Growing up, I was taught that success is defined by whether you are a professional, in other words, a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant.
If you don’t work in scrubs in a life-saving institution, then you are expected to don all shades of black and white, sitting in an air-conditioned office inside a looming 120 storey tall building, smack right in the middle of a bustling CBD.
9 to 7 shifts are basic. If anything, weekend conferences are the norm. Appear home anytime before 6 and your family assumes that you have been fired, or at least, ostracised by people at your office.
What’s interesting is that a damning experience at work is often heralded. It would almost be amiss if potluck dinners didn’t consist of talks of how the children are going through different stages of burnout. In fact, if work had been progressing too smoothly, our parents would press on, questioning if we had not been proactive enough and worried that we won’t make managers in a few year’s time.
Yet what the older generations fail to understand is that in this day and age, we no longer merely aspire for “cushy corporate jobs” (even if no part of it is cushy in its literal sense). Our new mindset is questioning traditional pathways to “success”.
A new mindset
“I don’t know anymore”, a friend cries out in exasperation. “I’m starting to doubt my freelance copywriting business. My family thinks that this isn’t a ‘proper’ job.”
“No way Jose. You are staying put,” I replied resolutely. “We need more creatives brave enough to defy the traditional model of success and strong enough to persist.”
“Yes, but isn’t it crazy how my parents think that I have to struggle through long working hours and get chastised in order to be seen as having grown up?”
This is exactly the reflection of society’s stale working culture. The belief that success is defined by one’s ability to rise up the social ladders of established conglomerates. The rationalisation that tough conditions and low morale work are somehow good for us. The type of learning curve that we absolutely have to triumph, regardless of our interests.
We are the gaslit reincarnations of Sisyphus who believe that life necessitates hauling ceaselessly the boulders of thankless work.
Going through traditional career paths is not a prerequisite for success
Having said that, not all traditional career paths are debilitating and meaningless.
As a lawyer-in-training, I had the experience working in various law firms. I met partners who genuinely respected their colleagues. I also had good training doing cross-departmental work. It made me better at managing expectations and communicating effectively.
Yet, there are many days when I get home absolutely drained, wanting nothing but a warm bowl of soup, a hot shower and the comfort of my duvet. Toxic work culture is also prevalent in the legal industry. Many firms demanded face time, had office cliques and rivalries that can really suck the joy out of your life. Sometimes, I do feel like a phytoplankton with a whole food chain hovering menacingly over me.
Regardless, in the midst of churning through prospectuses, legislations and emails, what gives me comfort is knowing that I am helping clients achieve their goals and shield their backs. Even during the worst of times when I get chastised or suffocated, I know that at least I have a stable income and that I have become more acute to potential dangers that fall my way.
Nonetheless, all of these are not prerequisites to forging successful careers. That we can only learn how to cope with challenges through working under nasty employers and toxic cultures is downright ridiculous. This is not a coming-of-age ceremony.
The search for self-actualisation
What our generation demands is self-actualisation. It means taking the reins and designing the environment that we want to work in, even if it entails that we are not beneficiaries of the social safety net that traditional career paths afford.
In Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, he proposed that all humans strive to achieve basic needs in the following hierarchical order: physiological fulfilment, safety, love and belonging, then self-esteem. What tops this hierarchy is “self-actualisation”, the ability to reach one’s full human potential.
“The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions.” (Maslow, 1943)
Before the turn of the 21st century, society was often traumatised by war and conflict. People struggled to make ends meet. Survival was what mattered.
Our generation however lives in a time of relative stability and prosperity. People died from obesity more often than starvation, and many of us are lucky enough to benefit from what our predecessors have built.
We can take risks, develop our passions and forge careers that reflect our values. We can find work that helps define our identity. In fact, we would be fools if we do not fully utilise the legacy and opportunities that our predecessors created.
Consider if Elon Musk did not drop out of Stanford and took the plunge into developing companies based on the internet and outer space. Online transactions and space explorations would be delayed for years until someone had the vision and the guts to pursue this trajectory.
Consider If JK Rowling did not act on the spark of creativity she had on board a train to London, insisted on writing the Harry Potter Series, and persisted despite countless rejections from publishers. Perhaps our childhoods would never be blessed with the sweet memory of the boy with a lightning scar.
So if the traditional career path doesn’t work for you, ask yourself, “what am I good at? What do I stand to lose if I don’t work on this vision?” If like millions of content creators who are just starting out, you are not losing much except for time, then what’s stopping you from doing it?
Perhaps what you publish garners only 5 views, consisting of your relatives and friends. Perhaps the article that you write is absolute rubbish. Perhaps you suffer from a perpetual writer’s block. That’s ok, just do it first and refine your approach later.
That is not to say that anyone should go cold turkey and nose dive into doing what we are passionate about. As psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman puts it:
“Life is about integration and being a whole person, just like a sailboat is a whole vehicle. A sailboat needs multiple parts to operate. It needs to have a secure structure. But security’s not enough or else it won’t go anywhere. It also needs growth — it needs to open a sail and go in a direction, usually a purposeful direction, even with the unknown of the sea crashing against it.”
What’s important is that we find a backup plan, whether it means starting your gig when you’re finishing your degree, or doing it as a hobby alongside a full-time job.
The goal is to ensure that there are ways to meet your basic needs, but also never forsaking your dreams, even if it means that you have to sail through tumultuous waters to discover new land.