They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Please excuse the language. This is Philip Larkin pulling no punches in his poem, This Be The Verse. He wrote it in 1971, but forty-eight years later it’s just as relevant. Parents still screw us up in a myriad of ways. Giving poor advice is just one.
Jo is Australian and one of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees. She got careers advice from her parents in the late 1970s. “It was: get a steady job and stay there till you’re 60. And get your pension.”
Taking work advice from our parents is like using the rear view mirror to drive. You can’t look backwards to drive forwards. Best case you’ll end up down the wrong road. Worst case you’ll crash.
“It probably worked then because women had way less choice, even back in my mum’s time.” says Jo. “You could be a nurse or a teacher. That was it. Two options.”
But we do need to give them some slack. As Larkin says it’s not their fault:
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Your parents may screw you up, but they don’t mean to. It’s easy to say the grown-ups failed in the choices they made, the things they did, the advice they gave. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
Back in the 1970s’ who knew there would be a World Wide Web? Not even Sir Tim Berners-Lee… until he invented it decades later. Social Media — what the hell is that? It wouldn’t raise its lovely/ugly head until the 2000s. PCs, GPS, ATMs? Can anyone tell me what these acronyms mean? Email, laptops, iPhones? Stop now with the made-up words. How could our parents know the world of work would change so drastically?
I think there’s a theme here though: time. Good advice for our parents (or aunts, uncles, elder cousins) when they were young isn’t good advice for us now. My counsel? Don’t heed advice based on historical paradigms of work.
Anna found her job was unfulfilling and asked her Dad for help. She got short shrift. He said, “We can’t all do what we want to do in life. We have to sacrifice something. We have to compromise. You just have to knuckle down and get on with it.”
She felt this was more about him than her. “You know, he never took a risk. He worked for the same company for his entire life. He never changed jobs once. He had the same commute, got the same train, walked to the same office for 40 years. Unbelievable.”
There’s also a second theme here: risk appetite. Risk-taking behaviour reduces dramatically with age, so when we ask our elder relatives for advice they see the world through their older (and more risk avoiding) eyes. Imagine you are a fly on the wall when your parents and grandparents were talking careers. You’d see the very same dynamic taking place.
Alexander stayed in a role he hated for years because, “There were influential factors like parents saying, ‘you can’t keep changing jobs.’”
Rachel recounts that, “My parents are quite risk averse. And my mom is anxious. Having that kind of perspective, that’s how you’ve been brought up to see the world.” She realised over time, “It’s really helpful to know that you don’t always have to take this perspective.”
Natalie studied photojournalism but had pressure from her parents to change course. They said, “Look, this might not be the right thing for you. Why don’t you go and get on the career ladder, you’re gonna want to buy a property at some stage.” So she spent over a decade in marketing, a career that, “My family and my friends would say was more sensible. I definitely moved away from something I was very passionate about and I really wanted to do.”
She reflected back on her career choices. “There were a lot of these external forces. It’s something that I kick myself about even now. I didn’t necessarily make the decision to step away from that myself. I was very influenced by other people.”
Skills and strengths:
There is a third theme here as well: our natural skills and strengths. We are not our parents. We are different people with different talents. Our elder relatives sometimes forget this fact and mistake us for Mini-Me’s.
Anne-Charlotte is French and her parents and grandparents were very clear about the direction she should take, “Oh you are very good at school, you should go to law school. You should do something like that.” As she was a “people pleaser” she gave up on her real desire to study art and history.
Yasmeen is Kuwaiti but lives in Canada. When she was growing up in Kuwait she really wanted to be creative. “But in that part of the world they don’t really celebrate women being on stage. I started doing plays in high school and my Dad had a huge problem with it. He said, ‘I prefer my daughter to be somebody who is valued for how she thinks, what she can say and her intelligence, as opposed to what she can show on stage.’ “
She spent years working in an environment that wasn’t a good fit for her. “I don’t think he understood that creativity is a form of intelligence. He wanted me to be a lawyer. And I was like, ‘do you know me? I’m one of the most partial people you’ll ever meet!’”
It’s left its mark on Yasmeen. “I think it kind of screwed with me a little bit because for most of my life I’ve been caught up in what I should do versus what I want to do. And I’m still struggling with that today.”
So how do you get away from the clutches (sorry warm embrace) of your family? You might choose to avoid the topic. Natalie said of her career change plans, “Oh I haven’t told my family at all because I don’t need other people telling me not to do it. I don’t want other people’s fears to overshadow all the good work. I think other people’s fears don’t need to come into the equation, it’s not helpful.”
You can stop being a people pleaser, like Madelana who is Portuguese. “I’m creative even though I went a different route with my life to please my parents. I think most people do that. They always want to please their parents. They want to be a good daughter.”
You can surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Yasmeen is now training to be an actor, but it’s hard. “What I want to do is scary. It’s a tough life. It’s a starving artists life. So that is still an internal battle.” She keeps telling herself it’s OK, reinforcing that it’s the right thing to do. “But this is not something that you can do overnight. It’s a lifetime of your neural pathways in your brain.”
Or you could just get the hell out of Dodge City. Anne-Charlotte moved from her native France to Ireland. But it wasn’t until she was there that she realised, “Maybe I’m abroad because I really want to get physical distance too.” So to Larkin for the final word:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan