My Unpredictable Career

Struggling with a difficult career decision, or lacking direction? You’re not alone.

I’m sitting in a park surrounded by conversational birdsong, some high-pitched trills, some chirping, others louder and more insistent. One has landed on a branch above me; its song a happy celebration of life. It is accompanied by the melodic warble of a magpie. In the distance a bird interposes a hooting, rhythmic call. I smell the morning freshness, and an invigorating scent of pine and eucalyptus. Patchy clouds are moving gently across the sky; they look like finely pulled cotton wool, allowing the calm blue to filter through. In the space beneath and between bird tunes there is a sense of peace, although if I concentrate I hear a faint hum of cars.

A gentle spring breeze carries a hint of the crisp morning; the leaves dance gracefully to its melody as it is gradually infused with the sun’s rays, leaving a comfortable warmth on my skin. The sun is shining mottled light through the trees, onto the bed of bark, dead leaves and pine cones beneath. The playground and scattered tables are empty; lingering evidence of weekend activity and picnics. It’s a week day so most people are at work, their children at kindy or school. The deserted park transmits a sense of timelessness. This reinforces my feeling of freedom.

I have a thermos cuppa and my laptop. I’m working on an assignment for a Graduate Certificate in Science Writing with Johns Hopkins University, to augment my recent venture into freelance writing, and reflecting on how I reached this episode of my career. It has been anything but straight-forward, and certainly not planned. I know now that is one of the hidden blessings of seemingly disparate jobs, studies and career paths, conjoining in unpredictable ways and creating a unique new direction that has somehow pulled it all together.

The bulk of my career to date has been as research scientist. In these uncertain times, when less and less people are sticking with one job and long service medals are becoming past history, science is perhaps one of the most uncertain. And even more so if you are female. Maybe I’m lucky my earlier years were dominated by indecision about what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be.

As a child, books were my secret door to Narnia. Early favourites that stand out are the wacky characters and inspired lands of The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton and the musty-smelling, faded leather Bobbsey Twins series that I ferreted out of my aunt's antique glass cabinet whenever we visited. I loved writing, and English was my favourite subject. I particularly enjoyed exploring the underlying symbolism and characters of stories and plays like The Crucible, Twelfth Night, and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. I flirted with several possible career ideas, but it never dawned on me that I could become a writer — it has been a necessary but bumpy, convoluted route, with no street signs along the way to map it out, and many times the road ahead was obscured by thick fog.

In my post-school years (after scraping through my final year) I lacked direction. Within three months of starting a nursing degree I decided, with great angst and to my parents’ despair, that I hated cleaning bedpans. I continued to change jobs (from waitressing to proofreading to piano renovations to administration), move cities, start and drop out of more studies, and travel on a whim (and a shoestring) — shunning suburbia and dreading the fate of being a human robot, like that depicted in George Orwell’s bleak futuristic novel 1984 (which seems old now but has regained popularity with the Trump era).

I dreamt once I was travelling on a train. I would get off that train then board another. At one point during my travels I panicked, and thought ‘what will I do when I get there?’ I felt relieved at the answer, ‘I’ll just keep going.’ This dream has come to me periodically through the years, with different shades of meaning. It serves as a reminder that life’s journey is what matters, not the destination. There is always more to learn, more growth to be had; staying still breeds stagnation. In my more spiritual moments, resonant with the message of enlightened beings throughout history, it points to being present in the now.

Enjoying the journey also resonates with the famous fable of the Mexican fisherman, who catches enough fish to support his family and spends his spare time taking siestas, strolling into the village with his wife, sipping wine and playing music with his amigos. An American investment banker tells him that, with the high quality of his fish, he could employ people and build his business over 15–20 years, travel and make millions of dollars. The fisherman asks what he would do then. The American said that’s the best part — then he can then retire, sleep in, stroll into the village with his wife, sip wine and play music with his friends.

Courtney Carver wrote that the fisherman story “is my inspiration to slow down, reassess, and get real about how I want to live my life.” The minimalist movement has sprung from this well of questioning our relentless pursuit of money and possessions, and reassessing what is important in life.

