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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday November 20 2006

I love to do career counselling, but not many people ask me to do it because my own “career” is such a non-event, and because I haven’t myself made a career out of doing career counselling.  But a friend did request a dose of it last week, and I heard myself saying something to them which I thought at the time and still think was really pretty good.  So I will now pass it on to you people.  (If you want classier career stuff, I recommend this lady.)

My friend’s problem was the one I am best at helping with, which is not how to get further ahead in the job or pursuit you already have or are pursuing, but how to set about picking your next job or pursuit in the first place.

First, a preliminary rumination on how to have ideas.  All the authorities I’ve read and listened to seem to agree that idea-having is a three stage process.

First, immerse yourself in the facts of the matter.  Don’t worry what you are going to think about them or do about them.  Just immerse.  Immerse in the obvious agenda, immerse in unobvious stuff.  Sweat at the problem.  And play around with it.

Second, relax.  Take a walk.  Sleep.  Think about something else, like listening to music or doing something else important.

Three, the idea comes to you.  When it does, you’ll know that the idea is a good one.  Eureka!

Career ideas are like that.  If you have the time, and my friend did have the time, then you don’t want to force it.

First immerse yourself in the relevant data.  Here I can be a real help, because I have a whole stack of tried-and-tested questions and methods of analysis that enable the facts to stack up quickly.

Like: When your time is your own, what do you do?  (Not what do you wish you did, but what, in fact, do you do?)

Like: What do you daydream about doing?

Like: What are you proud of having already done?  Make a list of everything that you’ve ever done that you are glad about, from big like a long and big and hard job, to small like a little thing you did for someone that only lasted a few seconds.  (Maybe you rescued a major company, turning it around from imminent bankruptcy to glory.  Maybe you did some smart baby sitting for a seriously harassed relative or friend.  Maybe you put out a hand and stopped a stranger going under a lorry.  He thanked you, rushed off to do whatever it was that was making him so impatient and careless, and that was it.) Look at the list.  Maybe there’s a pattern there.

Like: Okay you think you know what you want to do, but do you really want to do that, or do you merely like the idea of having done it?  Collecting Oscars is all very nice and happy-making.  But what do film stars actually do all day long?  Would you really enjoy that life?

Like (and talking of film stars): What kind of work do you believe in doing so much that you would rather fail at it than succeed at doing almost anything else.

Like: If you do whatever you’re thinking about doing, what’s the best that can happen?  And: what’s the worst that can happen?  Great stuff and not a lot is obviously the combination you are looking for there.

Like: Now you have a pile of stuff to think about.  Write it all down!  (I know, not a question, but an important point.)

Another important point, about all these questions: You don’t have to tell me the answers, or show me the answers, or read out the answers to me.  If you want to you’ll be very welcome because I always enjoy this stuff.  But, my enjoyment aside, the important thing here is to ask yourself things like this, and to ponder your answers yourself, in your own time.

In your own time.  After maybe having used me to speed up the immersing-yourself-in-the-facts stage, don’t then rush things.  Like I said, go to sleep, do something else.  Don’t aggress on the decision.  Don’t make the decision.  Let the decision make itself, and then present itself to you, in its own sweet time.

The big exception to that rule is when there is time pressure.  And here, if you are stressing under time pressure, I’d throw in another question, which is: Is the decision reversible?  That can save a lot of grief, because often a decision that seems very portentous and heavy is actually not, because if it goes wrong – you get miserable or bored, whatever - you can easily back out of it.  If you can’t you can’t, but often you can.  And maybe if you originally think you can’t, you can actually rearrange the decision in such a way that you can back out of it.  ("Okay, I’ll give it all I’ve got, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll stop.  Okay?  And don’t start paying me properly until I commit.” In other words, turn the decision back into a prolongation of the fact-finding process.)

Maximise the chances of the decision making itself.

Now, here comes the bit that I said that really impressed me.  As it popped out of my mouth, I thought, I haven’t said that to anyone before.  That’s good stuff.  (Although, I’m sure not original.  Almost certainly the product of lots of fact-immersing in facts supplied by and provoked by others.)

The point about decisions of this sort - the ones where the decision steps in front of you with a flourish of trumpets and you say: Yessss!!!! - is not so much that the decisions you make will be better decisions.  Often, Yessss!!!! decisions are just as dopey as the coldly logical but boring ones.

But, they do have one big advantage, which is that they often bring out the best in you.  You rip into what ever it is with a new purpose and a new momentum.  You charge madly off, not necessarily in an especially good direction, but least in a direction.  And this momentum can take you to lots of good places, which you might otherwise never have reached.  Life has flavour and zip to it.  You make what you think is a huge career decision, which turns out to be fairly expensive crap, crap in itself and further crap because not that easily reversed.  But, on the good side, you plunge into a whole new swimming pool (sewer maybe) full of facts, about you and about the universe, and from those facts, something truly good may emerge and present itself to you.  Almost anything is better than just sitting in your cave and doing nothing.  That is (a) a lousy career decision, and worse (b) it gives you no new facts to help make a better career decision.  If you do nothing, you learn nothing.

That’s basically it.  Stop now, if all you wanted from reading this was my most important point.

But, if you will allow me one more plug for my career counselling services, let me now add that one of the most valuable things I am often able to do for my career-counsellees is the simple thing of making them feel happy again.  Just that.  Often they came to me because they not only do not feel happy now, but have begun to suspect that, what with them now being twenty seven or some such disaster, they are constitutionally incapable of ever being happy again.  So, if I manage to provoke a few flavoursome and zippy career insights from them, and manage to stir up inside them the notion that maybe they might just find something really fun and satisfying to do, and maybe even soon, and that they are not doomed to greyness for ever . . .  that feeling can itself often be enough for them to turn the corner.  After all, if they got all excited, even if they got all excited about something they later realise is delusional nonsense, at least they got all excited!  At least they are still capable of that kind of excitement!  And if that feeling can come once, it can come again, and - who knows? - maybe some time soon it will come because of a potential decision that actually makes a bit of sense.