“Just follow your joy. Always. I think that if you do that, life will take you on the course that it’s meant to take you.”
When you are young, avidly absorbing new knowledge, detangling the mystery of life and stretching into your destiny; there is just no limit! Success is a given … you are unstoppable, limitless, ‘unbwogable’. You confidently walk the guaranteed path of success; and as you grow older, equipped with your acquired knowledge, you are optimistic about the future and more than ready for the career of your dreams. As you take the steps towards your destiny, you pursue your rightful place with a straight-forwardness planted by your socialization. Your parents have told you, you can be anything you want, your family cheers you on and destiny beckons with an encouraging smile. So, you do the work – you study hard, pass your exams, achieve your academic milestones and, voila, the corporate world opens to your awesomeness. You are ready for your stellar career journey!
If you are a high achiever, you obviously have made sure that you not only “pass” your exams; you do so with amazing grades - a great GPA that opens doors to top notch organisations in which you have already pictured yourself working. You are ready for the world to give way as you majestically walk to your shining destiny. Aah, success, success … the light that illuminates our souls!
And as you step out, reality hits hard! Depending on who your parents are, what country you live in, how far merit counts … you are in for a surprising ride of your life. Most developed countries tend to be more meritocratic – your hard work pays off, the climb of your career ladder almost predictable (barring any ‘invisible’ walls or ceilings that invariably exist). Now, some countries … ah, you could end up on this meritocratic path or in the “technical-know-who” maze. Your employment and success is not about what you know and can do, but who you know. Oh, and who your parents might know, of course. Again, if you are in a more developed setting, you could have better chances going on your own and setting up a business. In other countries, access to funding could be a real bummer with no access to “angels”, crowd funding or whatever other sources of funding exist in more mature markets. Again, unless you are “connected” – a solo business would be a pipe dream.
So, you zip back to the traditional ‘find a job’ way of living. Luckily (is it really ‘luck’?), you do find one. And you work hard, you put in what it takes to succeed; and, truth is, all things being constant, you do excel. Your dream about a rewarding career starts to unfold before you. You regain your childhood optimism and start believing again.
But my ‘believing’ changed texture as I grew older. In pursuing my career, I have come to learn that there are so many misconceptions that the world has told us about work… and life. I now know that success in my career or life is not a linear trajectory; it is more of squiggly path that takes me up, down, sideways, down, then up and many times, quite unpredictably.
The perceived predictability is a myth that cannot be achieved – because that’s exactly what it is, a myth. So, the idea that you start in a junior/ entry position, climb the ladder and simply keep climbing to the apex … child, dude, sis, bro, man - this is such a myth. Can you climb the career ladder? Yes and no - yes, if you put in the work. And no, sometimes you don’t, even when you put in the work. Is this fair? No. But who says the world is fair?
Perhaps this quote my sister shared will drive it home for you: “If you expect the world to be fair with you because you are fair, you’re fooling yourself. That’s like expecting the lion not to eat you because you didn’t eat him.” So, does that mean pursuing a career is futile? No, mate! That would be like saying living is futile. It is not!
There is amazing fulfillment in work, in careers. You get to expand your abilities, do things you thought you were incapable of doing. Work with amazing people. Contribute to things that are bigger than you. Help others. Build systems, services, nations … contribute to advancements in the world! It is one of the most rewarding experiences.
You know what else I have learnt? You cannot separate your life from your career. What you do, your job is so intimately connected to your life that terms like “work life balance” are now seen for the myths that they are. The wellness, successes, joys of life and relationships at home seep into our job and relationships at work. What we do well at home may be exactly what defines our success at work. Essentially, the gains from work are inextricably tied to the success we can build in our lives. So are the failures.
So, in life and at work, take your steps with the caution, humility and respect they deserve. In my career, I have had the rare opportunity of setting up an HR function from scratch for a very reputable organisation. I was given the freedom to drive the initiatives needed based on the deep trust I had earned with the owner. I have also dealt with the pain of leaving that organisation in pain – torn apart by what I perceived as unfair treatment and a lack of value for my contributions. Yet, when I left, the next organisation selected me through a head-hunting process. My reputation preceded me. I started this new role with a renewed excitement that was gradually, but steadily dampened by a debilitating lack of commitment to the change required. The leadership team spoke of a much-needed transformation that they were not ready to back up. I eventually left in frustration. My next role was a bigger, better-paying job. ‘Better’ does not even begin to define the difference in salary and perks. And yet, never in my whole career have I had to struggle so hard to achieve results. Very few people see the internal changes that are needed to achieve greater outcomes. The struggle continues …
Looking back, I see a career trajectory that has taken me from junior roles to leading a function. From sitting on a senior management team to working part-time in a call centre as I pursued my first postgraduate degree. I started leading teams in my early twenties, supervising colleagues that were older than I or who considered themselves “specialists” who should not be supervised – let alone by a young female and then ‘progressed’ into roles elsewhere in which I was supervised. I have led big teams, then small, then none. I have worked with amazing, supportive colleagues and then dealt with some very toxic teams. It is a checkered journey. And it has taught me that success is not defined by society or others. It is defined by you. What brings you joy? Define the things that spark joy in your heart and as Jonathan Groff says: “Just follow your joy. Always. I think that if you do that, life will take you on the course that it’s meant to take you.”
And as you pursue that course, remember that you sometimes must step out in faith, even when the next step is not clear. Give the best of who you are in every situation – at work and at home – because success is not a destination, it is a process. As John C. Maxwell puts it: “Success is not … a place where you arrive one day. Instead it is the journey you take and whether or not you succeed comes from what you do day-to-day.” So, take those steps, pursue that journey … day by day. I’m rooting for you!