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).

Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings

In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram has “Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings.” Maria is not the heroine. She does not even get a very happy ending, but I think that many people can relate to that feeling of being torn asunder between two options. Rushworth is the very practical option, the one which excites only the blandest of emotions, dull, stable, boring, and faintly ridiculous. The Crawford feelings are the irrational impulses. They call one irresistibly to do something without considering the consequences.

The Rushworth feelings and Crawford feelings swirl about, waiting for the right answer, but it all comes down to preference. Maria Bertram tries to choose both and as a result loses her reputation. It is not the wrong decision to act on Rushworth feelings, to marry the rich fool in order to gain social position and have fancy houses and carriages and such. On the other hand, that is not the right decision either. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, would not have picked such a choice. Neither would Jane Austen’s other heroines, particularly Elizabeth Bennet, who declines the ridiculous Mr. Collins and even the proud Mr. Darcy the first time around.

It is merely a decision, an act without distinctions between correct and incorrect.

When making a big decision, it seems easier to reduce every aspect into purely analytical terms. Make a pro/con list, add up the tally, and decide that way. Such processes can make it possible to assign each option with Right and Wrong. But it does not really work that way, does it? Even if it ticks off all of the right boxes, the list is more about fine tuning what it is you really want. The list is unique to you. It is not any more analytical than taking stock of your values and feelings and deciding that way.

I turn to works of fiction for advice more often than is good for me, but Jane Austen has taught me, more than any other writer, about the importance of following one’s inner guide. There is no universally acknowledged compass to follow. There is no glory in making a decision because another person thinks it is what you ought to do, because it is the most practical option, because you made a list and analyzed and reduced things to the coldest terms. Life is not a contest you can win. It is a series of episodes and choices and endless branching off, and your own ability to internally decide what is best for you.

Perhaps life is a multiple choice quiz where all of the questions are impossible and written in a language you do not know. There is no absolutely right option. There are simply a multitude of options without rank, the ability to take one option, and the resulting consequences, whatever those might be. Picking an option is all about personal preference and discovering which choice aligns best with one’s values. No decision is objectively worse or better than another. Each choice simply leads off to a separate path. There are no certainties, no matter the choice one makes.

Practicing gratitude

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

About a year ago, I read Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod. The book chronicles her journey from fed-up office worker with a dearth of vacation time to her decision to save money and then quit her job to travel in Europe. I am sure that many of us dream of living that scenario, but how practical is it? How can we justify dropping everything to live a dream? It seems wrong and selfish from everything we have been taught to want and taught to value.

The goals we set for ourselves, that we are given from a young age, to get a good job, to get married, have kids, buy a house and car, tend to weigh us down with expectations. When we do not meet those expectations by a certain age, it is as if we have failed in some way. Haven’t met the perfect spouse by age 30? Failure. No kids or (gasp) do not want kids? Not only a failure, but selfish. We tend to be judged against the potential that other people see in us to be like them, and, when we fail to become the person in those potential versions of our lives, it leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling of being lost.

MacLeod’s account is not very specific when it comes to financial planning. She arbitrarily decides on saving $100 a day, is able to sell artwork and make money buying and selling stocks through methods that she does not completely explain. However, she is savvy enough that she meets her goal, cuts down on clutter, and is able to pack her life into a suitcase and travel. Through her journey, she discovers a means of earning an income without going back to an office job.

I have thought a few times of taking a risk like MacLeod did, but each time I am stopped by a feeling of selfishness. It seems wrong to complain about a life that is pretty stable when I have a job and people who care about me. Perhaps I need to be more grateful. Apparently, lots of people keep gratitude journals, though I cannot say for sure that that kind of positive reinforcement would work for me. Feeling forced to make a list each day would possibly lessen the gratitude, no?

Instead, I am trying to stay focused on what is around me, to be grateful for sunshine and good weather, flowers and trees and shade on a hot day. And to see the possibility that the life I want is not as out of reach or as selfish as the world leads me to believe sometimes. There is sunshine in Europe too. And castles and Cadbury Crème Eggs. Perhaps, with my meager vacation time, I can see some of the world, and, if I save enough, I can take a trip like in Paris Letters.

Part of the message of Paris Letters, to get rid of unnecessary clutter and expenses, to live a minimalist life to save for the things that matter most, is something I can implement today. And perhaps those small changes can help me to accomplish something larger.

