Friday, March 19, 2004

The Notion of a Career

I have always rationalized that flexibility is the most important thing in our modern job market. It's a little odd, considering who my role models were when I was growing up.

My mom and dad reached maturity in a very different world. My dad knew that he wanted to be an architect since he was halfway through high school, and maybe even earlier than that. My mom realized that computers would be big business one day and studied a fledgling program in computer sciences in university.

My dad has buildings all across Canada to show for his career, even though he's had his ups and downs over the years. And my mom is an executive consultant for one of Canada's most successful document management practices. Despite leaving her career to take care of me and my sister through the greater part of our childhood, she was the architect for an electronic library system that is still in use at DFAIT over thirty years later and has participated in some of the biggest rollouts of document management software to the federal government in our nation's history.

They've had a lot of success in their careers and have something to show for it. If people want to know what they do, I can point to my mother's reputation as one of the most knowledgeable people in Ottawa in her field and I can point to one of my dad's hundreds of houses and institutional buildings in this city alone. I can talk proudly about my parents and what they do, and have done, in their careers.

Midway though high school, I started getting the "what are you going to do with your life" speech. My dad was a lot bigger on this than my mom was. My mom has always supported me all the way, no matter what, but I knew she always wanted me to be a lawyer. For my dad, it was a cardinal sin to have no idea of what I wanted to do for a living after I finished school. For years' worth of dinners, I got the inevitable question. I came to dread it. Yet I always responded with a cookie-cutter answer: "C'mon Dad, it's the 90's. Nobody picks a lifelong career anymore."

I suspect my feelings on the matter were driven by a variety of influences. Guidance Counsellors told us that we would probably have four or five careers through our lifetime. Friends (as most people are at that age) were more interested in having a good time in the present than setting plans for the future. There was some pressure for me to concentrate on academics or to follow in others' footsteps. But really, I think what it broke down to was that I had no idea of what I was going to do, and that was kind of scary.

The easiest solution is to not make any decision at all. I ended up at a university that reminded me of my high school, studying concentrations that had low job prospects but that I had shown an aptitude for in the past. In many ways, it was the right decision to make at the time. I had a fantastic time there, I met a lot of interesting, talented people, and I got fairly decent grades.

But at the same time, I never really felt like I fit in. I never really felt like I was giving 100%. Even with pastimes that I enjoyed, I put in a huge amount of time, but never strove to perform to the fullness of my abilities. But most importantly, even after four years at that school, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I had no idea what to do with my degree, with my knowledge, or my life.

And now, post-university, I still struggle with the same question. I ended up on my current career path because I needed a job. Not because it was what I wanted to do, not because I was especially good at it at the time, but instead because I could do it, I had an opportunity, and because it paid. I suspect that almost everyone has had a job like this at some point in their lives. I suspect that many of you who are reading this are in a job like that right now.

This isn't to say that what I do is without rewards. My current contract, a knowledge transfer of all of the methods I have gained in process mapping over the last few years, is great because of the fantastic attitude of the people I'm working for and the grateful, respectful way that they treat me. I am having a good time. But it isn't great because of what I do and that feeling isn't enough, not for me.

I desperately wish that I could have a job where I could go to sleep each night feeling fulfilled. Fulfilled not just because I have a big fat paycheque, not just because the people I work with are nice to me, and not just because what I am doing is contributing to the success of something bigger. I want to have a job where I am fulfilled because I am doing what makes me happy and makes me feel like I've accomplished something for myself.

I regret some of the decisions I have made, although not in a black-and-white kind of way. I realize that maybe flexibility isn't always the best decision, not for everyone, depending on what kind of a person you are. I realize that shrugging those questions off might not have been the best thing for me to do. But it felt right at the time.

Maybe if I had followed my parents' advice and worked out what I wanted way back then, I wouldn't be faced with this kind of indecision today. Maybe not. Maybe if I had been working towards something really hard, a huge goal, following my dreams, I would be closer to it now, or maybe already there. Maybe not. Maybe if I had, I'd be happier. But maybe not.

Is it enough to say "follow your dreams"? Are we ever too old to start following them? I still have faith that anything can happen if you put your mind to it. But I also realize that it can get harder the longer you wait to make a decision and put everything that you are behind it. While you're waiting, things in life have a tendency of piling up around you into a wall so high that eventually you can't see past its sides.

And yet, after all this thought and soul-searching that I've done in the past few years, I STILL have no idea what I want to do. I have too many dreams to follow and I constantly get the feeling that I'm running out of time. Ask me on any given day, and my answer will have changed from what I said last week. Ask me today, and I'll tell you I want to be a part of the movie business. Not necessarily as an actor, but maybe as a sculptor, a concept designer, or a scriptwriter. Ask me today and I'll tell you I NEED that.

I just finished watching the special features disks from the extended cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and just after I finished it, I got the same pang in my chest that I got after finishing the disks from The Fellowship of the Ring. It was envy, or regret, or a combination of the two. The behind-the-scenes footage inspired me but made me feel like I had been somehow left out. It made me feel that if I had made a choice a decade ago, that I might have had a chance to be a part of it, through fate or willpower or skill.

Filming the trilogy involved a team of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were completely committed to this colossal project. Many worked seven days a week, twenty hours a day, far away from friends and loved ones, because they loved every minute of what they were doing, because they knew that their friends and family would support them, and because they could feel that they were a part of a masterpiece of art and cinema. And as far as I could see, not one of them had any regrets.

If I could have even a fraction of that feeling, that's what I would want.

I think it's time to make some decisions.


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