Three tips for taking risks in your career

I am experimenting with a series about the intersection of literature and career advice. I have read a lot of novels, and I have read a lot of career advice. The two surprisingly have a lot in common. Today is Edward Ferrars and what he can teach us about taking risks in our careers. 

Edward Ferrars from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility might not seem like the most obvious choice for a risk taker. He is a quiet, mousy sort of character, unobtrusive, someone you probably would never notice at a big party. In fact, he wouldn’t be at the party at all. This doesn’t bode well for him. After all, how can someone who doesn’t put himself forward achieve success?

Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, Edward has the most to lose. He is from a wealthy family. His mother and sister have picked out a wife for him, have a vision of a clever career path, and would like to see him jaunting about town in elegant modes of transportation. His family wants him to be fashionable. If he chooses to go against their wishes, chances are very good that his mother will disinherit him.

But all Edward wants is a quiet country life as a clergyman. The safe route would be to do exactly as his family wants, to marry well, and to inherit the family fortune. Instead, his honor matters more to him than security. He is willing to risk everything for his happiness.

The way he takes risks, and how he rebounds from them, can tell us a lot about taking risks in our careers while still maintaining a safety net.

1. Stay patient.

At first, it looks as if Edward isn’t on his way to success. He has engaged himself to a woman he doesn’t love, and he intends to marry her anyway because this is 19th century England. Many of us view our careers this way. We don’t really love them, but they offer security and, anyway, we committed to them. Most of us are inclined to stay the course.

Sometimes, the first careers that we choose when we are young and lack life experience will not make us happy. Know that you will make mistakes, but no situation is irrevocable. It is important to stay patient and meet new people and try new things until you find the career that seems right.

2. Pursue the things that make you happy.

Edward’s first scheme for happiness is a total disaster. He goes against his family’s wishes, but he ends up engaging himself to a woman who would never make him happy. He is completely seduced by the glittery, cunning option, only to realize too late that she lacks substance.

Despite his youthful mistake, Edward makes his scheme for happiness in another area. He will be a clergyman, and he will find at least one point of happiness in a quiet life. But it turns out the woman he was engaged to was just after his money. In your career, don’t chase money. Trust that pursuing the things that make you happy will attract the people you want to have in your life–and drive away those you’d rather avoid.

3. Build a network.

Edward can afford to take risks. He doesn’t need to worry about where money will come from because he has friends who care about him and his future. Colonel Brandon, an acquaintance through the Dashwoods, hears about his predicament and wants to help. He gives Edward a living on his estate, saving him from destitution. It is far less likely that you will fail if you have a network to fall back on if your risk taking doesn’t pan out.

If the idea of networking fills you with existential dread, just remember that no one likes networking. Think of it instead as making friends with people who happen to have the same career as you. And if that doesn’t help, don’t think of it as trying to exploit other people to get their help. What can you contribute to the careers of other people? Chances are if you help them, they will be willing to help you later in your career, too.


Five steps to get your career back on track

I have been thinking lately about the intersection of literature and career advice. For instance, Jane Austen was wise before her time, and a lot of her characters’ choices mirror those of job hunters in the modern world.

Most career advice will tell you that pursuing your passion is stupid. The top priority, apparently, should be to make money and to forget about happiness. There will be time for hobbies in your free time, they say. Focus on making money. In literary terms, be more like Charlotte Lucas and less like Elizabeth Bennet.

Even though Jane Austen wrote about courtship, she actually has a lot to say about careers. I am going to give you five steps for getting your career back on track inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

1. Make a list of any values you would never go against.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet turns down not one but two very lucrative offers. In modern terms, it is like she was offered jobs but decided that they didn’t quite fit in with her principles. Charlotte Lucas accepts the first man who shows any interest in her. This is practical. She is doing the thing that most of us do in our career searches.

Elizabeth is the heroine because, despite her mother yelling at her for making such stupid decisions, she is not really making stupid decisions. She is willing to hold out for perfection and so gets her happy ending. Most of us get scared before reaching this point because we value security over perfection. And that is OK as long as we are honest about it and stop making ourselves unhappy because our jobs aren’t perfect.

2. Gain self-knowledge.

Charlotte is comfortable, but she’s also likely extremely bored. She has chosen to hole herself off in the countryside with her pompous husband and his overbearing, snooty patroness. But she values security over everything else. She knows this about herself, and she is able to make the decision to marry Mr. Collins without being miserable about it.

On the other hand, Elizabeth would never make that decision. She is self-aware enough to know that she cannot sacrifice her happiness to guarantee financial security for herself, her mother, and her sisters. She is willing to risk that either she or one of her sisters will make a suitable match to give them a place to live when their father dies. Although they take different paths, both Charlotte and Elizabeth possess enough self-knowledge to pursue what will make them content. You can’t know which path is right for you unless you have that self-knowledge.

3. Take inventory of your skills.

Lady Catherine, one of the main antagonists of the novel, believes that she could be proficient at anything if only she would devote time to it. So would her daughter, if her health allowed it. What she is saying is that she doesn’t think it is worth her time to become that good at anything because she is already rich and doesn’t value learning for learning’s sake.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that point of view. Becoming very, very good at something takes a lot of time and effort. Really exceptional athletes, for example, spend most of their free time on training and practice to the exclusion of everything else. Most of us will never achieve that kind of persistence. We try once and fail and binge watch TV. Even Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the best pianist. You have to be able to honestly answer whether you are willing to put in the time and energy that a new path requires.

4. Know when to try something new.

Mary, the middle Bennet sister, devotes a lot of time to gaining accomplishments. She does so to the exclusion of spending more time with her sisters, going for walks to the village, and building relationships. Yet, we know that she is wasting her time. At the Netherfield Ball, she embarrasses herself and her family by putting herself forward to play complicated piano pieces, and she is not good at it.

You don’t have to be a natural at the thing you want to do, but if you are devoting a lot of time and energy to it and not improving, maybe you should try something else. It might be that you will never be good at calculus or weren’t meant to be an engineer. Maybe you are like a fish who is trying to climb a tree. It is futile, and you would be better off finding a place where you can swim instead.

5. Decide when to take risks.

For most people, the answer to this step will be never. You will likely be best off in your current job, boring but stable, but maybe try tweaking small aspects. Find a shorter commute or a better boss. In other words, most of us will value security, and we can find that in our boring career path.

If, after taking inventory of your life and skills, you decide that you do want to take risks, I have three tips for you in the next post. Those tips come from Edward Ferrars, Jane Austen’s ultimate risk taker (yes, really).

The wisdom of Pride and Prejudice

-What are men to rocks and mountains--

I spent the week re-reading Pride and Prejudice, so I have no book for Review Fridays this week. It was nice to take some time to stop and read something at a leisurely pace. The re-read reminded me of why I loved the book so much the first time I read it and why I went on to devour the rest of Jane Austen’s books. There is no author whom I adore more, and a re-read feels like a very relaxing treat in the midst of a busy world.

On a related note, I am taking the “Literature and Mental Health” course through the University of Warwick on FutureLearn. The first week has been all about how reading poetry can help to manage stress. I cannot recommend this course highly enough. Next week, the instructors will be discussing Sense and Sensibility in the context of heartbreak, which should be interesting for Janeites. Best of all, the course is free. I love doing online courses, even if I don’t get credit for taking them.

The marriage plot

Unlike most readers, I didn’t admire Dorothea Brooke the first time I read Middlemarch. Instead, I wanted to be honest, intelligent Mary Garth. Mary is plain, in contrast to Dorothea and Rosamond Vincy, the novel’s other leading ladies. She is largely ignored by everyone, except for Fred Vincy, the man who brings her books and has loved her since childhood. But she won’t marry him, not until she can be sure that he will reform his imprudent ways and find employment for himself.

Mary’s practical nature in the face of love made me think more about the marriage plot. I naturally turned to Jane Austen since she is my favorite author, but I wanted to consider the marriage plot for some of the minor characters first instead of the heroines. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s mother married for love and to disoblige her family and subsequently lived in poverty. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas married for money and security, but not love. Mary Garth occupies the middle-ground. I do not think Mary Garth would marry without love and respect (unlike Charlotte Lucas), but she would also not marry a man she loves without being assured that they will not live in poverty (unlike Mrs. Price). Mary seems like she wants Fred to succeed and loves him back, but she is willing to wait until he gets his act together before she will agree to spend her life with him.

Austen’s heroines fare much better than the minor female characters, mostly because we are assured, as readers, that they will receive the happy ending they deserve. In fact, they have the privilege of choice and refusal. Lizzy Bennet turns down two offers of marriage, both from highly suitable men who would have saved her family from utter ruin if her father died. Fanny Price is poor but principled. Although she is not as widely admired as Lizzy Bennet, Fanny demonstrates a thorough self-knowledge and an awesome ability to resist intimidation. She will not be bullied into doing what she knows is wrong. She refuses to marry a rich, eligible man because she does not trust him. Her uncle punishes her by banishing her from Mansfield Park, but he comes to realize that Fanny was right. Both heroines eventually end up with the heroes whom they not only love, but are also wealthy enough to live a comfortable life.

The marriage plot is occasionally turned on its head by impending spinsterhood. In Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Lucy Snowe finishes by invoking the names of those who are also alone yet thriving. She is trying to harden herself to the idea that the man she loves may never come back and to remind herself that she is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life alone. Villette is not as famous nor as beloved as Jane Eyre, and I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the latter has a happy ending with the marriage plot fulfilled. There is something extremely satisfying about plodding along in a book, sympathizing while a heroine suffers, and then being assured that they received everything they wanted in life. However, Villette offers an important reminder of the strength of the heroine and her ability to prosper even without a hero.

I feel like the marriage plot is unfairly ridiculed. The unspoken criticism seems to be that there are more important things for heroes and heroines to do, but I wonder if that’s right or not. Jane Austen’s books are just as much about life and society and money as any other author, but she is often written off as being someone who focused on marriage and love while ignoring bigger issues. There is an unfair preference for big gestures, for something other than love, but the truth is that in most of our lives the biggest decision we make will be whom we choose to spend our lives with (or not) and whom we love whether Platonically or romantically.

I think that what I have learned, above all else, from the marriage plot, is that following one’s own instincts and happiness is important above all. As Fanny Price said, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

Bullies in literature

One of the things that has always bothered me about the Harry Potter series is that, in the epilogue, Harry has partially named his son after Severus Snape. By doing so, Harry gives Snape equal footing in his memory with his father, Sirius, and Dumbledore. JK Rowling recently attempted to explain this. Post-war Harry would have understood, she said, would have better appreciated the heroism of Snape.

Severus Snape was a brave man who was also an unforgivable bully. Yes, he did a lot of help the Order fight against Voldemort, but he didn’t do it because he decided that it was the right thing to do. He did it because he was in love with a woman, who, let’s face it, would never return his feelings. He ruined his friendship with her by insulting her. That woman was killed by Voldemort, and, after that point, Snape ceased to be Voldemort’s man. His change of heart, however, did not extend to the way he treated the children of those he fought against while he was a Death Eater.

Take Neville, for example, poor Neville whose parents were tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange until they went insane. Snape is not kind to Neville. In fact, in the third book, when he has to face his biggest fear, the thing Neville fears most in the entire world is Severus Snape. Snape also is consistently rude to Hermione, who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it. This is a grown man who gets his kicks by bullying impressionable teenagers. Why does the ever-wise Dumbledore allow Snape to be around students when he is so awful to them?

Snape is in a strange category. He is not villainized by Rowling like Voldemort is and perhaps is not even as bad as characters like Umbridge and the Malfoys and other Death Eaters. But it is by putting him in this other category, one of being a brave but flawed man, that almost makes it worse. Severus Snape should know better, but he doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he manages to make Harry, whom he relentlessly bullied for years because he hated Harry’s father, Harry who has so much reason to dislike Snape, forgive and name one of his children after the man. For some reason, I do not think Snape would have much appreciated the gesture.

The fact that Rowling seems to approve of and even like Snape further complicates the issue. What should the reader think when the author, the person who created the beloved literary landscape and the characters who inhabit it, actually defends a character who is a bully?

To find an answer to this, I began thinking about some other books I cherish and the ways in which bullies affect the heroines. In Mansfield Park, there is no character who is more of a bully than Mrs. Norris. She constantly shows preference for the Bertram children over Fanny and wants Fanny to remember her place. She doesn’t miss a single opportunity say something bad about Fanny. In Mrs. Norris’s opinion, Fanny is only a visitor, a charity case, and should earn her keep, ironically ignoring the fact that she is also only a visitor at Mansfield Park.

