The question I am 37, have a lovely husband and a wonderful child, and a job in the creative industries. The problem is that I haven’t been happy in my career for a long time and have felt very stuck, and every now and again I end up crying because I just don’t know what to do with my life. I was an over-achiever at school (worked hard, got the grades, went to a good university), but am now in a role where there is little progression and I’m not sure I even want to stay in this career.
I am realising that I have spent so much time trying to do what is expected of me that I have absolutely no idea what it is that I want to do. I also cringe at how much I put up with in my 20s. I chased men I knew deep down I didn’t really like and took on all kinds of extra tasks at work with the promise that it would look good on the CV, but got few promotions.
I feel relieved I am at least finally aware of this behaviour, but I am terrified that it is too late. I have been applying for jobs, but there are not many firms that want a mother approaching 40. And, like I say, I’m not sure I even want to stay in this field. Please help.
Philippa’s answer Isn’t it great that your relationships with your partner and your child are working out? Sounds like you had an epiphany back there and stopped going for people you thought you should go for and instead went for someone you liked and loved. Good work. Makes me confident you can do the next bit of self-development work you need to do as well.
So again, it’s time to examine your “shoulds”. “Shoulds” are so often the assimilated wants of other people and of your culture. Soaking up all these introjects, you assumed you should work hard at school, should go to university, should work in a competitive industry, should rise to the top. Tramlines that suit many people, but they by no means suit all and I’m glad you are listening to your own feelings now because this means you will be able to make the adjustment you need in order to face in the right direction.. You have been ticking the boxes you were expected to tick by others, but they haven’t all been, until now, necessarily your boxes.
I think your fear comes from your having in mind a sort of board game of years and milestones – of what milestone you should reach by what year. This is grounded in those shoulds you’ve absorbed. This is not a helpful game. A friend of mine co-founded a new creative industry business at 80 (natthecat.co.uk), so don’t think you’ve lost the game if you have got to a certain number without a particular milestone – you don’t need to play that game. Find another game.
The biggest risk is staying in a place that makes you unhappy
Reading your email, I cannot be sure if it is the not-rising-to-the-top that is distressing you, or the work itself. I’m not sure if you are unhappy because of a relative lack of status and an inner voice saying, where is my promotion? Or whether this unhappiness is about the nature of the work itself. I wonder if you can unpick and separate the two.
I think up until now, as far as work goes, you have been working hard at being seen to be doing the right thing, doing things for your CV rather than for satisfaction in the present. You need to internally reference more, that means working out how things feel to you, and do less external referencing – which is how things look to others. Things need to be less about how they appear and more about how they feel. You know this, but I’m spelling it out – the more we put this stuff into words the easier it is to handle.
If you like the work, but don’t appreciate the lack of advancement, that could be about staying in your industry, but finding another group of people to work with who are a better fit for you. Turn what you see as disadvantage into advantages – being a parent means that you use your time well and can prioritise; over 35 means you have bags of experience, thinking positively like this means you’ll bring a more positive attitude to interviews.
But if you are finding out that you don’t even like the work – well, the great thing is you can start a new business or retrain for a different job or profession, and, if you can afford it, take a break to try out other things to see if you like them. I think the biggest risk you take is staying in a place that’s making you unhappy.
Think about whether your work must be meaningful and/or enjoyable. Are the social aspects of working important? Or do you prefer working alone? What comes to your mind when you think about “engagement and excitement”? “Rewarding”, what comes to mind? “Fulfilment”, “money”. Don’t pressure yourself to know, but write these words down, think about them and see what comes up for you. Treat this like a sort of meditative brain storm; don’t reject any idea – you might scare the other ideas off if you do that. You can’t rush this. Jot down images or words that come up when you do this exercise. Then look at those again and see what sticks for you. And in periods of transition I think it is a good idea to write down your dreams and see what feelings and images recur in them, too. Dreams can furnish us with useful metaphors that can help us work out what we need.
Get off those tramlines. You’ve been playing one game, it’s time to find another. You’ve got this.