A few years ago I moved from permanent salaried jobs to contracting. Ostensibly it was a shot in the dark as I needed a job, any job, at the time, and I thought why not?! It was (and still is) a means to an end. Like you I have bills to pay and so, having not yet won the lottery nor been bestowed a modest (but generous) amount of free money by a mysterious benefactor, I found myself putting on my best (only) suit, digging a slightly creased tie out of the back of my wardrobe and presenting myself for a screening interview.
6 minutes later, I kid you not, I was done and an hour after that I got the call that they were happy to offer me the position. That was over 5 years ago and I’m still working in the same place.
My current contract was due to end in September as the project I’ve worked on that entire time is finally being wound up and only a handful of staff, myself included, remained to work through various close down activities. With the end of my contract in sight I decided to start the onerous project of finding a new job, and opened up my LinkedIn account again to see how the job market was and what ‘opportunities’ might be found there.
My oh my, I had forgotten what a mess LinkedIn can be and whilst you can filter out a lot of the noise, and I certainly do my utmost to do that, it’s still a place heavily dominated by American work ethics and ideals that I’ve always baulked against, things I find myself actively pushing back against more and more as I mature (ok, get older) as the more of it I see the more I realise that a lot of the thinking and approach that a lot of that is based on just seems inherently wrong to me.
I am not against hard work but the overwhelming view that seeps out from LinkedIn is one with an undertone of ‘no matter what you are doing you should be doing more, being more effective, levelling up constantly, aspiring for more and more and more’ and whilst there is a place for that I’m glad that I’m no longer of a mindset to take on board any of that nonsense.
I recall a co-worked from many moons ago who had the chance to interview with Microsoft. He was keen on the job itself but somewhat put off when, during the interview, they listed one of the benefits was that they would move him from Scotland to California (nice!) and put him up in an apartment (score!) which also had a large number of Microsoft employees (ehh ok), so just think you could brainstorm that tricky problem over a BBQ in the evening with your co-workers (ohh dear god no!).
It’s that always on, ‘work is life’ view that has never sat well with me, although I confess there was a time when I was probably a little closer to that being my reality than I care to admit…
Longer term readers of this blog will know I’ve got a bit of an eye for productivity and life-hacks but I’ve come to realise that my approach has always been to look at the latest greatest ‘system’, pick the low hanging fruit from it (gah, I cannot escape the corporate speak), give it a whirl in the day to day activity that I call life and then keep it or ditch it. I am no slave to theoretical time savings or productivity boons, and am more and more bemused by the idea that all of these tweaks are solely, in the eyes of most of their creators at least, seen as ways to minimise your time doing X so you can spend more time being busy doing Y. With both X and Y being solely in the world of your ‘work day’ and at the behest of being ‘productive’.
What the Z?
Here’s the thing. This view that life is about pushing harder and smarter to be able to work more, achieve more, to minimise wasted time, all so you can do more work and get further, and have more and… well it’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. When does it end? Even when, for a couple of years, I willing found myself swept along on this very path, I still never really felt like I was in control, more just paddling frantically to keep up although with who, or what, I never found out.
I’ve never really had a professional career path, never really known what job I really wanted (aside from being an astronaut but that rocket has long since flown) instead I headed in a vague direction and hoped for the best. Working in IT I have spent time with a lot of people with a very different mindset, people who are always playing the game to get ahead, always playing politics or mind games or blah blah blah. Sorry, I wish I could describe it better but having never given two hoots about such things I genuinely do not know how they work, although I am pretty good at getting myself out of such situations, mostly by feigning innocence. Well, I say feigning, perhaps it’s actual ignorance as I do tend to ignore such things in the work place as best I can. This is also why I am always the last to know the office gossip!
That professional drive to ‘achieve’ and garner all the trappings of success, status, wealth, are all part of the basic premise of being better at getting things done, to ultimately have more stuff/money. Gosh I feel like such a failure! Clearly I should adhere to those 5am morning rituals that the top CEOs follow to properly set me up for a productive day of doing more, so I can get that big promotion, earn the big bucks and drive a nice big flash BMW, get that 66″ OLED TV, to go in my 5 bedroom detached mansion, right?
Well I must be doing something wrong, as I have none of those things! Sure I’m happy and content but so what! Back to Linkedin for confirmation that lots of other people I’ve worked with now have big long fancy titles, and do lots of important work, and think about work even when they aren’t at work. Ugh.
It’s just not for me. I’ve bumbled my way through my professional life as best I can, never had a plan from the moment I left school other than going to University because ‘that’s what smart people do’, and the places of work I’ve ended up in have been varied in size, role, and seniority every time. In saying that, I don’t even have a degree and what self-respecting professional would’ve let that happen!
Truth be told, I always enjoyed pointing this latter fact out to the many high-flying graduates I’ve worked with, in fact I took an almost a perverse pleasure in watching them ummm and ahhhh their way back out of whatever conversational turn had them talking about how amazed they were that people without a first class degree could even get up in the morning (ahhh to be young and know the world so well, and yes, I was just as obnoxious at that age).
Note: I did start a degree course, attending Glasgow Polytechnic (latterly know as Caledonian University) for two years, and did enough to get the HND but I never picked up the certificate.