The Wonder Woman Pose

“And so I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.” -Amy Cuddy’s TED talk entitled Your body language shapes who you are (Filmed June 2012)

Imagine that you are on a bus or train or any other public transportation that involves close contact with others. There is a window seat, which you snatch up, and the vehicle slowly gets more and more crowded. Someone takes the seat next to you, a man (it is usually a man who does this, to you, a woman) who sits with his legs far apart, his arms stretched out. The contact makes you uncomfortable, so you attempt to scrunch yourself a little more towards the window. He uses that opportunity to take up more space. You, too polite and hating confrontation, simply stay in your awkward hunched pose and try to ignore it, but you feel small and sort of insignificant.

Whether consciously or not, taking up more space is a power play, a way of asserting dominance.

Take a moment to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about how body language affects how powerful you feel. It is worth the time to realize that something as simple as how you sit, how you present yourself to others in your posture can affect how you feel about yourself.

I tend to slouch and make myself smaller when I sit. Crossed legs and arms. Hands kept closely to my body. I easily give way on buses when someone sits next to me and attempts to stretch out. I did not realize, until I watched that video, that when I shrink physically, it also happens mentally. It is as if I am backing away, going into protection mode, feeling unimportant instead of powerful and confident.

Cuddy suggests that a simple change can improve confidence. Stand with your hands on hips, feet apart, chin up. That is called the Wonder Woman pose after the superhero. It’s as simple as that. If you do not want to do it in front of others, go to the restroom and, just for a few minutes, stand in the pose. It is feels a bit strange at first, but it makes a difference.

After I first watched the video, I did this for a few minutes each day, but then I stopped and sunk back into a lack of confidence. I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not deserve to feel so confident. I wanted to shrink back into myself. Change is such a nebulous concept that it can take a few tries to really get it. I want to be the one in class who gives a brilliant comment, like the student Cuddy talked about, instead of the one who says nothing and is invisible. Saying that is what you want to be is easy. Making the faking a habit is the hard part.

Whatever your goals, fake it until you become it. And each day it will get a little easier until it is a part of who you are.

Just as you are

“I like you, very much. Just as you are.” –Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001, Movie)

Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of the few movies that I like better than the book. It perfectly captures the life of an awkward, verbally incontinent, 30-something woman and her struggles to establish a successful career while dating someone highly unsuitable. There are parts of the book that I quite like (Singletons! Hurrah!), but Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant are so perfect for their roles and the script is so charming that it makes me not regret the changes from the book.

The movie opens with the new year. Bridget is going to a party at her parents’ home where she meets Mark Darcy, a successful barrister. With a name like Darcy, it is safe to assume that she will hate him immediately, yet it is equally true that she will be mistaken about her first impressions. She begins flirting with her boss, Daniel, and begins an unsuitable relationship with him. However, despite the prominence of the romantic plot lines, it is Bridget alone who carries the story.

She is no Elizabeth Bennet. She is not particularly eloquent. But she shows a great capacity for growth. In the end, she stands up for herself, gaining a new job and an important television interview in the process. And she did it by being herself. She is not an elegant woman of the femme fatale sort, who woos and tosses aside men as she chooses, but she has a great group of friends who care about her. She does not project an image of absolute perfection. Flawed, Bridget does the best that she can and tries to be kind and, above all, is herself despite what other people may think of her.

This is not a groundbreaking movie in terms of cinematography, pushing the borders or introducing something new. Instead, it is a funny movie about a likable woman in a world where, even today, there is a shortage of movies with women protagonists. It is the story of a woman who finds someone who loves her precisely for who she is, who does not expect her to change, and, in a way, I suppose that is groundbreaking.

What I like most of all is that sense of being true to herself. Despite Bridget’s attempts at self-improvement, she does not allow it to change her inner sense of self. There is a scene where she ditches a collection of self-help books and replaces them with new ones. However, she does not need them. Guided by her own internal compass, she navigates her way to a happy ending, even if it does involve an embarrassing public speech. That is who Bridget is, though, and it makes the ending that much better.

This movie offers a reaffirming message in terms of making decisions. Just be yourself, however flawed, and be persistent and focus on what is truly important to you. You will eventually find the right place where you will be accepted, just as you are.

