“Life is a series of choices.”
This can be both an exciting thing to hear, as well as a little daunting. It’s great that we have so many options, but it also means that our choices may lead us down the wrong path, or take us somewhere we’ll regret. This is even tougher if there are circumstances that are beyond your control that are ‘forcing’ us to make different options. (I discussed some of the challenges involved in moving off the CA(SA) route in this article if you’re interested).
Career and study choices are serious decisions that can have an incredibly big impact on your life. Most students take these decisions very seriously, but this means that there’s often a lot of fear involved. “Will this be the right decision for me?”; “Will it bring me the success I desire?”; “Will I regret doing this rather than something else?”; “Will this guarantee me the job of my dreams… even if I don’t quite know what those dreams are yet?”… these are only a few of the questions that run through students minds as they look at their lives and choices.
I want to talk a little bit about your choices and challenges, and perhaps some of the thoughts may help you make sense of some of the challenges you may be facing.
Did I have it all figured out?
I want to start with my personal experience, because it sometimes helps to know other people’s journeys and decisions when you’re looking at your own life. We can learn from other people’s stories (even if it’s just to promise ourselves that we will NEVER land up like them!)
I DID indeed have it all figured out… between the ages of 7 and 17. I knew pretty much what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it… and then the real world smacked me and everything changed. Nothing worked out the way I expected, and I was terrified that all my hopes and dreams were wasted. (You can read about some of my journey here). For someone who was SO SURE… it was very traumatic for me. Having to study my degree and CTA at UNISA instead of the universities I’d dreamed of was probably one of the first huge ‘smacks’! It was NOT easy to try figure out how to get back on track when everything kept falling apart. I felt alone, no one could really help, and I had no idea where it was all going to end. I didn’t give up on my dream of qualifying… but it looked NOTHING like I expected it too. I kept having to figure out a new ‘plan’ because they kept falling through.
As I studied, I became VERY SURE (again) about what I was going to do after I qualified… I was going to do my articles at a Big 4 firm (I even knew which one!) and then I was going to be an audit partner. (I guess we can all agree that none of those things happened!). When I didn’t hear from the firm I applied at, it threw me again. I’d worked so hard, come so far… and everything changed again. I had to start making decisions all over again. Where to do articles, now that my ‘plans’ had fallen through again. As I worked through articles, the idea of becoming an audit partner started dissolving. I started lecturing during my articles… and my plans changed again! I’d have laughed at anyone who told me I’d make a career of lecturing… and yet… there I was… Lecturing.
Are you noticing a trend here?!
I had conversations with quite a few people through the years, around what I was going to do with ‘the rest of my life’. My answers started becoming less certain, and more along the lines of “I think…” or “I might…”. What I did stick to though, was that I would “NEVER work for myself”. I didn’t have the risk appetite for that, and would never want to have to worry about finding my own salary. Being employed by someone else was far safer, and that was something I was very certain about.
Step forward a few years… and I found myself leaving permanent employment to start my ‘own business’ and ‘work for myself’. That was three years ago. So much for having it “all figured out”! Nothing I do now resembles anything I was ‘certain’ of along the way.
Just for the record… I’m really glad that I am where I am now, and that ‘certainty’ has LONG since disappeared! I’m still not entirely comfortable with the lack of certainty, but it’s a lot less scary than it used to be.
What if you don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life?
I think this question is quite dated. It’s quite an ‘old-fashioned’ idea that you will have a clear idea of exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. If we look at our parents, and the previous generation of employees, there was a very different work and career dynamic.
The following statements are things that I heard growing up, from my parents, teachers, and others who were giving advice on the future”
- “If you change jobs too often, future employers will think you don’t have commitment and won’t want to employ you”
- “You’ll be successful if you stay with the same company, show loyalty, work hard and get promoted”
- “If you don’t ‘find’ yourself when you’re young, you’ll never recover and you’ll always regret it”
- “You have until you’re in your mid-twenties to figure your studies and career out. After that it will be too late”
These used to be ‘truths’ that we were taught, and some of them are still driving our choices or mindsets. Times have changed, careers have changed, and yet, we still measure ourselves by outdated ideas.
I’m not saying that there’s no value to those statements, and that there isn’t worth in them… but it’s pretty clear that the world doesn’t really work that way anymore. If someone tells you they’ve been at the same company for the last 15 years… what’s the first thought that comes to you? “Wow… you must be successful!” OR “Wow… you’re going nowhere!”. Twenty years ago, you’d be applauded and praised… these days, people don’t see that as success, they’re more likely to think you’ve stagnated, and are hiding away in there because you’re too scared of what’s out there. (Statistically, young professionals move jobs every two years or so. My dad would have been HORRIFIED!!!)
If you’re not going to stay with the same company until you retire… how will you know what jobs you’ll get when you move around? How will you know what you’ll be doing in the next 5 years, 10 years, 15 years?
So… if the idea that you should know exactly what you should be doing forever is a little outdated… why are you still so worried if you don’t know the answer to that yet?!
What if your perfect job doesn’t exist yet?
I googled the words “Jobs that didn’t exist…”… see for yourself what comes up. There are options for jobs that didn’t exist 20 years ago; 10 years ago… even FIVE years ago! Look through them. Look how many there are.
When I was studying and wishing I could get some explanations for some of the stuff I was struggling with… It never occurred to me that there would one day be ‘online classrooms’, where I could watch videos on my stuff and have access to lecturers, no matter where they were. (Sure, there were teachers on SABC… Remember William Smith… the maths genius?!), but that’s not the same as the online stuff we do now. I’m working with stuff that didn’t really exist back then… how could I have known that?!
