I went to university at age 26 because I thought having tertiary qualifications would mean that I would have better career opportunities. After all, that’s what all the rhetoric said, right? Before that I was worked in banks and took temp jobs to pay the bills.
So I graduated from university, clutching my trusty Arts degree, thinking: “OK World, here I am! Come and get me!” And it did. It pulled me right back to banking and temp jobs. Hmmph. So much for better opportunities.
Luckily, I became pregnant with my daughter and I realised I had to do something practical in order to take care of her. I knew I was going to be a solo mum, so I signed up for a Graduate Diploma in Education. School holidays, civilised hours: what more could a single parent want? So over the course of two years, with income support from the government, I studied to be a teacher. And it was a great job for three years, until I had to make the decision between my own child and someone else’s*. My child won. And back to temping I went.
Again, luckily, I landed in my current government workplace (the first time around), and my manager realised I could string a decent sentence together (and could actually spell) and so involved me in editing, then communications work. I stayed in that temp job three years, but eventually moved into various marketing communications roles outside government (mainly in education), and gained a Masters degree in Communication Management. I thought: “Yay! A career at last!”
When I finished that degree, I couldn’t get a job to save myself (despite finishing top in the class), so back to teaching I went, this time at Tafe. And I stayed there a couple of years, before becoming annoyed with the fact that lecturers who had been there for 10 years were asking me (the newbie) how to do things. Oh, and I was being paid at least $20K less for the privilege. Unfair and unjust, to say the least.
So now in my current job, I have come to the realisation that I am probably doomed to never live up to my potential at work, and I will find work to be generally (on and off) deeply unsatisfying. I will probably never have that brilliant career I was promised via my university studies; I will probably never reach those dizzying heights of a $100K+ paycheck; I will probably never manage a team of people and inspire them to reach their full potential. The most I can hope for is a regular and reasonable income, nice people to work with, and if I’m lucky, interesting work. I don’t feel bad about this (although I used to) because it’s not my fault.
And the reason is this: we live in a world where exceptions (those individuals who do succeed) are held up as the norm. We believe the “you can do or be anything” mantra. We hold up those exceptions as proof that the mantra is true. But there are number of authors (Gladwell, deBotton and McNamee/Miller) who have examined the rhetoric and found it to be full of holes. It is largely an urban myth, but one that has been created over hundreds of years by government ideology and economic policies, among other things. Unfortunately, we’ve bought into it. Our society functions because we all believe it.
Knowing this makes it easier to accept my underwhelming experience of work and its broken promises, because it’s largely out of my control. I need work to fund my lifestyle – it is a means to an end, that’s all. If I had a choice, though, there are other things I’d much rather be doing than trotting into my 9-5 job. The quandary is: how to make these other things pay so I can ditch the grind?
Until I’ve figured that out, though, work and I will continue with this uneasy truce.
And I wonder who the winner will be?
* My daughter had just started school and she asked me to listen to her read. It broke my heart to tell her that I had to mark a stack of papers (I was teaching Year 12 and it was a heavy workload) before I could. That was the beginning of the end of high school teaching for me.
Since writing this post, I have found a job back in communications (for six months), and I am very much looking forward to it. Of all the paid work I have ever done, I found this work to be the most joyful and satisfying because it allows me to be creative and productive, and to share my knowledge and experience. I produce tangible results. Measurable outcomes. I start my new job in the New Year.
Did this post resonate with you?
If you liked this post, then you’ll love my collection of essays about work.
Part memoir, part analysis of workplace culture, I consider the world of work and the definition of career success. And anyone who has found themselves disillusioned about the progress of their career—and that’s a lot of us!—will relate to this book.
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