Setting Goals

“Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” – Middlemarch by George Eliot

Today, Eliza Berman posted about a LIFE photo essay from 1969 concerning how lady authors should market themselves. The natural reaction is one of outrage, but is this really so different from how women in today’s marketplace are taught to portray themselves? Actresses, performance artists, and all types of celebrities who just happen to be women are jettisoned off to a place of Otherness where they can become famous through showing more skin.

Recently, actress Rose McGowan called out a Hollywood casting notice for its description of what to wear to the audition. There is a certain expectation that our society holds for women. While great advances have been made in just the last century, we still live in a world where young girls are sold things that are pink and glittery and socially constructed as girlish, while boy sections have trucks and cars and action figures. Boys are taught to be tough and to do things. Girls are taught to take care of dolls with unrealistic figures and to make them, and the world around them, prettier.

You can argue about whether we are naturally born to gravitate towards one or the other, but there is no question that the programming starts early, from the first few years of life, and continues throughout adolescence. Advertising, movies, TV shows all perpetuate the stereotypes of what is appropriate for each gender.

While it is disgusting, it is the framework of the society in which we live. How far we are willing to beautify ourselves in our quest for success affects all aspects of our lives: careers, what partners we can attract, whether others will be willing to listen to our messages.

When things like this get me down, I remember the women throughout history who have smashed expectations to make life their own. For example, George Eliot. There is still, even today, a fascination over what she looked like. Mary Ann (or Marian as she later spelled it) Evans was a Victorian woman who lived an unconventional life. By contemporary accounts, she was not attractive. But she was a woman who made her voice heard through her intelligence, hard work, and persistence. She grew from a prickly, defensive, cutting young woman into one of the most generous and empathetic authors since the invention of the novel. Middlemarch is a masterpiece which puts the marriage plot on its head by marrying off the heroine in the first part and showing the disastrous results of her marriage throughout the rest.

This is a post about setting goals, but not in the conventional way. There will always be the list that has been created for us that we can follow tick by tick, collecting checkmarks in place of happiness. I can’t tell you what goals to have, only that they should be your own, and that no one else should dictate to you what composes success or what you should look like, act like, or sound like on the basis of gender or race or any other identifying characteristic.

Goals are a tricky thing, hard to identify for the lost, hard to wade through when considering the expectations of others. However, I think that, together, we can change societal expectations and create a more accepting world. Change takes time and patience, but it is a good goal to have.



What is Choice?

“I have no talent for certainty, Susie.” -Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999)

As I continue to struggle with making a decision, wavering and delaying and weighing alternatives, I started to think about what factors are involved in the process. Choices are a part of everyday life. Something as simple as a trip to the grocery store results in a multitude of options, name brand vs. generic, healthy vs. glutinously rich and fattening, varieties, flavorings, a whole array of options and prices. The imagination of manufacturers is not limited, nor are the marketing departments in making us think that we need the product.

But what really constitutes choice?

Choice implies economic means. In Beggars and Choosers, Rickie Solinger argues that choice is only possible if one has options. Options require socioeconomic privileges, whether it be money, opportunity, or access. Therefore, the use of the word choice is complicated by all that it implies. You could say that I have a choice of buying a luxury car or a cheap car, a house in a neighborhood with a good school or one that is not. However, one only has that choice if the options are all equally open to that person. Choice in a non-starter for some people because of their circumstances.

The ability to make a decision, even talking about it, comes from a privileged place that not everyone has access to. The choices I have, the decisions I can make, are not unlimited.

For instance, take something as ordinary as going to see a movie. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at the idea. That’s easy. Go to your car, drive to the movie theater, buy tickets. But what if there isn’t a movie theater in your neighborhood? What if you don’t have a car, and it isn’t within walking distance? Is there good public transportation in the area? Is the public transportation affordable? What is the cost of movie tickets? Is that a cost you can afford? How many people do you need to buy them for? Yourself? Family? Children? Is the money instead needed for some basic necessity? Something that seems so easy for people of a certain socioeconomic status can quickly spiral into impossibility for someone who lacks the means.

Imagine how that can affect bigger issues. Something that may be, to one person, a basic right is reduced for another into the realm of not even being an option.

On the other end of the spectrum is too much choice. This can have a paralyzing effect, so that, rather than shift through the various options, one simply does not choose. In his TED talk entitled “The paradox of choice”, Barry Schwartz says that we end up less satisfied with our choices when there are many options than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. He says that this is because, no matter what the outcome of the decision, it is easy to imagine the alternatives and to think that they may have been better, or to consider the opportunity costs, what you missed out on by choosing something. This makes you regret the decision that you made, thereby reducing the satisfaction from the chosen option, even if it was a good decision.