Fanny quietly and dutifully does what she can, but she is often ill and pushed to the limit by Mrs. Norris’s demands. However, Fanny does not show any hostility against her aunt. She offers respect and obedience in return for Mrs. Norris’s bullying. The two characters serve as a contrast, with our heroine showing the strength to be the better person. Fanny is not bitter and would probably have wholeheartedly forgiven her, but Jane Austen gives Mrs. Norris her just desserts. In the end, Mrs. Norris decides to go live with the ruined Maria Rushworth, where, Austen tells us, “shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”

Next, I turned to Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed, Jane Eyre’s aunt, does not care about her niece. She sends Jane off to a horrible school where she is abused. Her hatred for Jane is limitless. When Jane’s uncle from Madeira writes to Mrs. Reed saying that he is now wealthy and would like Jane to live with him, Mrs. Reed responds that Jane is dead. She does not mention this at all until three years later, when she is dying. Jane forgives her. Even though her aunt has been horrible to her, Jane offers forgiveness and love.

I get moral philosophy from books more often than I should, but maybe the answer is that it is more important for the hero/heroine to forgive than it is for the bully to redeem himself/herself. Snape never redeemed himself for me in the way that JK Rowling implies that he should have, but Harry can forgive him, can accept his faults, and can further appreciate the good that he did. Like Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, he chooses to ignore the bad in a person who bullied him. He chooses to rise above the bullying and to be the better person. And that seems like a heroic way to live, to look for good in people and to ultimately forgive them.


Jane Austen Week: Finale

Today, I am wrapping up Jane Austen week with a quick overview of a minor character from each of the remaining novels.

Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram is the eldest son, set to inherit Mansfield Park. He regularly makes poor decisions, incurs nearly-ruinous debts, and has friends of the sort who would abandon him at the first sign of trouble. Yet, he still has John Yates, my favorite minor character of the novel. He makes quite an entrance:

The Honourable John Yates, this new friend, had not much to recommend him beyond habits of fashion and expense…. Mr. Bertram’s acquaintance with him had begun at Weymouth, where they had spent ten days together in the same society, and the friendship, if friendship it might be called, had been proved and perfected by Mr. Yates’s being invited to take Mansfield in his way, whenever he could, and by his promising to come; and he did come rather earlier than had been expected…. He came on the wings of disappointment, and with his head full of acting, for it had been a theatrical party; and the play in which he had borne a part was within two days of representation, when the sudden death of one of the nearest connexions of the family had destroyed the scheme and dispersed the performers. To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! and being so near, to lose it all, was an injury to be keenly felt, and Mr. Yates could talk of nothing else.

Jane Austen likes nothing so much as letting us laugh at human nature, and here she sparkles with glee. In one paragraph, a character is built entirely in a series of deft descriptions. Mr. Yates is Tom’s theater-obsessed friend, the one who brings intrigue to Mansfield Park with an inappropriate play. And, with the play, he manages to disrupt relationships and turn over the solid stability of the conservative country house. Because of him, Maria’s relationship with Henry Crawford progressed further under the guise of theatricals than it might otherwise have. Mr. Yates finishes with a flourish, eloping with Julia Bertram and thereby becoming an official part of the circle of Mansfield Park. I like to imagine them living quite happily ever after, visiting a reformed Tom occasionally at Julia’s childhood home, and hosting merry parties and plays for their friends.

Northanger Abbey: Mr. and Mrs. Morland, who appear hardly at all in the novel, are the parents of our heroine, Catherine. They seem to be one of the better sets of parents written for a heroine in Jane Austen’s novels. Think, by comparison, of Sir Walter Elliot, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Dashwood, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Morland do not cause the drama of the novel. They do not interfere, are not overly anxious or emotional, are not downright neglectful, do not intimidate their children, do not demand that they marry rich. They are simply ordinary people with a few too many children, but who do their best to help and support them and allow them to have their own adventures. Indeed, Catherine, with her happy childhood, hardly seems born to be a heroine. Most of the action takes place away from home, in a world where Catherine cannot imagine people having hidden bad intentions because she was raised by good, honest people. Mr. and Mrs. Morland are, in my opinion, the best parents any heroine could have.

Persuasion: Captain Harville is a friend of Captain Wentworth, the hero of the novel. He has many deep conversations with Anne Elliot, including the one which led Captain Wentworth to hope that Anne might still care for him and brought about The Letter, one of the most stunningly gorgeous romantic letters in all of literature. According to Anne, good company is being with “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” Captain Harville fulfills that requirement perfectly. Persuasion is a novel full of exceptional minor characters, a masterpiece that was finished but not yet polished, with plot ends not convincingly tied up before Jane Austen’s death. The characters do truly carry the novel, and Captain Harville is one of the most outstanding.

