Remember that weirdly amazing song by Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen), that was pretty much just a guy reading the words to an essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning Mary Schmich? It reached number 1 and Gold status here in the UK. But more importantly it formed the basis of how I live my life. If I’m ever unsure about a decision, I consult Wear Sunscreen, and within it I usually find my answer. For it covers all of life’s important arenas: Health (“Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone”), Love (“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours”), and Beauty (“Do NOT read beauty magazines they will only make you feel ugly”).
But of course the advice I want to discuss in this post relates to careers. And there’s lots of it. Here are four sets of key lyrics from the song, and how I see them relating to the careers of researchers I work with:
1) “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh nevermind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”
We can all argue about where the cut-off for “youth” lies (I will always argue it’s located a few years older than me), but this lyric applies not only to the young. It’s about perspective. It describes how it’s tough in any one moment to see how much opportunity you have and how blooming great you really are. This can be especially true of the researchers I work with who have career worries. Sometimes it can be helpful to try to step out of the moment you’re in. What would Future You say when looking back at you now? What would Past You, with all their hopes and dreams, but also their doubts and uncertainty, think about what you’ve now achieved?
I’ve had two conversations in the last month that recalled these lyrics for me. First, I was working with a client discussing her desire to work overseas. She said it was something she’d always wanted to do, but the perfect time to have worked overseas would have been five years ago, and it’s way too late for her now. I asked why she hadn’t moved overseas five years ago. She replied it was because Past Her had thought it was way too late for her back then too. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder what Future Her might think?
The second conversation was with a PhD graduate who’d left academia. I was interviewing him for a careers case study blog (like these). His advice to current academics was to ignore the inner voice that criticizes you for leaving things too late – it’s a fruitless distraction. Sure, we advise starting your career thinking as early as possible. But for any one person, now is as early as possible. No matter how long you’ve been in academia before you start considering how to strategically get ahead in the field; or no matter how “late” you’ve left it before you start considering non-academic options, you’re currently the youngest you will ever be, and now is the soonest you can ever take action. Just ask your Future Self, and they’ll tell you how much potential and opportunity you have.
2) “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
There’s plenty of evidence to show comparing yourself to others impacts your emotional wellbeing. But that evidence is a little complex, and how these comparisons affect you seems to depend on your own self-esteem and personality, and on whom you’re comparing yourself with.
From a careers perspective, sometimes comparisons can be helpful. They can reassure you that other people experience similar difficulties, uncertainties, and insecurities as you (they do!). And when looking at LinkedIn and The UCL Alumni Online Community at jobs “people like you” have, comparisons can provide career ideas and inspiration, and can motivate you to work hard and develop new skills.
But a vital part of the comparison process is self-awareness. Awareness of your own strengths, interests, and values. If you know and accept your own career motivations, then you can focus on running your own race, and avoid falling into the trap of feeling jealous of those bound to take different paths to you, because they want completely different things out of life. Our “How Will I Know What I’ll Like?” researcher workshop can help raise your self-awareness (check out our Careers Consultant workshop schedule to see when the next one is, and to sign up), and in preparation we ask you to complete a Jobmi.com strengths questionnaire, so why not start that now?
3) “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”
Speaking of not comparing yourself to others, everyone is different. Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and they’re happy doing it forever. That’s great, and if that’s you, come and see us for an appointment if you need help getting there. But studies like this, this, and this tell us that’s not true of everyone, and in fact, changing careers, sometimes multiple times, is pretty normal. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to find the single one right thing. And try to see not being fixed on one route as an exciting prospect. If you view yourself as someone who may have multiple careers, then you can be more experimental, trying things you wouldn’t ordinarily try. And with retirement ages creeping upwards, you’re likely to be working for longer than previous generations. With all that time to work, why not actually aspire to try multiple careers? You never know, you may even enjoy one of them enough to stick with it forever.
4) “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.”
For me, this lyric evokes Dr Jim Bright and Dr Robert G. L. Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers. Yes. That’s right. There’s a chaos theory of careers. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and you become a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust. This theory not only concedes that most people don’t have firm long-term career plans, but actually questions the value of having such plans in the first place. Given that seemingly small chance events can have a gigantic influence over the course of our careers, this theory says it’s far better to focus on smaller shorter-term goals and actions, and to be curious, self-aware, and open to new opportunities.
(On that note, do you even know what a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust does? Why not take this opportunity to be curious and google it? We’ve given you a helping hand by speaking to one and writing about it here.)