This failure of academia wasn’t because I wasn’t intelligent enough, rather that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Which I think is a pretty common thing when you are in that weird transitional period of being an adult by law but having no idea what the future may hold for you, nor all that clear an idea of what you hope lies out there as you start to explore the world.
So I took an Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree course; if I’d been even a year later no doubt I’d have taken a Computer Science course but I doubt the outcome would’ve been much different, I just wasn’t interested in ‘learning’. It’s not something I’ve dwelled on either – which is odd given my inherent fear of failure/disappointing people – and as it hasn’t stopped me having a reasonably successful career, presuming you judge such a thing by my employment record and salary earned, in other words, I’ve always worked and earned money for doing so.
Yet many people don’t view things that way and as careers can be judged on many factors, with a lauded job title high on the list of achievements to strive for! Clearly my career is failing and always have been. It’s something I’ve made my peace with now but I’ll admit my thinking wasn’t all that different a few years ago.
I’d been made redundant twice before, but the last company I worked seemed to fit me well. Good people, a strong HR department that invested in their staff, and as a more mature member of staff (hey they took on a lot of graduates, I’m not THAT old) I had experience that many others didn’t.
Things were going well. For a time my job title was Product Operations Manager, and with an acquisition there was scope for that to become GLOBAL Product Operations Manager, my oh my how fancy!! We will gloss over the fact that the title was made up by myself and my boss at the time as I was doing a mish-mash of a role of ‘stuff that needs done’ (which was fine by me). I was considered part of the senior management team (by experience as much as age) and whilst many around me had their eyes on loftier titles, I was happy because the work was interesting and I felt valued (note: this would appear to have been my definition of success at the time).
And then they made me redundant. Next thing I know I’ve had a 6 minute interview for a role I’ve only vaguely done in the past but I’m pretty sure I can handle and, I’m still there doing the same work, happily NOT on the corporate ladder and my imposter syndrome has faded enough to get me through a working day. Fake it until you make it, right?
Now what I’m about to say might solely be down to adjusting to life as a day rate contractor.
Since then any notion of ‘career’ has entirely vanished. I could care less what my job title is, I no longer worry that there is no career path in front of me, and now that my responsibilities are largely ‘turn up and do the work’ I find my entire work/life balance has shifted. Perhaps it’s down to my age, and the hand that life has dealt me (a very good one!), but the more I shy away from the idea that work is the centre of life and how coupled that idea is with the desire to always chase for more status, more money, more material things, the happier I become.
In fact, the further I get into this mindset, the more bemusing I find the constant barrage of posts on places like LinkedIn that all push you to be more productive, to do more, work harder, c’mon on do more more MORE; there is a definitely a belief that if you aren’t striving for the ever elusive MORE then you are failing.
Now I know in reality that how you apply measures to something as amorphous as success can be easily skewed to whatever worldview you want but, having removed myself from that particular ‘MORE’ focused world, it’s even more startling to be on the outside looking in at the relentless stream of advice all delivered with a little too much self-knowledge and with little to any self-awareness. A lot of it is by ‘successful’ white men, but not all. Want to be a millionaire? Want to retire when you are 40? Want to find more hours in the day by learning to wake up at 5am? It’s all there and all couched in words that make you feel that if you aren’t striving for all of these things you are somehow falling short of some measure by which you are being judged.
I just can’t. Not anymore.
Instead I’m slowly building up my own world view on how to have an anti-career, how to be happy without knowing what your next career move is, how to not freak out when you get made redundant, how to be a hard working professional that ends their work day at an appropriate time and knows how to switch off properly. I’m still figuring it all out but there is definitely the need for something, I think.
I just need a catchy title for my new system, or perhaps I should refer to it as a movement? I’ll need to work on it a little more for sure, although first I’ll need to check I’ll have time to do it justice, ideally it’ll be a good period for active brain time and a newly downloaded app I found on a productivity website tells me that time falls just after completing my morning wake up routine and whenever I make my cold brew mix for the day, so hopefully I can block out that period, do some positive strategising and visualise the manifestation of my new journey towards a whole new …. hey, wait a minute, THEY’VE SUCKED ME BACK IN AGAIN!!
I do believe that an anti-career is achievable though, and I definitely feel that there is something to be said for a middle ground (ain’t it always so) that isn’t ‘unplug from the grid/stop serving The Man’ and yet isn’t ‘better faster more productive’, and it’s here in this ‘working professional that doesn’t find themselves beholden to their job’ that I find myself these days.
I’ll admit all this was made a lot easier by the pandemic, giving me a lot more control over my time, but it was heading this way regardless, heading to a place where I log in around 8.30am-ish, and back out around 5-ish, with sometimes a long lunch, or a walk, with a break to meditate for 10 mins, with no nagging feeling that I’m under-performing. My work is being done, I am meeting expectations, I am not streamlining my day to grab back lost minutes, I am not striving for anything other than my own satisfaction of having done a good job.
Welcome to the anti-career, a place that has no worthwhile measures of success, no goals to be attained, just a warm friendly hug and the promise that it’s ok if that thing you meant to do today doesn’t get done until tomorrow, as long as it gets done. A place that suggests you stop thinking about work, and step away from the computer more often. A place that accepts that ultimately, strive as you might, you have no real control over what happens to you and in even the best workplaces, you are still a resource that one day will no longer be needed.