Schwartz ends his talk with a discussion of the problems with too little choice. Perhaps, as he suggests, if we could shift our multitude of choices to those who lack them, the world would be a better place. Perhaps, if we could even out the playing field even just a little, everyone would have access to choices that would improve their lives.

Finding inner balance

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In the process of moving forward, I have spent too much time unwisely looking to the past. I can hear the advice others gave me (“that is where the jobs are” as if they were Lydia Bennet telling me that Brighton is the place to find a husband). There came a point where the roads branched off. I chose a path. The person I was then had other options, could have developed other skills.

Novelist Jonathan Odell says to never get good at what you hate. I have followed that way of thinking pretty much without wavering ever since I became old enough to make my own decisions. Instead of trying to fit into an employable mold or picking a path because it would look more impressive to others, I have instead chosen my own way.

And then I allowed outside noises to goad me into feeling lost and shamed.

If you listen to all of the advice available and try to fit into molds created by other people, it’s inevitable that you will begin to feel as if you have lost your path somewhere. I am still figuring out my own path (hence the blog). However, in really committing myself to figuring out who I am and what I want, I feel like I have more certainty about the present moment and where it leads.

Things I have learned:

  1. It is hard not to feel regret for all of the paths not taken. But there comes a point to realize that you are only answerable to yourself for your choices. Words like disappointed or wasted potential should not come into the conversation. You are not responsible for the feelings of others.
  1. Changing course is natural and completely doable. You can reinvent yourself at your lowest points, using books, using whatever resources you can find. If you discover you have chosen the wrong path, it is never a dead-end. There is always another way around.
  1. Commit to time for recharging. Whether through meditation or reading, crossword puzzles or a quiet dinner with friends, make sure to take time for yourself. There is so much pressure in this world to accomplish everything as quickly as possible that sometimes it can be hard to stand aside and just appreciate the moment.

How to make a difficult decision

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Today, while trying to make a difficult decision, I found Ruth Chang’s TED talk on the topic. More elegantly than I could, she came to the conclusion that hard decisions (and some easy decisions) are not a matter of one choice being greater than, less than, or equal to another choice. There is no way to determine an absolute value, no scale to balance between them, no time machine to see the consequences of the various decisions. Instead, there are merely choices and the ability to weigh them internally against what is important to you.

You risk drifting, she says, when you instead listen to the outside noises of what others think is important. There is an infinite amount of advice available by just entering a few words into a search engine, and sometimes it can be difficult to focus on your own internal compass when tons of people, all convinced that they are right, want to give you advice. You have to decide what is the core of who you are (a donut-eating, urban-dwelling artist, for example) and to make all of your choices based on that core.

So, while money may be the primary factor that drives another person’s decisions, it is not safe to assume that a job that offers more money is the best decision for you. There are a variety of factors that need to go into the decision. The standard of living you want, the hours, your outside interests are all important factors. While this doesn’t offer a neat solution to my own choice, it has helped me to pinpoint a few things on which to focus:

  1. Tune out the other voices. For a moment, consider who you are, what you value, what is important to you. Personally, I know that money will never be a big component of my happiness. Having a career with a big salary does not fit in with my INFP, dreamer personality type. I have spent so much time reading career advice and listening to advice from friends and family members that I have strayed away from the core of what is really important to me.
  1. Be realistic. I like Penelope Trunk’s advice because she is a great writer. She manages to be both practical and a good story-teller. And her life is full of drama that she doesn’t attempt to hide. Even on topics that don’t interest me, like homeschooling, I can usually find something to take away and use in my everyday life. For instance, you cannot be anything you want to be. Which is true. We all have limitations within our particular set of skills which we have to acknowledge when making any big decision.
  1. Take time to acknowledge that the decision is difficult, but that there has to be a choice in the end. I personally feel better before I make a decision, so I tend to prolong it as long as possible. Any excuse I can make, I will, procrastinating until the absolute last minute. The thing is, the extra time doesn’t help, and, if anything, it just delays the inevitable. It is perfectly fine to realize that you are lost, that the decision is difficult, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to keep moving forward.

Making a difficult decision takes a lot of courage, strength, and soul-searching. It is not easy, but it is worth the time and effort that goes into the choice.