Some of my ventures could hardly be called career pathways — and were certainly not very lucrative. After starting an arts degree in 1986, I decided to throw it in and join some friends who were travelling with a convoy of hippies around Australia for the Year of Peace. Along the way I bought a penny whistle and a book of Irish tunes, and spent many hours practising while wandering the desert — the most considerate place for a novice to take up such a shrill instrument. Dedicated practice eventually qualified me to earn lunch money busking with fellow musicians in towns we visited during our travels.

It wasn’t easy. I suffered prolonged periods of anguish and uncertainty. When I eventually decided to study psychology as one of those ambitious mature aged students in my early 30s, I learned this state of indecision can be healthy.

Erik Erikson proposed a theory of psychosocial stages that underpin a child’s development. Conflict can play a defining role in each stage, providing opportunities for growth. James Marcia elaborated on the identity formation stage that dominates adolescence. He proposed that teenagers move between identity diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium (crisis) and achievement. Identity foreclosure — prematurely settling on values, goals and career; often conforming to the expectations of others — can be restrictive and limit growth, while identity achievement occurs after going through an identity crisis. What’s more, cycling through identity crisis and commitment to a sense of identity throughout life can promote healthy growth and fulfilment. We certainly didn’t get taught that at school.

Many years, an incomplete music degree, a hitchhike across the desert with two dogs, an underfinanced desktop publishing business, a baby and a completed Honours degree in Psychology later, I found myself doing a PhD — finally some (semi-solid) direction. Fellow PhD students and I had a running joke: ‘How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’ Things rarely went to plan. And I continued to learn that if things don’t go the way you want, they tend to work out for the best — although it’s not apparent at the time. It’s like the Taoist story, Maybe. A farmer experiences ups and downs, and when his neighbours say ‘such bad luck’ when things don’t go well, and ‘how wonderful’ when things do, his response is always ‘maybe’. As the story unfolds, it exemplifies how seemingly negative events might be hidden blessings in disguise (like his son breaking his leg just before all young men are conscripted for war).

Even walking into a research position post-PhD did not bring security. While ten years of successful research grants unfolded, the available funding pool gradually evaporated to a trickle. In the meantime, to boost my credibility and competitiveness in nutrition and mental health research, I completed a Master of Dietetics (after braving the requisite level 2 Biochemistry and Anatomy & Physiology). This major undertaking — bringing considerable stress and expense — served a secondary purpose as back-up career plan, should research funding success dry up completely. No-one could say I didn’t try. Throughout my research career, my grounding in dealing with uncertainty came in very handy, priming me to be open to unforeseen opportunities and have faith when things didn’t unfold as expected.

But there was still more to learn.

As my last full-time research contract drew to a close, and three potential grants failed, I enlisted my back-up plan and started part-time practice as a clinical dietitian. I read every book and did every course I could to boost my expertise in my chosen areas — travelling as far as the US to do Ellyn Satter’s Dynamics in Child Feeding workshop. At the same time, I decided to try my hand at science writing and enrolled in a couple of courses, even landing some paid writing opportunities. In theory it was great — I had a new research contract for one day per week, and did clinical practice and science writing for two days each. But it was too much and something had to give.

“You know there are people who have done law degrees and then decided to run a flower shop,” my best friend said as I was tearing my hair out. I had invested so much in the Masters degree and clinical practice and yet, when my friend reminded me to follow my heart, I knew by then I wanted to be a writer.

Careershifters founder Richard Alderson experienced similar anguish seeking career fulfilment, and writes, “It’s about how you feel every morning; it’s about how that rubs off on your health and your relationships; and, ultimately, it’s about the impact that you can make on the world through being alive in what you do. The stakes are high. But they’re higher still if you don’t do anything about it.”

Famous UK therapist Marisa Peer suggests that in choosing a career, we may find clues through identifying those things we loved doing as children — and the rest will fall into place.

I hear the hum of traffic build in the distance, signalling people’s drive home from a long day’s work. As I raise my head again to look at the patchy blue sky, I watch a couple of birds fly past. My heart soars with them and I know that even with the financial and future uncertainty of being a freelance writer, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Heartfelt gratitude goes to my husband Rob for being my rock, and to Rob and my best friends Jan and Wal, thank you for believing in me and supporting me on my journey.