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Career advice they never get to hear

Mar 12, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

Hi youngsters, it’s nice to have your company again.

Many of you have just received your examination results, and are busy planning what to do with the rest of your lives. Careers, occupations and flight paths are on your minds. And I’m sure there is no shortage of advisors: parents, teachers, peers and a variety of other busybodies will be telling you exactly what to do next.

There is, after all, a great deal of conventional wisdom about choosing futures. It goes something like this. Choose the ‘right’ career. Follow the money and maximise your future earnings. Go for status: people looking up to you is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Plan out your life, don’t leave it to chance. Set out your goals, and map out a trajectory. If you make a mistake now, you will pay for it for the rest of your life. Be careful. Be prudent. Be safe.

It’s all well-meaning stuff, but could I please ask you to toss it out of the window? I was told the same thing 20-odd years ago, and it’s taken me as many years to discover that life just isn’t like that. After a few hard knocks and some telling advice from the truly wise, I have worked out what I should have been told. So here it is.

First and foremost: every life is different. Life does not come in easy packages labelled ‘standard’; ‘mediocre’; ‘outstanding’. It is entirely within your ambit to put some greatness into your life. What is going to happen to you is going to be uniquely about you. You can learn from the lives of others, yes, but you cannot replicate them. Nor should you want to. Don’t aim to become a photocopy of anyone’s life: you will lose the unique potential of your own.

We are all given skills and aptitudes. There is something for all of us, something that we love doing and that we have the potential to become great doing. The trick is to discover what it is. This is very difficult indeed, since the world spends a lot of time telling us what the ‘best’ careers are: you must strive to be a doctor, a banker, a top scientist, a famous rap artist, a business mogul or even, dare I say it, a management consultant. Fashion plays a big role, as does the allure of fame.

In our hearts, we know what we like doing. We know what uplifts our souls, what taps into a deeper current within us. We must pay attention to those feelings: they are giving us vital clues about our purpose in life. Here’s a test: when you are doing what you love, time flies and the world shrinks to become the task at hand. When you are caught up in work you hate, time trucks on wearily and the world is an enticing array of other attractions.

Kahlil Gibran told us that work is love made visible, and that we should become beggars rather than work with distaste. Let no-one on this planet force you into a career you will hate. It will be the worst kind of life sentence. It will make you stressed, irritable and frustrated. You may as well check into Kamiti now.

Watch the poet in full flow, the artist lost in brush strokes, the businessman closing a deal, the scientist staring at her apparatus in the laboratory, the accountant caressing his balance sheet. There is nothing else these people would rather do; nowhere else they’d rather be. They are doing what they love, and their work is an expression of that love. It is therefore superb work, work that will inspire others, work that will add to the world’s riches.

But that is naive, I hear your mother shouting. My boy loves football, and playing the guitar, and fixing the plumbing. There are no careers worth anything there. He must earn his bread. He must learn a trade. He must do what people want to pay for. He must enrol in that IT course in college now!

Look at the world of activity around you. How immense, how vast is the scope of human endeavour? We have room for basketballers and bakers, novelists and nanotechnologists, carpenters and counsellors, violinists and video jockeys. None of these careers is higher or lesser than the others: it is the worth attached to them by the market that seems to make them so.

The way to attach meaning to any job, however humble, is to do it well. It is to take pride in it, and to want to do it to the highest standards. It is to learn and relearn the skills it demands, and to strive to do it better every day. The satisfaction of a job well done is in itself the greatest reward. And you will not wallow in penury nor seethe in frustration when you are working in this way. The universe will configure its rewards for you. But you must be allowed the space to find your calling.

A second fundamental: lives are inherently ‘unplannable’. Most lives I know are characterised by the unexpected, not the anticipated. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, said John Lennon, and he was right. He was shot down in his prime by a crazed gunman. Happiness will come from expecting the unexpected, from acceptance that the road of life is one of twists and turns, not a straight and well-signposted highway.

Those who go with the ebbs and flows of life are the ones who deal with it; those who end their days in misery are the ones who keep trying to re-impose an artificial order. Prepare to make mistakes. Mistakes are essential in life; there is no learning without them. A life spent avoiding mistakes is one spent avoiding life itself. You will be down on the floor many times; your greatness will come from the way in which you pick yourself up.

Lastly: there are no easy paths. There are no substitutes for hard work, and no proxies for determined effort. Oh wait, of course there are. You could become a politician, a wheeler-dealer, a huckster. In Kenya you could probably make a lot of money in those occupations. But that money will burn a hole in your pocket, and ultimately in your life. Money stolen will eat away at the seams of your self-respect, and your life will unravel. You will be a king for a day and a miserable pauper for life.

I have no idea why we stopped telling our children these things, and why we drive them into a life of rigidity, mimicry and larceny. This is what should really be posted up in the careers office: Be open to all possibilities; be prepared to work very hard; be ready to learn and relearn your life right up to the day it ends; be dogged; be principled; be true to yourself. Other than that, be anything you like.

Greatness awaits, if you can recognise its embrace. Grow well.

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