Follow your dreams
Do what you love
Set goals and stick to them
Have a five year plan
The world is your oyster
Dream big and success will come your way
You could do anything you want
So much advice, yet so much of it is confusing and often conflicting. And what of the people who simply don't have goals, don't know where to start, don't know what interests them at all? They chop and change, feeling inadequate and unsettled as if they're deliberately being difficult by rudely flouting received wisdom. After all everyone else seems to know what they're on about, they've set GOALS, have made beautiful dream boards - in fact they have a PLAN.
In reality, not everyone is going to make it big, no matter how many wishes they make, no matter how bright and colourful their dream boards. Some of those who do "make it" will find they're still empty inside, but don't know what they're seeking.
MacAskill talks about doing something meaningful or valuable:
What it does mean is that you should start finding out what’s valuable, and get help working out the ways in which your career can make for a better world.In my experience, not everyone is interested in, or able to focus on making the world a better place - it's too big to comprehend. There's so much to do, but you don't do anything because it's overwhelming and you have no idea where to start. However, when we focus on what we value and what we can do in our own little corner of the world it becomes more achievable.
Some years ago, I worked with John the accountant. John was in great distress as he told me he hated his job. There was nothing for it but to retrain, but how would he do this with a mortgage and family to support? He wanted to work in medicine. He dreamed of helping people and supporting them through their illness, but instead felt doomed to an unfulfilled life with periods of being bitterly unhappy. He was completely demoralised, couldn't find anything to look forward to and felt his family was suffering as a result of his misery.
After some discussion it became evident that it wasn't accounting he hated with such passion, but the company where he worked. He was privvy to some of their ways which didn't sit well with him. The company didn't act ethically or in the best interests of its clients or the community in which it was located. He valued honesty and integrity. He wanted to be proud of the company he worked for. He valued his family and wanted more balance in his week rather than working long hours and being on call 7 days a week.
We talked around his core values and needs (there's more about values here) as well as his skills. Discussions like this can sometimes feel unsettling; we're not used to talking about what's deeply important to us, so we're hesitant and unsure. We feel the way cautiously. It can also seem like you're circling round the issue and as if it's not really related to your career - but it is! Making career decisions based firmly on your values is life affirming - the outcome doesn't have to be grandiose or world changing to be of value in your corner of the world.
Career exploration based on values is not what the "received wisdom" at the top of this post supports. You're not starting with wishes, or dreams or goals. You're starting with self knowledge, and an understanding of your unique blend of values and skills. You're starting with you, and what's important to you as an individual. It's not the quick fix mix and match: "if you are good at xyz, then this career will suit you".
Defusion and acceptance
Once John stopped fusing with his anger and the distress he experienced at being expected to act unethically and being unable to change the situation, he was able to see that he genuinely enjoyed accounting. Allowing space and time for the negative feelings to rise and be accepted without fighting them was an important step in the process. That negativity was clouding his judgement and colouring his attitude towards his profession.
Taking committed action
Retraining wasn't necessary! John brightened up considerably as he realised that working as an accountant for a doctor, a medical testing laboratory, or in a hospital would support his values and make use of his original training.
And whilst job hunting, cold calling, writing letters of application and making your resume sing aren't always the most beguiling of pass-times, when they're conducted with a view to supporting your core values it feels like your time is well spent and your decision will be based on a solid foundation.