By Allison Whalen
During my university years, I often envied friends in career-oriented programs such as law or physiotherapy—they had a goal in sight, a clear direction to move in. Their proverbial finish line was both graduation and the start of a career, whereas I seemed to float from class to class, eager to do well in my English Literature program but lacking motivation. As my convocation date grew nearer, I sought an answer to a question that had haunted me for some time: What now?
I completed my master’s degree, but it was still hard to find work here in Ottawa without significant office experience. I was determined to get it and join so many of my friends who had ascended to adulthood by having email addresses ending in “gc.ca.” How I envied their careers, with cubicles or offices to themselves, co-workers to go for coffee with at Starbucks (you could afford Starbucks when you had a career!). I eventually got there, a late bloomer who quickly learned that my dream of a career had not become reality. I sat in my cube under buzzing fluorescent lights, politely smiled as my colleague told me about her neighbour’s wiener dog again, and booked meeting rooms. This can’t be it, I thought. What now?
Let’s digress: remember an elementary classroom activity where the teacher would lead a chalkboard brainstorming session? For example, let’s say a Grade Five class is asked what they think of when they see the word “Politics” written on the blackboard. A brown-noser raises her hand first: “Prime Minister,” she says. The teacher writes it on the board, and another hand goes up: “Obama.” In a few moments the whole class is involved, hands raised: “Voting!” “Parliament Hill!” They all have ideas and are encouraged by the contributions of others. Someone suggests “Boring!” and everyone laughs, but the teacher still writes it down—the kid has a point. The real point is, the children are learning that their ideas are reasonable and acceptable. Better yet, that thinking is fun!
Back to reality: we’re not kids. We all have bills to pay, and the learning curve looks a lot steeper when your new manager is counting on you. We don’t necessarily have time to ask ourselves questions or consider new ideas when we’re just trying to keep up. Even when I had an idea or suggestion for improvement at work, my main goal was to avoid pissing anyone off—I was putting in my eight hours in exchange for money and benefits, and I didn’t want that to go away. But after a year or so at my most recent office job, I heard that inner voice again, this time sharper and more frustrated: What now?
And there’s the rub. (For those who didn’t major in English Lit, when Hamlet says, “Ay, there’s the rub!” he means, there’s the problem, the “Catch-22” that halts progress.) It took another year to balance my inner frustration with a desire to work to my full potential before I made a move.
My turning point came when my frustration was overshadowed by my ideas. I started to seek advice from successful entrepreneurs and CEOs to find out how they achieved greatness. I also started to realize that I had some good ideas that were worth sharing, even if they didn’t belong at my workplace. I began to blog, to write articles for a local publication that earned me a little money on the side, and to create. When I wasn’t at work, I painted, wrote, learned to make my own digital music, and surrounded myself with my favourite people. This high quality of life at home resulted in a major realization: I am, at my core, an artist. But because artists generally don’t make much money (especially in a government town like Ottawa), I had rejected this idea long ago. I didn’t realize that by dismissing the art-as-a-career option, I had dismissed my own identity.
Leaving my job coincided with my decision to stop limiting myself. Since my Career Turning Point, I’ve started my own writing/editing business; created my website and logo; learned graphic design; developed an innovative new logo for a university-based health research group; started my own gift shop on Etsy.com; obtained a writing gig to enhance my exposure to new clients; started a web resource for women; and released my first set of homemade music on Soundcloud.com. The list goes on. I wake up excited about innovation, combining my business skills with a heady dose of creativity. The lack of steady paycheques coming in every two weeks is scary, but fear and negativity are unproductive emotions, so I choose to have faith in my abilities. I love what I do, and although I’m still finding my feet in the world of self-employment, I am driven by passion and happiness. I do good work, and so can you.
It turns out that my “arts degree aimlessness” makes more sense in hindsight. Some things have to simmer for a while before being served, and this definitely applies to my self-confidence. Working at several uninspiring jobs actually pushed my inner creativity forward, as I would skip my lunch hour to create posters on my graphic design program or work on my writing portfolio. What are you doing on your lunch hour that might launch you into a new echelon of Careerdom?
You too can be an entrepreneur, a person with the confidence and intelligence to think up an idea, refine it and bring it to life. It doesn’t necessarily require an Ivy League degree or a group of investors, but it does take guts. There is risk involved, but this can be bested by initiative and passion, a refusal to be anything but the hardest worker assigned to the greatest project.
If you find yourself at a crossroads in a job you can’t possibly call your career, I dare you to put your “grown-up” hat on for a second and ask yourself these questions:
What do I value?
What do I do well?
What do I enjoy doing?
Your Career Turning Point lies in the answers, a big “Aha!” waiting in the dark like a surprise party. And you may indeed be surprised, but only at the brilliance you’ve uncovered.
Allison Whalen is a freelance writer and multimedia artist based in Chelsea, Quebec. Since completing her MA at Carleton University, she has focused on professional and creative projects that aim to provide both efficiency and joy.