Welcome to summer! Normally a time to explore new places, eat different cuisines and stretch our horizons. But this year is different. Many of us will be vacationing closer to home. Holidays that will be far enough away from our neighbourhoods to feel like a break but reducing the risks by staying in our own country.
You might be searching right now for that perfect trip away. If you are, I have some advice to dispense. If you’re searching on Google, then spelling matters. Naturalist weekends are not the same as naturist weekends. In the first we discover birds and animals. In the second we discover ourselves.
It’s funny isn’t it, that we often mix up words that are close. Entomology is the study of bugs. Etymology is the origin of words. I’ve written about both… but can never remember which is which. Ontology is a type of philosophy that ponders the nature of our very being. Oncology is the treatment of tumours. Or what about more everyday examples? Stationary (unmoving) vs. stationery (pens and paper), compliment (to say something nice) vs. complement (things that go together). You get my point. The closer things are, the more confused we get.
Isn’t this the same with religion? I’ll buy you a socially distanced dinner if you can explain the differences between this sample of Christian groups: Baptist, Episcopalian, Evangelist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Assemblies of God, Christian Reform, Church of Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Christian Science, Quaker and Seventh Day Adventist. Or what about these 25 schools of Islam? Can anyone help me out?
Things that are similar also create tension. There’s something about being close that gets our goat – the nearer you are to me, the more I can see your flaws. Opposing countries are often geographical neighbours. Struggles frequently happen in close-knit families. The greater the proximity, the greater the conflict.
I’ve interviewed over 100 people at crossroads in their lives. Many talked about career change and the topic of families often came up. Misha studied hard when she was growing up. Her family were high performers – doctors, lawyers, accountants. “I had a lot of pressure from family. Unspoken expectations of high academics and being a high achiever. I think the expectation, right from the offset, was that I would have a successful job.”
So rather than following her own path, Misha studied engineering. Later she went into consultancy. She made a further move into industry and then another one to accountancy. “I was always trying to shift, trying to find something that I’d enjoy more.”
When Misha goes to family gatherings people ask her what she does. “I still say I’m a management accountant. It’s a safe word because it’s a good job. If I said something else, like I’m a carpenter or bricklayer, I’d be judged for it.” The problem for Misha is that she has been doing what her family wants, so “I never found what it was that it was really passionate about. I think that I just got lost.”
When we caught up, Charlotte reflected on where she is in her career and what she wants to do next. “In terms of my family, I don’t discuss career plans with them at all. I haven’t done for years. Because I find that deeply unhelpful.” Part of the challenge for Charlotte is that her experiences are very different from her parents. “My mother has never really worked in the corporate world. She doesn’t really get it. She’s always been very public sector.”
The rules of engagement are also different now. Charlotte recounted what her mother said when she quit her first job: “make sure when you resign on the right day of the month for your pension.” Charlotte was a bit exasperated and responded: “mum, it’s a company of 10 people, I don’t get a pension!”
Dhaval is from India and went away to study. During that time, he had the freedom to do what he wanted to do so, it was challenging for him to come back home. “It’s in our culture. The situation is that parents are deciding for you the major themes of whom you might marry, what kind of work I should I do, choosing a career.” The freedom he enjoyed dissipated, and he struggled to fit back into his old life. “I still wanted to explore, but because my family insisted that I came back, I had to return.”
Alma’s stepdad was a partner in a professional services firm and her mother ran her own business. “It was all very high achieving, high achieving, high achieving. And that was all I knew.” Alma worked in Human Resources for years, even though it wasn’t the right career for her. “I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to know that things could be any different.”
Her family had lenses through which they saw the world and they were so firmly in place that Alma didn’t even know they were filtering the world. “All I believed at the time was I had to do those jobs because I had to make that money. Because I couldn’t survive any other way. All that I’d ever known growing up, was that success was taking that approach.” Alma asked herself this question: “Oh my God, why did you do that for so long?” It wasn’t until she got to a breaking point that she started to “look at people and think ‘not everybody’s doing that.’”
Alma now understands these unwritten rules are just other people’s conventions. “It’s something I’m so conscious of because you want your children to succeed. But at the same time, that pressure, those messages about what’s a successful job, what’s a successful career, are so skewed.” In her current role supporting a career change programme Alma has talked to many people going through that same cycle. “They’re in these professional jobs and they’re just miserable.”
Zee talked about her relationships with her family, particularly her mother. “I didn’t really feel I was a good fit in my family.” Zee is British and her mother is an immigrant who moved to Britain in the 1980s. Her mother came from economic and social insecurity which informed the way she saw life. “There were a lot of limitations in conversations with my family… there was no sense of the world and people being an exploration. You just had this fixed set of outcomes that you were trying to achieve.” This way of thinking was so different to Zee’s free-thinking and curiosity and this opposing style created turbulence for Zee through her teens and 20s.
“I am a naturally inquisitive person, and to me every new person is an adventure into the unknown. And that is why I didn’t feel like I was a good fit. It was the precise opposite of what they brought me up to believe.” Zee’s family would say: “‘these are the kind of people that you should be engaging with.’ And I just thought, that’s very samey.”
Zee doesn’t blame her mother. “Unfortunately, she grew up scared of the world. The life she painted for us was very much characterised by fear and anxiety.” Over time Zee came to realise being yourself “isn’t something that you need to try hard at. This is something that you need to accept. That actually you are who you are. And you need to find a place in the world where you fit.”
It’s strange, isn’t it? The people who know us best, often don’t know us at all. Watching us growing up, knowing our strengths, you’d think our families would make world-class career advisers; clear about where we might excel, clear about what we might enjoy.
That said, context is everything. We forget we all have filters and view the world quite differently. What our families see is never what we see (read this post for more). Often the intent is good – the guidance we’re given is to keep us safe. But what families often overlook is that what was relevant to them (at the same age or point in life) is not relevant to us now in the world as it is. It’s always useful to remember that even if we’re close, in many ways we are also very far apart.
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.
Why not also take a look at my latest venture: The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog “Killing Ourselves for Work”on the same site.
First photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan