Think Feel ACT…"Write your own story"

You are not your career

Career guidance:

There is irony in the fact that I am still trying to get my career in hand, yet I am now in the position of helping and guiding my children in their future career directions.

As such I found myself this afternoon at a careers expo at Monash University for senior high school students.

Hundreds of teenagers and their parents braved Melbourne’s rain and biting wind (which had been piped directly from Antarctica) to listen to talks from bright young things about their experiences in various careers – and to collect the usual tomes from each university on undergraduate degrees.

Nothing much has changed from the type of event I attended when I was in high school in the 1980s. The formula is (and was) something like this:

  • [Career of choice] is a wonderful and fabulous way to [fill in superlatives here]
  • The secret to success is dedication and lashings of hard work.
  • You have to be prepared to put in the hours to make it in this career – 12-15 hour days are not unusual.
  • But when you love what you do the hours don’t matter.

Is this healthy?

But while I wasn’t surprised that nothing had changed – I was disappointed.

Disappointed because doing 15 hour days regularly is a risk for burnout and health problems – yet we are setting this up as a standard for the next generation to aspire to. Is working a 15 hour day wise or safe for anybody? Are the mental health and relationship risks worth it just to say you added some more clients to your client base or climbed a little further up the corporate ladder?

Disappointed because the implied definition of success is limited to success in career. Of course most of us must work. But if work must be part of our lives – work does not comprise our life, or take the place of other aspects of our life such as family, friends, community and stopping to smell the roses. Our lives run much more deeply and flow more broadly than mere work – no matter how noble or altruistic that work may be.

I wonder how many teenagers have now gone away thinking they won’t have achieved success until they can earn $200 (or more) per hour, or have so many blue chip clients in their portfolio. Is any of this even healthy?

It’s not who you are:

But I never wanted to live my life with those values – and I don’t want my children to either. I wanted to shake these bright young things and tell them:

Being a [doctor, lawyer, designer, photographer] is not who you are. These things are what you do and they are an expression of your skills and talents at a certain time – not your worth as a person. Because your worth as a person is simply the fact you are a human being.

More important than the label any career gives you is how you behave. Are you ethical, honest, authentic in all your activities? Do you smile at the bus driver or say thank you to the cashier in Coles? Do you judge people kindly? Are you quick to do a favour to someone who needs your help – whether that be friend, family, colleague or stranger? Do you give charity and support causes beyond your personal remit to influence?

Values like gratitude, kindness, honesty, integrity, charity, family bring you the real gold in life. They bring rewards that last a lifetime – their value is beyond all the hourly rates and promotions you can accumulate. How much an hour is a smile worth anyway?

Of course go ahead and earn money – make a mint if you like. But remember this is to support your life – not replace your life. If you are working so hard that you have no time left to look after yourself, let alone your family or anyone else – then there is a very big problem.

And that’s what bothered me the most this afternoon. Maybe these young professionals were riding the waves of energy and youth – but how long could it last for them or anyone else? Were they equipped for the burnout and mental health issues that affect so many? Will they need to wait for a crisis before they learn how to look after themselves?

What I tell myself:

So here’s what I want my children to know – and what I tell myself over and over:

  • Work and career are important but they serve a purpose of contributing to and enriching life, not replacing it.
  • You don’t need a career, fancy position or title to have worth as a person –  you are a precious jewel by virtue of the fact you are a human being.
  • Do good in the world whenever you can – it will bring rewards that money can’t buy.
  • Whatever you do, remember to look after yourself because you are worth it.

So how about you? What does career and work mean to you?  What do you want your children to know?



  1. The number one regret of the dying and elderly – “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

    Luckily I had an absolutely HORRENDOUS experience of the 9-5 lifestyle for half a decade, I’m completely disengaged from it now and happier for it. I’d rather have ‘less’ so I can live more.

    All the best,

    • Thanks for your comment – you raise an important insight. I appreciate it 😉

  2. In my 20’s I spent three years reading books like ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’ ‘Find your purpose in life’ and ‘What colour is your parachute?’. I then came up with my ‘non negotiables’ and I have been designing my work life around that ever since.

    I believe that some of the biggest hindrances to a successful career choice are the following:
    1) Isolated anecdotes that people hear and therefore assess everything in relation to it thereafter (ie, there are no jobs in xxx or they only take people with yyy).
    2) Implied values from family and friends (ie you are only worthwhile if you are a doctor or a lawyer)
    3) Fear of uncertainty. Will you really be homeless if you are living on $30,000 a year instead of $90,000 a year? I lived for six years on an average taxable income of $26,000 from 2005 – 2011 and I supported two children – we still ate, went on holidays and lived well in Melbourne

    Thanks Jocelyn for sharing your thoughts – we should never accept one person’s viewpoint on a topic as important as our career…

    by Sue Ellson

    • Hi Sue,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I like your three points and think there is a lot of truth in them – certainly given me more to think about.

  3. Sarah Steinberg

    Hi Jocelyn, I have spent my whole life and my whole career believing that it is possible to have it all – and that it is possible to strike a healthy work-life balance. For the most part I think I have succeeded and I don’t regret any of my choices. But after 35 years in the workforce, having held very responsible positions and having successfully “launched my children”, I am now ready to re-adjust. For me, the challenge is not finding more time for others, it’s currently my challenge to find more time for me. Your 4th point at the end of your piece is the one that resonates most with me. More than anything – I don’t want my priorities to be set by others. I want to take back control. I think I am on the same quest as you are, Jocelyn, I am just realizing it a little later in my career. So my advice for you is to follow your own advice – it is perfectly sound and there is no upside or downside in waiting any longer.

    • Thankyou Sarah – you bring a tear to my eye with your words. You have certainly brought up wonderful children that’s for sure 🙂

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