My father looked out of the window, his back turned. "So what are you going to do now?" he asked clearly irritated. "I'm going to work in my girlfriend's parent's pub", came the reply from an 18-year-old Jimmy. Despite my father's affinity with pubs (doing the fatherly thing he had carefully passed on this interest to his son), working in a pub after dropping out of an Engineering degree was not what he had in mind for his youngest son. My relationship with him was somewhat strained over the next 12 months, before I re-enrolled at University and somehow came out the other end with a degree and PhD.
If only I had the opportunity to change my preferences before I went to university things might have been different, but I did not have that opportunity. Instead, following the over-enthusiastic, some would say downright narrow-minded, advice from a high school teacher, and eager to please an Oxford-educated father, I went along with their approval of doing engineering. But I soon discovered I was no engineer. Firstly I was rubbish at it, and secondly with the exception of one disinhibited frontal lobe case Professor, the subject and those teaching it left me yearning for something else.
It is so easy to go along with a decision to please others, or even to avoid having to think too much or examine one's own motivations. Such inquiries can be disturbing, but failing to do so can be far more damaging to one's career, happiness, self-esteem and general wellbeing.
So take the opportunity now to think very carefully about your choices. Below I set out some questions for you to consider in determining whether you are doing the right course.
Where are you going in your life and to what end? Are you engaged in the work that you do? Is your course still meaningful to you and does it matter to you? Do you feel useful? The traditional way to do this is to ask about vocational interests, and then to match those to a list of courses. Whilst such an approach can be useful, I prefer to start not by trying to fit the person into pre-determined interest or occupational categories, but rather, I want to understand a person's preoccupations, patterns of their lives, their personal narratives, the things that inspire them, and the people they most admire. By giving yourself permission to think expansively and deeply about where you have been, how you are travelling and what moves you, there is a greater chance that you will think about how you can fit work into your life.
What I have to offer to the world? List five words that a close friend, supportive family member or teacher would use to describe your greatest strengths. How could these strengths be useful in a course? How could I find out how my strengths relate to different courses? How could I present examples of my strengths in a work-related context on a resume or in a course interview?
What's my story? In five sentences, write a story that captures in a nutshell what you could contribute in a course if you were given the opportunity. For example, my life has been devoted to serving the needs of others in my community. Originally I achieved this working in a customer service role. Then I stood for the local council and worked with several community groups on bush regeneration, and community child-care projects. I then owned a small retail business offering water purification products to my community. Most recently, I have been re-training to become a community worker.
Being useful and using your time wisely. How can I best donate my time to activities (e.g. courses, projects and voluntary work) that are meaningful to me and matter to other people? How can I allocate my time best to make a meaningful contribution and supporting those who matter to me?
Joy and engagement. Think of an activity that you find challenging and in which you experience the feeling of being totally absorbed, so absorbed that you fail to notice that time is passing. What occupations might allow you to engage in similar tasks? How could you plan an entry route into such an occupation?
Role models and heroes. Who are your heroes? Who were your heroes when you were growing up? Why did you admire them? In what ways would you like to be like them? What does that tell you about your own desires and ambitions? What occupations might allow you to be more like your heroes?
Wildest dreams. What course in your wildest dreams would you like to do? Why do you like that course? What parts of that course would be the best, and what parts would be less exciting? For the good parts you identified, what other occupations might share similar elements?
Once you have worked through all of these questions, then completing a vocational interests test can be useful in identifying some possible occupations to explore, and because you have already thought carefully and deeply, the recommendations such inventories provide can be seen properly - as merely one more perspective on a glorious, complex, ever-changing and sometimes unpredictable creation called you.