There’s something magical that happens at the end of Year 12. A shimmering light beams down and lights a solid path that heads over the horizon, far into the future. Then an authoritative voice solemnly booms, “Here, person-who-is-really-a-child, here is your path for life. Here is WHAT YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP. Step onto it, go forth and prosper.”
It’s nonsense, isn’t it? How we expect kids to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives at 17/18 years old?
The quiet terror that expectation brings!
“What if I choose the wrong uni course and I’m stuck being an X for life?”
“What if I don’t want to be a X but I’ll have wasted four years of my life finding out?”
“I can’t imagine having to do the same job for 50 years…”
“What if I don’t get the marks to get into the course I want at uni?”
“Help! I don’t know what I want to be! I don’t just know! How can I know!?!?”
All of the above are from conversations I’ve had with Year 12ers and to all of them I’ve had the exact same response:
You don’t need to know what you want to do forever, you only need to know what happens next.
This is an absolute truth. Whatever you decide you ‘want to be’ today, does not have to be what you want to be tomorrow. You only need to know what happens next.
There is no “time wasted” when you’re training for a career in one thing, but end up doing another. The key skills of working are all transferable, one way or another. Education, in anything, will always set you on the right path, wherever that path is leading.
My own “all over the place” career
I’ve had three distinct “careers” in my life and many other “jobs”.
After my HSC, I worked in advertising. It was the thing I thought I always, always wanted to do. I put a lot of effort into getting work experience in one of Sydney’s top advertising agencies. Then I worked hard enough during my work experience weeks that they offered me a job as a Junior. I started a Media and Comms degree at UTS part time, went to AWARD School and generally thought I was ticking all the right boxes.
Except I hated it.
I hated the materialistic lifestyle and the cut-throat environment. All the sycophantic relationships, open misogynists and arrogant assholes. I was barely 18 years old, of course, with sky-high expectations and literally zero life experience… but, it seemed that advertising people just weren’t my people.
So I left. I changed my degree to psychology at Sydney Uni and worked long hours as a waitress to put myself through. At the time, I thought for sure I was going to be a clinical psychologist, but life had other plans.
I was offered a job in marketing after three years at uni. The thought of slogging through a fourth year of waitressing to become a psychologist was enough for me to take the marketing job. I worked in marketing off and on for 15 years.
During one of the “off” stints, I worked in trade finance in London. How that came about is a long story, but I’ve mentioned it here because it was so left field. Bet the shimmering Year 12 path never saw that one coming!
But, mostly, it was marketing for big corporates. Which is a dream job for some and certainly paid the bills nicely. But me and Corporate were never great mates. I hated the routine, I hated the politics, I hated the purposelessness of most of what I was doing. Making money for a big company just isn’t it for me. Fair shakes to those that don’t mind it at all.
Better not to have a path at all
I knew I wanted out, but getting out when you’re making good money is actually really hard to do. It’s so easy to get sucked into a well-paid job for life. For that reason, maybe it’s better when you don’t have a clearly defined idea of what you think you want to do “for the rest of your life”. The more open you are, the easier it is to go with the flow.
My flow was made possible because I’m privileged to have a gorgeous husband who also had a well-paid job. It meant I could leave corporate and take a change on my writing. I’d been building up some contacts and interest via a personal blog I started about two years before I left my marketing job. The field was laid, the game was set, I just needed to back myself to take the leap.
I’ve been a freelance writer for over a decade. And I love it. I work for myself making good money in the hours I choose around a family I adore… my perfect career. And I was 39 when I started it.
You only need to know what happens next.
How to know what happens next
Here are a few pointers for school leavers trying to figure out what happens next.
1. Work with your interests
All of the careers I’ve had have been quite different, but really much the same.
All of them involved communication and writing skills – which makes sense considering that they are the two things that have always interested me.
This will be true for many people.
- What do you love to do?
- What comes naturally for you?
- What do you find energising and motivating?
- What are you doing when you find your flow state?
2. Play to your strengths
Your strengths may or may not follow your interests. Plenty of people are very good at doing things they’re not particularly interested in. The opposite is also true.
Also remember, that you might be good at something, but it takes a lot of work. That’s perfectly okay. If you like something enough – or admire it enough – hard work will be something you are happy to put in to develop your strengths.
There will be other things that you are “naturally” good at. You’ll find that these strengths come easily to you and they are always worth noting.
If you’re struggling to know your strengths, these strategies can help:
- Ask your friends, family and other people you respect what they think your strengths are
- Look at awards or other recognition that you’ve received
- What are you doing when you feel “at your best”?
- What qualities do you most admire in others?
- What qualities would you like to be known for yourself?
- What absorbing tasks do you enjoy that others tend to shy away from?
- What do you prefer to do?
3. Know what you don’t want
Sometimes the easiest way to know what happens next is to know what you don’t want to have happen at all. In other words, what are the things you really don’t want to do? Do you have any non-negotiables?
This will look different for everyone, but they might be things like:
- I don’t want to work in an office
- I don’t want my days to start early
- I don’t want to be part of a team
- I don’t want to work for someone else
- I don’t want to stand all day
- I don’t want to live in the city
And on it goes. The list can be short or long, but it will quickly give you an indication of the kind of work that would suit you best.
4. Reminder: a career isn’t a life
Before you go, one more thing to remember: a career is not the same thing as a life. So if you’re struggling to think up what you want to do for work, try focusing on the kind of person you want to be instead. How do you want to spend your time? Who are you with? What do you want to give to others? And what would you like in return?
There’s a hint of a career in your answers, I promise. Try teasing it out gently, there’s no rush. While you think about it, head off on an adventure somewhere. Go see the world and follow as many paths as you can. One foot in front of the other, wherever it leads.
Which brings us full circle to the fact that all of the above is really just to get you to your new “next”. You don’t have to define a lifelong career. Or know what “future you” will or won’t want. You only need to know what you want to do next.
For you, that could be five years from now, two years from now, next year or next week. It doesn’t matter, because forward momentum doesn’t have a timeline.