interesting jobs, any of the above pleasures are only conditional: and are always subservient to work culture. The pleasures may be possible – but their possibility is very largely dependent upon the pressure of deadlines, the stress of multitasking, the waste of time from meetings, the character of bosses, the idea that you are being taken advantage of. And most of all, upon the idea that the work you do is, in fact, perhaps pointless.

Even should you, as a car designer, consider the aesthetics of the car you build as one of your highest personal values in life, you will not feel this pleasure if you have to complete the setting of these dials in a rush, because your boss is an arse. As a writer you will find it hard to pin down feelings in words if your article has to be finished to a tight deadline.

We cannot talk about the pleasures of work without first acknowledging that they are completely subservient to the culture of work.

To be fair Alain de Botton has written a full-length book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. But I think it is remiss to include Pleasures of Work in the Book of Life without mentioning the steamroller effects of work culture. The evidence of my and others experiences is that actually managing to feel these pleasures is rare indeed, even amongst those with those highly-prized careers.

As I argue in the The Tyranny of Careers, it is possible to find these pleasures from work. But work for yourself, that is free from the effects of money or work culture. Work that needs to be supported with other work that does pay you money, for sure. But it is a thankless ta go seeking these pleasures in a full-time career for someone else – they are few and far between.

Career Realities podcast #2:
the Workshop leader/Photographer/PA

January 13th, 2015 No comments

This week’s Career Realities interview is with workshop leader and photograper Jackie McCullough. After full-time careers as a PA in the music industry and other professions, she now runs workshops, works as a mentor and makes photography projects around the subjects of fostering and families. Among other things we talked the difficulties of realising that you can yourself be the kind of person who just makes stuff and starts projects, how to start working freelance, and the best balance of paid work and work for yourself.

The Career Realities podcast series attempts to uncover the hidden realities of day-to-day work culture in various careers – the hours, the workload, the shift patterns – and questions the often-repeated assumption that paid work is our primary source of life fulfillment.

(For a more extensive introduction to the Career Realities interviews see here.)

Podcast excerpts:

On the difficulties of people not understanding the answer to ‘what do you do?’

They want to put you in a paid work box and understand that that’s who you are, and sometimes I think it’s a lot harder to explain that you have a number of different personalities and ways that you work.

On not thinking of yourself as someone who can make stuff

I didn’t understand that I could be a creative individual, I just thought that I was a person that could assist in those things, but not really be at the forefront of that, because it was never really talked about or considered that that was an option for me.

On school not identifying all your talents

There’s lots of things that I’m good at, there are a lot of things that aren’t taught in school – [you understand that] the characteristics that you possess as an individual have some value.

On balancing paid subsistence work with work for yourself

I took on a full-time job in a really brilliant theatre/charity organization in London […] but I found that didn’t give me the opportunity to do the other creative work that I wanted to do. So I found that I’d gone from being freelance and not doing any other work, and working full-time and not doing a huge amount of my freelance work. Now I do a three-day-a-week personal assistant job that pays me money, that pays me enough money, and then I do other things in my other time […] and that I feel is a much better balance than I’ve had either way.

On living cheaply

I don’t want or need for much. I shop second hand, I don’t go out for dinner huge amounts, I like having people round. So I don’t live an expensive lifestyle, and that’s not really what I want out of life anyway. I don’t live a lifestyle that would warrant having huge amounts of money and that works for me.

You can find out more about Jackie’s work at

Career Realities podcast #1: the Painter/Teacher

January 4th, 2015 No comments

The first Career Realities interview is with painter Edwina Bracken. A former full-time (and then part-time) art teacher, Edwina has recently completed an MA at Glasgow’s School of Art. She talks about the difference between her expectations and the realities of a teaching career, and how she came to (just about) earn a living as a fine artist. (Apologies for a few glitches in the recording – a few Skype dropout beeps!)

The Career Realities podcast series attempts to uncover the hidden realities of day-to-day work culture in various careers – the hours, the workload, the shift patterns – and questions the often-repeated assumption that paid work is our primary source of life fulfillment.

(For a more extensive introduction to the Career Realities interviews see here.)

Podcast excerpts:

On combining a teaching career with your own painting work

I thought with the time off that you get with teaching I could fit my other art career in around the paid teaching work. That was my idea. […] So I went and did the course, and I was really overwhelmed at the scope of the job, it was a much heavier, labour intensive job than I had imagined from the outside. It was horrendously difficult to train.

I said to her [my mentor], ‘when does this become easy?’, and she said, ‘oh, after about three years’. […] But before that it was just full-on all the way, and every holiday we used to get sick.

[My own painting work] was non-existent. I didn’t do any painting or any of my own work for about five years. The teaching job was so intensive that the holiday time would come around and you would just fit in the other things that you would do in your life, […] the things that you didn’t have time when you were teaching.

I couldn’t move forward with my own art practice if I remained working within that stricture that the teaching job dictates. You know where you’re going to be on the 1st of September, you can’t really deviate from the plan, irrespective of being part-time.

On the psychological barriers to overcome when you quit a career

I felt I’d become slightly institutionalised because I’d worked in teaching for ten years, and on the one hand knowing where you’re going to be on the 1st of September can be quite frustrating, but on the other hand its really reassuring because you know you’re going to have a fixed income. So I had to come round to the idea that that was going to be a liberating experience. [Q: And was it?] Yes, it was great!

On deciding what paid work to take

I find that a lot of jobs that I would like to do are full-time jobs, and I can’t do them, because clearly I would have no time to make my work, research it and then put it out there. It can be a really tough call.

On advising my younger self

Look for a mentor. Because I think mentors are so valuable. Even if it’s not in art, just to look at how somebody can work for themselves, the way to manage your time and a work ethic. I don’t think it matters what it is you want to do, but you need to find some practical way into that.

Networking is crucial. I think sometimes it gets a really bad press. Sometimes people think it’s an ‘I’ll scratch your back you scratch mine.’ But your network is just who you can ask questions to, and then from there who do they know. Also speaking to people about what you are doing in any situation leads to networks, saying who you are and what you are doing and what you are interested in, and you never know where that leads.

More information about Edwina’s work can be found at, and you can contact her on Twitter @EdwinaBracken.

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.