So… when you’re worrying that you don’t know what you’re supposed to do… remember that there are a lot of people working in careers, industries, jobs that didn’t exist before. One of those might find it’s way to you when you least expect it!
What do you do if things change?
We are not fond of change… but we can be sure that things will change. Very few people’s plans work out the way they expected it to for their whole lives. Get used to change… it will be a constant part of your life! (Very comforting, I know!)
So what if things change?! What counts is how you deal with it. How you decide to address it… embrace it, hide from it, ignore it, complain about it… your choice.
The beauty of the world you live in these days is that there is SO much information out there! If things change, research your options! ASK questions. Talk to people!
I have students that contact me ALL the time, asking what I think they should do, because their lives have changed. How can I possibly know the right answer for you? I would NEVER claim to know the answer to such an important question in your life. What I generally do, is ask what they’ve looked into. What industries have they researched? What qualifications have they looked into? What jobs can they find for qualifications they’re looking at? Have they asked in-depth questions of other students, or people who have taken a different path (I generally see on Facebook that students ask ‘shallow’ questions of others… “Should I move to CIMA if I don’t want to do CTA?”; or “Is ACCA a good qualification?”… these have very little value if you don’t have more of an idea of who you are, and what you’re looking for out of a career! What’s right for one person is not always right for someone else) Have they spoken to recruitment agencies about the employability of people with those qualifications? Have they asked the qualification providers themselves? (Have they called CIMA? ACCA? SAIPA? SAICA? ANYONE?) Anyone who can answer some questions on what their lives and careers might look like, what they can expect to do everyday, their options, common challenges, pitfalls, opportunities.
Keep researching your options. Keep talking to people. It may solidify your choice to stay on the same path, or it may open up a path you didn’t consider before.
Change will probably happen… like it or not. There is more than just ONE path to success. Your success may be totally different to what you may have thought.
When should you have it all figured out?
If you’re completely sure you have it totally figured out… good for you 🙂 If you’re still not sure… you’re good too! There is no ‘right’ time, and no massive fear about not knowing what it is that you’ll be doing with your life.
Every new experience, every new module you study, person you talk to… may influence what you think and what you want to do. Don’t close yourself off to those things because you’re so desperate to cling to your plans!
Work hard at whatever you do. Not knowing what you want forever is not an excuse to sit back and do nothing. Success is not going to fall into your lap. The more you do, the more you’ll be exposed to, and your path will become clearer over time. This is unlikely to happen when you’re sitting on the couch, binge-watching Game of Thrones!
Are you too old?
Take a look at one of my favourite video clips. (Susan Boyle – Britain’s Got Talent). I love it for a few reasons. She was 47. It was so clear that no one in the audience gave her much of a chance of success. It’s also clear that her life ‘possibility’ up to that point didn’t have “superstar” in it. She obviously practiced her signing… (You don’t sing like that without practice!)… but she hadn’t had much hope of it going anywhere. That clip has been viewed over 194 MILLION times! That is how much people love that story. Her life sure changed after that!
I googled ‘people who found success after…’... again, see for yourself what comes up. Notice how many people only found their ‘calling’, their dream and success… AFTER 40! For a lot of them… their major success didn’t look like anything they’d done up to then. In some cases, it was something they’d been working on and took forever to ‘pay off’.
All I want you to realise is this: There is no age limit to success. There is no age beyond which you ‘shouldn’t study’, or shouldn’t try find your passion. There is no competition to get there as fast and as young as possible. Breathe.
Skills vs Functions
Before I finish off… I want you to think about something. If there are changes, careers that don’t exist yet, jobs you might not know you’re going to work in, industries you didn’t think of… how are you supposed to prepare for this?
By focussing on building your skills rather than the functions you can perform.
Think of accountants who qualified 50 years ago… (Check out this infographic on some of the changes). The need to be able to add up large amounts of numbers? Calculators do that now. The need to keep manual (paper) books? We use accounting software now. Calculations, entries, complicated tasks that ‘specialists’ used to do… can be done by an entry-level clerk on a computer. What did the accountants who had performed those functions for so long do after these changes?!
Will the stuff you’re learning now ever become obsolete? Will software be able to calculate and do Deferred Tax for you so that your nasty struggle with it will become obsolete? Will future accounting students laugh at some of the things you struggle to do now?
So? What is important then? Your skills. The skills you learn are what will help you, regardless of what career you land up in. Your ABILITY to learn new things may be more important than the details of what you’re learning.
- The skills you learn in dealing with difficult situations will help you adjust to changes, no matter what they are
- The relationships you build with people will serve you well where ever you go
- Your work ethic will benefit your career, no matter where you work
- Your communication skills will allow you to interact with people, no matter their positions, or functions.
- Your habit of asking questions will allow you to explore your options and identify new opportunities
These are just a few things to think of when you’re worrying about whether your current decisions are the ‘right’ ones. Perhaps the skills you’re learning while you’re making this decision is even more important than the decision itself!
I can’t answer all your questions. I can’t tell you what the right thing is for you. I can’t guarantee that your choices will be perfect. I wish I could!
What I can do is try give you, as much as I can, things to think about as you make your decision. I want you to not panic so much about whether this choice might ‘ruin your life’ (I’ve been there… I know that fear VERY well!). I want you to know that success comes in many forms.
I’m happy with where I am now. It’s nowhere near what I thought, and I realise now that I may not know where I’ll be in the next five years. I’m ok with that. I’m learning that the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve learned, the skills I’ve picked up (that I didn’t even know I had!) have shaped my journey so far, and continue to add value to where ever I work.
If you haven’t got it all figured out… welcome to the real world… I hope you feel right at home!