Jane Austen Week: Nancy Steele

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Nancy Steele from Sense and Sensibility.

As much as I love the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the exclusion of Lucy Steele’s sister, Nancy, does not make a whit of sense. In the novel, Nancy is the silly and irrational foil to her controlled and manipulating sister. Nancy loves nothing more than to chat about “beaux”, and her nonsensical speeches bring comic relief to what is at times a very dark book. However, she is also necessary to the structure of the novel and removing her somewhat impacts the integrity of the plot and Lucy Steele’s character.

It is difficult to think of what environment could possibly have produced the Steele sisters. Lucy is clever, but she is also calculating. Cold-heartedly, she holds onto a man whom she knows loves another woman. But she does not care. She wants to make a good marriage, and it does not seem like she is much interested in whom she marries or whether his feelings change as long as he is rich. Only caring about her marriage prospects, she pretends to want to be friends with Elinor, but secretly is out to tell her to back off of what is hers. She is the exact opposite of what a heroine should be. Her sister, similarly, lacks moral substance. She has very little of either sense or sensibility and is in fact the one who ruins her sister’s plot.

I think it is a fault of that otherwise brilliant film adaptation to exclude Nancy. Lucy is smart and can read others well. She would know better than to tell Fanny Dashwood that she was secretly engaged to Edward, who was due to inherit as the elder son, though he had no interest in gaining wealth or power. Nancy is absolutely required, Nancy who cannot control her tongue and does not have the sense to stay quiet. She is needed to advance the plot, to reveal the secret to the entire cast of characters, and to set in motion the events that will lead to a happy ending for Edward and Elinor.

As I have been thinking about Austen’s minor characters, I have found that so many of them are essential to the plot. Foolish Nancy Steele is the one who outs her sister Lucy’s secret engagement, and it is that which eventually leads to Mrs. Ferrars disinheriting Edward. Without Nancy, there is a possibility that Mrs. Ferrars might have been persuaded to accept Lucy as a match for Edward, if given time. She was already well on her way to doing so, but not quite there, when Nancy gave away the secret. Lucy finally won that approval after marrying the other brother, Robert, who benefited from Edward falling out of grace and inheritance.

As readers, we know that Lucy is cunning, but she also possesses an immense power to make a good impression on important people. Without Nancy, it is impossible to say how the novel would have turned out. Thinking about the minor characters and the amount of planning that went into them has given me a new appreciation for Jane Austen and her masterpieces.

Jane Austen Week: Mary Bennet

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

Oh, Mary. Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, you were meant to be born into a different era. There are plenty of women today who would prefer to stay home and read rather than go to a party. You are a classic introvert. You’d totally find a small group of friends who understands you instead of being forced to stay home all of the time, playing the piano for people who don’t appreciate it and making extracts from the books you read. I think that, today, Mary Bennet would be a PhD student, very book smart and focused on her research topic, but ultimately not very people smart or social.

Mary Bennet tends to be the forgotten Bennet sister. While the others are out dancing and flirting with men, Mary is dedicated to learning things. Out of all Jane Austen’s characters, isn’t Mary Bennet the most modern in that way? She seems to care more about what she knows than how many partners she can acquire at the latest ball. She is the extreme opposite of Lydia and Kitty; she is serious and bookish, but she has forgotten how to have fun and relate to other people. The very modernity of her character has made her interesting to novelists writing sequels, with varying degrees of success.

Jane Austen later said that Mary Bennet would have married one of her uncle’s clerks and lived out the remainder of her days in Meryton. There she could no doubt rule, prim and proper, intelligent and willing to play music, but not to dance. Mary could have been something quite spectacular if she had been truly gifted, if she had been allowed to give voice to all that she discovered in her books. I am torn about Mary. On one hand, I sympathize with her, destined to be in the shadow of her prettier and livelier sisters. On the other hand, she does not possess the natural talent to shine in London or on a larger stage. She is no Jane Fairfax. Meryton is just about right for her.

With a preternatural sense of character, Jane Austen always creates satisfying endings for her characters, even the minor ones whom no one seems to notice much.