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Working on Ourselves

By Sandy Burgham

Over my last few columns, I have pondered the question of second act career fulfilment, and encouraged you to go back into childhood memories to consider what you loved to do when left to your own devices, away from the influences of the opinions of others. There are clues in this as to what kinds of activities and aspects to a working life will help you flourish. I’ve also explored the idea of narratives — the themes that we have told ourselves about the first act of our lives, and what we may have to let go of in order to flow into that fulfilling second act.

There is a third aspect to all of this, and that is how your career choices may have been inadvertently shaped through the limitations of how your background — your family in particular — framed work and careers. In our leadership development practice, we call these ‘family work narratives’.

For instance, my husband and I are grafters, working-class kids who worked their butts off to survive and thrive. The difference is that he was raised mainly by his unusual mother, a creative and slightly kooky visual display artist who encouraged his artistic expression. As a result, he has never done anything that he didn’t want to do, but is simply driven by being happy and self-expressed. On the other hand, I lived in a more traditional household structure where Dad worked hard ‘for the man’ and Mum’s role was to look after the family. I pursued status, commonly known as ‘career’ and tried desperately to find actual purpose-driven meaning in the work in my early years, but got sidetracked by money and promotions. While my income has been greater than my husband’s over the years, I would admit that it is only in the last seven years or so that I too have been living as purposefully as he does.

Together, we’ve spawned an artist and a jazz musician, which shows my husband’s creatively purpose-driven life has been perhaps a lot more inspiring than mine. Certainly, I have encouraged our kids to pursue self-expression and happiness, but I also can’t help but add the stern, fear-driven chaser of ‘financial independence’, which they are yet to fully get to. While I am thrilled that they are exploring who they are through creative pursuits, I’m simultaneously undeniably anxious that they are not working six days a week like I did at their ages.

When we visited our son at his uni hostel recently, he said some of his female friends wanted to meet me. When I questioned why, it was because I was a ‘high powered businesswoman’. Inwardly I roared with laughter and considered turning up with 80s shoulder pads and a briefcase and begin ordering people around. Until I realised that indeed in the 80s and 90s, I did wear a lot of shoulder-padded suits and even had a briefcase. And while clueless inside, I performed what I thought being a businesswoman (or as an elderly aunty called it, a manageress) looked like — getting promotions, climbing ladders, business trips and being on the phone a lot.

So if you have got to the place of realising that your first act choices won’t cut it for your second act (and are perhaps thinking like I did — what on earth was I doing for the first 25 years of my career?) it is worth looking at family-driven narratives and how they have shaped your working life.

Some of the questions we explore in leadership development with our clients include asking about what kinds of jobs were understood within your family, and what job types was there no connection to? For example, was your family all about blue-collar jobs or professional roles or service-oriented work? Was your family connected or disconnected to work that occurred in offices and high-rises? What kind of jobs created anxiety (e.g. my anxiety about doing jobs for pleasure like art and jazz music)? And then a great question is to ask yourself to complete the sentence, “I would be doing better than my family if I…”

Certainly for me, I would have been doing better than my family if I could work for myself rather than ‘the man’ and have financial independence. My husband would have been doing better than his mum if he were just a little more financially flush than her.

And for our kids, clearly they would be doing better than their parents if they had a lot more time to play — yes, they’re sure doing well on that! As I watched my son’s music gig, I received a text from my daughter saying that she had been at her studio all day. To settle the wave of anxiety that brings, I remind myself that at the end of a life well-lived, it is often a legacy of art, music or literature that is valued. No-one will be wanting to reread that great board report I once wrote.

This article first appeared in the November issue of The Hobson Magazine.

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