What do you want to do with your life?

By Louise Wiseman, NFER HR & Recruitment Manager

Tuesday 3 March 2020

When I recently asked this to a class of year 10s I got; nurse, barrister, footballer, have a family… with the exception of footballer, it’s pretty much the same list there was when I was at school in 1996. It seems the aspirations of 14 years olds haven’t changed much.

I wish someone had told me at the age of 14 about marine biology, or economics, or even IT. Instead, the careers questionnaire I completed at school told me that being a Lorry Driver was a good career path because it matched my like for travelling and I didn’t mind working outside. And then there was the careers advisor who when I told her I wanted to become a Barrister because I wanted to help people, instead told me my English wasn’t good enough and maybe I should think about becoming an art teacher… ummm.

So one Art degree and a 17-year career in HR later it seems strange that on reflection I have actually reached my barrister dream just I didn’t know it was called HR when I was 14 and perhaps neither did the careers advisor.

Now stood in front of 27 students, having bored them and myself with the story of my life and how I came to be, I asked them what they wanted to do with theirs… a big question, right?  But that’s how it feels when you have to decide what classes you’re going to take and which ones you drop. Some of them had answers like ‘go to university’ or ‘have a family’ but most had wide eyes and a blank face – the answer I was expecting.

“What do you want to do with your life is a huge question and you’re not the only one that doesn’t know. Even at the age of 40 I’m still figuring it out, but what I have learnt is what makes me happy and that’s a much easier question to answer.”

Of course, ‘what is happiness’ is a very complex question in itself which we did not cover. Instead, I choose to focus on why we go to work, and after agreeing that money wasn’t the be all and end all, we had explored the importance of our sense of meaning, interest, wellbeing, the people we work with and the environment we work in. Feeling they were now on my side and interested, I offered to answer anything they wanted to know about the world of work, emphasising that in the future they would one day apply for a job and it would be someone like me reading their application and interviewing them. What would they like to know? Here are some of their questions;

  • If I lie about my grades, will I get found out?
  • If I have a criminal record, will I still get a job?
  • If I am late for my work experience will that affect my future job?

All good questions, although seeing as none of them had done their GSCE or work experience and were barely old enough to have a criminal conviction, I thought I’d explore the feeling of failure.

We all make mistake but it’s only a failure if you don’t learn something from it” a cliché I know but also very true. Being the open book I am, I shared that as a young person I had once been in trouble with the police, something I am not proud of but something that I learnt a lot from…. I’m sure just like the class of 27 you are curious as to what this was, of course I told them but I’ll leave that to your imagination.  

Checking to see if Steve Jobs was still relevant to the young people of today, which he is, I shared his story. Steve Jobs dropped out of college because he wasn’t enjoying it and instead decided to take up a calligraphy course because he was interested in it. This means nothing until you understand what made the Apple Mac Computer revolutionary. It was its choice of fonts - I do actually remember seeing this for the first time when I was at Uni and it blew my mind, although I’m not sure the class shared the same amazement for it today. Anyhow, years later Steve Jobs said at the time it didn’t make sense but when he looked back over his life it was the things that didn’t make sense that joined all the dots together. My story seemed to connect and whilst I couldn’t answer the question of when the first iPhone came out, I did know that the Apple Mac was first launched at the half time Super Bowl game in 1984 with the slogan ‘Think Different’ which seemed to suffice.

I came into this session with an idea of talking about employment law which led me to the most interactive part of the class, ‘Is it OK…?’. I was impressed with their understanding of employment rights and we covered some great examples relating to rest times, working hours, holidays, gender pay and minimum wage…. I even asked them ‘Is it OK that an 18 year old gets paid more for doing the same job as a 16 year old?’… not surprisingly the answer was no.... but it is currently legal so I suggested they looked into joining a youth council to get their voices heard.

The most difficult and probably the best question of the session was;

“Did you find university hard?”

How honest do I go?  Of course, I didn’t want to scare the next generation of graduates but I did want to be honest.

‘For everyone it is different. For me it was the hardest thing I have ever done, especially my final year. I had a lot to learn not just about my study but about living away from home, about managing myself and managing my time and stress levels. I had successes and I had failures, and I learnt so much that even to this day it still helps me… I believe a degree is meant to be hard and that’s why it’s so highly regarded by employers, they know the effort you need to put in and the skills you need to get the work done. These skills will help you in your job, but not every job needs a degree and a degree isn’t everything.’  

Overall, my visit to Ditton Park Academy gave me the chance to reflect on my own career and see how all my dots joined up. There’s a lot of pressure on making your GSCE choices and there’s a lot of voices to listen to. Trying to figure out what’s right for you and what makes you truly happy is the only career guidance I would really ever offer, the rest you’ll learn along the way by following what you love, besides there are so many jobs and many haven’t even been created yet it would be impossible to list them.